Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Limited Government Infrastructure

Above: Here's an example of Limited Government Infrastructure. Small rural roads, like this one in West Virginia, frequently remain neglected for years. Photo by Brent McKee.

Above: Here's another example of Limited Government Infrastructure - a bridge on the eastern shore of Maryland. Instead of new decking, we often just patch the holes in our bridges, and then, if necessary, put patches on top of older patches. Eventually, our bridges start looking like quilts. Photo by Brent McKee.

Limited Government Infrastructure

Republican, libertarian, and conservative contempt for infrastructure has always amazed me. They seem completely oblivious to the value of good roads, beautiful parks, strong dams, and so on. Last year, in Republican-controlled South Carolina, storms and floods made mincemeat of their "already-shoddy" infrastructure. The Associated Press reported: "Long before the historic floods of the past week, crumbling roads, bridges and dams and aging drinking water systems plagued South Carolina - a poor state that didn't spend much on them in the first place and has been loath to raise taxes for upkeep. Now the state faces hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars' worth of additional bills to fix or replace key pieces of its devastated infrastructure." 

Earlier in 2015, a senior Republican Senator blamed his own party for their neglect of infrastructure. Trying to get a highway bill passed, but facing obstruction from his fellow party members, U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said: "The problem... is really more Republicans than Democrats... Clearly, this is something that we’re supposed to be doing. A true conservative looks at it and says... we’re supposed to defend America, and build roads and highways." Inhofe must have been thinking about Eisenhower conservatives - but those types of conservatives are going the way of the Dodo Bird. Modern "conservatives" routinely ignore infrastructure and block efforts to modernize our bridges, roads, and water lines (see, e.g., "$478B Infrastructure Bill Blocked By Senate GOP," The Fiscal Times, March 25, 2015).

In 2013, Dr. Paul Gregory of the University of Houston, who covers issues "from a free market [i.e., limited government / conservative] perspective," wrote: "To convince a wary public to spend more with trillion dollar deficits, big government advocates must gin up a national infrastructure emergency that threatens safety, jobs, and well being." Two years later, we learned that thousands of children in Flint, Michigan, and millions more across the nation, have been drinking lead-contaminated water from our nation's crumbling drinking water infrastructure. Is that a ginned-up problem Mr. Gregory?

Marc Scribner, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (a "public policy organization dedicated to advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty") recently wrote an op-ed for USA Today, "Let the market take care of infrastructure," where he offers an absurd approach to infrastructure. It gives us a clear view of the modern conservative / libertarian mentality. Let me break down and respond to some of his claims and ideas:

1. Scribner writes: "there is little evidence that more infrastructure spending is a good way to boost the economy or promote job growth." 

No, actually is there is a lot of evidence. During the New Deal (when there was a boom in infrastructure spending) unemployment dropped significantly and GDP rose dramatically (see here). After the New Deal--and after World War II--the American economy expanded along New Deal roads, across New Deal bridges, and out of New Deal airports. The middle-class grew like never before or since and America became the world's leading economic powerhouse. Is Scribner not aware of this history?

2. Scribner writes: "Few of the problems with America’s infrastructure networks are the result of an alleged lack of federal spending."

No, actually a drop in federal infrastructure spending has played a large role in our infrastructure falling apart. See, e.g., "The Stunning Collapse Of Infrastructure Spending In One Chart," ThinkProgress, November 1, 2013.

3. Scribner writes: "The construction industry has an incentive to warn of doom and gloom over the state of American infrastructure. We are constantly reminded of our supposed infrastructure crisis, crumbling roads and bridges."

Note that Scribner writes "supposed" infrastructure crisis. But how is the lead poisoning of children across America "supposed"? I wonder if Scribner has children and if they have high levels of lead in their blood. If the answers are "yes" and "yes," how does he feel about it? If the answers are "no," then maybe that explains why he feels our infrastructure crisis is just "supposed" and not worth worrying about too much (conservatives are infamous for not caring about problems until it affects them personally). 

4. Here is Scribner's main thesis: "If we wish to see infrastructure improve and benefit the people who use it, a smarter approach would be to reduce the reliance on the federal government and focus much more on the maintenance and performance of specific facilities... This would entail prioritizing maintenance over ribbon-cuttings, collecting user charges and holding that revenue at specific facilities for targeted reinvestment, and eliminating the cronyist procurement and construction policies that drive up costs. Political appropriators must also be willing to cede their turf by opening up these government monopolies to private-sector investment and competition" (emphasis added).

"Collecting user charges" and "private-sector investment and competition." What Scribner is proposing, of course, is to make middle and low-income people pay more - through bridge tolls, road tolls, increased utility rates, and so forth. There are a few problems with this approach:

(a) "User charges" are regressive. For example, a bridge toll takes a higher percentage of a poor person's income than a rich person's income. In other words, $5 is nothing if you make $500,000 a year, but if you're in debt and having a hard time making ends meet, every dollar you have is important.

(b) The middle-class and poor are already facing regressive taxation at the state & local level. Last year, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy pointed out that "Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families." Scribner seems to want to double-down on this. And he's not the only one. Conservatives love regressive taxation. For example, in 2014 a conservative talk-show host in Los Angeles called for a higher sales tax to address crumbling infrastructure in the city. In Kansas, Republican Governor Sam Brownback, and his fellow trickle-down tricksters raised the sales tax after handing out gargantuan income tax breaks to the rich ("After Cutting Taxes On The Rich, Kansas Will Raise Taxes On The Poor To Pay For It," ThinkProgress, June 16, 2015). Sales taxes, of course, are highly regressive.    

(c) Much of the middle-class and poor have already been drained. According to a recent study reported by CNBC, "66 million Americans have no emergency savings." Meanwhile, the richest Americans are enjoying record wealth. Given these realities, why does Scribner, and other libertarians, conservatives, and free market enthusiasts want to enact more regressive revenue systems, like "user charges"? Could it be because they are not struggling financially... or because they don't want their federal taxes going up... or because they'd prefer to push the cost of infrastructure onto others?

(d) Traffic congestion. Forget about the finances for a moment - who the hell wants to sit in more traffic jams, waiting to get through toll booths? I grew up near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is a toll bridge. For years I watched (and often sat in) horrendous traffic jams during the summer months, when everyone is trying to get to Ocean City, Rehoboth Beach, and other Atlantic coast destinations. Trust me (if you haven't experienced it yourself), you don't want toll booths.

A Better Approach to Infrastructure

Surprisingly, there are still a few reasonable conservatives left - conservatives who have better ideas about infrastructure. For example, in 2014, Matthew Dowd, a top Republican political strategist, wrote: "we need to have a well-paying jobs program tied to infrastructure improvements administered locally by cities, counties and states where people still trust government to get the job done. And this should be funded by tax policies at the federal level which put a much bigger burden on the wealthy in this country." 

Dowd's suggestion is essentially how New Deal infrastructure programs--like the WPA--happened. And it's the only thing that makes sense today, considering how the middle-class is being hollowed out, the poor have no money to spare, and the rich are getting richer every day. People like Scribner, amazingly, want to reduce the burden on those who can handle it the most, i.e., the rich (many of whom, just "coincidentally" of course, fund right-wing and libertarian think tanks), and then increase the burden on those who can handle it the least, i.e., the deteriorating middle-class and the broke poor. That's an idiotic approach to infrastructure. 

A new WPA would be a much smarter approach.

"The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects... it gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it."

--Ronald Reagan, 1990, in his autobiography An American Life 

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