The day before the Labor Department broke the dismal news that the unemployment rate's unchanged and consumer confidence has "dropped sharply," students, professors and local business leaders filed into the auditorium at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business to hear from two panels of business and governmental leaders as part of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness listening session. The event, one of two held this week, addressed infrastructure investment and its impact on employment and the economy. Which is why they started the day at Love Field, which is in the process of being modernized. Because, as Eddie Bernice Johnson said during her speech at the airport, "We need jobs, and this is an example of what infrastructure can do for a city." At which point she handed out scholarships to everyone in attendance. No, no she didn't.
Back at the Cox, panelists -- among them Southwest Airline's bossman Gary Kelly and AT&T's Chief Technology Officer John Donovan, who's probably had better weeks -- stressed the need for infrastructure investment and the bipartisan support necessary to make it happen. Some of their fellow panelists also spoke in favor of a federal infrastructure bank, while others chastised the cumbersome permitting processes that holds up new development. All this, of course, is supposed to somehow make it into Obama's NFL kick-off speech about his plan to ease unemployment, stimulate the economy and reduce the federal deficit.
Economist and University of California Berkley business professor, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, moderated the day's first panel, and began with an introduction stressing the importance of spending on infrastructure to create. Tyson cited as Love Field as a "fantastic example" of a public-private infrastructure investment. "Anytime you see an orange cone," jobs are sustained or created, said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "Well, jobs are a priority of President Obama," he said, in one of the day's many mini-infomercials for politicians, policies and projects.
Until recently, LaHood said, infrastructure investing has been one thing both parties could agree on. "The simple solution to lowering unemployment and putting Americans back to work is passing the transportation bill," he said, referencing another topic that resurfaced throughout the morning.
If the bill is not passed, 630,000 jobs will be lost next year, said Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO and a member of the president's council. "We've got to stop nickle-and-diming our public's assets," he said.
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Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of a fuel tax, touted the transportation bill and stressed the importance and job-creation potential of modernizing air traffic control. He gave a nod of support for the Keystone pipeline project that would carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries, and create, he said, 250,000 jobs.
There is a back-log of stalled energy jobs throughout the country, Donahue said. "The permitting process is insane."
LaHood spoke in support of an infrastructure bank that would leverage funding for public-private partnerships, an idea expected to be addressed in Obama's speech next week.
Robert Wolf, president of UBS Investment Bank and Chairman of UBS Americas and a member of the president's council, moderated the second panel, with business leaders in aviation, surface transportation, energy and broadband. Wolf offered his support of a federal infrastructure bank, calling infrastructure investment the "largest multiplier" in increasing GDP and employment. The bank, he said, would alleviate the burden on the federal government, increase economic growth, improve mobility and create jobs.