It's tempting to support Donald Trump on infrastructure, a goal for which (nominally, at least) he has bipartisan support. Donald Trump's plan is actually wrong for a bunch of reasons.
Today an op-ed by Paul Krugman highlighted one reason: the plan calls for semi-privatizing roads, sewers, and other infrastructure in such a way that taxpayers pick up most of the cost (as they normally would) but private investors get to treat the (publicly paid-for) investments as their own. This is the worst kind of crony capitalism, says Krugman, and he's right.
There are other reasons to be concerned about Trump's infrastructure plan as well, though.
The sheer cost of the plan should stop people in their tracks: $1 trillion. I can speak most deeply about the transportation aspects of infrastructure policy (rather than, say, water treatment). The United States has a clear pattern of spending more money on expansion of its road infrastructure than it spends on maintaining existing projects. Organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers get bipartisan praise for claiming that a whole lot of extra money is needed to fix our roads, but the reality is that the ASCE acts like any other trade group, protecting the bottom line of the professionals whose interest it's in to spend more money on roads.
The Citizens Bank project in Johnston, RI used public infrastructure debt to
benefit crony capitalism.
Another concern is that the Republican Congress has worked long and hard to dismantle any shred of transit-, bike-, or walking-related funding from the transportation budget. Should Donald Trump issue a trillion dollars in federal money, that money will cycle through state DOTs. Anyone who reads this blog knows how frustrating that can be even in Rhode Island-- and believe me, though RIDOT deserves all the criticism it gets, there are many state DOTs that are far worse.
Roads are not the only type of infrastructure that is spent on in wacky ways. Radiolab just did a very insightful piece explaining Texas' sewer maintenance districts (see second segment), which unleash hundreds of millions of dollars of debt to as-yet-not-built towns on the hope that new sewers will bring development. As Rhode Islanders might remember, the "shovel ready" Citizens Bank project in Johnston moved jobs from Cranston while adding expensive new road infrastructure and sewer infrastructure and extending large tax exemptions to Citizens Bank (Citizens had a lot to say about the "expensive" city life that it couldn't afford, but was totally fine with taking the suburban largesse). Unfortunately, Rhode Island is (again) not the worst state for this type of behavior. Strong Towns has done a very careful review of how suburban-style projects create spectacular growth cycles based on public and private debt in infrastructure that can never be fully repaid.
.@CitizensBank CEO on its new suburban offices: Our workers drive, and downtown is pricey: https://t.co/FkOzIhHUyJ pic.twitter.com/tWSBfVW8vC— Stephen Miller (@miller_stephen) June 3, 2016
By all means, this is not to say that there are not real infrastructure needs in the U.S. that need our attention. One that comes easily to mind is the crisis of water pipes made of lead, which exist mostly within highly built-up, pre-WWII areas of the country. I suspect that exactly the sort of math that shows that infrastructure expansion is a bad investment would support the idea of making targeted investments in this type of project. But even if we do take on a project like that, which would benefit Providence as well, we need to think only partially in terms of what new money we can bring to the table, and also be thinking about the types of wasteful projects we can eliminate.
If you think I'm criticizing this plan because I hate Donald Trump, believe me, you're right. I hate Donald Trump. But I also had a lot of similar things to say about Bernie Sanders, a man I regard as practically a secular saint. This is a bipartisan problem in our country. As you'll note, such liberal luminaries as Rep. David Cicilline and (*cough* *eyeroll*) "climate champion" Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse were among the shovel-ready politicos who were ready to dig in for Citizens Bank.
We need to unite and oppose this plan.
We need to unite and oppose this plan.