Part of a weekly series on the economic choices facing the United States and its relations with the rest of the world. For previous entries, click here.
DONALD TRUMP BECOMES president of a nation that is deeply divided by class, race, health, and opportunity. In his acceptance speech, he pledged to be the president of all Americans. He also gave a promising hint of how to pursue that objective in practice.
Trump is a real estate developer, so it’s not surprising that his brief acceptance speech was dominated by the idea of “rebuilding,” a word he mentioned four times: “Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream . . . We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
This is a valid, indeed uplifting perspective. America desperately needs rebuilding. Its infrastructure is decrepit; its energy system is out of date for a climate-endangered economy; its Rust-Belt cities are boarded up; its inner cities are unhealthy for the children being raised in them. Rebuilding America’s inner cities and creating a 21st century infrastructure could be Trump’s greatest legacy.
Trump’s pledge to make America’s infrastructure “second to none” is the correct and bold goal for America’s competitiveness, future job creation, and well-being. America today is certainly no longer “second to none.” On a recent Sustainable Development Goals Index, the United States ranked 22nd out of 34 high-income countries. For Americans returning from foreign travel, the well-known sign that they’ve touched down in America is that the elevators, escalators, and moving walkways of our once-proud airports are out of order.
A builder-president could indeed restore vitality to the US economy and put millions to work in the process. All the major candidates in this campaign cycle pledged a substantial effort to build America’s infrastructure. Indeed, Trump suggested a hefty price tag of $1 trillion, which is a realistic sum and target for the coming years (roughly 1 percent of national income per year if carried out over 5 years).
How should these funds be spent? The key to success in rebuilding America can be summarized in three words: smart, fair, and sustainable.
Smart infrastructure means to look forward to deploy the best of cutting-edge technology. Our power grids should be smart in economizing on energy use and in incorporating distributed sources (such as wind and solar power) into the grid. Our transport grids should be smart in enabling self-driving electric vehicles within our cities and 21st century high-speed rail between them.
Fair infrastructure starts with Trump’s pledge to rebuild the inner cities. Such a pledge should include affordable housing; efficient transport services for low-income communities; the cleanup of urban toxic dumps; and ensuring safe water for all Americans.
Sustainable infrastructure means acknowledging and anticipating the dire environmental threats facing America’s cities and infrastructure. The collapse of the New Orleans levees had been long predicted by scientists and engineers before Hurricane Katrina. The flooding of New York City had been long predicted before Hurricane Sandy. The risks ahead to the United States in the event of unchecked climate change can be found in countless scientific and policy studies, such as the Risky Business Project and the National Climate Assessment.
Much could go wrong in an undirected building boom that is not smart, fair, and sustainable. Trump’s campaign pledges to restore the Keystone XL Pipeline and US coal production are cases in point. Investing in a boom in fossil fuels would simply be an expensive dead end. Such projects will inevitably be closed soon after they are completed, if not in a Trump administration then in the ones that follow. They are simply untenable environmentally, no matter what their lobbyists assert.
It’s a funny thing about climate deniers chortling about the incoming administration. Nature doesn’t care what the deniers think, and neither do America’s vulnerable cities and farmlands already hit by climate change, nor the 192 other countries on the planet that signed the Paris Climate Agreement. Spurred by lobbyists and groupthink in the fossil-fuel industry, some companies might continue to spend money developing unusable resources, but they will be throwing money down the mineshaft. The US government should not be suckered into such waste. The 21st-century world economy, including our own, will be rebuilt on a new, high-tech and climate-safe low-carbon energy system.
Trump made another important pledge in his acceptance speech that should underpin a successful rebuilding strategy:
“I will harness the creative talents of our people, and we will call upon the best and brightest to leverage their tremendous talent for the benefit of all.”
America has nearly 5,000 colleges and universities across the country. These institutions have schools of public policy, social work, public health, business administration, and environmental science. Most importantly, they have 21 million young Americans enrolled in order to gain expertise in the skills needed for leadership in the 21st century.
Rebuilding America’s inner cities and creating a 21st-century infrastructure could be Trump’s greatest legacy.
By harnessing this vast brainpower, America could indeed enter an era of successful rebuilding, one that creates a smart, fair, and sustainable economy truly second to none, and that serves as an inspiration for other parts of the world. Trump’s vision of a surge in infrastructure spending could hit the mark. It’s our job as citizens to hold Washington rigorously accountable to science, sustainability, and social inclusion in the process.Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”