fbpx Why smart infrastructure is a smart investment—for both Democrats and Republicans—in an era of historic public works spending | Harvard Kennedy School

As the U.S. prepares to spend hundreds of billions on new projects, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Stephen Goldsmith says policymakers and politicians must rethink what infrastructure is and what it can do.

Featuring Stephen Goldsmith
April 18, 2023
36 minutes and 34 seconds

With the passage of 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government has ushered in levels of infrastructure spending we haven’t seen since the days of President Dwight Eisenhower. Between direct spending and loans, there could be as much as $800 billion dollars in spending in the coming years on everything from roads and bridges to water treatment to public transit to climate readiness to clean energy to internet access. HKS Professor Stephen Goldsmith says successfully upgrading our infrastructure will not only require spending all that money intelligently, but spending it on infrastructure that is itself smart—full of sensors that can anticipate problems before they require costly repairs and that have multiple functions instead of just one. Goldsmith is director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University, but also a veteran of the infrastructure front lines—having served as the mayor of Indianapolis, a deputy mayor in New York City, as a chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000. While the current infrastructure spending has been pushed mainly by Democrats, he says he’d also like to see Republicans rediscover their Eisenhower-style belief in public investment—both in physical infrastructure and what he calls soft infrastructure like job training and education.  

Episode Notes

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. His work at Data-Smart City Solutions highlights local government efforts to use new technologies that connect breakthroughs in the use of big data analytics with community input to reshape the relationship between government and citizen. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition, and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the elected prosecutor for Marion County, Indiana from 1977 to 1989. He has written numerous books, including The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance; and most recently Growing Fairly, How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.  

Ralph Ranalli of the HKS Office of Public Affairs and Communications is the host, producer, and editor of HKS PolicyCast. A former journalist, public television producer, and entrepreneur, he holds an AB in Political Science from UCLA and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. 

The co-producer of PolicyCast is Susan Hughes. Design and graphics support is provided by Lydia Rosenberg, Delane Meadows and the OCPA Design Team. Social media promotion and support is provided by Natalie Montaner and the OCPA Digital Team.  


Stephen Goldsmith (Intro): Every time we make an investment that moves somebody from a consumer of tax resources because they don't have an opportunity to a generator of tax resources because they do have an opportunity, is a success. So we ought to think about investment in infrastructure in terms of what does it mean to industry. We ought to think about investment in terms of the soft infrastructure that allows people to get good jobs as an investment in our nation's economy and not think, ipso facto, I'm against all dollars and I'm against all government. 

Ralph Ranalli (Intro): Welcome to PolicyCast, a production of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. I’m your host, Ralph Ranalli. With the passage of 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government has ushered in levels of infrastructure spending we haven’t seen in more than half a century, back to the days of the President Dwight Eisenhower. Between direct spending and loans, there could be as much as $800 billion dollars of spending in the coming years on everything from roads and bridges to water treatment to public transit to climate readiness to clean energy to internet access. My guest today, Professor Stephen Goldsmith, says successfully upgrading our infrastructure will not only require spending all that money smartly, but spending it on infrastructure that is itself smart—full of sensors that can anticipate problems before they require costly repairs and that have multiple functions instead of just one. Goldsmith is director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Kennedy School, but he is also a veteran of the infrastructure front lines—having served as the mayor of Indianapolis, a deputy mayor in New York City, as a chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000. While the current infrastructure spending has pushed mostly by Democrats, he says he’d also like to see Republicans rediscover their Eisenhower-style belief in public investment—both in physical infrastructure and what he calls soft infrastructure like job training and education.   

Ralph Ranalli: Stephen, welcome to PolicyCast. 

Stephen Goldsmith: Thank you very much. It's good to be here. 

Ralph Ranalli: I wanted to talk with you because I've been reading your writing over the last couple of years on a couple of topics, one of which is infrastructure and smart infrastructure, and the other one is the trajectory of the Republican Party and where it goes from here. And it thought it would be interested to talk about where those two topics meet and how they affect one another. But I wanted to start with infrastructure because we seem to have a significant—maybe that's an understatement—infrastructure problem because a lot of it, was built in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The population of the US has doubled since then. But from 2007 to 2019, spending on infrastructure fell basically $10 million in real dollars, this according to one of the papers you did, a period that straddled sort of the late George W. Bush presidency, Obama's presidency, and the early Trump years. Can you just sort of set the scope about where we are in terms of our infrastructure needs and how we got here? 

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, we have a number of very serious infrastructure issues, as your question suggests. One is a lack of developing new infrastructure. A second is failing to take care of the infrastructure we have. Third is not adapting to changes in both population and where folks live. And then thinking about the effect of sustainability on all of that infrastructure and the future of cities compounds the problem. So in short, we built too little. We built the wrong things. We didn't take care of the things that we built and we didn't anticipate the future. But other than that, we got it right. 

Ralph Ranalli: So we have something like 55 million potholes in the US. 36% of our bridges require some sort of replacement or rehabilitation. We also lost, and this one really struck me, as much as 18% of our treated water. In other words we spend all this money treating water and due to antiquated pipes and leaks and bad equipment, we lose nearly one fifth of it. That seems incredible to me. Did we build more than we were able to take care of? Or did the situation change? 

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, all of the above. I mean, it's easy to look back and criticize, but the fact of the matter is, there's a number of things that are inherent in the way the U.S. approaches infrastructure that are flawed. One is there is no life-cycle costing associated with construction of almost anything. So, when building a road today, both the political incentives and the private company incentives are to build quickly and cheaply. So that increases the life-cycle costing, say, over 20 years of that bridge or road or whatever the case may be. And when we had this massive, Eisenhower-period investment in infrastructure, we didn't have a lot of the fancy technological tools we have today. We didn't know when preventative maintenance was necessary because of vibrations on a bridge or whatever.  

So there are tools today. But we still have these kinds of fundamental problems. We should build lifecycle, and we should build dynamically so that now you can change the utilization of a piece of infrastructure. How can you listen to that infrastructure more creatively? All of those things are possible today. And again, just to go back to your first question, we do have this change coming in many large cities like Boston, which are potentially going to be underwater. And so how do we think about not only moving water, but being resilient at water level? So it's a changed game today. 

Ralph Ranalli: Right. So you've talked about both investing in smart infrastructure, which you were basically just alluding to a moment ago, but also using, I guess you could call it, using existing infrastructure in a smart way. I read the piece you wrote in Governing magazine where you talked about reusing and taking advantage of existing infrastructure to make something new: a trash truck as a rolling sensor platform, or a utility pole as a car charging station. Can you talk a little bit about what the possibilities are there, in terms of not just building something or repairing something that we already have, but to actually transform some of the things we have in a way that makes them more useful to us going forward? 

Stephen Goldsmith: There are a number of very exciting opportunities today that didn't exist five years ago, let alone 45 years ago. And one of the limitations and opportunities is imagination. So as you mentioned in your question, if you look outside your window and look at a garbage truck and I say: "What is that?" And you say: "Well, it's a garbage truck. It's picking up the trash." But maybe it’s not just a garbage truck. Maybe it's a rolling sensor platform that tells us when we're about to have a pothole, not just when we did have a pothole, right? Because it can feel the vibrations, it can examine the pavement with its sensors and it goes on every street. Every week is covered by one of those trucks. So let's look at these things creatively and figure out how one set of assets can serve a purpose that we never thought about before. New York City took 10,000 to 15,000 old payphone platforms that you and I are old enough to remember, but nobody else here at probably Harvard, right? 

Ralph Ranalli: Right. 

Stephen Goldsmith: But they had electrical infrastructure in them. Those now are street level, five-foot iPads. They're big kiosks and they provide broadband wireless to street level throughout the whole city, and advertising generated revenues for the city. So what had been a discarded, ugly looking, vandalized pedestal today is something else. And it has a sensor on it as well. And as we look across various areas of infrastructure, we should say, "what can that piece of infrastructure do for some other purpose, some other benefit?" 

Ralph Ranalli: The one I was really interested in, because I'm probably going to be in the market for a new electric car one of these days to replace my aging Prius, was this concept of taking a utility pole or a street pole or a streetlight and turning it into a curbside charger. And this is because I was talking within my own community to people considering buying electric cars. And there was a real dichotomy between people who were renters and people who were homeowners. The homeowners can put a 220 plug in their house fairly easily and have a nice overnight charge. But the renters said, "Why should I buy an electric car when I've got nowhere to charge it?" But this is potentially a way out of that dilemma. 

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, a streetlight isn't just a streetlight, right? A streetlight could be an EV charging site as you mentioned. It could be a sensor platform, it could be a way to help manage traffic. A streetlight could be a platform for a 5G cell that helps us increase coverage and range in our cities. So every one of these things that we looked at as single use, at least the ones that support digital solutions, have great capacity. What I wrote about in that paper on digital infrastructure was basically ‘don't build your father's Oldsmobile.’ We don't want to build today's infrastructure like we built yesterday's. We don't want to build as much concrete, to put down as much asphalt that has environmental issues. We want to build differently and support different uses. 

Ralph Ranalli: So you also said that having that sort of imaginative approach to existing infrastructure would require redefining what you refer to as value engineering. Can you define what value engineering is and then talk about what it needs to become? 

Stephen Goldsmith: So over the last maybe decade-plus, cities and states have begun to adopt a private sector strategy, which is to basically say, how do we ‘value’ engineering? So back when I was mayor of Indianapolis, and I learned that if people brought me a project that I couldn't afford, and I said to the engineers: "No, I can only afford 80% of that project"—they would go back and they would reduce it by 20% almost every time. And it wasn't that difficult to do. And so we ought to think about ‘value’ engineering, however, as including these other elements. What are the digital systems that should be embedded in that piece of physical infrastructure? What are the other uses for that piece of physical infrastructure? And in theory, we are building in the parks department or the road department or the sanitation department items which serve other agencies and therefore more people. So I've just suggested we ought to redefine ‘value’ engineering to include digital infrastructure, cross-agency use, and equity in terms of how we think about the utilization of the infrastructure and where it's placed. 

Ralph Ranalli: So going forward, you've written a lot about smart infrastructure. Can you talk about what it is specifically and what are the challenges of our current moment that it can help meet if we make a commitment to it? 

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, I run a project at the Kennedy School on smart cities. So I have a focus on digital things. But let's look at this, your question, in the following way. When I was deputy mayor of New York, there was a taxi and limousine commission that reported up through me, more or less. Then there was a department of transportation that was in charge of streets and bike share. There was an emerging TNC-Uber set of regulations. And the MTA ran the subways and some of the bus system as well. But nobody ran mobility. Nobody managed mobility from the perspective of the resident who lived in Queens or lived in the Bronx and needed to get to work. How could we make their transit times better and safer? So what a digital platform allows us to do, whether it's transit or thinking about curbs, right? 

In COVID, we had many of our parking meters converted to outdoor cafes and the like. We have bike shares where people are trying to drop off their bikes or scooters, and maybe they're in front of the restaurant and maybe they're not, and maybe some had trips on them or maybe they don't. Now if we said, "Okay, could we build the digital platform that would help us manage the curb and sidewalk, we know the pedestrian use, we know the restaurant use, we know the retail use, know that, fill in the blank..." And then the city can make policy decisions across those uses. So what we've suggested is that digital infrastructure, in addition to the maintenance and building of the piece of infrastructure itself, there's another sense of digital infrastructure, which is the digital platform that allows us to manage a system: carbon, sidewalk, mobility, workforce—the fragmented parts of workforce. So that's what we mean when we talk about digital infrastructure in its broadest sense. 

Ralph Ranalli: What does that digital infrastructure look like when you are the user of it on the government end? What are you looking at? Is it a monitor where you have all these inputs coming in and the digital, or is it the software that helps you integrate all of them and create options and answers? 

Stephen Goldsmith: So I like you asking the question, because it actually raises an additional issue. I'll answer your question, but I want to tell you my answer to the question you didn't ask first, which is that the digital platform and the digital tools actually face two directions. They face the resident that makes his or her journey better, easier, and they have more control over their journey, and they help the government manage some operations.  

So let's take the one you asked me about. So I would say that if you're going to plan your city's parking, or you're going to plan how many restaurants get outdoor cafes, or you're going to price the cost of the outdoor cafe, then you need to know everything that's going on in that segment of your block. And you know, very few cities today can see all of that activity, pedestrian activity. I mean the MTA in New York is starting to look at activity around the subway entrance. How many people? How crowded are they? How could we reposition it by analyzing the data there from anonymized camera data? So your question is correct in that I'm thinking that city planners can make better use of the infrastructure they have if they can see it all.  

And then just think about this: What if five years from now it's changed? What if there are more shops or fewer shops or more bikes? Or take this question: What if we're really environmentally sensitive and we say that electric trucks should have commercial loading zones that have preference over gasoline, fossil fuels? So what does that look like, right? Well, it means that from 4:00 to 6:00 PM we might want to set aside those curb lanes for commercial loading zones for trucks that are powered electrically. So, all of these things are now possible, but they're only possible if we have the infrastructure that allows policy makers to make the right decisions. 

Ralph Ranalli: So one of the bonuses to smart infrastructure that you wrote about in your paper was its ability to address inequality. Can you talk a little bit about both how it accomplished that, how it can accomplish that, but also why that's important other than in just sort of the moral sense? 

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, the moral sense is not unimportant. I know you didn't mean it that way, but … 

Ralph Ranalli: I definitely did not. 

Stephen Goldsmith: … but things become more morally, ethically reprehensible the more visible they are. And so we can use geographic information systems, spatial tools to show the effect of earlier decisions where there were too many streets, not enough streets. Where there were sidewalks, not enough sidewalks. When the streets are repaved. Or how the Department of Transportation in the last month has made a number of grants to help move some of these highways that cut through the middle of urban neighborhoods. So the mapping shows inequities, inequities in investment and inequities in the uses related to those investments. So that's one way to think about it. And for example, the Oakland Department of Transportation now has—embedded in its decisions on where to put new asphalt—the maps of where the inequities occurred over the last 10 years. So those are important.  

And another way to think about this though, it is slightly different, which is to say there are a range of tools today that allow residents to participate more effectively in decision making. The model that we've had over the last 50 years is that city planners or mayors go to a community meeting and people kind of yell at them and then they decide what they're going to do. But are the people in the room yelling at them ‘really representative?’ Is the mom who has two kids and a full-time job, is she really present? So how do you use digital tools, SMS, texting, smartphones? You can even do augmented reality today to kind of show things. So how do you extend the reach of your planning? How do you make it iterative? That's another sense of equity. All of those things can be accomplished better, I would suggest, than just relying on the tools of 25 years ago. 

Ralph Ranalli: I know there are many planners who believe this push for equity is a win-win. That if you have a city that's more equitable, it works better for everyone and not just the people who are being pulled out of a historically inequitable situation. 

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, you and I today are talking about infrastructure. So I've tended to go back to infrastructure. We wrote a book earlier in the year called “Growing Fairly,” so I’ll take advantage of your podcast to plug my book. And it suggested that another sense of digital infrastructure is the platform that allows workforce and companies and individuals to see what the opportunities are in their communities. So an additional definition of equity is slightly different than our conversation day, which is that there are folks in these neighborhoods, and neighborhoods that have been neglected for so long, who have potential and not a fair opportunity. And what's a fair opportunity look like? Well, it looks like better housing. It looks like better transit. It looks like a better greenway so they can walk their children to school. It looks like better job training focused on their particular needs. All of those things are made more visible by the digital infrastructure, and then you need to invest in repairing what the deficits have been in those neighborhoods over time. So, all of those things are now much more possible as a result of what we can see today, the technologies. 

Ralph Ranalli: What are some of the challenges to adopting smart infrastructure? I know there's some security concerns, and also the upfront costs. But let’s start with the security concerns. I think anybody who's had an Alexa and have talked about going on vacation to Hawaii with their spouse and then seen ads for Maui vacation packages appear five minutes later in their browser has an inkling of what the issues can be with privacy and the internet of things. 

Stephen Goldsmith: Yeah, the issue is not insignificant. Your question, that reminds me, I didn't completely answer your last question, which is the following, that addressing these inequities is not only morally important as it relates to the folks who live in those communities, it's the right thing to do economically for the folks who live in the wealthier suburbs. You cannot have a prosperous growing community if you have one set of folks and inside of that ring of individuals is hopelessness and poverty and the American dream is totally in inapplicable. And the economy will grow in turn if we help people get those jobs and get to those jobs in a fair way. In the book I mentioned, we met a number of workers who have $15-an-hour jobs and an hour and a half and three bus transfers, counting dropping the child off at daycare, which are enormous obstacles. 

So that's one way to think about the concerns from your last question to this question. The security issues and privacy issues are not insignificant. They're really real issues and they're quite important. A few years ago at the big electronics show in Las Vegas, a private company said, "I want to show you our stuff." So I went up to look at it and they had a car, they had a vehicle, and they said, "Okay, we're going to show you 25 ways that a person who wanted to cause trouble could hack into the car to turn the steering wheel, to put on the brakes, to change the lights from green to red, the havoc that could be wrought without the right security in the vehicle." So the DOT devices of today—the ones that let us measure vibrations on a bridge or tell us when a car should be repaired or any a number of other, or tell us when the roadway is now ready and firm for new traffic after it's been constructive, plenty of all sorts of really cool stuff—each one of those things represents its own security risk. 

And I don't think you can answer this either way, I don't think. The only way to totally eliminate... to totally protect security is to eliminate any access, right? Well, that takes you back and if you provide all the fancy tools and you don't think about security, it's a recipe for disaster. So I guess in this podcast, the only way to say it is they are both real problems. They're opposite sides of the same coin and they both need to be addressed. And the privacy issues in some ways are easier, in some ways are harder. The cities and states have an obligation to set privacy rules for those who use their information, get their information or use their easements, they need to set the rules. Those rules are complex because it's easy to say the data ought to be anonymized. We don't want personal data. That's obviously kind of where you would start the conversation, but it becomes more complicated in terms of—what if a private vendor takes the city data and enriches it or adds to it? Then whose data is it? And there's a number of issues to address. So the privacy issues and the security issues are critical, and cities are barely along the way now in addressing those. 

Ralph Ranalli: So we did get an infrastructure bill in 2021. How would you rate it in terms of efficacy towards the things that you think are necessary and the directions we need to go? And what were the highlights for you and what were the gaping holes, if you will, in the bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021? 

Stephen Goldsmith: Yeah. Well, there are some gaping holes, both in the bill and in our roads. So we can answer the question either way. Well, let me answer a little bit with my own biases. There's a huge amount of money that cities and states need. I hesitate a little bit to celebrate just spending more money as an unequivocal success. Money was necessary, and that's a good part of the bill. Some of the agencies have done very good things with additional funding for special purposes. The Department of Transportation runs a process called Smart Grants, where they're spending money—not nearly as much as the overall bill—but to incentivize cities and states to think about these digital tools as part of their infrastructure spend. Very creative. The EPA is doing the same thing with respect to ways to sense environmental concerns that attaching DOT sensors to poles that can tell air quality in a community for purposes and helping kids who live in those neighborhoods. 

So I think there's some very exciting things being done by the agencies. I think the amount of money spent by the federal government is promising. Now the other aspects about which I think there should be some more concern is, A: We don't have enough people to actually build the infrastructure. I mean there's a real problem. B: The regulatory regime needs reform. I'm not saying that eliminating regulation is the answer, but expediting the approval process needs to be reformed, needs to be accomplished. So it'll take a very, very long time to build what we've now appropriated money to do. So the good news is the money's there. The good news is that the agencies are encouraging and incenting a creative use of it. The not so good news is the process is still quite cumbersome and we need a lot more workers to do the work. 

Ralph Ranalli: In terms of the money, money flows from politics and political will and infrastructure takes money. And it's funny, when I think of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, I sort of think of it as bipartisan-ish because it was passed during a period when there was a Democratic White House, a Democratic House of Representatives, and a Democratic Senate. On the Senate side, there were 19 Republicans who signed on, but 30 other Republicans, a majority on the Republican side, opposed it. Do you think that saying the situation now where we have a real bipartisan Washington, where we have Democratic White House, Democratic Senate, but a Republican House, that something like that could happen again? 

Stephen Goldsmith: No. Look, I was a mayor and mayors I think tend to be more pragmatic than legislators who are more... 

Ralph Ranalli: Ideological. 

Stephen Goldsmith: Ideological. I was trying to think of a good word. Thank you. And we've now reached a point, a curious point, in our politics where often the legislative branch, this is true with the city and state level as well as federal, if it's of the opposite political party of the chief elected official, meaning the House and Biden or whatever the example may, President Biden as the case may be, they're against anything, even if it's good for their constituents, if it's good for the person of the other party. So they'll be opposed to it. So that's in my opinion, a really weird definition of what your role is as a politician. It's basically, I'm going to make sure that even if it harms my residents, my constituents, that I'm going to harm them—as long as I don't give any benefit to the guy from the other party. So if you say today, could we get there? I don't think we could get there. Even if a majority of the members of the House agreed that the idea was good,  I don't think that they would support it today. And that's inherently the problem, I think. 

Ralph Ranalli: I wanted to talk to you about the op-ed you wrote in Politico where you criticized what you called the false choices currently involved in the debate over the future of the Republican Party, and how it was time to move beyond Trumpism and the culture wars. So what are the false choices that you're talking about? And you also said there were signs of a growing frustration with Trumpism and culture wars and that sort of style of politics. Can you talk about those? 

Stephen Goldsmith: So we wrote the piece in order to generate a debate about what the Republican Party could be for. It can't just succeed by being against woke-ism. It can't succeed just by being against the president. It can't just succeed by being about America-first nationalism and turning our backs on the world. It has to be for something. And even those things that that part of the party is against need to be more calibrated and more nuanced. So we try to suggest what would be a positive policy. What would be a way to put out some ideas that are consistent with... And where would you start as a Republican?  

Well, you might say that we love America and we think there's a role for freedom and democracy and some aspects of capitalism and it needs to be blended with civil society. We may say that we need to respect individuals at the local level and the coast can't impose their values on the center of the country just willy-nilly. How does that work out? So we suggested what this would look like and how  you create opportunity. And it focused really on the fact that there are a number of people represented by these Republican legislators who are struggling. Their lives are not what they used to be. Their incomes for what they need to buy are not what they used to be. How would you help them? Well, they need childcare. So why are the Republicans against childcare? They need opportunities for more job skilling. So how should we support more job skilling? And so the piece in Politico was a set of ideas that were originally started, I would say, by compassionate conservatism. I was associated with that. So that's a disclosure, and this is kind of a refrain to that, but it's a little bit different than what it was. 

Ralph Ranalli: It used to be called compassionate conservatism, reform conservatism. But you use the term aspirational conservatism. What does it aspire to? 

Stephen Goldsmith: So for me, this is the most important issue, this aspirational issue. There are large parts of America today for whom the American dream is unrealistic. And if you want to have a vibrant country, an economically successful and safe country, then we need to make the dream realistic. We need to make aspirations possible. And let's face up to the fact that, for many individuals without the education, without the safety in their neighborhoods for them to walk with their moms to school, without transit that gets them to work, without the job skills that they need, without clean air so they can develop their brains as little kids in the right way, the American dream will never be possible. So I spoke about aspirational conservatism, meaning what are the sets of policies that would allow folks to succeed and aspire for a better life? And I think that's what the Republicans should be for. 

Ralph Ranalli: When I was thinking over what we would talk about, the term investing sort of kept coming to mind in terms of this mindset about infrastructure. Whereas a lot of the talk on Capitol Hill is about spending. Spending is not just spending. You can spend, but you can also spend to invest. So it seemed to me—and you can tell me whether you disagree with this or not—that that the Republican party needs to bring itself back around to this concept of investing and not just be sort of against spending no matter what unless it’s the defense budget. Because intuitively you would think that if anybody understands investing, it would be Republicans, the free-market, capitalist Republicans. First, do you agree with that as a premise? And second, what do you think it would take for that to happen? 

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, I think this is a good question because... And there are a couple ways to think about it. One is, all government is not bad, which is what the Republicans are in today, at least some of them. We just want to reduce government because it's bad and we don't want to spend money because that makes government bigger and so therefore, we're against that. Well, that's a curious effect on whether anybody's for a balanced budget anymore, put that off to the side. So then if you said: "What should government policies be?" You would say: "Well, we want a government that's responsive to our residents.” What's that look like? And how should that government spend money that creates opportunity? How should it spend money that strengthens democracy? How should it spend money that strengthens families?” 

And there are investments in that regard that will produce opportunity and a return because every person who becomes a productive member of our society slash country, city, state plays a very positive role. And every time we make an investment that moves somebody from a consumer of tax resources because they don't have an opportunity to a generator of tax resources because they do have an opportunity, is the success. So we ought to think about investment in infrastructure in terms of what does it mean to industry. We ought to think about investment in terms of the soft infrastructure that allows people to get good jobs as an investment in our nation's economy and not think ipso facto, I'm against all dollars and I'm against all government. 

Ralph Ranalli: So this podcast is called PolicyCast and we like to end always on policy recommendations. If you could have your personal policy agenda adopted, what would your top two or three policy recommendations be to get us where we need to go on infrastructure and smart infrastructure and investing towards the future? 

Stephen Goldsmith: We can think about investments in the physical infrastructure—that's been most of our discussion today—and also separately on the soft infrastructure that helps people to get a job. On the physical infrastructure, I think the government should provide more incentives for cities and states to include the digital tools that will allow them to manage their infrastructure, repair their infrastructure, and build their infrastructure better. I think we should require lifecycle costing so we can do the right things today. There's all this money today—we may never have this much money again at any one time. So, it's really important to spend it right, and I think the government should provide those incentives to do so. I think it should provide swifter regulatory reforms and reviews that allow us to get the infrastructure built more quickly. Then I think it should define broadly how the other types of infrastructure can advantage folks who need it. How can we have more affordable housing built? What incentives can we provide to allow it to be built in more places and more quickly and for more people? So we got to look at that. Then additionally, the, and I think DOT started this direction, the government should provide incentives for improving the transit availability for individuals in neighborhoods that don't have good access and don't have cars.  

So I would take each of the major pain points and we have pain points in education and crime and infrastructure and job opportunity as well as environment and resilience, of course. We ought to address those with specific incentives. Your question was not easy and my answer was a little ambiguous, but I would look at specific problems and provide specific incentives to address those problems in a way that produces a better future. 

Ralph Ranalli: Well, thank you very much, Stephen. I really appreciate your being here and this was a very interesting conversation. 

Stephen Goldsmith: Thanks for your time. 

Ralph Ranalli (Outro): Thanks for listening. Please join us for our next episode, when we’ll talk to Harvard Kennedy School professors Archon Fung and Khalil Muhammad about the importance of having a true multiracial democracy. If you have a question or a comment about this podcast or a particular episode, please email us at policycast@hks.harvard.edu. And until next time, remember that it has never been a more important time to speak bravely, and listen generously.