Season of spending

âÄòTis the season for buying each other cheap plastic gifts that will be swiftly relegated to the back of a closet âÄî itâÄôs a Christmas tradition, after all. And all too often, we spend tax dollars the same way: just mindlessly throwing money around because, well, because thatâÄôs just the way it is and we never do anything about it. By all accounts, our economyâÄôs downward spiral continues. We lost more than a half-million jobs in November alone, and companies are cutting the hours of employees that hang on to their jobs. And, of course, those that lose their jobs also usually lose their health care, so we will probably be dealing with a huge increase in uninsured workers. All of this is very bad. Things will only get worse if the major auto companies collapse âÄîmassive job losses that we probably canâÄôt sustain right now. Although, it appears that Congress is close to a band-aid to at least keep things afloat until the new administration takes over in January. But the crisis also presents something of an opportunity: a chance to rethink how we spend our public money. ItâÄôs no secret that we waste vast sums of money on pretty worthless programs. When times are good, we can overlook that waste fairly easily. Not so now. WeâÄôve got to focus on projects that produce real value for the dollar, not just ones that help line someoneâÄôs pockets. Last week, I touched on our disastrous âÄúwar on drugs.âÄù ThatâÄôs an excellent example of a place where we need to immediately begin rethinking our approach. WeâÄôre wasting money and getting nothing in return. âÄúDefense spending,âÄù that nebulous category that represents everything from the PentagonâÄôs budget to the cost of maintaining nuclear weapons to the money required to run VeteranâÄôs Affairs, is another opportunity to begin spending our money more intelligently. We spend nearly as much money on defense as the rest of the world combined âÄî much of it on expensive experimental weapons projects that we donâÄôt need. If weâÄôre willing to take a hard, honest look at our defense budget, we could save huge amounts of money and put those funds to better use. On that front, the Obama administration-in-waiting has been sending some positive signals over the past few weeks. Plenty of ink has been spilled about the president-electâÄôs choices of Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Gen. Jim Jones as national security adviser and Robert Gates to continue his role as secretary of defense. Most of the discussion has centered on whether Obama is backing down from an aggressively liberal foreign policy, or perhaps looking to unify those in opposition to neoconservative foreign policy. But weâÄôve generally overlooked ObamaâÄôs intention to begin cutting the military budget, and how this new national security team fits that goal. The New York Times ran an article about a week ago, focusing on how Jones, Gates and Clinton have all bought into ObamaâÄôs goal to reroute military spending to more useful areas. If true, having these three on ObamaâÄôs side will provide him important political cover, enabling him to aggressively cut military spending. Jones is a former NATO commander; Gates has served multiple Republican presidents as defense secretary; Clinton is part of the more hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. Having such a distinguished team backing a spending cut will make it much easier to more intelligently spend our tax dollars. But itâÄôs not going to be enough to just shift money around. The federal government is going to have to increase spending to pull us out of our slump and the budget deficit is going to rise. Under these circumstances, thatâÄôs not a bad thing: thereâÄôs no other way around it. And on this front as well, Obama has been saying some encouraging things. In his most recent address to the nation, which you can check out on YouTube, Obama laid out his spending priorities âÄî and they are good ones, focused on projects that produce long-term value, not just a brief spending bump. ObamaâÄôs plan focuses heavily on infrastructure investment âÄîwhat Obama calls the biggest program since the interstate highway system. Here in the Twin Cities area, we know firsthand the problems caused by crumbling public infrastructure. The new spending gives us the chance to simultaneously create jobs while giving us the roads, bridges and buildings we need to continue prospering in the decades ahead. WeâÄôve got a good example of a worthwhile project right here on campus, with work set to begin on a replacement for the Science Classroom Building. The SCB needs to go âÄî having class in the basement feels like listening to lecture in a coal mine. Construction of a new facility there, with a better learning environment and more technological integration, is exactly the type of project we should be focusing on as we look for ways to spend stimulus money. But the federal government is going to have to give individual states a hand to make this work. States canâÄôt deficit-spend, so as tax revenues fall, the state governments need to make up for it by cutting spending. The federal government doesnâÄôt face such constraints, so they will have to play the lead role in getting the spending started. We can focus on new schools, better roads, more public transportation, while creating jobs at the same time âÄî we just need Washington to commit. Unfortunately, we still have to wait another month and a half. Until the new Congress and administration take over, weâÄôre just going to be wasting recovery time. IâÄôd like to think things canâÄôt get any worse between then and now, but I could be wrong. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]