updated 9/25/2008 2:51:39 PM ET 2008-09-25T18:51:39

Wall Street's crisis is about to become Main Street's crisis, as bank credit freezes and loans dry up. The government's fix: $700 billion to buy up the bad loans choking the system.

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It's a monster plan, but there's little choice, according to White House and Federal Reserve officials. Though much of the money may return to the nation's coffers over time as the treasury sells off the mortgage-backed assets it will purchase, the bailout will severely limit what the government can afford to spend on health care, energy, infrastructure and education in the years ahead.

Let's start with the nation's infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates our nation's bridges need $180 billion in repairs, with our rail infrastructure in need of $185 billion in maintenance. California wants to spend $40 billion for the nation's first high-speed rail network to connect southern and northern California.

Saskia Sassen, a professor at Columbia University's Committee on Global Thought points out that infrastructure investments would feed directly into GDP based on job and enterprise growth. And we certainly have the builders to do it. Unemployment in construction is 40 percent higher than in manufacturing.

Arizona Public Service, the state's public power utility, is currently building the nation's largest solar power array in the desert near Gila Bend, Ariz. It will be able to power 70,000 homes using only the sun's rays — and create thousands of high-tech green energy jobs to boot. Construction costs will be about $1 billion, but the utility says it will pay for itself in about seven years. The project covers just three square miles. With the $699 billion left over, you could put even more southwestern desert to work in creating clean energy.

Health care and climate change are other major concerns. Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University points out that for $150 billion you could provide every American with private health insurance and create a universal automated health-information system. When you consider that the National Cancer Institute receives $5 billion a year in funding, you could multiply its budget by 10 and provide private health care to every American.

McKinsey & Co., a consulting firm, estimates it will cost the U.S. economy $150 billion per year to stabilize greenhouse gases by 2030. For three years, $700 billion could pay for the cost of both health care plans (in case one doesn't work) and cover the cost to reduce carbon emissions.

Since global trade isn't going away any time soon and America's ports are getting increasingly crowded, using the money for port expansion might be a smart idea. According to the American Association of Port Authorities, container volumes at American ports have increased by 7 percent per year over the last 20 years, far outpacing capacity growth.

National security is also a concern. After five years in Iraq, most estimates for the war's cost tally into the $500 billion range. Unlike investments in distressed assets, paying for the Iraq War won't produce a return, but $700 billion would stem the government's future debt obligations to its creditors.

Then there's education. The U.S. currently spends some $500 billion annually on public education, yet still finds itself slipping behind many other industrialized nations when it comes to giving the next generation the skills it needs to compete globally.

The difference, of course, is that government spending for any of this would require a massive tax increase, with no chance of getting any of the money back. The upside: At least it would be a sure bet.

© 2012


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