I’ve repeatedly suggested that a truly transformational infrastructure initiative that addresses America’s multitudinous (and multiplying) shortfalls is a pipe dream. The “pipe” pun is always intended.
While the old “seeing is believing” adage isn’t universally applicable in a world dominated by wild conspiracy theories and misinformation, it still works when it comes to public works. Either things are being fixed and built or they aren’t. And while the definition of “transformational” admits of subjectivity, filling potholes and making sure bridges don’t collapse doesn’t meet anyone’s definition.
No one can predict the actual cost of retooling the domestic economy in such a way that ensures America can keep up with what promises to be relentless competition from an autocratic, deep-pocketed China, but it’s safe to say $2.25 trillion is woefully short of the mark. That means $579 billion is (forgive me) a joke.
As previewed here, Joe Biden announced a tentative infrastructure deal with a bipartisan group of senators on Thursday. Everyone seemed pretty pleased with themselves. Biden said the deal “will create millions of American jobs and modernize our American infrastructure.”
The former claim may be true. And if it is, that’s great. But the latter claim is debatable, at best.
It’s without a shred of irony that I say $579 billion just doesn’t go very far these days. The notion that such a figure “signals to the world that we can function, deliver and do significant things,” as Biden put it Thursday, is laughable when you consider that by “the world,” he just means Beijing.
Biden has repeatedly warned the public that Xi Jinping will spare no expense in his quest to “win the future,” and that the Party (the CCP) is counting on democracy (and American democracy especially) to be too fractious and slow to keep up. Suffice to say nobody in Beijing is “shocked and awed” by $579 billion in new outlays for public transit, roads, bridges, EV charging stations and the replacement of lead pipes.
The fact that it took months for 10 people to agree on the package and, more poignantly, that many of America’s other top lawmakers are so far apart on every issue under the sun other than, ironically, China, that they couldn’t even be bothered to participate, is further evidence to support the contention that US politicians simply aren’t up to the task unless oblivion (in a literal sense of the term) is beating down the front door (i.e., the CARES Act).
The funding mechanisms for the narrow infrastructure agreement were characteristically ambiguous. Tax enforcement will be more stringent, the administration will apparently tap the SPR and there was some mention of public-private partnerships, which is what you say when you have no idea how you’re going to pay for something you’ve just announced.
And that speaks to the most crucial point of all: The US needn’t “fund” any of this spending. Not with taxes, not with bond issuance and not with anything else either. Congress could simply instruct the Fed to write a check. For $579 billion, yes, but also for $2.25 trillion. Or for $22.5 trillion, for that matter.
As I will never tire of reminding folks, no bearded Zeus figure handed down any chiseled, stone tablets that said all spending must be offset, and besides, it’s manifestly absurd to suggest that the US government, the sole legal issuer of US dollars on the planet, must somehow “source” the dollars it needs from its citizens or from abroad.
What good is a monopoly on the world’s reserve currency if you don’t leverage the privileges that go along with it to build a better, more resilient economy? (What are we, saving the dollar’s reserve currency status for a rainy day?)
Nobody frets over debt incurred (and deficits run) to finance military adventurism, modern day imperialism and all manner of other outlays that have absolutely nothing whatever to do with the lives of everyday Americans.
Oh, we need to build a bridge in Afghanistan so America’s young women and men can cross a ravine on their way to being shot by the Taliban? No problem. Just put it on Uncle Sam’s tab. (Need to fix a bridge in a major US city to make sure the soldiers who manage to make it back from Afghanistan alive don’t plunge into a river once they get home? Not a chance. Because how will we pay for it?)
Oh, there’s a crater in a key access road near Baghdad because a hugely expensive drone strike just incinerated somebody? Well, what are you waiting for? Just fill it. We need that road, and it’s not like Uncle Sam doesn’t print money. (Need to repave a road in Alabama so a veteran whose PTSD left him with a drinking habit doesn’t careen into a tree on the way home from the bar because he swerved to miss a pothole that’s been there for 15 years? Forget it. Who has the money for that?)
I could conjure dozens of equally stark examples. This entire charade is a joke. And not a very funny one.
“The president came into office promising to find common ground to get things done – and he’s delivering on that promise,” the White House boasted, in a statement.
American cities, communities and families need “common ground” when it comes to reestablishing the kind of trust and sense of civic responsibility that makes societal cohesion possible. But when it comes to evidence that the federal government cares about them, those cities, communities and families just need money. And the overwhelming majority won’t give a damn what the split was on the vote or where that money came from.
Finally, as I pointed out Thursday morning, the bipartisan infrastructure deal is purely for show.
“Nancy Pelosi said earlier that her chamber wouldn’t consider the bipartisan deal without the broader package of legislation, which Democrats will attempt to pass using the budget reconciliation procedure that avoids a Republican filibuster in the Senate,” Bloomberg wrote, adding that “Biden said he would only sign the bipartisan deal if it comes to his desk together with the reconciliation bill.”
See what I mean?