Virgil: Infrastructure, Finally

The stars are aligning for a major infrastructure bill. President Donald Trump is in favor of it, top Democrats are supportive—and even significant voices in the media are on the train.   

On March 31, Trump tweeted:

With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country! 

Trump has it exactly right: If the money can be borrowed for free, why not use it? In many ways, it’s a simple capitalistic proposition: Buy cheap. That is, when there are bargains, scoop them up. And since we all know we need more and better roads, as well as other kinds of infrastructure—let’s go for it.  

That same day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded favorably to Trump’s initiative:  

The president said during the campaign—and since—infrastructure was a priority for him. So that’s why we believe that in terms of recovery, that’s probably the most bipartisan path that we can take.

The key word, here, is “bipartisan.” Since the Democrats control the House, a job-creating infrastructure program simply won’t happen without bipartisanship. 

We might add, too, that Pelosi made a constructive point, attuned to the special needs of these new times. She said we need more broadband Internet, since “so many people are relying on telecommunication and social media.” 

Indeed, since our lives are increasingly “virtual”—that is, lived online—we need robust Internet service, fully capable of supporting telework and e-commerce, as well as, of course, Netflix. 

Hearteningly, another top House Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, added of Trump’s idea, “In terms of working with the GOP, I think the coronavirus pandemic has really kind of bared a lot of the inadequacies, if you will, with the nation’s infrastructure.”

Also on March 31, Jared Bernstein, former economic adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, told the Washington Post, “I’ve been making this point [about the opportunity afforded by low interest rates] for years now: He’s correct.”

To be sure, the country has been ready for a big infrastructure bill for years, and yet for various reasons, that hasn’t happened, giving rise to cynicism about the prospects for a bill this year. And yet on April 1, Jonathan Bernstein, an influential columnist and newsletter-writer for Bloomberg News, took on the naysayers:  

All the wise guys had a good laugh Tuesday when President Donald Trump tweeted out his intention to push for a new $2 trillion infrastructure package. “Infrastructure Week” has long been a running joke for this administration — advertised frequently, but never actually getting anywhere.  But, yes, this time could be different.

As Bernstein explained, Republicans want a strong economy, and Democrats always like government spending—and so during this current virus crisis, the two goals can work in tandem for the sake of the nation:  

The basic trade-off here—Democrats get their policy preferences, Republicans get fuel for the economy in time for the election—is close enough to a win-win that we shouldn’t laugh away the possibility this time.

In other words, there’s real hope that the two parties can come together to get infrastructure done. 

And on April 3, Bloomberg News’s Noah Smith headlined his piece, “Trump’s $2 Trillion Idea for Infrastructure Is a Good Start: Once the pandemic passes, fixing roads and bridges would give the economy the lift it will need.” As Smith put it:

Trump has at least one good idea for how to accomplish this: a huge infrastructure-building program. Trump has been promising such a program his entire presidency, but let’s hope the pandemic will be the catalyst to deliver. The numbers Trump is mooting for infrastructure spending–$2 trillion, equivalent to the entire recent stimulus bill—are reassuringly large.

Indeed, on April 4, Dean Obeidallah, no conservative, issued this warning to Democrats on NBC News: “Trump’s infrastructure tweet makes Democrats look bad.” Obeidallah’s point was that the Democrats need to cooperate with Trump.  

To be sure, there’s opposition to infrastructure vision, and so, even now, a big bill is no cinch.  

For instance, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) headlined its response, “Don’t use COVID-19 to Excuse $2 trillion of Debt-Financed Infrastructure.” 

We can note that CRFB has a unique place in Washington, DC. It’s an outfit with a loud presence in the nation’s capital, since it’s been lavishly funded by a huge donation from the late Peter Peterson, a Wall Street billionaire and private equity mogul.  

The words “private equity” should immediately set off alarm bells. Private equity—you know, as in Mitt Romney’s predatory Bain Capital—means millionaires and billionaires making yet more money from their lightly taxed financial legerdemain. And as such, private equity types, dead or alive, should not be shaping policy for ordinary folks.   

In fact, during his life, Peterson’s particular obsession was cutting earned entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare. That is, the Manhattan fatcat thought that people with one-millionth of his net worth were getting too much. 

Blessed with Peterson’s money, CRFB has consistently championed not only earned-entitlement cuts, but also the dogmatic view that deficit-reduction should be the nation’s paramount goal. (Yes, deficit reduction is nice, but economic growth and jobs are a lot nicer.) 

Indeed, CRFB has embraced the same balanced-budget-or-bust position once occupied by Herbert Hoover, the catastrophic president who, in his single term in the White House, 1929–1933, led the nation into the Depression. 

Unemployment went from three percent to 25 percent during Hoover’s four years in power, and yet, even when people were jobless and hungry, the 31st president never stopped obsessing over the deficit. 

Thus Hoover enacted the worst possible policies in an economic contraction: raising taxes. At a time of falling demand, it makes no sense to crimp supply, as well as demand—but that’s what Hoover did. No wonder he lost lost his 1932 reelection bid in a landslide, losing 42 of 48 states. And by the way, the deficit went up during Hoover’s tenure in office, because overall economic growth is a more important determinant of federal red ink than any attempted budget-balancing. 

Yet still today, cushioned from political and economic reality by its dead patron’s money, CRFB carries on that self-defeating legacy—the CRFB site is festooned with plans for raising taxes of various kinds.

So now, as the nation looks to avoid what could otherwise be a deep recession—perhaps even a depression—it’s Trump the bold builder, joined by other forward-thinking Republicans. One such is former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, an early champion of infrastructure, who says of these urgent times, “The era of limited-government, country-club Republicanism is over.” That is, the new GOP will be the party of workers, soldiers, and first responders, as well as their families. And working families, not having hedge funds and trust funds to fall back on, need work. Now. 

Indeed, in this Covid-19 Era, we are reminded that vital infrastructure can take many forms. For instance, in Australia, many grocery stores have put up clear plastic shields at checkout stations to protect both cashiers and customers. In that constructive spirit, we can imagine many other coronavirus-inspired adjustments to our built environment, such as markers to encourage safe-distancing in queues. All of these ideas, and more, might well be necessary from a public-health point of view—and for sure, all would create jobs.

And that’s what we most need today: job-creating economic activity. We must bring this economy back to life!

So now, if Pelosi & Co. hold up their end of the bargain, then the needed grand coalition for infrastructure will have been forged. Thus we could see a practical vital center, fighting for health and jobs. And on other side: the grim specters of Pete Peterson and Herbert Hoover and their hirelings, preaching dead rhetoric from their isolated tower made of cold gold.

This duel, of living practicality vs. fossilized ideology, shouldn’t be much of a fight. However, as we have learned to our sorrow, the dead hand of the past can sometimes reach up from the grave and strangle the future. So we, the living, must be on our guard.

For the sake of our country, let’s live, build, and grow, ignoring the doomsayers—especially those who are simply channeling the deathly thinking of discredited ghosts.

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