infrastructure week

The New ‘Infrastructure Deal’ Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration is furiously spinning newly revealed proof of its corruption, so you know it’s “Infrastructure Week” again. And this time around, the president’s quest to fix our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges — or look like he’s trying — actually has a bit of traction.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump had a bizarrely constructive meeting with the Democratic congressional leadership, wherein both sides agreed that the federal government should make a $2 trillion investment in America’s infrastructure. No details were sweated. And over the ensuing 24 hours, congressional Republicans have blanched at the policy’s price tag, while some Democrats have insisted that new spending must be paid for by rolling back Trump’s tax cuts on high-earners.

Nevertheless, some observers might take heart at the mere existence of bipartisan negotiations over how to address a genuine policy challenge. But they shouldn’t. The new round of infrastructure talks does not exemplify what’s still “working” in Washington; rather, it embodies three of the biggest problems in American politics today.

1) The Republican Party is unwilling to prioritize appealing to voters over entrenching plutocracy.

Earlier this week, Chuck Schumer announced that he wouldn’t even consider supporting a hike in the gas tax — the traditional mechanism for funding highway improvements — until Republicans agreed to pare back some of the tax cuts they showered on the wealthy and corporations in 2017.

Having put their party’s idea for how to finance an infrastructure package on the table, Democrats now insist that the president tell them whose taxes he would like to raise instead. And Trump almost certainly won’t do that — because his party will not let him propose taxes on the wealthy, and his political acumen won’t allow him to call for tax hikes on the middle class.

If both parties answered primarily to their own voters, this would not be a sticking point. Before Republicans passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, polls showed a majority of GOP voters opposed lowering taxes on corporations or high-earners. And by all appearances, the White House’s internal research showed the same. “Tax reform will protect low-income and middle-income households, not the wealthy and well-connected,” President Trump assured supporters in a speech in Indiana in September 2017. “They can call me all they want. It’s not going to help. I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me. Believe me.” National Economic Council director Gary Cohn went further, promising, “The wealthy are not getting a tax cut under our plan.” Three months later, the White House celebrated the passage of a tax-cut package that delivered the lion’s share of its benefits to the top one percent.

Raising taxes on the rich is popular with the typical Republican voter and with the kinds of swing voters Donald Trump will need to win in the Rust Belt next year. Investing in infrastructure is, too. By offering to support a $2 trillion infrastructure package — funded by progressive taxation — Democrats are effectively offering to do the Republican president a huge political favor. They are giving him a chance to pass hugely popular, bipartisan legislation — that would earn him effusive praise from the mainstream media and validate his populism (and/or status as an unconventional Republican) to former Democrats in the Midwest — right before he runs for reelection.

If the GOP were a political party devoted to maximizing its vote share — without betraying its voting base — it would see Schumer’s pay-for demand as a wet kiss, not a poison pill. But the GOP is not such a party. Its overriding priority is to concentrate economic power in the hands of its largest shareholders. So it refuses to support popular legislation that would cost rich people money — even when doing so would aid a majority of Republican voters, and increase the party’s prospects for winning elections. As a result, the party must rely on obscuring the material implications of its agenda by stoking conservative social alienation and white racial paranoia. Which is the main reason why our republic can’t have nice things.

2) The Democratic Party is unwilling to govern strategically.

Some of the Democratic Party’s leaders are handling these negotiations competently. If your goal is to project an image of reasonableness — without actually helping Trump score a legislative win that’ll boost his reelection hopes — then calling for a giant, progressively financed infrastructure package makes good sense. Why not make Trump a popular offer he can’t accept?

But not everyone in the party is onboard. A significant number of moderates in Nancy Pelosi’s caucus appear to actually want to reach a compromise with their Republican colleagues. For these lawmakers, scoring some pork for their home districts — and demonstrating their bipartisan bona fides — is well worth the risk of helping Trump secure another four years in power. As Politico reports:

House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) insists that Republicans can get the political cover they would need to support a funding plan — if the president and Democrats “step outside together” and announce they’re supporting one.

… After Schumer called for a partial repeal of the 2017 GOP tax cuts, DeFazio tried to walk back that suggestion, calling it a “talking point for 2020” and “not a realistic proposal.”

In an interview with the Daily Beast, a senior Democratic aide spelled out the implications of DeFazio’s “realism” more plainly:

Tuesday’s meeting was the latest evidence that Democrats still haven’t found agreement about what that balance looks like — and that Trump’s looming reelection campaign is sparking strategic handwringing within a party that wants to defeat him but to pad their own résumé, too. Asked, for instance, about the fear expressed from some Democrats that a big bipartisan infrastructure package could considerably boost the president’s re-election chances, a senior House Democratic aide replied with exasperation.

“You know what, who gives a fuck?” the aide said. “Who. Gives. A. Fuck? … We ran on the issue of infrastructure. So I don’t know why it would be a surprise to anyone that if we can get a bill done we’d be advocating for that. We are not Republicans. We don’t put politics ahead of getting something done for our constituents. That’s not what we do.”

This reasoning reflects two of the Democratic Party’s worst pathologies: Its refusal to think critically about the implications of the Republican Party’s extremism, and its members’ myopic refusal to put Team Blue’s interests above their own.

Who gives a fuck about whether passing a (watered-down, regressively funded) infrastructure plan would help a lawless, openly racist president win reelection? Who gives a fuck about whether the price of winning a gold star from “No Labels” is another six-dozen 40-year-old reactionaries appointed to the judiciary, and an anti-choice majority consolidated on the Supreme Court? I would imagine some of the Democratic Party’s constituents might deem these questions worthy of consideration — because they are capable of recognizing that politics is war by other means, not a rarified form of elite performance art.

This senior aide is ostensibly aware that America’s state and federal governments are primarily controlled by a political party that puts “politics ahead of getting something done” for the public. If the GOP is such a pathological party, then how could it not be in the interest of one’s constituents to make disempowering the GOP a top governing priority? As is so often the case on the left side of the aisle, the high-minded rhetoric here is just camouflage for self-interested myopia. Some swing-district Democrats have focus-group data that suggest they can marginally increase the probability of reelection by helping Trump pass an infrastructure bill. So who fucking cares what implications that might have for Dreamers, or voting rights, or the rule of law? Who fucking cares whether refusing to match the procedural radicalism of one’s rivals gives them a structural advantage in political competition? We came here to make friends, not to win power.

A less virulent strain of this feckless myopia can be seen in the party’s inability to persuade its rising stars to run for the Senate instead of the presidency.

3) Both parties are unwilling to adopt an economically literate understanding of deficits.

In this specific context, due to the political considerations outlined above, this is probably for the best. But it’s nevertheless insane that both sides in the infrastructure debate are proceeding from the premise that the package must be fully “paid for.”

It’s idiotic to liken the federal government’s finances to those of a household or business, since the former can print the world’s reserve currency, while the latter cannot. But even by Congress’s own delusional “a business needs to balance its books so Uncle Sam should, too” logic, opposing deficit-financed capital improvements makes no sense. Businesses issue debt to make investments in productivity-enhancing capital all the time! On the state and local level — where governments actually do face tight fiscal constraints — lawmakers draft separate capital budgets out of recognition that such investments are categorically distinct from other forms of government spending, and can be responsibly funded through borrowing.

You don’t need to accept Modern Monetary Theory to understand that — at a time of historically low interest rates and stubbornly low inflation — there is nothing irresponsible about borrowing money to fix your substandard transportation systems. Larry Summers is no one’s idea of a wild-eyed radical, and he’s been endorsing an infrastructure stimulus for years now.

Republicans accept the principle that deficit-financed policies can “pay for” themselves by increasing long-term growth when the policy in question is a tax cut — which is to say, they accept the principle in contexts where it has no empirical support. But ask them to apply this logic to investments in productivity-enhancing infrastructure, and they’ll tell you to get “realistic”:

The top House Republican with jurisdiction over infrastructure — Transportation Committee ranking member Sam Graves of Missouri — said a $2 trillion infrastructure plan wasn’t realistic. Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota called it “a very, very big number and a big tax increase” and expressed skepticism that the talks between Trump and Democrats could “yield any kind of proposal that we could actually take a look at.” Finance Committee member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said, “Everybody is for an infrastructure bill … You have the usual monetary suspects, none of which are popular. So I don’t know.

Democrats are scarcely better. Even Bernie Sanders insists (publicly anyway) that deficit spending is inherently wrong. And a good number of House Democrats recently called for adding a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution — an economically illiterate idea that would devastate the U.S. economy.

All of which is to say: In many respects, our elected leadership lives every week like it’s “Infrastructure Week.” And our government is crumbling into dysfunction as a result.

This ‘Infrastructure Deal’ Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things