2021年4月6日 星期二

Why did “infrastructure week” become a joke?

A theory of Republican policy haplessness.
The Brent Spence Bridge on the Ohio-Kentucky border is considered to be "functionally obsolete" due to the amount of daily traffic it carries, more than its original design.Jeff Dean/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Today's column is about Republican attempts to discredit President Biden's American Jobs Plan by insisting that it really isn't an infrastructure plan. As I explain in the column, they're wrong on substantive grounds: Investing in the future should include a lot of things that don't match a narrow definition of infrastructure.

But I also believe that they're messing up the politics. If they really wanted to sabotage Biden's plans, or at least make him pay a political price for moving forward, they should be offering a halfway plausible alternative — a real if grossly inadequate infrastructure plan of their own. Whining that nothing besides roads and bridges qualifies — not even rail, or water, or the electrical grid, or broadband — just highlights their own unwillingness to be serious.

Better yet, they could have passed a minimalist, steel-and-concrete-only bill while their own guy was in the White House. If they had, he might still be there, and in any case they might have pre-empted the expansive initiative currently on the table.

So why didn't they? Why did "It's infrastructure week!" become a running gag line?

Part of the answer was the sheer incompetence of the Trump administration, in which almost nobody had any idea how to do policy substance (as we saw, tragically, in the administration's Covid-19 response.) Beyond that, however, the modern G.O.P. is allergic to any proposal to spend taxpayer money to advance the public good.

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Way back in November 2016 I looked at the sketch of an infrastructure proposal offered by the Trump team and was struck by their almost pathological unwillingness to just do the obvious thing and, you know, build infrastructure. Instead they suggested a complicated scheme that would offer huge tax credits to private investors who would then be rewarded with user fees: build a highway, mainly with taxpayer dollars, then collect all the tolls for yourself.

As I noted at the time, this scheme wouldn't work at all for infrastructure spending that can't be monetized, like repairing levees or cleaning up hazardous waste. And even where it might have been possible to collect user fees, the scheme would offer huge potential for abuse and cronyism (although that might have been a selling point to those proposing it).

It's not surprising, then, that infrastructure never happened. But why the Rube Goldberg nature of the proposal, such as it was? Why not just build infrastructure?

The answer, I think, comes down to a blend of ideology and cynical politics.

Today's G.O.P. is the party Ronald Reagan built, a party that always sees government as the problem, not the solution; people who've spent decades steeped in that mind-set just can't wrap their minds around the idea of using government spending, not tax cuts, to solve a problem. For a time, people in Trump's inner circle, like Steve Bannon, seemed ready to break out of this box. But they couldn't free their minds — and even if they could have, people like Mitch McConnell would have stood in their way.

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For smart Republicans — McConnell may be a destructive force, but he's no dummy — believe that there are political spillovers when government acts effectively. Once voters see the government do something well, they worry, the public will be more inclined to have it do other things they don't want it to do, like reducing poverty and curbing the accumulation of wealth at the top. To be fair, the Biden team has the same belief: it wants to use the popularity of its pandemic response to advance a broad center-left agenda.

Still, the odds are that Republican obstruction will end up empowering the very things the G.O.P. wants to avoid, just as it did on stimulus. Republicans might have been able to hold Biden down to half a loaf. Instead, by insisting that he could only have crumbs, they may have given him the whole thing.

Quick Hits

Republican selflessness?

How much is $2 trillion?

Was the Obama stimulus secretly a new New Deal?

Or is Biden bringing the real Deal?

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Facing the Music

How can it feel this wrong?YouTube

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