WASHINGTON — Let us now praise Newt Gingrich. Yes, Newt Gingrich.
There he was, the scourge of Big Government, on the op-ed page of The New York Times Wednesday calling for a doubling of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. “It’s irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle,” he wrote, noting that government investments in preventing and curing disease could save the government money in direct health care costs.
Gingrich aficionados know that this is not a new position for him. He’s always favored large-scale spending on medical research, and the former speaker said he was proud that he and President Bill Clinton agreed on doubling NIH funding in the 1990s.
But his argument raises a larger issue that is clouded by the very anti-government rhetoric that Gingrich and his conservative allies regularly deploy: Throughout our history, the federal government has been one of the country’s most productive investors — in our economy, in research and development, and in the future.
Talking about all of Washington’s spending as if it were waste or assuming that private investment is always more productive than public investment is simply wrong, as Gingrich’s own praise for the NIH acknowledges.
Those of us on the progressive side can muddle this point ourselves when we re-label every government expenditure we favor as an “investment.” We can always find ways of defending this habit.
For example, public spending on education can fairly be called “an investment in human capital,” even if that’s a rather ugly phrase. Food stamps can be similarly characterized, since hungry kids tend to learn less in school.
Nonetheless, I’d be happy to see liberals make a bargain with conservatives: a promise of more restraint about using the word “investment” in exchange for an end to rhetorical broadsides against government that never acknowledge how constructive government spending can be.
My favorite unsung president understood this. In his remarkable and prophetic First Annual Message to Congress in 1825, John Quincy Adams explained how energetic federal action could advance the common good. “Roads and canals, by multiplying and facilitating the communications and intercourse between distant regions and multitudes of men, are among the most important means of improvement,” Adams wrote. “But moral, political, intellectual improvement are duties assigned by the Author of Our Existence to social no less than to individual man.”
Government, he said, could undertake “the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed” by “promoting the improvement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences, ornamental and profound.” Adams should be honored as the father of the space program, since he proposed the establishment of our first astronomical observatory.
My point is not primarily about NIH, much as I admire its work, but about following the logic of Gingrich’s argument.
He notes that “government is unique” because “It alone can bring the necessary resources to bear.”
There are public goods, including pure and experimental research, in which private industry simply won’t invest, on the prudent grounds that there are no obvious or immediate financial returns. One way to promote public investment is to find new ways to ensure that when government-led scientific efforts eventually lead to private gain, taxpayers get a proper share of the profits, which can be used to support further research.
Fiscal mavens have also suggested that the federal government divide its budget between investment or capital spending and operating spending.
Of course we will argue fiercely about which programs belong in which part of the budget. But when Congress can’t even pass transportation bills, such a mechanism might remind us that concern for the next generation encompasses not just how much debt we leave them but also how much we invest today in the world they will inherit.
“The spirit of improvement is abroad upon the earth,” Adams declared 190 years ago.
One of government’s most noble purposes is to fulfill our obligation to keep that spirit alive.
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.