The President needs a new mission in terms of major accomplishments for 2018 and he’s already been tossing out some hints as to what it might be. With tax cuts in the rearview mirror and the likelihood of repealing Obamacare still roughly equal to that of replacing the F-35 with flying pigs, a more manageable goal is in order. Immigration reform of some sort should be done early on (though it will likely only be the Dreamer deal with nothing else to follow) so the logical choice is infrastructure. We already know that Trump likes the idea of an infrastructure deal to put people to work and Democrats tend to be fans of such things as well, so possibilities exist.
The problem is that most any fiscal conservatives out there will hear the phrase “infrastructure bill” and begin developing a severe facial tic. There’s good reason for that when you consider how much of a disaster the Obama stimulus package turned out to be. But does that mean we should abandon the idea entirely? John Tierney has an article over at National Review this week which might offer a glimmer of hope for even the most pessimistic. Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past, Tierney argues that Trump could advocate for a new type of infrastructure plan which would create incentives for the private sector to buy in and force states to take responsibility for how funds are spent. In short, we need a plan that gets the federal government out of the way.
In previews of their infrastructure initiative, administration officials have promised to shift responsibility back where it belongs: to the cities and states that benefit from these projects. The administration has vowed to streamline the federal permitting process, to ease other regulations that have blocked projects, and to change policies discouraging local governments from partnering with the private sector. The goal is to stimulate grassroots creativity along with $1 trillion in spending, as Trump promised during his campaign, with most of the money coming from user fees and local tax dollars, not Washington.
This philosophical shift appalls many members of Congress, especially Democrats who want to go on showering federal largesse on their union supporters, but it’s the only practical way to pay for the necessary work. It’s also the only way to force localities to focus on cost-effective projects, instead of squandering other people’s money on boondoggles like the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska or the bullet train to nowhere in California.
Admittedly, this proposal is mostly from the ten thousand foot level, but we should be able to fill in the details with some hard work in Congress and the Oval Office. Rather than simply running up the debt and dumping billions of dollars on the states where it will most likely be squandered, create incentives for the states to partner with the private sector and do actual, useful work. One example Tierney offers (which will no doubt hit some resistance from road warriors) is the interstate highway system.
Frequently cited as one of the great marvels of infrastructure, the author argues that it’s mostly been a failure. Many of the roadways today are in sad need of repair and the money doesn’t exist to upgrade them all, say nothing of replacing them. But if the states each tackled their own sections and brought in private developers as partners, it would turn into an excellent investment opportunity. True, most of the interstates would wind up being toll roads, but they would be modernized and self-sustaining.
Similar things could be done with the power grid which is not only antiquated and strained, but extremely vulnerable to attack or simply unstoppable acts of nature. The power companies have no incentive for wide-scale upgrades and the government can’t really jump into that pool unbidden. But a cooperative effort could make it happen, creating a more secure energy infrastructure and spawning a lot of middle class jobs which would last for years to come.
It’s something to think about and get to work on. An infrastructure bill doesn’t have to turn into a black hole of debt the way Obama’s stimulus package did. Approached from the right angle this could turn out to be another significant win.