AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM has had a long and tortuous history well before it was used as a test of President Obama’s patriotism. During a 2009 visit to Europe, the new President was asked "[C]ould I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of 'American exceptionalism' that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy?"
That’s a tough question for a head of state while abroad. Many Obama critics seized upon the first sentence of his response (quoted below) and gave his answer a low grade. He was apparently insufficiently proud of our uniqueness and superiority. But in the rest of his answer (included at the end of this posting), he hints at the list of exceptionalisms that have been claimed in the past.
"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
A popular view of what makes America exceptional is individual opportunity. Even before America became the U.S., it was a favored destination for Europeans seeking political, religious or economic freedom. With time, government and private investments continually improved the quality and access to human and physical capital.
By the 1960s, America offered, with the tragic exception a few notable and substantial communities, universal free education, telephone service, clean water, electricity, and the benefits of an incomparable scientific and academic establishment providing a matchless ladder for upward mobility.
But over the last 40 years, the emphasis of public subsidy and private investment has resulted in perverse outcomes:
1. Booms in upscale housing and deteriorating quality and availability of homes for ownership and rent by low-income families
2. Increasingly palatial venues for professional and Division 1 college sports but increasingly underfunded public education, especially for music and art
3. Steadily declining physical infrastructure, most obviously in traffic congestion, dangerous bridges, water main breaks, gas pipeline explosions, and an increasingly fragile electric power grid.
Recent smaller government/”cut-the-deficit” suggestions have featured accelerated diminishing of the investments that make America exceptional.
A useful contrast in approaches to budget priorities is presented in a February publication, Cuts vs. Investments: Comparing Budget Plans and their Impact on the U.S. Economy, from the Center for American Progress.
An important insight from the report is the distinction between investment and other kinds of spending, especially by government agencies. The Republican Continuing Resolution (H.R. 1) for the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2011 is contrasted to the Obama administration’s proposed budget for FY 2012, especially when it comes to transportation, infrastructure, science, and technology.
Obama’s plans call for a National Infrastructure Bank for financing infrastructure development, increasing investments in highways by 66 percent, and rail by 88 percent over the 2010 levels.
H.R. 1 cuts money for transportation infrastructure by 9 percent, reducing rail by $2.7 billion, $675 million from federal transit investments, and nearly $1 billion from highways from 2010 amounts.
The president increases “funding for the National Science Foundation by 13 percent, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) by 15 percent, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science by 10 percent, and funding for science and technology research at the Department of Homeland Security by 18 percent.
Alternatively, the Republican budget slashes investments in science and research by more than $6 billion, including cutting one-third of funding to NIST and the Office of Science, $360 million from NSF, and almost $600 million from the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology program.”
There are genuine disagreements over the value of new ventures such as high-speed rail or whether carbon dioxide as a green house agent is a pollutant subject to EPA regulation.
However it is generally accepted that there are a several Katrinas waiting to happen. By Katrinas, I don’t mean unpredictable natural catastrophes inadequately handled. I’m referring to well understood, avoidable civil engineering failures waiting to happen. The levees holding back the Mississippi from the largely sub-sea level City of New Orleans were, for several decades, known to be vulnerable to a level 4 or 5 hurricane. The cost to fix was also well known, yet almost nothing was done.
A list of future Katrinas is cataloged in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card 2009. It should be required reading for all budgeteers. There is also a video that leans very heavily on the Report Card: The Crumbling of America from the History Channel.