Modern conservatives hate the idea of any kind of new public spending, even if it would make Americans better off — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say especially if it would make Americans better off, because a successful spending program might help legitimize a positive role for government in general.
President Donald Trump isn’t the first president, or even the first Republican president, who has sought to define his legacy in part with a big construction project. Abraham Lincoln signed legislation providing the land grants and financing that created the transcontinental railroad. Theodore Roosevelt built the Panama Canal. Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system.
But Trump’s wall is different, and not just because it probably won’t actually get built. Previous big construction projects were about bringing people together and making them more productive. The wall is about division — not just a barrier against outsiders, but an attempt to drive a wedge between Americans, too. It’s about fear, not the future.
Why isn’t Trump building anything? Surely he’s exactly the kind of politician likely to suffer from an edifice complex, a desire to see his name on big projects. Furthermore, during the 2016 campaign he didn’t just promise a wall, he also promised a major rebuilding of America’s infrastructure.
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But month after month of inaction followed his inauguration. A year ago, he again promised “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” Again, nothing happened.
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In January, there was reportedly a White House meeting to game out a new infrastructure plan. This time they mean it. Really. Would this administration ever lie to you?
The interesting question is why Trump seems unwilling or unable to do anything about America’s crumbling roads, bridges, water supplies and so on. After all, polls show that a large majority of the public wants to see more infrastructure spending. Public investment is an issue on which Trump could get substantial Democratic support; it would lift the economy, and also help repair the public’s perception that the administration is chaotic and incompetent.
Yet everything points to two more years of occasional bombast about infrastructure, with no follow-up. Why the paralysis?
Some news analyses suggest that it’s about money, that big infrastructure spending would happen only if Republicans and Democrats could agree on how to pay for it. But this is being credulous. Remember, in 2017 the GOP enacted a $2 trillion tax cut with absolutely no pay-fors; the tax cut is completely failing to deliver the promised boost to private investment, but there is no sign of buyer’s remorse.
So Republicans don’t really care about using debt to pay for things they want. And Democrats, whose top policy wonks have been telling them that deficit fears are excessive, would surely support a program of debt-financed infrastructure spending.
In short, money isn’t why we aren’t building infrastructure. The real obstacle is that Trump, his officials, his party or all of the above don’t actually want the kind of public investment the United States needs. Build they won’t.
In the case of Trump administration officials, what’s striking about the various infrastructure “plans” they’ve offered — they’re more like vague sketches — is that they involve very little direct public investment. Instead, they’re schemes that would purportedly use public funds as a sweetener to induce large amounts of private investment. Why not just build stuff? Partly, perhaps, to hold down the headline cost. But such schemes would also amount to a backdoor way to privatize public assets, while possibly generating little new investment.
And while a real infrastructure plan would gain a lot of Democratic support, an exercise in crony capitalism pretending to be about infrastructure wouldn’t.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are aggressively uninterested in any kind of public investment program. During Trump’s first two years in office, they first bullied him into submitting a plan that actually provided hardly any money for new investment, then invented excuses for not dealing even with that emasculated proposal.
The truth is that modern conservatives hate the idea of any kind of new public spending, even if it would make Americans better off — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say especially if it would make Americans better off, because a successful spending program might help legitimize a positive role for government in general. And while Trump may not fully share his party’s small-government ideology, all his limited energy is going into finding ways to punish people, not help them.
So who will rebuild America? Trump and his party have had their chance, and clearly refuse to act, so it will have to be the Democrats. Their proposed Green New Deal is deliberately short on specifics, but its clear thrust is toward a revival of the U.S. tradition of public investment in the public interest.
And my guess, which is also my hope, is that if Democrats get the opportunity — if, in 2021, they regain control of both the White House and the Senate — they won’t let funding concerns block an infrastructure push. Major health reform will need new revenue sources, but given low interest rates, debt-financed public investment would be sound policy. Build we must, build we should and hopefully build we will.