Con­ser­va­tive in­fra­struc­ture

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Jonah Gold­berg The National Re­view

“The con­ser­va­tives are go­ing to go crazy,” Don­ald Trump’s se­nior ad­viser, Steve Ban­non, re­cently told the Hol­ly­wood Reporter about his grand plans for a mas­sive new spend­ing pro­gram. “I’m the guy push­ing a tril­lion-dol­lar in­fra­struc­ture plan . ... It’s the great­est op­por­tu­nity to re­build ev­ery­thing. Ship­yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just go­ing to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as ex­cit­ing as the 1930s, greater than the Rea­gan revo­lu­tion — con­ser­va­tives, plus pop­ulists, in an economic na­tion­al­ist move­ment.”

Al­though, as a con­ser­va­tive, I find the de­scrip­tion of the 1930s as an “ex­cit­ing” time to be a bit odd, Ban­non’s sneak pre­view should be some­what re­as­sur­ing to those lib­er­als who see Trump as a stark re­pu­di­a­tion of Barack Obama. When Obama came into of­fice eight years ago, Time mag­a­zine de­picted the new pres­i­dent as FDR with the head­line “The New New Deal.”

For years, MSNBC ran ads call­ing for more New Deal-style spend­ing on big projects. Host Rachel Mad­dow was con­stantly de­mand­ing more Hoover Dams. “Peo­ple tell us no, no, no, we’re not go­ing to build it,” she said to the cam­era. “Other coun­tries have great things in their future. China can af­ford it. We can’t.”

She then replied to these un­named naysay­ers: “You’re wrong, and it doesn’t feel right to us, and it doesn’t sound right to us be­cause that’s not what Amer­ica is.”

Put aside the of­fen­sive no­tion that Amer­i­can great­ness hinges on the size of tax­payer­funded pub­lic works projects — a no­tion more closely as­so­ci­ated in my mind with Stalin or the Ceaus­es­cus. If you do be­lieve this pif­fle, than you should be re­as­sured that Pres­i­den­t­elect Trump shares your vi­sion of how to Make Amer­ica Great Again. Chuck Schumer, the in­com­ing leader of the Sen­ate Democrats, also wants to Make Amer­ica Great Again by pour­ing money into in­fra­struc­ture. The main dif­fer­ence be­tween the New York se­na­tor and the New York busi­ness­man is ap­par­ently that Trump’s plan con­cen­trates mostly on tax breaks for pri­vate-sec­tor con­trac­tors. The pos­si­ble down­side is that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would be hand­ing out sub­si­dies for projects that would have been built any­way, in af­flu­ent com­mu­ni­ties that didn’t need the help.

Schumer, mean­while, wants the gov­ern­ment to spend cold hard cash. “It has to have real ex­pen­di­tures. You can’t do it with just ... tax cred­its,” he told Roll Call.

Most con­ser­va­tives are not, in fact, op­posed to in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. What ran­kles them are in­ef­fi­cient, wholly political ex­pen­di­tures de­signed to re­ward political con­stituen­cies — like so much of Obama’s 2009 stim­u­lus. Ridicu­lous and waste­ful spend­ing is one of the few things that en­rages nearly all con­ser­va­tives — but ap­par­ently not pop­ulists and na­tion­al­ists of Ban­non’s stripe. In­deed, his blasé de­sire to shovel tax­payer dol­lars into ship­yard con­struc­tion with no greater fis­cal stan­dard than “throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks” should drive pretty much ev­ery­one nuts. Mean­while, wise and care­ful use of pub­lic money spent on needed projects shouldn’t bother any­one.

For in­stance, it took 410 days to build the Em­pire State Build­ing and 16 months to build the Pen­tagon but nearly 20 years to com­plete Bos­ton’s Big Dig high­way tun­nel project. The Hoover Dam was sched­uled to take seven years but was com­pleted in five. That would be a gen­er­ous timetable for an En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency re­view of the pro­posal to­day.

That sort of success is still pos­si­ble — if you cut out the political mid­dle­men. In 1994, Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Pete Wil­son re­sponded to the Northridge earth­quake by in­vok­ing emer­gency pow­ers that al­lowed him to go around the red tape and union-pad­ding that usu­ally goes with big in­fra­struc­ture projects. The 10 free­way be­tween down­town L.A. and Santa Mon­ica was so dam­aged, ex­perts thought it would take two years to re­pair. By of­fer­ing con­trac­tors huge cash bonuses based on how quickly the work was done, the work was com­pleted in barely more than two months. The win­ning bid­der, C.C. My­ers Inc., made al­most as much off the bonuses as it did off the bid.

If the Repub­li­can Congress com­bined with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion can give the pub­lic some con­fi­dence that their money won’t be wasted or sluiced through self-deal­ing bu­reau­crats and unions — in other words, if the plan is based on some­thing be­yond “throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks” — con­ser­va­tives won’t go crazy. Like lib­er­als and ev­ery­one else, they might just go along with an in­fra­struc­ture surge.

Jonah Gold­berg is syn­di­cated by The Washington Post Writ­ers Group.

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