Infrastructure won’t happen until the Democrats regain control.
Donald Trump isn’t the first president, or even the first Republican president, who has sought to define his legacy in part with a big construction project. Abraham Lincoln signed legislation providing the land grants and financing that created the transcontinental railroad. Theodore Roosevelt built the Panama Canal. Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate highway system.
But Trump’s wall is different, and not just because it probably won’t actually get built. Previous big construction projects were about bringing people together and making them more productive. The wall is about division — not just a barrier against outsiders, but an attempt to drive a wedge between Americans, too. It’s about fear, not the future.
Why isn’t Trump building anything? Surely he’s exactly the kind of politician likely to suffer from an edifice complex, a desire to see his name on big projects. Furthermore, during the 2016 campaign he didn’t just promise a wall, he also promised a major rebuilding of America’s infrastructure.
But month after month of inaction followed his inauguration. A year ago he again promised “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” Again, nothing happened.
Last month there was reportedly a White House meeting to game outa new infrastructure plan. This time they mean it. Really. Would this administration ever lie to you?
The interesting question is why Trump seems unwilling or unable to do anything about America’s crumbling roads, bridges, water supplies and so on. After all, polls show that a large majority of the public wants to see more infrastructure spending. Public investment is an issue on which Trump could get substantial Democratic support; it would lift the economy, and also help repair the public’s perception that the administration is chaotic and incompetent.
Yet everything points to two more years of occasional bombast about infrastructure, with no follow-up. Why the paralysis?
Some news analyses suggest that it’s about money, that big infrastructure spending would happen if only Republicans and Democrats could agree on how to pay for it. But this is being credulous. Remember, in 2017 the G.O.P. enacted a $2 trillion tax cutwith absolutely no pay-fors; the tax cut is completely failing to deliver the promised boost to private investment, but there is no sign of buyer’s remorse.
So Republicans don’t really care about using debt to pay for things they want. And Democrats, whose top policy wonks have been telling them that deficit fears are excessive, would surely support a program of debt-financed infrastructure spending.
The $1.5 trillion number is just made up; he’s only proposing federal spending of $200 billion, which is somehow supposed to magically induce a vastly bigger overall increase in infrastructure investment, mainly paid for either by state and local governments (which are not exactly rolling in cash, but whatever) or by the private sector.
.. And even the $200 billion is essentially fraudulent: The budget proposal announced the same day doesn’t just impose savage cuts on the poor, it includes sharp cuts for the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and other agencies that would be crucially involved in any real infrastructure plan. Realistically, Trump’s offer on infrastructure is this: nothing.
.. That’s not to say that the plan is completely vacuous. One section says that it would “authorize federal divestiture of assets that would be better managed by state, local or private entities.” Translation: We’re going to privatize whatever we can
.. Despite a modest rise in interest rates, the federal government can still borrow very cheaply: The interest rate on inflation-protected long-term bonds is still less than 1 percent, which is below realistic estimates of long-run economic growth, let alone the Trump administration’s fantasy numbers. So borrowing now to pay for essential infrastructure would still be good economics.
.. some Democrats feared that Trump really would go big on infrastructure, which might drive a wedge into their party and be highly popular besides.
.. An infrastructure program involving real money could be very lucrative for Trump cronies, or for that matter Trump himself. Yes, there are rules that are supposed to prevent that kind of profiteering, but does anyone think those rules would be enforced under current management?
.. Part of the answer is that in practice Trump always defers to Republican orthodoxy, and the modern G.O.P. hates any program that might show people that government can work and help people.
.. But I also suspect that Trump is afraid to try anything substantive. To do public investment successfully, you need leadership and advice from experts. And this administration doesn’t do expertise, in any field. Not only do experts have a nasty habit of telling you things you don’t want to hear, their loyalty is suspect: You never know when their professional ethics might kick in.
So the Trump administration probably couldn’t put together a real infrastructure plan even if it wanted to. And that’s why it didn’t.