President Trump’s proposal to spend $2 trillion to rebuild American infrastructure was as gutsy as it gets, coming on the heels of another $2 trillion in emergency economic aid. The president tweeted, “With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”
We can’t afford it, but we can’t afford not to do it. That’s just what I proposed in my last PJ column, “Fix Your Roof While It’s Raining.” The critical decisions will be about what we call “infrastructure.” The president said, “We’re not going to do the Green New Deal and spend 40% of the money on things that people just have fun with.”
What are the top priorities? Roads, bridges and tunnels are obvious. Rail is also important. America’s oil production surge strained our transport system, rail as well as pipelines, and drastically raised freight costs. Overall, the U.S. producer price index is barely changed over the past ten years, but rail transport costs are up 30%.
We need to move strategically critical industries onshore, above all semiconductor fabrication. The U.S. now depends on foreign fabrication plants for most of its computer chips, and virtually all of its most sophisticated chips. University of Michigan researchers in 2016 demonstrated that booby traps and back doors could be hidden among the 20 billion transistors in a high-end chip. There’s no way to find the gizmo after the fact. The only guarantee of security is to fabricate the chips onshore with tight security. Dr. Henry Kressel and I called for this in a November 2016 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. It’s all the more urgent now. De-coupling from China should be an urgent priority where national security is concerned. A modern chip fab costs about $20 billion. Five such fabs should do it. So earmark $80-100 billion for that. A complete decoupling of the world’s two largest economies is impossible, but we can ring-fence the industries that we most depend on.
Then there’s telecommunications infrastructure. China will have its full 5G mobile broadband buildout done in three years, and we are taking our own sweet time about it. We need a multi-pronged program to leapfrog China: federal funding for network construction; expedited regulatory approval for spectrum; and subsidies for basic research to nullify China’s head start. Huawei has 50,000 foreign employees, most of them European engineers and scientists, and controls about a third of all 5G patents. Asking our allies to keep Huawei off the premises didn’t work. But a Manhattan Project to establish American technological leadership would put fiber, so to speak, in our alliances and wean our errant friends back from dependence on China.