The high-school participants in the Bush Institute's economic debate contested some key budgetary decisions facing the nation that are too often ignored: not the massive expenditures for entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicade, but the targeted infrastructure investments that politicians kick down the road until an emergency forces the issue. Whether they were debating intercity light rail or inland waterways, the young debaters zeroed in on the costs and benefits of expenditures that lack the visible constituencies that make posturing easy in a politicized environment.
By the time the contestants reached the quarter finals, late Saturday afternoon, arguments had sharpened, and facts and supporting evidence had accumulated on both sides. To an impartial observer, the pros were matched by the cons, and vice versa. If river locks fail,for example (as one recently failed on the Mississippi), can goods that are usually transported over inland waterways be shipped efficiently by trucks or railroads instead? If not, as with any federal expenditure, the questions "How much will it cost?" and "Is it worth the cost?" arise. And if Washington pays for repairs throughout the waterway system, does this pose a challenge to federalism? Should investments be made instead at the state or local level, or even through private sources? Is the Army Corps of Engineers' lengthy backlog of unfinished projects a reason not to spend on infrastruture? And so on.
None of these questions will be settled in a scholastic debate. But the focus brought to bear by the high-school rhetoricians would be a credit to a Beltway think tank.