On Wednesday, the White House revealed more details about the two infrastructure initiatives proposed by President Obama in last week's State of the Union address. As I read about various administration goals -- saving taxpayer money by emphasizing repairs over new construction, increasing private-sector participation, maximizing the potential for job creation, cutting through bureaucratic red tape -- I had to ask myself: why didn't more members of the GOP stand up when President Obama unveiled these plans?
Granted, as far as emotionally stirring calls to action go, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entreaty to fix the nation’s ailing roads, bridges, ports, pipelines, and other infrastructure wasn’t anywhere near “ask not what your country can do for you” territory. And in terms of ambition, based on what little specific information we currently have, it’s probably safe to say that we’re not talking about anything on the order of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA or Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. Nevertheless, the way President Obama outlined his ideas suggested that he really and truly (and wisely) is seeking broad, bipartisan buy-in for his infrastructure improvement plans.
No one disputes the assertion that we need to act now to repair our woefully outdated infrastructure; where we disagree with one another tends to be on the question of how to pay for it. Even so, for all the chattering-class talk of mandates and bully pulpits and post–re-election "swagger," I was struck by the manner in which the President framed a pair of major public-works initiatives in language designed to appeal not only to those who helped re-elect him -- but also to conservatives, who most certainly didn't.
“Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire,” he said last week. “A country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, and self-healing power grids? The CEO of Siemens America -- a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina -- has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs.” Though the State of the Union speech is "officially" an address to a joint session of Congress, this portion of the speech seemed like a subtle shout-out by the President to state and local officials, Democrats and Republicans alike, that the initiatives he had in mind would ultimately redound to their benefits.
After all, it's America's governors, state legislators, mayors, and county commissioners who make the bulk of the decisions on which specific infrastructure projects to pursue. In his very next sentence, the President acknowledged the local angle -- and underscored the win-win economic calculus that defines infrastructure repair initiatives -- when he observed, wryly: “And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I’ve seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.”
At the level of political speech, it was potent -- and not just because the President managed to bring CEOs, workers, energy companies, environmentalists, mass transit, communications technology, and education under one rhetorical umbrella. It was potent, ultimately, because it was true -- and politicians at all levels, and from both parties, know it. The Siemens factory to which the President alluded, for example, opened its doors in Charlotte in 2011. As the Washington Post has pointed out, the 825 American jobs it created would, only a few years ago, most likely have “gone to India, China or another low-wage country. This time, American workers won out.”
When Siemens executives were asked why they chose Charlotte over Bangalore or Beijing, the higher-ups at this German-based multinational were perfectly clear: “public investments such as the state-funded rail spur that runs through their facility and the city’s international airport, which recently added a fourth runway using $132 million in federal funds.” Charlotte’s infrastructure investments, in other words, yielded major job-creation dividends. And as the Center for American Progress’s Kristina Costa and Adam Hersh have noted, the economic ripple effects that come from putting money into rebuilding and repairing infrastructure give it a uniquely high return on investment. When employment among construction workers goes up, for example -- as it did in the wake of the 2009 stimulus bill -- the employment rates in related sectors, such as hauling and manufacturing, rise concordantly.
Fiscal hawks who rail against wasteful government spending and private-public boondoggles should have jumped to their feet at the President’s invocation of “Fix-It-First,” which has -- up until now, at least -- existed primarily as a philosophy in search of real-world expression. The idea is a simple one: improve what you’ve already got before you build something new. But it’s also a fundamentally conservative philosophy, when you think about it, rooted in heartland virtues of thrift and “waste not, want not.”
Even so, some of our most parsimonious politicians, aided and abetted by transportation policies that incentivize growth over repair, have trouble adhering to such virtues whenever they inhale the tempting aroma of pork in the form of brand-new airports, bridges, and highways -- all of which tend to generate favorable local media coverage and photo-ops with beaming constituents. Such policies seem especially misguided in light of evidence showing that repair projects actually end up creating more jobs than new construction projects -- up to 16 percent more of them, in fact, according to one 2009 University of Utah report.
Similarly, you’d think that the President’s mention of his proposed Partnership to Rebuild America would have had the GOP’s free-market champions standing and cheering like Rand Paul at a Rush concert. The idea here would be to save taxpayer money by leveraging private-sector investment for the financing of big infrastructure projects. One much-discussed manifestation of this line of thinking would be the manifestation of a National Infrastructure Bank, which would, quite literally, bank on the business community’s enlightened self-interest when it comes to improving the roads, bridges, ports, tunnels, and rail lines on which it depends. Private actors would partner with governments on repair projects for any infrastructure that featured a proven revenue stream of some sort -- think the tolls collected on a toll road, or the fees collected by a shipping port. Then, once the project was completed, those same investors would be entitled to their dividend, in the form of a percentage of any revenues thus generated.
It sounds like the kind of joint-ownership arrangement that even Atlas Shrugged’s Dagny Taggart could love. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if those who mocked the President in 2012 for saying, truthfully, that business owners “didn’t build that” -- meaning the infrastructural capital that’s every bit as vital to industry as labor and machinery -- will be willing to tacitly cede his point by taking him up on the invitation to help build it this time.
Image: Flickr/Washington State Department of Transportation