From the beginning, liberal democracies have faced this challenge: how to provide long-term resources for public benefit, in political systems that are always oriented toward the next election and by “what’s in it for me?”
FDR came up with his own solution during the Depression, with his belated discovery of the power of large-scale infrastructure spending. In almost every one of the dozens of cities Deb and I have visited, we’ve found libraries, post offices, overpasses, parks with little plaques showing a construction date in the mid-1930s and the message, “Built by the WPA.” (You can find a fabulous archive of remaining WPA projects at UC Berkeley’s “Living New Deal” site.)
The post-World War II California of my youth, under Governor Pat Brown, could draw on the always-growing revenues from its always-expanding economy to fund its new universities, parks, and freeways. Then as its economy slowed in the mid-1970s the state tragically hamstrung itself by passing Proposition 13, moving its public schools from among-the-best-funded to among-the-worst-funded in the country. On the national scale, I frequently think of the book A Country Made by War, by Geoffrey Perret, which argues that the United States has often leaned on the excuse of “national defense” to do what would be considered “industrial policy” or “long-term economic development” anyplace else. America’s aerospace dominance was fostered by the military; its Interstate Highways were built under the same rationale; so too with early semiconductor and internet research.