Every once in a while, a conflict arises on the periphery of our nation’s entire story: The self-sufficiency, progress and grace of the natural order of things ere distant and now become real, simply because we can bring it into the world so easily and easily, because it’s easy to exploit. It happens in the battlefield, at the grocery store or in our new integrated economy. Insofar as the nation has truly chosen its direction, it arrives at the right version of the future by shaping our infrastructure, so that the basic elements of progress and grace aren’t hidden from our sight.
It’s an argument based on aesthetics, that the decision to build that highway or streetlight makes that land look cleaner and smarter and better as a result. It’s a rationalizing worldview, considering the value of a building constructed from pure public investment versus a private builder who happens to own the land. It is thus not a matter of cost/benefit analysis per se, but rather of aesthetic preference. The roadway, the building, the curb lines, those bike lanes, that sidewalk — all of these are a matter of design.
But to hear Washington’s wealthy and establishment Republican leaders tell it, that aesthetic preference is being put to some very useful usage, and not just by their business allies. Decades ago, conservatives believed, President Reagan famously opined, in an attempt to illuminate the Reagan Agenda, that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” That mantra, however, was understood to mean a version of the laissez-faire ideology that believed the markets should be strong and transparent enough to weather anything. From then on, Republicans never stopped believing that: that small government rules, that everyone should have the same rights as everyone else. That, like the markets and which levels of government taxes work best in an inter-connected global economy. That common people look out for each other. That everything should be largely up to the voluntary actions of citizens.
In 2017, President Trump essentially repeated Reagan’s lines, announcing, without explanation, “We have to fundamentally change how our nation funds infrastructure. We can no longer borrow to pay for it.” He’s right, really: His 2018 infrastructure plan contains a mix of dedicated revenues, permitting reforms, and exemptions from environmental regulations. The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, for instance, credits Trump’s trillion-dollar promise to “ease environmental regulations to fast-track construction of major roads, bridges, tunnels and transit projects.” Which, one might add, would create tens of thousands of jobs — jobs that would depend heavily on our infrastructure being able to keep on operating with minimal maintenance.
This is not to mention the Trump plan’s reliance on fresh bond auctions to pay for the government’s share of projects already underway. Those bond receipts — part of the big-spending package required to fund an estimated $3.5 trillion infrastructure project, mainly, we suspect, to pay for the whole lot — will have a steadily diminishing effect on the government’s borrowing costs over time, especially with Treasury’s persistently high financing costs. In the next decade, the U.S. government would pay between $2.5 and $2.8 trillion to borrow money for the day-to-day functioning of government. It will pay as little as a tiny fraction of that amount.
As we saw with the midterm elections, Trump might not be able to sell his infrastructure plan as a rich man’s giveaway in the coming years. Republicans will shift their focus to new economic growth, tax cuts and huge gains for business, and they may be able to change Trump’s plan over time without congressional opposition. When that is done, all infrastructure projects will look greener. It will be the Sistine Chapel on the Potomac. And, as the Washington Post’s Josh Zepps recently noted, if we were to pay for our infrastructure through a carbon tax or somehow offset most of our transportation costs by charging people to drive, then the wealthy would no longer need to abandon their personal combustion engines in favor of the lesser-emitting ones — but, perhaps most telling, future taxpayers would not need to call upon the services of rich people who drive expensive hybrid cars.
If we, as Americans, are in desperate need of greater consensus on more public investments like these, in both sides of the political aisle, then we’ll get it eventually. But that consensus will only exist if the nation chooses a vision of the future that our young will be able to actually live in — one with those unmistakable roads, lights and sidewalks that the country has never before