Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Obama, Gray and Henry Clay on investing for the future

In his State of the Merged Government address on Jan. 25, 2011, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray stressed that smart investments were essential for future quality of life, even in tough economic times.
In his State of the Merged Government address on Jan. 25, 2011, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray stressed that smart investments were essential for future quality of life, even in tough economic times.

As I was watching President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on TV Tuesday night, I got a text message on my cell phone from Mayor Jim Gray: "Geez I think the prez is gonna start talking abt Henry Clay next!"

Obama had just been saying that, while huge deficits require some cuts in federal spending, the nation must renew its commitment to investing in the research and infrastructure needed to ensure long-term economic prosperity.

The president did not mention Clay, the U.S. senator, House Speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who lived from 1777 to 1852. But Gray had referred to him repeatedly a few hours earlier when he delivered a similar message in his first State of the Merged Government speech.

Gray said that while Lexington government must stop spending more than it takes in, the city still must find ways to make smart investments for the future.

"In order to make our city a center of economic innovation, we must keep growing our quality-of-life infrastructure," Gray said, noting the city's recent investments in downtown streets and sidewalks, rural land preservation, the arts and recreational trails.

He also called for a privately financed study to assess the costs and benefits of renovating and expanding Rupp Arena and the adjacent downtown convention center. Those facilities are important drivers of Lexington's economy, and they must remain competitive, he said.

"Business men and women recognize there are times when we have to spend money to make money by investing in the brand," Gray said.

Nobody embodied that economic truth more than Henry Clay.

Clay is best remembered as "the great compromiser" for his ability to cut deals with opposing political factions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was what he called the "American System." That involved federal investment in roads, canals and other infrastructure to promote both economic development and national security.

Clay argued that public infrastructure was essential for American industry to compete with foreign imports, which then came from Britain rather than China. Then, as now, free-market extremists objected. Clay's nemesis was Andrew Jackson, who if he were alive today would probably be trying to lead the Tea Party.

Their big showdown came when President Jackson vetoed federal funding for the road between Lexington and the Ohio River at Maysville — essentially what we now know as U.S. Highway 68. Clay said the road was important for interstate commerce in the growing West, but Jackson thought federal funding for it was unconstitutional. Over time, Clay's beliefs prevailed. Had they not, the union would not likely have survived the Civil War.

In their zeal to slash most "government spending," Tea Partiers also want to stop decades of public investment in infrastructure, education, social welfare, health care, the arts and quality of life. But where would American free enterprise be today without that investment?

How could businesses have prospered without roads, bridges, airports and public education — not to mention all of the federally funded basic medical research and that government project now known as the Internet?

Free markets are good. But if everything were left up to the ebb and flow of the marketplace, Americans would be less healthy, less educated and have far less economic opportunity.

The strong cities and nations of the future won't get that way by private investment and individual effort alone. That is why, for example, China and other nations are investing billions in clean energy research and technology while many American companies prefer to fund political and public relations campaigns to deny both climate change and inevitable change.

Government taxing and spending is a delicate balance that must constantly be debated and adjusted. But just as excessive public debt and wasteful spending are bad for the economy, so is a failure to make sufficient public investments in the future.

People who call for simplistic solutions to complex problems put America's economic future and national security at risk, as Clay recognized nearly two centuries ago.

History may not repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it sure does echo.