As the nation debates a potential infrastructure plan, recent weeks have raised a new question: “what counts as infrastructure?” The answer depends on whether we’re looking at the past or the future. People understand the infrastructure of the past because we can see it. Yet a closer view tells us that new technology constantly reshapes what the future requires.
A century ago, Democratic and Republican leaders responded to the Great Depression and World War II and bet on the opportunities created by the technology of their time. They invested in infrastructure and people, creating new jobs, cementing the nation’s global leadership, and strengthening America’s middle class.
At a company like Microsoft, we see first-hand that the technology of our time is creating new opportunities and challenges. To make the most of technology’s future, the United States again needs a bold infrastructure plan that will create a springboard for new jobs, sustained competitiveness, and broader prosperity. While many details and the need for compromise lie ahead, we believe President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, or AJP, points in the right direction.
Advancing and using our technology
We also believe the country will be best served by a bipartisan spirit that starts by recognizing that this is how the nation has made the most of technology before.
Franklin Roosevelt harnessed the power of electricity by ensuring that every American home would have access to it.
Harry Truman presided over the G.I. Bill’s open door to college and created the National Science Foundation, recognizing that more complex jobs required broader education and research.
Dwight Eisenhower embraced the automobile by creating the interstate highway system. Then he launched the nation into space by investing in math and science in public schools.
Electricity, automobiles, and rockets defined much of the 20th century. In each case, individual inventors and market economics provided the foundation for progress. But public spending was needed to fill in market gaps and was critical for public goods like roads and bridges that single firms could not build.
Private initiative and public investment provided a winning combination for 20th century America.
A century later, the technologies have changed but the fundamentals remain. Software, data, electronics, and biology are changing the world. But they won’t reach every American or ensure national competitiveness without public investment.
A national plan is overdue. The AJP rightly starts with a “remodel” of 20th century infrastructure, including the electrical grid, roads, bridges, airports, and public schools that too often suffer from insufficient maintenance and modernization.
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It then addresses the new infrastructure of our day.
Broadband has become the electricity of the 21st century, providing the lifeblood for jobs, healthcare, and education. But like electricity in the 1930s, it hasn’t reached tens of millions of people. Public investment can close this gap and encourage long-term broadband adoption.
Similarly, technology is reshaping the skills needed for new jobs. We see through our customers that success requires a focus on computer science for some and a dose of digital skills and data for many others.The AJP would foster training and access to better jobs for people who are underrepresented in these fields.
Need for both private ingenuity and public investment
New technology also requires a renewed commitment to basic research. As a global company, we see other countries investing in this priority. But the United States retains the world’s crown jewels in its research universities. The AJP would leverage this strength by adding support at the National Science Foundation for new technologies. It would also strengthen domestic technology supply chains, expand manufacturing, and encourage new climate-friendly jobs.
Finally, while our technology-fueled era has created prosperity for some, it has fallen far short of reaching everyone. The country needs broader steps to support dislocated workers, expand educational access for minorities, revitalize rural communities, and put affordable housing in reach of more Americans.
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A balanced plan must address regulatory burdens and ensure accountability. And we must recognize these investments are expensive. A challenging conversation awaits about how to pay for all this — including the impact on the international competitiveness of economic sectors that operate with tighter profit margins. Here too, we need to talk together — across the political aisle and between the public and private sectors.
Private enterprise will remain the cornerstone of America’s future jobs. But it takes more than one cornerstone to construct a strong building. We need both private ingenuity and public investment to ensure that technology’s benefits reach everyone.
Brad Smith is the president of Microsoft.