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Future Tense 

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Our country used to be one of the most forward-looking nations in the world. The holy trinity of our economy used to be innovation, invention and technology. Sadly, we’re a people more concerned with living in the past. The evidence is all around us, both on a national and state level.

President Bush could easily rally the nation’s best minds around the project of alternative energy sources. He could call for conservation in the face of rising oil prices. Instead we’re treated to photo-ops of the leader of the Free World walking side-by-side with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, begging that he increase Saudi Arabia’s oil production so that our nation’s SUVs won’t go thirsty.

Here in Utah, we’re understandably tense about the prospect of what might happen should the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) scale down or close Ogden’s Hill Air Force Base, a huge, heaving military base supplying 24,000 jobs and $2.8 billion in federal monies to the state of Utah. By one estimate, a study last year by the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research said Hill’s closure could result in a $550 decrease in the annual income of all Utahns—a very grim prospect, no doubt. We’ll know the full details this May, when BRAC issues its report recommending closures nationwide.

What do our lawmakers do? They strategize, agonize and, where future options are concerned, largely hide their heads in the sand. We want desperately to hang on to an antiquated federal cash cow, even if that cash cow is better for Utah than for the nation as a whole. Our Legislature plans on setting aside $5 million to bring more jobs to the base. Amid all this, it’s worth noting that Republican red states receive far more than their share of federal subsidies than do Democratic blue states, according to a study by the National Tax Foundation.

What really rankles, however, are the opportunities our lawmakers miss where the future of our economy is concerned. Virtually every economist and business professional knows that future economies depend on the latest technology. But what did our lawmakers do when it came time to look at partially subsidizing a $540 million, 100-Mbps fiber-optic network known as the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, otherwise known as UTOPIA? They sniffed at it. Too expensive, they said. Too risky, they said.

Meanwhile, forward-looking American cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., not to mention whole competing nations, fortify their future economic prospects by making plans for municipal Wi-Fi technology or laying ground for the best broadband technology known to humanity. Three years ago the United States ranked fourth in telecommunications network speed. We’ve since fallen to 11th place, according to a U.N. study. Six Utah municipalities were savvy enough to sign up for UTOPIA. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, in one of his less forward-looking decisions, snubbed it. Guess where all the forward-looking, technologically inclined workers will relocate in the future? Not Salt Lake City.

Our new governor talks frequently about how government should operate more like a business. If that’s the case, we’d all do well to look toward subsidizing our own future with the best in technology, rather than saving a federal subsidy that, ultimately, rests beyond our control.

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