Obama Economic stimulus: getting it right

December 7, 2008 Economics, Sustainability Comments (0) 1254

Yesterday President-elect Barack Obama announced a massive jobs stimulus package for the economy, which many have compared to Dwight Eisenhower’s federal highway building program of a half-century ago. While the scale of the comparison may be apt, it is essential that Obama’s team makes this a 21st century stimulus and not a repeat of the 1950s.
Investment in roads and infrastructure seems like a good thing, but there are limitations. Highway building only produces half the economic spinoff of building rehabilitation – preservation – for example. The reasons why are easy to see: it is a machine-and-material based job that kicks a lot of cash to concrete and surfacers. The ratio between labor and materials/machines is not nearly as favorable as building rehabilitation.

I would hope that some of the stimulus could be aimed at improving the rail corridors that have become so busy the last five years or so – the proposed expansion of CN along the Fox River valley is causing a lot of outrage, much of which could be addressed by that most expensive of infrastructure improvements: elimination of grade crossings.


Obama wants a lot of the jobs to be in environmental cleanup and energy efficiency, which is a good thing to want. Let’s make sure the produce-and-waste manufacturers don’t take charge and pervert the thing like they did with “green”. Fix things, upgrade things, improve things. Once you start replacing things and throwing out the old ones, you are repeating the mistakes of the old economy.
Obama also talked about upgrading federal buildings and schools with new heating systems and CF light bulbs. Again, a good idea, but let’s not make the obvious mistakes most homeowners have made: change all your lightbulbs and then buy a flat-screen TV that uses 5-6 times the electricity of your old one. No net gain in many situations.
Plus, we know from the General Services Administration that pre-1920 government buildings are ALREADY more energy-efficient than those built from 1930 to 2000. Historic buildings typically used 27% less energy than “modern” ones (pre-2000). The economics of the 1950s – what Eisenhower famously termed “the military-industrial complex” – favored waste. This was the period of single-glazing and energy inefficiency and it coincided with one of the rare times in history that energy was cheap: 1945-1973.


A few stats from the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

  • Building a 50,000 square foot building from scratch uses the same energy needed to drive a car 20,000 miles a year for 730 years.
  • The Brookings Institution projects we will demolish and rebuild 82 billion square feet of buildings by 2030. If we saved just 10% of those buildings, we could power the state of New York for over a year. If we demolish them, we will landfill the equivalent of 2600 NFL stadiums.
  • It will take up to 65 years for a new energy-efficient building to offset the demolition of an existing building.

The 21st century is the opposite of waste, so let’s hope Obama’s team incorporates preservation – the re-use of the good things we have and the employment of people to fix things that last, not things we throw away.

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