The problem is not federal infrastructure spending per se: The problem is “infrastructure” bills that are in fact political slush-funds. We go about infrastructure in a way that is precisely backward: Instead of figuring out, one project at a time, what needs doing and how to prioritize those demands — repaving this section of interstate highway, replacing that bridge — and then seeing what that all adds up to and making informed decisions about timing and tradeoffs, we come up with some silly round number — say, $2,000,000,000,000.00 — and then see if we can find a politically attractive way to shovel all that cash out the door. That is how you end up spending a lot of money on infrastructure without actually getting much infrastructure. It’s the national version of the paradox in which the roads of so many American cities are always being repaired but are never repaired.
And there are public-trust issues surrounding big infrastructure plans. The best Democratic infrastructure thinking is how you get plans for a kinda-sorta high-speed train connecting Bakersfield with Merced, so that the giant kangaroo rats in Famoso can take early-morning meetings with their clients in Chowchilla.
Any dummy can spend $2 trillion: Put the cash on the table, and somebody is going to figure out a way to pick it up. Some of those people will be government contractors, some of them will be farmers who are keen on a subsidy, some of them will be rich guys in the Hamptons who don’t want to be on the hook for the entire sum of their local taxes, and so on — there’s no shortage of constituencies eager for federal largesse. But we should not kid ourselves that moving money from one pocket to the other makes the nation as a whole wealthier. At some point, all of us — rural and urban, employer and employee, buyer and seller — will have to pay our own way.