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Didn't the stimulus take care of our infrastructure needs?

stimsign.JPG

The main objection I've been hearing in response to my columns on the need for more infrastructure spending is that the stimulus was supposed to have handled all of this for us and the fact that it didn't shows we can't trust this administration with more cash. "Obama had almost a trillion in stimulus dollars that was supposed to go to just that 'infrastructure spending,'' one reader wrote to me.

That suggests it would be useful to go back and review Recovery and Reinvestment Act's spending. The proposal finished at $787 billion. Of this, infrastructure accounted for a bit more than $100 billion. Where did the rest go? Well, $288 billion went to tax cuts and incentives. Another $150 billion went to the health-care system, most of it to help Medicaid and COBRA deal with the millions of Americans who'd lost their jobs and, thus, their health-care coverage. Education got another $100 billion, with most of it going to local school systems so they could avoid layoffs and continue with needed building maintenance. About $82 billion went to aid for unemployed workers, including unemployment benefits and food stamps. About another $50 billion went to scientific research, housing subsidies, miscellaneous other items like law enforcement. Wikipedia has a detailed breakdown here.

Should the stimulus have been all infrastructure? Or more infrastructure? I'd say unemployment benefits, food stamps, state and local aid, and Medicaid and COBRA benefits were the most pressing priorities. Infrastructure would come next in my book. Then the long-term investments, like health information technology, research funding and other items that were aimed at keeping our long-term growth prospects healthy. The tax cuts don't quicken my pulse, though I see the case for them. President Obama is right to be self-critical, I think, in reflecting on his decision to simply add his own tax cuts and assume that would be seen as a bipartisan compromise rather than forcing Republicans to offer up a proposal and take ownership over part of the package. But that's a political argument.

Whatever we should have done on infrastructure spending doesn't change what we did do on infrastructure. About $100 billion, spread over two or three years. Let's call it $40 billion a year for the first two years, with the rest trickling out after that. According to official data, that's funded about 30,000 infrastructure projects across the country so far. That's a lot.

We've got about $2.2 trillion in needed infrastructure spending. A bipartisan group of former transportation secretaries released a report saying we need about $194 billion in annual infrastructure spending through 2035. To improve our infrastructure, we need more than $200 billion every year. There's no way the stimulus's $40 billion or so could've wiped that out.

The bottom line on infrastructure is the same as the bottom line on stimulus: The fact that we did a lot doesn't mean we did enough. The fact that the numbers were large doesn't mean that the needed numbers weren't larger. This is perhaps clearer on infrastructure than on stimulus. The stimulus arguments rely on calculations of the "output gap," which are necessarily abstract. When it comes to infrastructure, if the stimulus didn't give the state enough money to fix a particular road, those potholes remain present when you drive it.

Photo credit: Jeffrey MacMillan for The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  | October 14, 2010; 1:54 PM ET
Categories:  Stimulus  
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Next: Nancy Pelosi's problem

Comments

"Another $150 billion went to the health-care system, most of it going to help Medicaid and COBRA deal with the millions of Americans who'd lost their jobs and, thus, their health-care coverage."

COBRA doesn't "deal with" anything, COBRA iz a requirement imposed on employers to extend access to health insurance for up to 18 months after job loss. Normally the former employee pays the premiums. That is, if the former employee survives the sticker shock once they see how much their cadillac corporate coverage actually costs. The only people who will actually pay for COBRA coverage are those who have uninsurable medical conditions or those who are really, really, stupid. However, our really, really stupid government subsidized cadillac COBRA coverage for all. These folks should have been made eligible for Medicaid. It would have saved the taxpayers a lot of money, but the Democrats could probably not afford to let so many people get a sneak preview of government provided access to health care.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 14, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Why is this even an issue? Infrastructure investment creates jobs, stimulates the economy, and repairs our country's crumbling infrastructure.

Who cares if we already spent a small amount of money on it? I don't see many republicans saying "we already cut taxes once, we shouldn't do it again."

Posted by: world_dictator | October 14, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Come on, guys, there's clearly a problem here: transportation and infrastructure in this country is insufficient and government is not doing much to address it. The answer is clear: private companies will swoop in and profitably fix our roads and other infrastructure problems while building large scale transportation projects.

...

Any day now, they'll swoop in.

...

We better all hold our breath to make sure it happens...

Posted by: MosBen | October 14, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me that one of the essential facts of our political debate is that everyone has a hard time wrapping their minds around how huge this country is. People run around screaming at the notion of spending 200 billion dollars, and properly so, because that's an immense amount of money. And yet our country is so huge, and has so much stuff in it, that even that immense amount of money isn't enough to keep our stuff in order. It's hard to grasp.

Posted by: DeliciousPundit | October 14, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this post as I had been aggravated about the objections.$100 billion out of $2.2 trillion is 4.5% of what is needed, so you can only expect to see 5% of the problems to be remedied. There are a couple of other points to be made, though.

As your post earlier this week clearly showed, gas prices are below their pre-crisis levels. Oil prices were the primary driver, and asphalt binder is a product of oil refining. Add to this the cost of the diesel to operate the trucks and pavers, and the cost of asphalt paving was increasing dramatically. Similar trends were evident in other infrastructure costs. This led to projects being postponed, and making our highway maintenance problem even worse.

In addition, the stimulus funds were directed at projects that had to be "shovel-ready" in order to create jobs. As jobs were the primary justification for the stimulus, this makes sense. However, this eliminated the projects that were still on the drawing board, i.e. that couldn't start construction soon. Major new construction projects take years to get to design, permit and acquire the right of way (the agency I work with typically leaves 2 years to get through this). However, maintenance (including the rebuilding of existing structures) requires far less time.

Finally, anyone who didn't see one of the signs you featured at the top of your post must not get out much.

Posted by: mskidz | October 14, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Congress had $787 billion to play with, and decided to spend most of the money on transfer payments. You think that the transfer payments were more important than infrastructure. Okay, well the money is gone.

You had posts in this blog defending wasteful stimulus projects on the basis that money was spent. At lot of us at the time were saying that spending money on worthless projects for the sake of spending was a waste.

Finally, most of us haven't seen useful infrastructure spending. In my area, there was one major project - repaving a road that wasn't really in bad shape to begin with. My share of ARRA was $2,500 and all I have to show for it is a slightly nicer road and $400 in the bank (which will then be taxed away again in the future). The cherry on top is that the nicer road was surely overpaid for due to Davis Bacon.

Posted by: justin84 | October 14, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

It's an amusing feature of our political system that people who wouldn't trust our generals to tell us how much we should be spending on defense are willing to defer to our transportation secretaries when they tell us how to spend on transportation. And vice versa.

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 14, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

--*A bipartisan group of former transportation secretaries released a report saying we need about $194 billion in annual infrastructure spending through 2035.*--

Bless their little pea picking hearts. I bet every one of those former transportation secretaries is as enthralled with the power of other people's money as Klein is.

Posted by: msoja | October 14, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

The Spendulous was a fraud and anybody with half a brain knew it! Government doesn't create jobs, it creates debt! I don't care what you call them, the Taxpayer ends up paying the bill and THAT"S NOT A JOB! Only crooked politicians and 1/4 wits can support this garbage!

This president and his programs are a fraud. He couldn't care less about this country or its citizens.

Why is Mr. Micro-Manager AWOL on the shoting of an Americam citizen on Falcon Lake?

Why haven't we been hearing anything about what he intends to do about it? Even the Sec. of State has to be prodded to even acknowledge it happened. Don't they represent AMERICANS?

No! It's not part of their plot!

What's disturbing is that so many idiots choose to ignore the subversive actions by this bunch of Chicago thugs!

Bet Kenya Boy would be "front and center" if Americans said "we've had enough and we're going to the National Forest South of Tucson armed!He'd be there with armed troops to stop AMERICANS from hurting his ILLEGAL INVADERS (in self defense) in a hearthbeat.

Remember, that "The One's" only action to protect Americans in Arizona is to erect signs warning AMERICANS not to go there. Then he sues Arizona for enacting a law to enforce what is really THE FEDERAL LAW!

So who's this guy working for anyway?" Not us for sure!

Posted by: TexRancher | October 14, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

--*Any day now, they'll swoop in.*--

The citizens are already taxed out their wazoos in the name of transportation, all sent off to the bloated, wasteful, and incompetent state and federal transportation agencies where it is frittered away on thousands of inane and insane grants and special projects, each with smiling politicians standing behind them consolidating their next block of sure votes.

At the least, the federal DOT should be abolished and all monies under its current purview returned to the states where maybe the citizens could scrutinize things a little better. As long as Washington is in the mix, though, untold trillions could be pumped into fixing "transportation" and whatever mess there is will just get worse.

Posted by: msoja | October 14, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Yep, just as I've always said.

Infrastructure is a smokescreen. Liberals don't actually care about it as much as they do about welfare cash handouts for their base.

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 14, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Yep, just as I've always said.

Infrastructure is a smokescreen. Liberals don't actually care about it as much as they do about welfare cash handouts for their base.

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 14, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

"Any day now, they'll swoop in."
It's actually already happening. http://www.virginiahotlanes.com/

The public method of providing unlimited health care is just not working. We don't need unlimited insurance for anyone when the costs are so insane and the insured are insulated from them.

Posted by: staticvars | October 14, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

" I'd say unemployment benefits, food stamps, state and local aid, and Medicaid and COBRA benefits..."
----------------
Who cares WHAT you think, Ezra? You're a little punk who's never had a real job, is ignorant on life and reality in general. Go out and work for a while, then maybe your opinions will be worth listening to.

Posted by: silencedogoodreturns | October 15, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

The stimulus should have gone for infrastructure spending INSTEAD of for public education, COBRA, Medicaid, etc. Then we would have created JOBS instead of simply throwing money at jobless benefits. Now that its gone Obama wants more. He had the opportunity to teach people to go fishing and he decided it was better for his political friends to give away all the fish first.

Posted by: liseliz | October 15, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Hey JournOlist,

How much in taxpayer funds was used to create these Obama Administration propaganda signs promoting this disgraceful giveaway? It doesn't even occur to liberals like yourself that this is exactly the kind of thing that infuriates people.

Posted by: petmal1212 | October 15, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

The money would have been better spent sending us each a check. The money would have gone directly back into the economy and each family could have used their own priorities to determine haw to spend it wisely.
Absolutely nothing in this bill was intended to create new jobs and how it could be touted to keep unemployment below 8% is fantasy. Teachers were still laid off and the money was spent on remaining teacher salary.
This bill was rushed, and I believe if given another shot at $787 billion the Congress would have looked harder and not just let the Presidents priorities rule the day.
The Administration and the 111th Congress may not be responsible for the Economy they inherited but they own the weakest Recovery since the Depression. Really when you hail the loss of 90,000 jobs as a success in policy as they just did you are not setting your sights high enough.
Everything they touch just leads to more uncertainty to both individuals and Business, health care costs, tax policy, energy, housing, deficits, spending on and on. When only 30% of the electorate (the same amount who think the president is a Muslim)think the country is headed in the right direded ction it is arrogant and shortsighted to thing we want to Move Forward with the current Policies.

Posted by: apexmerch | October 15, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Journolist is crying for more tax payer money to be funneled to union goons.

Union goons? Why are calling contruction workers union goons?

Because Obama signed an executive order that made sure that ONLY contruction workers belonging to a union are able to work on federally funded projects.

Or, if you prefer, Obama signed an executive order that made sure that ONLY contruction workers that contribute to Democratic campaigns are able to work on federally funded projects.

goons

Posted by: TECWRITE | October 15, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Wow, another insightful screed by the intern.

I think the Dems thought that if they stole enough taxpayer money, the paltry amount that actually trickled down would "stimulate" the economy. What the smartest guy in the room doesn't get is that his economic theory has never worked and never will work.

Posted by: wiredguy5 | October 15, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Nowhere in your piece do you refute the fundamental assertion that you open with. The fact remains that Obama took almost $1 trillion (over $10,000 per US family) and flushed it down the toilet!

Increasingly Liberals are content to openly admit their fundamental philosophy is to make people (or states) as comfortable as possible being poor (maybe the proper P.C. term "underfunded"?).

The problem with this strategy is that it simply postpones the inevitable bottom, and flattens the potential recovery.

Now we find ourselves two years into this mess, now we learn housing is nowhere near recovery because Obama has done nothing to fix Fannie & Freedie, or streamline the foreclosure process. Additionally, Obama has paid states to postpone inevitable cuts and paid workers not to work; all the while focusing his legislative energies on heaping health care, cap-and-tax and card check on the business who would otherwise be hiring now.

Obama's agenda is entering a second revolution of this downward spiral, eviscerating a tax base that should be recovering now.

A dollar borrowed or taxes for government is a dollar that is not spent in the private sector to create a sustainable private job, that will increase the tax base. A dollar taxed from a "rich" investor or "greedy" corporation is a dollar not invested to create a factory or business to hire additional workers.

Posted by: ELF2 | October 15, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein, do you ever stop shilling for the Democrats and more spending? As a former Democratic staffer even I can't believe the contortions you go through to justify virtually any idea thrown up by the party you support.

Dear Washington Post: how about sometime you hire an "economic and domestic policy" expert who has actually had a job applying themselves to either of those, rather than sitting in an office and expanding on stale partisan talking points.

I am sure Mr. Klein has a great academic pedigree, but he's the most predictable pundit on the left I know of...every time I read him I regret it because I never come across a fresh idea. He's the epitome of everything that is wrong with DC's political conversation.

Posted by: Arclight21 | October 15, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Here are my infrastructure needs:

Two Gulf-stream jets (one for me, one for my wife).

Two Bentleys (one for me, ...you get the idea).

One big SUV for going on picnics.

One 40' yacht (see, i am not asking for big luxury boat like one Kerry bought).

Now, who wants to pitch in for my stimulus funds?

Posted by: vatodio | October 15, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Liberals and this nitwit of a writer are delusional. If th emoney had been spent on 'infrastructure' and something was actually built, then there would be jobs and unemployment and food stamps wouldn't have been needed. Even a teleprompter-reading monkey should be able to understand this.

Posted by: mgrantham2 | October 15, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

1. I'm all in favor of infrastructure investment. That's exactly what Keynes was looking for - invest in infrastructure when it will boost the economy and be cheap due to availability of labor. Instead, we got the anti-Keynes stimulus - put money into making sure things stay expensive, and make sure almost nothing gives a long term benefit.

2. This "President Obama shouldn't have offered his own tax cuts so that the Republicans could have offered it" meme seems to be getting popular - probably because it is pure bunk. If Obama had waited for Republicans to offer tax cuts, they would have offered tax cuts, and there might have been some bi-partisanship. But he didn't want tax cuts, and didn't offer tax cuts, so he couldn't wait for the Republicans. He just mouthed some words that people in the press were happy to pretend were about tax-cuts. Regardless of what I say, I can't offer you a car-rebate on a car you didn't buy. I can give you money, and call it a "car rebate", but if you didn't buy a car, it still isn't a car rebate. The majority of "tax cut" money went to people who didn't pay taxes. You can pretend they were tax cuts, but it's not true. You may be either enough of an idiot to believe it, or enough of a shill to say it anyway, but for the most part people aren't buying it.

I'm not saying this payment was or wasn't useful, there are good arguments for it, but just admit what was done. A lot of us are tired of journalists playing dumb.

Posted by: mnemos | October 15, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Item one: Ezra, Obama included no "tax cuts" in his stimulus. What he included were transfer payments, giving welfare checks called "tax credits" to people who owed no taxes. Refunding you something you didn't pay for is not anyone's definition of a rebate.

Item two: If Obama had proposed $787 billion for actual infrastructure projects that are already needed (you know, "shovel-ready"), then he might not have had such a hard time selling it to people, since it would truly be an investment in the future, and the hardest-hit sector of the economy - construction - might not be feeding the 9.6% national unemployment. Oh, and there'd be three-quarters of a trillion dollars less that we'd still have to spend later.

Oh, well.

Posted by: INTJ | October 15, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Expecting infrastructure jobs to put Americans back to work is just silly. By definition these jobs are temporary only. What is really needed is to return this country to self sufficiency. Throttle back the EPA and their pristine definition of saving the environment. Lend money to job creating businessmen to modernize their factories, particularly in the
"Rust Belt". Stimulate the market with targeted tax breaks based upon jobs created. Make sure free trade is fair trade. People want to live in America so let's quit driving them away with over regulation and high taxes. Remember they are making products that must be competitive with those made around the world so they need a level playing field to compete. And, above all, quit demonizing those who provide jobs. Provide investors with some certainty. And taxing the top 2% only means that they will pass it along and American consumers will be the ultimate payers of higher taxes on producers.

Posted by: mlyates | October 15, 2010 6:53 PM | Report abuse

I really appreciate the breakdown of the corrupt stimulous bill by Joe Klein. Its more than we ever got from Obama or the Democrats at the time. Remember, the bill had to be passed in less than 24 hours before anybody had time to read it. The first suprise was the AIG bonus guarantees. However, I still remember that Obama told us over and over that it was going for infrastructure and shovel ready projects, shovel ready project, shovel ready projects, that would create jobs and keep UNEMPLOYMENT below 8%? Remember his selling the bill that way Mr. Klein? Somehow the part about all the money going to the states to pay the salaries of public employee and teacher union members as a payoff for them helping elect Democrats got left out. So now we find out that ony 100 billion went to infrastructure, 82 billion went for UNEMPLOYMENT benefits, and the rest pretty much went to Democrat special interests as payoffs? Or am I just too cynical? Wouldn't it have made more sense to spend $700 billion on infrastructure, 82 billion on UNEMPLOYMENT, and create real jobs in the private economy, and force the states to cut back on public employees until new jobs and growth brought in enough state taxes to actually pay for them? Obama and the Democrats ignored economics 101 in favor of their extreme left wing agenda and ideology, and paying off their special interests. Now we are all paying!!!! We need to fire every Democrat on the ballot in Nov!!! Thanks for the analysis Mr Klein! Its a very damning analysis!!!

Posted by: valwayne | October 15, 2010 7:01 PM | Report abuse

More JOurnolist praise in support of UNION jobs. How about the Private sector Klein? You know where the money is actually EARNED to pay for those UNION infrastructure jobs?

how about a column going after BO for his "Pivot to jobs" promised LAST YEAR, which has NEVER materialized.
PRIVATE SECTOR JOBS ARE REQUIRED to get the economy going, NOT more UNION job spending.

Posted by: morphy | October 15, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Oh Ezra is still babbling about 'infrastructure" and 'creating jobs' and such nonsense. Somebody ought to gag this dude, before he looses it completely.

Posted by: SECREV | October 15, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

What Ezra Klein didn't mention, was that the "infrastructure" part of the stimulus package was sold by Obama as providing a large number of new jobs immediately via "shovel-ready" projects.

But these days, no large-scale engineering project comes "shovel ready"--as Obama just admitted in an interview in the NY Times. It takes 1-2 years just to file and process the environmental impact statements, let alone all the other bureaucratic paperwork (most of it imposed by Ezra Klein's liberal heroes)--before a single shovelful of earth can be turned.

Anyone who doubts this can look at the pathetic history of the World Trade Center replacement project in New York City--or the even more pathetic "Big Dig" highway project in Boston MA.

So the issue is NOT whether infrastructure improvement is needed (of course it is). The issue is that the Obama Administration misrepresented the stimulus package as providing zillions of jobs to significantly reduce the unemployment rate. That didn't happen. So now they've backpedaled, saying that by "shovel ready" they "really" meant "ready to start the paperwork." Sorry, you don't do paperwork with shovels.

Liberals like Mr. Klein keep harping on the fact that public works projects provide more employment than do tax cuts to business. What they ignore is that tax cuts to business are stimulative immediately--while infrastructure projects can be tied up indefinitely by paperwork, bureaucracy, the EPA, the unions, NIMBY, etc. So the bang for the buck may be smaller with tax cuts--but at least you get that bang a whole lot sooner.

Posted by: sinz52 | October 15, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Dear Washington Post,
I think the White House is paying Mr. Klein's salary so that is an expense you shouldn't be expected to be responsible for.

Posted by: Sherri04 | October 15, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

'Infrastructure' is one of the carrots that liberals dangle in front of the jackass to get it to move toward higher taxes. 'Police and fire' is another, 'Health care' another. But the jackass never gets the carrot. we never get the infrastructure, we get free college tuition for illegal aliens. Liberal lies. There is no truth in liberal fascism. You can only tell the same lie so many time before people begin to catch on.

Posted by: doctorfixit | October 15, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

The government does a great job of picking winners and losers. They always know where to invest in infrastructure. As`a matter of fact, they should just use their brilliance in the stock market to pick winners and then use the profits to pay for infrastructure projects.

Posted by: jy151310 | October 15, 2010 8:30 PM | Report abuse

A really good view of how Texas handled the recession.

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2010/10/15/the_texas_model_107590.html

Stimulus was a payoff to unions. Obama admitted there weren't any shovel ready jobs. Remember the stimulus was going to preven the unemployment rate going over 8%. The promotion of the stimulus was a lie.

Posted by: jschmidt2 | October 15, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Kid… Your generation is going to have to pay for all this stuff; you need to think about things a little more. You just completed the second biggest debt year in history - with the first biggest the year before. Experts estimate and 10 years the federal budget (assuming that the Democrats are not in control because they don't do budgets) will be totally consumed paying for four things: the interest on the national debt, the military, Social Security, and Medicare.

Kid… Do you REALLY want to keep running up the debt? Running your mouth is easy… Running the debt will bite you in the end.

Posted by: wilsan | October 15, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

Klein, maybe your buddies shouldn't have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on payouts to their union cronies and banks run by Obama's financial backers in his campaign, huh? That would have built a lot of bridges.

Posted by: jb1123 | October 15, 2010 11:04 PM | Report abuse

"I'd say unemployment benefits, food stamps, state and local aid, and Medicaid and COBRA benefits were the most pressing priorities."

Says Mr. Klein. Is he really that . . . hmmmm . . . impaired?

Had the stimulus gone for infrastructure, we'd have something permanent to show for it. Highways, bridges, dams, prisons, waste water plants, parks. People.Doing.Important.Things.

But no. we had food stamps.
Ezra - you lame dude

Posted by: gcoolidge | October 15, 2010 11:22 PM | Report abuse

Everyone knows that the Porkulus Bill, AKA Stimulus Bill, was to fill Imam Obama's slush fund to hand out to voters that voted for him. You know that right?

If any went to infrastructure it was by accident.

Posted by: PerryM1 | October 15, 2010 11:27 PM | Report abuse

Klein is as faux as his beard. It's time for him to move on to Tina Brown's Daily Beast (She named it after herself). Actually, it would be a good move for him.............getting off the drowning WaPo. Maybe the Post can find another billionaire to buy it for a dollar.

Posted by: jundema | October 15, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

President Obama plans to send out $250 checks to voters. Prior the the general election he promised $500 checks. Seems like he is getting cheaper with the vote purchases.

Obama is the first presidnet to succeed at open vote buying. The only other presidential candidate slimy enought to try it was George McGovern, and he failed because it was so crass.

Posted by: gliderpilot | October 16, 2010 12:25 AM | Report abuse

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