For the richest country on earth, America has a very shabby transportation system. Politicians of the left, right and center all agree on this, if nothing else.
“If I blindfolded you… and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you’d think, ‘I must be in some third-world country,’ then-Vice President Joe Biden told a Philadelphia audience in 2014. “Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our airports are in third world condition,” declared candidate Donald Trump to the 2016 Republican convention.
America still has better infrastructure than the third world. However, there is a big gap between America and its first world peers. Consider Amtrak’s slow, unreliable service in comparison to the Japanese bullet trains, or the Schuylkill Expressway in comparison to a German autobahn. America has a thirteenth-place infrastructure quality ranking from the World Economic Forum and a “C-“ letter grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. As Americans, we tend to assume we have the best of everything. In the case of infrastructure, we demonstrably do not.
Dysfunctional government is the reason why.
The Biden administration is selling a new spending measure, the American Jobs Plan, as a package of infrastructure upgrades, but the bill mostly just demonstrates present political pathologies: donor capture, activist pandering, and several times more spending on social programs than civil construction. All of that at a cost of $2,300,000,000,000 in the President’s initial proposal.
The plan, introduced in March, is astoundingly large even by federal standards. The $2.3 trillion proposal is higher than the GDP of all but seven countries on earth. ”It will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race—positioning the United States to lead in infrastructure and innovation once again,” promises the White House website.
These are lofty words — but questionable history. The interstate system was a military imperative, and the moon shot was a focused mission. The Biden plan is spectacularly unfocused, with less than 10% of the total proposal aimed at roads, bridges or railroads.
Specific numbers are changing as discussions proceed, but the biggest transportation item in the initial proposal was $174 billion in spending related to electric vehicles and charging stations. It isn’t clear why Silicon Valley needs government help for its electric vehicle ventures, but the administration aims to rake it over in spades. Remember how the Democrats used to decry corporate influence in politics?
About $600 billion of the Biden proposal, equal to the combined market value of Walmart and Nike plus change, appears hyper-targeted at political client groups. Another $580 billion is allotted to the ambiguous categories of “Research & Development, Workforce and Manufacturing,” terms which frequently denote corporate handouts. And $20 billion, enough money to buy MGM resorts at its current stock price, is marked to address “transportation inequities.” This is an interesting category. The plan seems to be for the dismantling of infrastructure that runs through once-contiguous black neighborhoods. Twentieth century highway planning included some poor siting decisions, to be sure (for a local example, consider how I-95 cuts off all of Philadelphia from the Delaware River waterfront). However, decisions like these bisected and isolated majority-white neighborhoods just as they did majority-black ones. Bringing racial activists in on the highway planning process would be a mistake.
The largest tranche of the proposal, and more than three times the amount marked for actual infrastructure, is $750 billion for items like public housing, child care, elder care, and even local school construction. The dollar amounts involved make the plan an unprecedented federal intrusion into these areas. Tellingly, the White House’s lengthy information page does not include the words “constitution,” “federalism,” or “local control” even once.
The American Jobs Plan, in summary, isn’t an infrastructure plan. It’s a second national budget. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s April tweet that “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure” was mocked by the political web, but it was a fair statement of the progressive worldview. Why re-engineer just a train system when you can re-engineer all of society?
The American Jobs Plan, in summary, isn’t an infrastructure plan. It’s a second national budget.
A group of Republican senators, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and led by West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito tried to restore some sanity into the infrastructure debate. In late April they made a counter-offer to the President, proposing a plan that spent roughly the same amount as Biden’s on roads and bridges, but greatly reduced the other items. National newspapers reported encouraging comments from both sides over several weeks, but the White House cut off talks on June 7. Talks are now reportedly proceeding with a bipartisan group of senators including Mitt Romney (R-UT).
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (NY), meanwhile, told the press this week his caucus aims to pass parts of the plan without bipartisan support, using a fast-track parliamentary process called reconciliation. Reconciliation was intended for use only on routine funding matters, not major new initiatives. Senate Democrats would do this, said Schumer, in order to preserve the “bigness and boldness” of the President’s proposal.
The Democrats, however, aren’t a monolith. They need to address discontent in their own ranks that the infrastructure bill won’t stop global warming. “We cannot allow climate denial to masquerade as bipartisanship,” pronounced Senator Ed Markey on Twitter Friday. And then, separately, “No climate, No deal.”
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To pay for everything, Biden wants to raise corporate taxes, which were lowered via the Republican tax bill of 2017 that Sen. Toomey helped write. A corporate tax hike sounds superficially like a plan to tax the rich. In truth, corporate taxes are borne by every shareholder equally, and that mostly means the 401(k) and pension accounts of small savers.
The Republican counter-proposal sought to pay for infrastructure via user fees and the repurposing of coronavirus aid appropriated in three prior stimulus bills. Coronavirus aid totaled an astounding $4.5 trillion over a twelve month period. Repurposing the yet-to-be-used money from those bills to pay for infrastructure would have directed at least some of Congress’ incontinence to a productive use.
As it stands today, no citizen who isn’t part of a favored client group has much to gain from the American Jobs Plan. A constitutionally-minded Republican party would be wise to let it die, or to let the Democrats jam it through by themselves, and own it forever. Nothing bad will happen if an infrastructure bill doesn’t pass: most infrastructure is built with state and local money, or with regular federal highway spending.
A one-off upgrade to our nation’s roads, bridges and ports would have been welcome, but ninety cents worth of social engineering for every ten cents of useful construction is a poor trade to make. It’s sad to see something popular and helpful choked off with activist demands and donor handouts. But this is American politics in 2021. It’s why we, as one nation, can’t have nice things any more.
Andrew Abramczyk is a writer and financial analyst based in Pennsylvania.