President Trump’s long-belated, newly unveiled infrastructure plan is a work of magical realism.
In an unprecedented move that is sure to polarize audiences, the White House has decided to set its legislative proposal in an alternative universe — one where the federal government can purchase $1.5 trillion worth of infrastructure improvements for just $200 billion; congressional Republicans are united in their commitment to funding public improvements and have detailed ideas for how to do so; and congressional Democrats are eager to vote for $200 billion in cuts to the safety net, for the sake of delivering Donald Trump a bipartisan victory in a midterm election year.
This imaginative approach to policy making might be admirable, in the abstract, given how exhausted the genre has become. But if the administration’s experiment in speculative fiction had promise in theory, it fails miserably in practice — and for a very simple reason: The piece’s authors neglected to do any of the world-building necessary to make its fantastical premises come across as grounded and true.
As the New York Times writes in its review:
The increased infrastructure spending would be offset by unspecified budget cuts. Officials would not detail where those cuts would come from, or how the proposal would effectively leverage at least $6.50 in additional infrastructure spending for every dollar spent by the federal government, a ratio many infrastructure experts consider far-fetched … Administration officials say an increase in federal funds would unleash a wave of spending from cities, states and the private sector, the result of unspecified incentives in the plan. But many local and state officials have expressed concern in recent days that the administration’s faith in that potential effect is misplaced.
In all seriousness: This plan is a joke. And the White House almost certainly knows it.
The broad outlines of the proposal are identical to those that leaked late last year. The only significant change is that, back in December, the plan appropriated $200 billion in federal funds, thereby generating an additional $800 billion in infrastructure investments from states, municipalities, and the private sector. But “after meeting with mayors and state officials,” the Times reports, “they concluded that a larger package than Mr. Trump had initially proposed was necessary and feasible.”
Thus, they revised their plan — now, it appropriates $200 billion in federal funds, thereby generating $1.3 trillion in infrastructure investments from other sources.
It’s hard to convey the absurdity of this conceit. Due to the lingering scars of the Great Recession, steadily rising pension and Medicaid costs, a growing reliance on corporate tax breaks to attract new jobs, and various other factors, America’s states are, in the aggregate, in awful fiscal shape. Most states’ per-student education spending is lower today than it was before the recession — in certain, deep-red areas, K–12 schools now make do with four-day weeks.
In this fiscal environment, it is inconceivable that states will make hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investments, just because Uncle Sam offers $100 billion in matching grants (which is the figure that would be allocated to such grants, according to a previously leaked draft of the proposal). And, anyhow, it would be a mistake if they did. The federal government can print its own currency, and run giant deficits while still borrowing money at near-zero interest rates. States can’t do either of those things. Even if it were possible to fund a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package primarily with state-level financing, it would still be inadvisable to do so.
And the White House proposal is every bit as unworkable in political terms as it is in policy ones. The administration needs significant support from Senate Democrats to pass any infrastructure bill into law. And yet, Trump’s plan calls for the federal government to fund its $200 billion share of the package entirely through spending cuts. The White House did not specify the targets of this austerity in its briefing with the Times, but previous reports suggest that the money would come from cuts to funding for social welfare programs and, of all things, mass transit. Meanwhile, the plan stipulates that rural communities would receive a disproportionate share of the federal funds, and calls for scrapping various regulations that impede development — including some meant to protect the environment.
Even if the president had copied the Democratic Party’s official infrastructure plan verbatim, Chuck Schumer’s caucus might be reluctant to vote for it. The Donkey Party has a shot at winning a wave election this November, and, thus, has little incentive to help Trump pass a popular, bipartisan bill before then. Thus, the idea that nine Senate Democrats would vote for an infrastructure package that cuts social spending and transit funding (a.k.a. infrastructure funding for urban areas, where Democrats live), reduces environmental regulation, and steers a disproportionate share of its funds to (predominantly red) rural areas is utterly delusional.
And the notion that congressional Republicans are ready and eager to flesh out the details of Trump’s infrastructure plan for him is nearly as bizarre. According to the Times, the White House’s blueprint is vague by design — the administration is ready to support “virtually any bipartisan proposal from Capitol Hill,” and thus is content to deploy the same “hands-off approach” it did with its tax cut. The flaw in this scheme is, of course, that congressional Republicans had a modicum of expertise — and overwhelming interest — in making regressive changes to the tax code. By contrast, Paul Ryan’s caucus has evinced no interest in increasing spending on public investments (beyond those that can be used to kill people overseas), and little unity on precisely what government spending should be cut.
Our country’s infrastructure is in urgent need of investment. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that more than $2 trillion in new funds are needed by 2025 to safeguard the functioning of our roads, bridges, mass transit, airports, and water systems. And, in theory, there should be room for bipartisan consensus on this issue: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a core Republican constituency, has called for financing nearly $400 billion in new infrastructure spending with a higher gasoline tax, new funds for worker training and development, and reforms streamlining the permitting process. Democrats have voiced support for proposals broadly similar to the Chamber’s. And the president has given every indication that he would be happy to support a “big government” approach to the infrastructure problem.
But Grover Norquist and Charles Koch have more sway in today’s GOP than the Chamber does. And Donald Trump has neither the interest nor the ability necessary to challenge his party’s aversion to public investment.
And so, instead of drafting a serious framework for an infrastructure bill, the White House has developed a fictional plan — with the ostensible aim of giving Trump cover for failing to pass a real one.