October 7, 2012

Our View: Three Ring Binder a product of a new New Deal

You can't hang a sign on it, but the high-speed Internet link is a major public works project.

Skyline Drive. The Tennessee Valley Authority. Hoover Dam.

These are signature projects of the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt's economic intervention that lessened the devastating effects of the Great Depression. These New Deal projects put people to work, but they also did much more. They created an infrastructure for future economic expansion that remain today as symbols for the way the federal government can work with the people in times of economic distress.

During our economic meltdown, the worst since the Great Depression, there were calls for a new New Deal, in which the government would pay for public works projects like those of the 1930s to juice up economic activity now and build a structure for future growth. President Obama proposed a nearly $800 billion stimulus which passed -- with Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins providing two out of only three Republican votes in the Senate -- but even though it succeeded in heading off a collapse worse than the Depression, the bill has been a political failure that no office holder wants to talk about.

The stimulus was too big according to some critics, and too small according to others. It spent $300 billion in tax cuts, which got the money out into the economy quickly, but it was hard for people to notice the windfall when they were struggling with job loss, pay cuts and a collapse of home values and savings.

Much was also spent giving funds to states and cities, preventing public-sector layoffs that would have made the economy even worse. But "it could have been worse" is not a feel-good message.

And the stimulus did not have the kind of signature projects, like the Hoover Dam, that make its successes obvious to everyone. As laid out in an important new book, "The New, New Deal" by Michael Grunwald, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was good economics but bad politics in part because its achievements were invisible, so they were easy to attack.

As a result, we know more about Solyndra, one of the act's uncharacteristic failures, than we do about any of its many successes.

Last week Maine marked the completion of a $24.6 million stimulus project that met all of the standards of the original New Deal.

It is the 1,100-mile high-speed Internet backbone that ties the state's rural areas to the rest of the world. It not only created short-term economic activity through 400 jobs during its construction phase, but also builds the infrastructure for long-term economic growth, just as the railroad and the interstate highway did in other centuries.

(Robert C.S. Monks is one of the lead investors in the project. Monks is a board member of MaineToday Media, which owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.)

The Three Ring Binder is a model for the way business, government and the nonprofit sector can work together. It is also a rare example of bipartisan cooperation, having at different times been championed by Gov. John Baldacci and present Gov. Paul LePage.

When needed, it got unanimous support in both houses of the Legislature. Maine's Republican senators and its Democratic members of Congress all did their parts.

But even though it took a lot of political support to get the project under way, this was not a political handout. The Maine project was a first-round winner in a scrupulously competitive grant process. The money came from the government, but the work was done by private contractors and it came in under-budget and ahead of schedule.

The Three Ring Binder links key economic drivers in the nonprofit and private sectors, but its real impact will come later when small companies link up to it to bring high-speed Internet to currently unserved areas.

This will let an inn down an isolated peninsula communicate with potential guests all over the world. It will let a small furniture manufacturer and a boat builder promote their products. It will create an opportunity for a highly portable information business run by someone looking for a higher quality of life to come to rural Maine.

These are the payoffs that won't happen overnight, but will become more important over time as this infrastructure is fully utilized.

Unfortunately, this is no Hoover Dam. The Three Ring Binder doesn't have an observation deck, and there is nothing to see when you drive by.

But Mainers will know it's there, and will use it for decades to come.

The Three Ring Binder is a model for the way business, government and the nonprofit sector can work together.

 

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