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David Walker’s $62 trillion question (and answer)

David Walker
David Walker

David Walker comes straight at you with critical facts and concrete ideas for addressing them.

The problem is much worse than the current fiscal year federal deficit ($1.4 trillion to $1.5 trillion) and much worse than the current national debt ($14.7 trillion). The biggest part of the problem is “what’s off the balance sheet,” mostly the federal promises of future retirement and health care benefits that exceed the projected future ability of the government to fund them. Put all the liabilities together, says Walker, and you get $62 trillion, which calculates out to $530,000 for every household in America, and rising at record rates.

What to do, according to Walker, who spoke at a luncheon Tuesday of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce:

[View a PDF of Walker’s entire presentation]

Federal spending needs to go down. Taxes need to go up. The promises of future benefits from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security need to be brought into balance with our willingness and ability to pay for them. We need to spend less on the military. In the short run, we might need to spend to stimulate the economy, but the program needs to be part of a credible, balanced, long-term program to get long-term revenues and long-term liabilities closer to balance.

The national debt doesn’t need to be paid off, but — measured as a percentage of GDP — it needs to come down, steadily and for a long time. As currently constituted, our political system has been taken over by ”wingnuts.” It needs to be changed if America is to tackle the challenges described in the first six sentences in this paragraph. If those challenges are not addressed, America’s best days are behind us.

Our fiscal future: CLICK TO ENLARGE

Translation: We need to do everything that will make the situation better and stop doing everything that is making it worse. His shtick is a virtual compendium of ideas that one major party or the other would like to rule off the table.

Who is David Walker:

Appointed to various positions by presidents of both parties, Walker spent 10 years (1998-2008, appointed by Bill Clinton) as comptroller general of the United States. In that capacity, he launched a “fiscal wakeup tour” to alert the United States to its unsustainable fiscal path. Apparently, we didn’t wake up, since everything fiscal has gotten worse. I first covered him during that tour and was captured then, as I have been ever since, by his blunt, nerdy Cassandra act.

Since leaving government, Walker has worked with or founded various foundations and other public initiatives to continue warning America of the fiscal cliff off of which it is driving. He currently heads the Comeback America Initiative, and is one of the founders of the non-partisan “No Labels” organization, which focuses on urging the country to rise above partisanship in the common interest.

Walker has the mind of an accountant, the speaking style of a military briefer, but the secret soul of a crusader. “I’m a patriot who is good at math, and quite frankly we need more of them,” he said yesterday in St. Paul.

I’m determined to keep this shortish, so I won’t exhaust the list of Walker’s prescriptions, but I’ll give you this taste of his bipartisan political criticisms:

“Washington has become a lagging indicator. It has waited until crises is at our doorstep before it acts, and when it does act it does so precipitously, without adequate due diligence, and without adequate safeguards to prevent the same problems from happening again.”

On the current 12-member (six from each party) “supercommittee” that is supposed to recommend measures that will trim a mere $1.5 trillion from the current projected deficits of the next 10 years, Walker said that if the committee can’t reach that pitiful goal, all of its members should resign from Congress. But, he noted, the prospects are not that promising. Of the 12 members, he said, “two voted against raising the debt ceiling, four voted against Simpson Bowles. None voted for it. And all six of the Republicans have signed the no tax pledge.”

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/28/2011 - 11:00 am.

    I want to hear more about this guy and his ideas. Details, please. Is his plan in front of the President? Congress? Where can I see them as a whole?

  2. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 09/28/2011 - 11:18 am.

    As usual, Eric Black, brings us good news and analysis, though his “good news” is actually bad news, and a warning for all of us. This, plus today’s disturbing story in the New York Times about young people giving up on voting makes me wonder where we are going to find the political leadership that will dig us out of the hole we keep digging ourselves into. Somehow cold reality and a sense of responsibility has to become part of public discourse. If you want your streets plowed and potholes fixed you need government and that requires you pay taxes. It’s that simple. What gets more complicated are the questions Walker poses. They demand hard thinking but he is right in saying that we may need to spend money–and raise taxes–if we are to begin digging ourselves out of our current hole.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/28/2011 - 11:21 am.

    Without an additional 10-20 million well paid, secure jobs it just doesn’t work long-term.

    Fewer jobs mean less tax revenue. Poorly paid jobs mean more governmental expense. Jobs without benefits means more governmental expense. Insecure jobs mean an unstable economy.

    Tax increases, sure, but that won’t increase the number of jobs that are required to retain a nationally wide-spread “good” economy.

    Cut spending in the highest job growth areas such as government, education, health-care and defense, (all funded by government revenue) and you are cutting some of the “best” jobs out there these days.

    A spiral where fewer and fewer people have good jobs with decent incomes is not the direction of where we want to go.

    Just focusing on revenue/spending balance misses the leverage point at where we need to truly change the direction of the economy–tens of millions of secure, well-paid jobs which MUST be found outside of the sectors of government, health-care, education and defense.

    If we cannot affect that, we are truly fated to a prolonged spiral of decline.

    Everything else is treating the symptoms, not the cause.

  4. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/28/2011 - 11:22 am.

    David Walker is part of the Ivy League elite that has failed us. They love solutions that call for sacrifice, by other people.

    The debt as percentage of GDP, while not meaningless, is highly misleading. When the GDP goes down, government borrowing usually goes up and vice versa. For that reason the best way to reduce that ratio is not to cut spending or raise taxes, but to increase the GDP.

    The GDP is a reflection of the productivity in the United States. With large numbers of American’s unemployed, or not employed in fully productive jobs, its not surprising that we are not increasing our GDP. We need to create investments that put people to work and make existing workers more productive. That includes building our human capital by creating an education system that produces young people with world class skills.

    But large amounts of the capital created by the American economy is not being invested to increase our own productivity. Instead it has been transferred overseas in the form of investments in China and other emerging economies. This is true even for investments in ostensibly “American” companies.

    Companies like Nike and Dell produce almost nothing in the United States except market research and development to attract customers for foreign manufacturers. In essence, they are “mining” America’s consumers as a resource for overseas producers.

    Other companies, like Microsoft, Intel and GE are investing overseas because it provides access to a well-educated workforce in countries that have rapidly growing economies. The result is that the technical expertise for future product development is being transferred to those countries as well.

    I don’t know what the solution is to this situation. But I am skeptical we are going to get it out of an elite fashions itself as players in the “global economy”. They either benefit from the process or are immune to its worst impacts on other Americans.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/28/2011 - 11:43 am.

    Mr. Williams makes good points. Unfortunately, no one seems to have the answer to the problems he identifies. I certainly don’t, other than to retreat to a less-than-free-trade status with the rest of the world, for which we’d all pay in the end in any event. So long as it makes more financial sense to produce goods overseas, ostensibly American companies will continue to do so.

  6. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/28/2011 - 12:30 pm.

    ” So long as it makes more financial sense to produce goods overseas, ostensibly American companies will continue to do so.”

    What makes “financial sense” is a balancing of a lot of different factors. The questions is how do we change that balance in our favor? If we don’t, then we are accepting inevitable decline.

    I think part of our political problems stem from exactly that. Large numbers of Americans have come to believe the pie is shrinking and will continue to shrink. Their goal is to keep what they have, rather than to make the pie bigger.

    But I also think that we have a ruling elite that benefits from this process. They see themselves as successful leaders of a new thriving world, rather then a failing United States. They have lifeboats, why worry about righting the ship. Worse, what if someone started suggesting the lifeboats shouldn’t be reserved for them.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/28/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    “So long as it makes more financial sense to produce goods overseas, ostensibly American companies will continue to do so.”

    That’s exactly right. The purpose of private enterprise is to make money. We have to make doing business in the United States more attractive thaan it is now. That means attracting investors, foreign and domestic, with a zero capital gains tax.

    It means attracting foreign manufacturers to build their next factory here by charging zero corporate income tax.

    The only way out of this mess is to grow the private economy. Government jobs are not the answer because they are a zero sum game. You’re taking money out of the private economy and putting it into the public economy and that doesn’t improve the GDP. Plus the long-term obligations in the form of public pensions and retirement benefits only adds to the national debt.

  8. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 09/28/2011 - 12:52 pm.

    The referred to pdf is the best economic summary I have ever seen. I hope millions read it!

    The best sentence in the pdf article is:
    “The public needs to be educated about the differences between wants, needs, affordability, and sustainability at both the individual and aggregate level.”

    Citizens who fail to understand the basic economic situation our country is in fail to see how predictably disastrous our future is. I hope you all will take the time to look at this pdf. I think it is non-partisan, educational and objective.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/28/2011 - 12:54 pm.

    Mr. Williams seems to think that someone who has made a career of becoming knowledgeable about how or economic system works is somehow an ‘elite’. What is interesting is how the term has become pejorative.
    Of course he is an elite: he knows what he is talking about.
    The problem is that there is no easy solution to the problem that he outlines.
    The world is leveling; we can no longer dump cheap products overseas — China and India now have labor forces that are as well educated and will work for lower salaries.
    Either we will end up with a standard of living that is the same as theirs, or we will figure out a way to produce things that they will buy rather than produce themselves.

    And of course I see nothing that states that Walker is calling for sacrifices by other people but not himself. That is projection on the part of Mr. Ross.

  10. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/28/2011 - 02:20 pm.

    “What is interesting is how the term has become pejorative.”

    Lets be clear, I didn’t use “elite” as a pejorative. Every country has an elite. Ours has failed and its time to replace them.

    “Of course he is an elite: he knows what he is talking about.”

    Which is, of course, the point of view that has created this problem. We have a group that assumes that they are the only ones who have any knowledge worth considering. And they all got their knowledge in the same place. They presume that if they don’t know what to do, no one else does either.

    “someone who has made a career of becoming knowledgeable about how or economic system works”

    Except the economic system has stopped working hasn’t it? Since our economic elite’s knowledge of the economy is very narrow and incomplete they don’t know what to do about that. They don’t really have any ideas for creating jobs or increasing productivity because they have never done it.

    “I see nothing that states that Walker is calling for sacrifices by other people but not himself.”

    You will have to point out what sacrifices Mr. Walker has in store for himself. Let me suggest that Mr. Walker and the other members of our elite do not expect to depend on social security or medicare. Nor do they intend to constrain the returns on their investments in order to build the American economy.

    “The purpose of private enterprise is to make money.”

    Yes, but that isn’t my purpose in life. So I want to make sure that my purposes are served, not just private enterprise.

    “You’re taking money out of the private economy and putting it into the public economy and that doesn’t improve the GDP.”

    It doesn’t matter whether something of value is produced by government, non-profits or for-profit organizations. It still contributes to the GDP. Providing roads, airports, schools, parks, health care etc are just as productive as manufacturing chewing gum or advising people on their investments.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/28/2011 - 03:29 pm.

    This is great stuff, Eric.

    Obviously plenty of fodder for various points of the spectrum, as the comments already show.

    I’m not sure it matters whether or not Mr. Walker is a member of an Ivy League elite or not. If his facts and numbers correlate with what’s happening both on the ground and in financial boardrooms, there’s ample cause for concern in both places. The 20th century created not only a very prosperous society, but also something of a revolution of rising expectations, to borrow a phrase from a related context.

    We take our lifestyle very much for granted – it’s kind of the ultimate “entitlement,” going far beyond all those other entitlements that right-wingers love to hate. My take on Walker is that it can’t continue without some genuinely significant changes in our national attitudes and behaviors. Grace is right on the money in #8 – slog through the PDF file before you dash off a comment. It’s eye-opening.

    Assuming some degree of accuracy from Walker’s charts and graphs, it’s evident that the current fiscal disaster-in-waiting is a creation of both political parties, which have lately cast aside any notion of fiscal discipline. The same guy yelling “Keep the #*@*#& government’s hands off my Medicare!!” not only has no clue about government OR medicare, he also expects that somehow *he’s* going to be taken care of, even if stupid liberals like me die by the thousands. He is mistaken.

    Neal makes good points, but I’ve no idea where those jobs are going to come from. I also continue to question – this seems futile, but I do it anyway – the notion that somehow, with finite resources, our economy can continue to “grow” indefinitely, to infinity, by any significant amount, particularly if current trends in income inequality and distribution continue. Lacking truly draconian population control, the lifestyle we’ve come to take for granted will simply outstrip the ability of our economic and political structure, not to mention the available raw materials, to provide the level of material comfort to which we’ve become accustomed.

    I’m inclined to agree with Ross that debt as a percentage of GDP is often misleading, just as calling companies like Dell and Nike “American” is misleading. Genuflecting to corporate America is, in part, how we got into our current dilemma.

    America was built upon, and has thrived upon, a “growth” model that relied upon cheap labor, abundant, inexpensive raw materials, as well as a booming domestic *and* worldwide industrial economy. That sort of economic model has also underlain our version of a democratic society, both socially and politically. Because popular moods change, so do political leaders, and that combination goes a long way to explain why democracies don’t do long-range planning very well. We are not exempt from that flaw, as even a cursory glance at any of Walker’s debt-trend slides will illustrate. The next person elected to your office reverses your policies, or ignores them, because s/he has powerful constituents who don’t like your interpretation of what needs to be done. Then your replacement’s successor reverses *her* policies, and a generation later, the problems remain unsolved.

    That said, there’s a *lot* of vagueness in his reform proposals. For example, from page 77: “Consider an exchange of primary roles, functions and revenue sources as part of a new federalism or devolution effort (e.g., health care, education, infrastructure).” This sounds like an endorsement of the “Tenther” agenda, except that education, for example, is already primarily under state and local control. Is he advocating a greater federal role? Leave aside – for the moment, since they’re substantial – the federal/interstate highway system, and air travel, and most infrastructure, from streets to water supply to the electrical grid, is either locally or privately held and controlled. Does he mean there should be a greater federal role? Conversely, is he suggesting that interstate highways, rail travel, and air travel be built, maintained and regulated by states individually rather than the federal government? And so on…

    Thanks to Mr. Tester for pointing out, once again, that business is basically sociopathic, having no interest in human beings beyond their ability to purchase products and services. We can’t run a society on that basis. I have to agree with Ross that making money, per se, is a poor reason to live. Besides, as Andrew Carnegie – no liberal, he – would have told us, it’s not our money to begin with. It belongs to the society, and we are merely caretakers.

  12. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/28/2011 - 06:12 pm.

    An economy is based on people buying and selling products and services. I guess if you make your living with a non-profit organization, it’s easy to overlook that little detail in how the real world works.

  13. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/28/2011 - 07:31 pm.

    Interestingly Walker’s $60 trillion figure just about matches the $62 trillion value of credit default swaps at least as of 2008. That was the value of what I read in many places was the potential liquidation value of unregulated “bets” that parties whose credit was being “insured” or bet on would not default. Now in one way or another, this $62 trillion was also connected to the collateralized debt obligations which were the securitized subprime mortgages. I haven’t heard that the $62 trillion credit default swap obligations have gone away. But what does this figure represent? A “good or service” sold and bought on a market? They are not any form of insurance. I submit they represent naked wagers, and fall in the same class as gambling winnings (or losses or debts). Goldman Sachs to take one example I’ve read about, profited handsomely by being on both side of some of these wagers. Some call it a living. I wonder what part of the GDP they represent?

  14. Submitted by Dave Eischens on 09/28/2011 - 08:25 pm.

    Mr. Tester is correct, in general @ (#12) Much less so @ (#7).

    Gliding over the attempt to elicit emotion, I’ll suggest the free market/capitalist perspective neglects the bigger picture.

    An economy is not the real world within which we live. We live in a society, a community. Yes, we can say it, a commons. The economy is merely a component of that larger whole. It’s one of the means by which we enrich the progress and development of our communities, our lives. It is not the (Ferengi-like) reason for our existence.

    Mr. Walker has some good data, and good ideas. Don’t agree with all of them and believe there are superior and more obvious solutions. But if these ideas can be balanced within the framework of putting people first, they merit serious consideration.

  15. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/28/2011 - 08:27 pm.

    Mr. Tester might have a point with those few people who’ve never had any other sort of life experience except nonprofit work, but most of the folks I know have had a mixture of life experiences, and many, like me, have been involved with both nonprofit as well as profit-seeking employment, large-scale and small, including self-employment. Buying and selling goods and services is, indeed, the economic basis of a capitalist economy, but there’s nothing noble about it, and there ought to be more, I think, to the philosophical and intellectual foundation of a society than numbers on a quarterly earnings sheet.

    And that is, in fact, what Mr. Walker is getting at. The numbers he’s putting in those PowerPoint slides say we can’t continue to live the way we’ve been living, so there are choices to be made, and those choices, like it or not, are all value-laden and political. Mr. Tester might cut food stamps before he cuts the military. I might prefer the reverse. Of such differences are election campaigns made. To not-entirely-accurately quote Pericles from ancient Athens, “The man who has no interest in politics has no business here.”

  16. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/28/2011 - 08:27 pm.

    I assume that you hand carry your goods through a forest path to a local market where you barter them for what you need.
    Otherwise you are part of a somewhat more complex society, and benefiting from it.
    If you assume that all of societies needs beyond the market place will be taken care of by the Church, you are advocating a theocracy.
    Most of us prefer otherwise.

  17. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/29/2011 - 08:22 am.

    Ray, I also am not sure where those jobs will come from and that forms the basis of my pessimism with respect to the economy in the long run. The world is full of people who are just as smart as we are and even more desperate to “make it”. And besides, most jobs don’t require “rocket science” or “brain surgery”. Our post-WW2 economy had a big boost from the methods and means developed during the big war build-up and the fact that we were the only intact industrial power. That proved to be the main engine of the 50’s through the 70’s–20 short years in which the meme, “America as the super-power” developed and the foundation of modern economics was developed.

    The ever-upward trending GDP line (a proxy for the good life) WAS taken as a God-given mandate (20 short years—what hubris!?!). The 80’s to now have be the intrusion of the rest of the world into “our game” where they have proven to be able to equal or best us in many fields. And our response? Larger and larger financial trickery where credit and asset inflation have been substituted for wage growth. Well, eventually the credit must be paid back and the asset prices become unsupportable. That is where we are at now.

    The future is entirely unclear.

  18. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 09/29/2011 - 08:40 am.

    I believe that, if you are to ask people to make additional sacrifices, beyond losses in home values, pensions, and jobs, integrity must be restored to the financial markets. Without integrity,there will be no trust. Without trust, there will be no confidence or investment … a culture of caveat emptor.

  19. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/29/2011 - 02:36 pm.

    American manufacturers who moved their production offshore did so because they could pay slave-wages and not have to worry about environmental controls. It would be difficult, to say the least, to bring them back, but we CAN invest in the production of a renewable energy infrastructure and thereby create millions of permanent, good jobs.

    Social Security is 100% self-supporting. There will be no shortfall for several decades and even that can be easily prevented by doing what we did in the early 1980s: slightly raise the percentage of taxes withheld and raise the cap on which the tax is charged. We should eliminate the cap altogether and stop exempting investment income from the tax. This would probably fund Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in perpetuity.

    The writer seems to favor the same things as the Simpson-Bowles commission — with the poor and middle classes taking more of a hit than the wealthy. The two chairs released their plan to the media without first getting the approval of all the commission’s members, who then mostly went along with the chairs’ fait accompli.

  20. Submitted by Ross Williams on 09/29/2011 - 05:03 pm.

    “American manufacturers who moved their production offshore did so because they could pay slave-wages and not have to worry about environmental controls.”

    I think this is a reassuring myth ideologues of both the left and right buy into in different ways. I think the reality is far more disturbing. They are moving offshore to be closer to suppliers and emerging markets. they have moved offshore to access a better educated workforce. They have moved offshore because that is where the knowledge for innovation has moved.

    If Nike decided to produce shoes in the United States, where would they find anyone who knew anything about it? Maybe there are some people with modern shoe manufacturing experience, but I would bet the pool is pretty small.

    When I talk about the Ivy League elite, they aren’t involved in manufacturing or really any other business. They are involved in money management, communications, politics and law.

    There is a couple trillion dollars sitting in corporate bank accounts. The money managers who run those companies are sitting on it because they don’t know of any productive investments they can make. So why don’t they give it back to the owners? Because they wouldn’t have any money to make any deals that might come along in the future.

    There is a couple trillion more in the banks with the same problem. These guys are sitting an $4 trillion dollars that could be invested to make us more productive, but they don’t know what to do with it. But they are certain no one else does either. And they sure aren’t interested in giving up their control over the money in any case. What use is a money manager with no money to manage? And if my Ivy League colleagues and I don’t know what to do, how could those with less knowledge and intelligence have any better ideas.

  21. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/29/2011 - 07:30 pm.

    CUT SPENDING!! just not my benefits, or my parents’, or my children’s

    RAISE TAXES!! not mine, those other people, you know, the rich, the lazy poor and businesses.

    Ask a hard question. How about: “Would you support denying cancer treatments that average less than a 3 month extension on life to Medicare patients if that would lower your payroll taxes by 5%?” That’s a practical and honest question I’d like to see the answer to, as that’s the sort of question we need to answer to keep health care spending under control.

  22. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/29/2011 - 07:37 pm.

    Mr. Williams: American workers built great shoes in small New England towns until their factories closed down and production moved to wherever.

    American workers built millions more high-quality cars per year, but were paid union wages with benefits and so were sacrificed to the greed of those who owned Detroit’s manufacturing base.

    American workers built computers and cameras and TVs and stereo equipment, also of high quality, until their factories were closed and production moved to China and Japan.

    And even that All-American motorcycle company in Wisconsin (what’s its name again?) shut down production and moved to Poland or some other eastern European country.

    The problem is not the American worker. The problem is the search for ever-more profit no matter what the cost to our endangered democracy’s middle and working classes. We are closer every day to the two-tier society enjoyed by William McKinley and the 1890s robber barons of his day.

  23. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/29/2011 - 09:20 pm.

    “… but we CAN invest in the production of a renewable energy infrastructure and thereby create millions of permanent, good jobs.”

    What does that mean, Bernice? Does the name “Solyndra” mean anything to you? Crony capitalism is the government attempting to pick winners and losers in a marketplace and after billions of taxpayer money thrown down a rat hole on energy companies who were supporters of this White House, the U.S. congress is going to be investigating fraud allegations that could land somebody in jail.

    It’s not the role of government to operate or subsidize businesses in the marketplace and crony capitalism is not only morally and ethically wrong, it’s counterproductive in a free market economy because it discourages legitimate players from trying to compete because they know they’ll never have the resources to compete with the Bank of the U.S. Taxpayer.

  24. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/30/2011 - 03:40 pm.

    Dennis: The solar company’s government guarantee was for about half a billion dollars. There apparently was nothing that would indicate a coming failure.

    Between 2002 and 2009, oil, gas and coal received $72 billion in subsidies. Ethanol also got big help and nuclear was given guarantees that we government would cover any damage done if there were an accident.

    The real story on crony capitalism was written by Dick Cheney when he invited Enron and his other energy industry buddies into his office to help write what became the National Energy Policy Act of 2005. Cheney himself an industry guy, raised his net worth from a few million to over $30 million in a few years.

    And in the House, Tom Delay and then House Speaker Tauzin held the Medicare drug act open for hour after hour while they bullied and (in one case tried to bribe) enough representatives to pass it. The insurance and drug industries have made out like bandits (Medicare is forbidden to negotiate volume pricing) and Mr. Tauzin left government to become the drug industry’s top lobbyist.

  25. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/01/2011 - 10:43 am.

    Solyndra was a good case of how government should be involved in business development. No fraud involved.
    This business venture involved a bit more risk than private capital would normally go for. The reason that it failed was not fraud or incompetence; it was a change in market conditions.
    In this case, profitability was predicated on the continuation of existing energy costs. When the costs of competing energy sources went down due to the drop in demand produced by the recession, Solyndra became unprofitable.
    It was a chance worth taking.
    If we simply relied on private investment, money would go mostly to sure things and we would have little innovation. The history of American innovation has been government projects; often military spinoffs.

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