Think about it this way: Growing economies spend a lot on education, but that doesn't necessarily mean that spending makes them grow. During the so-called Gilded Age, the U.S. economy roared faster and longer than ever before or since, while the illiteracy rate went down. But the rising literacy didn't cause the growth. Similarly, in the 20th century, in places like China, South Korea and India, the economic boom -- and the policies that create it -- always come first while the investments in education come later.
There are similar problems with claims that infrastructure spending will pay off. When I was in college, prominent experts and journalists -- Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, James Fallows, Kevin Phillips et al. -- were insisting Japan would be the next world economic superpower. In the late 1980s, Jacques Attali, the first head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, claimed that "America has become Japan's granary, like Poland was for Flanders in the 17th century." Attali did allow for the possibility that the U.S. West Coast might do OK, but only because it was "in the gravitational pull of Japanese financial power and geographic proximity."
Japan is now well into its third "lost decade." Over the years, it has poured money into "stimulative" infrastructure projects that have yet to stimulate and protected industries that have steadily lost their competitive edge. Economic growth has averaged less than 1 percent since 2000, while government debt is now more than twice its GDP. If a highly educated workforce, support for allegedly cutting-edge industries and lavish spending on infrastructure was the recipe for economic growth (and if debt didn't matter), Japan would be doing great.
Obama surely wants to see some real economic growth. Perhaps the problem is that he thinks investing in a much bigger cart to put before the horse will get him where he wants to go.
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