If politics in 2013 is known for anything, it is its impenetrable gridlock. And while presidential elections usually resolve political arguments, the 2012 contest seemed only to freeze positions on issues like the budget, immigration, and guns into partisan amber. Of course, the biggest casualty is not just growing public cynicism, but unattended-to economic challenges. Middle-income wages have been stagnant for a decade and unemployment remains high.
This seeming insolubility is why some statesmen in both parties are arguing that cooperation should start small; that both sides should find issues on which they largely agree and, from there, try to implement incremental improvements. Call it them trust builders. And if there is any industry that is ripe for this, its telecommunications, where both sides agree that President Clinton's 1996 Telecom Act is still a shining success.
Since passage of that law, U.S. broadband companies have pumped over $1.2 trillion dollars into the economy. They've invested over $120 billion in research, equipment and people in the past two years alone. While overall business spending cratered during the Great Recession, Internet providers hold 3 of the top 10 spots on the private investment charts.
This trillion-dollar private-sector gamble has paid off in jobs — generating over 10.8 million of them as of summer 2010. The centrist Progressive Policy Institute says the exploding “App Economy' alone is responsible for 500,000 jobs and $20 billion in GDP each year.
It's a model we must build upon today.
That means continued investment in basic research. From the miniaturized computers that came out of the Apollo program to the Internet itself birthed on a DARPA grant, there is no substitute for the kind of “no boundaries' research only government can fund. The current fracking boom grew out of research breakthroughs at Sandia National Lab; tomorrow's industries like nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will tread similar paths.
This is one area where Republicans and Democrats clearly agree, as President Obama and Mitt Romney demonstrated in debates last year. The dollars involved are relatively small; the entire federal research budget was just $140 billion in 2012 (and even less going forward under foolish sequestration). But it's from these small federal research seeds that tomorrow's commercial forests will grow.
We also need smart market rules that allow the type of bet-your-industry investment gambles that fueled the broadband boom. For the Internet, that meant breaking free of the stifling Bell Monopoly era regulations that Congress put aside in the 1990s, plus wise leadership at the FCC that recognized the differences between these new Internet information services and the lumbering telephone utility that had come before.
The resulting technological explosion has transformed American life in less than two decades. 80 percent of Americans now have access to lightning fast networks capable of 100 Megabits-per-second speed and we have more broadband users than any nation in the developed west. At the same time, bandwidth prices have plummeted 87 percent since 1999 and we have the second most affordable entry-level service the developed world.
Regulators in other industries must similarly scrutinize their regulatory infrastructure and make sure their rules protect both the public and the market, and don't just pit one against the other. Every agency should do a yearly “regulation roll call' to identify and update archaic rules that needlessly keep private money (and the jobs it creates) on the sidelines.
Finally, in a few cases where the market reaches its limits, we should invest in public-private partnerships to put people to work where it matters most. While 97 percent of the country has access to high-speed broadband, a national infrastructure bank could leverage private funds to reach the remaining 3 percent. Congestion-easing toll roads could also be funded this way, with limited federal dollars (repaid from project revenues and not contributing to our debt) priming the pump for much greater private investment that will generate yet more jobs. It's basically free stimulus.
Gridlock in Washington is a clichÃ© at this point, but we need to do more than just complain about it. Republicans and Democrats may not agree on much, but perhaps they can build trust through simple, bipartisan steps to grow jobs.
Lewis N. Dodak, a Democrat, and Rick Johnson, a Republican, are both former speakers of the Michigan House of Representatives.