Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 29, 2013

Forum: Building trust, jobs through bipartisan steps

By Lew Dodak and Rick Johnson
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — If politics in 2013 is known for anything, it is impenetrable gridlock, the biggest casualty of which is not just growing public cynicism but unattended-to economic challenges like wage stagnation and high unemployment.

This insolubility is why some statesmen are arguing both sides should find issues on which they largely agree and try to implement incremental improvements. If there is any industry ripe for this, it’s telecommunications.

Since passage of the 1996 Telecom Act, U.S. broadband companies have pumped over $1.2 trillion into the economy. They’ve invested over $120 billion in research, equipment and people in the past two years alone. During the Great Recession, internet providers held three 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 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 annual GDP.

It’s a model we must build upon.

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.

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. 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 stifling Bell monopoly-era regulations and wise leadership at the FCC that distinguished between these new internet services and the lumbering telephone utility that came before.

The resulting technological explosion has transformed American life in less than two decades. Eighty percent of Americans now have access to networks capable of 100 Mbps speed and bandwidth prices have plummeted 87 percent since 1999.

Regulators in other industries must scrutinize their regulatory infrastructure, performing a yearly “regulation roll call” to update archaic rules that needlessly sideline private money.

Finally, we should invest in public-private partnerships to put people to work where it matters most. While 98 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 priming the pump for much greater private investment and more jobs. It’s basically free stimulus.

Gridlock in Washington is a cliché 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.

About the authors: Lewis N. Dodak, a Democrat, and Rick Johnson, a Republican, are both former speakers of the Michigan House of Representatives. By email at: rick@dodakjohnson.com; and lew@dodakjohnson.com

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by e-mailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.