In these three posts—Blame Everyone for Infrastructure Ruin: Unethical, Irresponsible Priorities from Reagan to Obama (2010); Ethics Heads-Up: When the President Talks About “Investment in Infrastructure,” Pay Attention (2011); Hole-in-the-Roof Ethics: If Obama Asks For Massive Infrastructure Renewal, the GOP Must Support It. (2011), I laid out the unanswerable case for making national infrastructure renewal a priority. Let me just quote from the three, to save me typing time…
In the early Eighties, I oversaw an independent study funded by the Highway Users Federation and the National Chamber Foundation called “Transport Tomorrow,” exploring the immediate need for transportation infrastructure repair and expansion in all modes of transportation: roads, railway, waterway, and airports. In the process of learning how dire the need for massive construction and repair was if America’s future commercial needs were to be met, the study commission made a disturbing discovery: urban water and sewer systems were crumbling too. There was literally not enough money to fix all the roads, bridges, tunnels, water mains and sewer pipes that had to be fixed, and the consequences of not doing so would be economic paralysis and worse, disease and even social unrest.In the face of this looming and undeniably real disaster, the Reagan Administration did—pretty much nothing. Neither did the Bush, Clinton and Bush II administrations…
Seldom is a solution to a problem so obvious, and so conducive to bi-partisanship. It is a solution to two problems, really: America’s dangerously rotting infrastructure, and the nation’s dismal unemployment rate. Spend the money, trillions if necessary, to repair and replace existing roads, railway beds, waterways, sewer systems, airports and bridges. It still won’t get us where we need to be, but we’ll be much better off than if we let the current deterioration continue, and we’ll save money in the long run, too—real savings, not phony health care reform savings that evaporate once reality kicks in.
There is no justification not to do this, nor is there any legitimate excuse for any elected official not to vote for it. (And no, not wanting to give the President a victory is not legitimate…or ethical, or patriotic.) Repairing the infrastructure isn’t “discretionary spending,” it is essential, unavoidable and cost-effective spending, unless it is diverted into new boondoggles and pork. No new structures, unless they replace unrepairable old ones. No light rail systems or bullet trains; what is needed is basic maintenance and repair….everywhere. It is already late, but “better late than never” has seldom been as appropriate.Will fixing the infrastructure add to the deficit? Not really, because it already is an expense that we know will have to be made, or else. If the sewer systems and waterworks break down, we start dying. If bridges collapse, we die too. That isn’t even mentioning the increasing costs in energy and commerce caused by a decaying transportation system. The sooner we pay for it, the less it will cost, so sooner is per se better for the economy, and it is perfect timing given the employment crisis.
Yes, Obama better have a way to pay for it, with real budget cuts and reasonable taxes. If he plays politics with the proposal by making it impossible for the GOP to support (as some pundits, like the Post’s Eugene Robinson, have advised), shame on him. This has to be paid for, but it also has to be done…If Obama puts a fair, reasonable, relatively pork-free proposal on the table, Republicans would be despicably unethical to reject it.
As we now know, the Obama Administration proposed, and the GOP Congress opposed. This is a long-term bi-partisan failure, but it must be remembered that Obama had no credibility on this issue, and he never did propose a a way to pay for it “with real budget cuts and reasonable taxes.”
I was reminded of this issue when I read yesterday about how engineers have concluded that over 9% of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient. Bridges are just part of the infrastructure disaster to come—just wait until the 200-year old sewer and water systems in some cities start breaking down, and we have Flint, Michigan times a thousand—but they are illustrative of our government’s failure.
But wait: wasn’t the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, supposed to at least begin to fix the infrastructure? Obama had both Houses of Congress in his party’s hands then, and the economy was suffering, with massive unemployment. Although this wasn’t nearly enough (my Eighties study for the business community estimated the cost of fixing the decay more than a trillion then), it was infinitely better than any recent effort. What happened?
President-elect Obama addressed the devastation in the construction and manufacturing industries by proposing an ambitious New Deal-like program to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. He called for a two-year “shovel ready” stimulus program to modernize roads, bridges, schools, electrical grids, public transportation, and dams and made reinvigorating the hardest-hit sectors of the economy the goal of the legislation that would become the recovery act.
Women’s groups were appalled. Grids? Dams? Opinion pieces immediately appeared in major newspapers with titles like “Where are the New Jobs for Women?” and “The Macho Stimulus Plan.” A group of “notable feminist economists” circulated a petition that quickly garnered more than 600 signatures, calling on the president-elect to add projects in health, child care, education, and social services and to “institute apprenticeships” to train women for “at least one third” of the infrastructure jobs. At the same time, more than 1,000 feminist historians signed an open letter urging Obama not to favor a “heavily male-dominated field” like construction: “We need to rebuild not only concrete and steel bridges but also human bridges.” As soon as these groups became aware of each other, they formed an anti-stimulus plan action group called WEAVE– Women’s Equality Adds Value to the Economy….The president-elect responded to the protests by sending Jason Furman, his soon-to-be deputy director at the National Economic Council, along with his senior aides to a meeting organized by Kim Gandy and Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal…The senior economists listened attentively as Gandy and Smeal and other advocates argued for a stimulus package that would add jobs for nurses, social workers, teachers, and librarians in our crumbling “human infrastructure” (they had found their testosterone-free slogan)….
…Our incoming president did what many sensible men do when confronted by a chorus of female complaint: He changed his plan. He added health, education, and other human infrastructure components to the proposal.
…In her March “Below the Belt” column on the NOW website, Kim Gandy could not contain her elation over “this happily-ever-after ‘stimulus story.’ ” When she and her allies saw the final recovery package, they were amazed to find “over and over” versions of “very specific proposals that we had made.” More than that, the programs NOW had proposed had vast sums of money next to them–“numbers that started with a ‘B’ (as in billion),” Gandy said gleefully. “It’s impossible to convey just how many hours we put into this issue during December and early January and how fruitful it really turned out to be.”
[The] Associated Press story reported: “Stimulus Funds Go to Social Programs Over ‘Shovel-ready’ Projects.” A team of six AP reporters who have been tracking the funds find that the $300 billion sent to the states is being used mainly for health care, education, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and other social services. According to Chris Whately, director of the Council of State Governments, “We all talked about ‘shovel-ready’ since September and assumed it was a whole lot of paving and building when, in fact, that’s not the case.”
Not only did the “Porkulus” package, as its critics called it, not create the desired number of jobs, it barely touched the infrastructure. And Obama, cool character that he is, joked about it while meeting with his Jobs and Competitiveness Council today in 2011, saying that “Shovel-ready was not as—uh— shovel-ready as we expected.” Merriment ensued. Unemployment had risen since the stimulus package had passed in 2009, and the joke was deception. Many of the “shovel-ready” infrastructure jobs had been de-funded by the time the women’s bloc of the Democratic party had made their stand,, and if you oppose the feminists, you are waging “war on women.”
This is one reason why 21st Century Democrats can’t govern. Even though women and their families need the infrastructure to be upgraded as much as other citizens, they, like the other narrow interest groups that make up the party, are incapable of behaving in the national interest rather than seeking special benefits. Politicians like Obama lack the courage, responsibility, and integrity to do what needs to be done for the nation in defiance of demands by blacks, relatives of illegals, women, unions, teachers and trial lawyers.
The result is, in this case, that our bridges will continue to decay.
President Obama had a unique opportunity to begin to address a terrible problem allowed to fester by Presidents of both parties. It was perfect. Here was a crisis–remember, Rahm “Never let a good crisis go too waste” Emanuel was Obama’s Chief of staff. There was bi-partisan support for a giant spending bill. Democrats controlled Congress, and the already high national debt was half what it is today. It was sold as a jobs AND infrastructure bill.
And this weak, weak, feckless leader blew it, because he didn’t want to risk upsetting NOW.
I continue to believe that President Obama’s most destructive legacy will be the racial divide that widened under his leadership. The fact that he allowed this rare opportunity to pass, however, will be on my mind when my car is plunging into some icy river as a bridge collapses out from under it.