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Posted at 9:32 AM ET, 12/10/2010

The road not taken -- or built

By Ezra Klein

Andrew Samwick is right that we'd be better off borrowing $850 billion to repair and upgrade the nation's infrastructure than to give people tax breaks of varying quality and purpose:

The ASCE released a new report card in February 2009. It put the 5-year cost of remediating the nation's infrastructure at $2.2 trillion, more than a trillion of which is not currently authorized. For the $900 billion that this tax cut deal will cost, the government could go a long way toward meeting these objectives. When all the money is spent, we would have expanded our productive capacity and be in a better position to service the additional debt incurred. When all of this tax cut deal's costs are incurred, what will we have that compares?

And all the arguments I made here still hold.

By Ezra Klein  | December 10, 2010; 9:32 AM ET
 
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Comments

Question:

When all of this tax cut deal's costs are incurred, what will we have that compares?

Answer:

A bunch of cheap Chinese crap with a short half life; or if you will, the quick bright stuff of land fills and garage sales.

Posted by: AgaBey | December 10, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

"Andrew Samwick is right that we'd be better off borrowing $850 billion to repair and upgrade the nation's infrastructure than to give people tax breaks of varying quality and purpose:"


And yet, we didn't do that with the first $850 billion stimulus.

Liberals don't actually care about infrastructure. They just talk about it while pumping up unions and Medicaid.

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 10, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Infrastructure is important, but look at the Japanese who've paved everything in sight and still aren't growing.

Who is to say that the money in the hands of millions won't spark more lucurative actions than putting road crews back to work.

Posted by: DogNabit | December 10, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

"Liberals don't actually care about infrastructure. They just talk about it while pumping up unions and Medicaid."

krazen1211,

I think liberals care about infrastructure, it just isn't priority number one for them.

If their top priorities were infrastructure, employment and state/local budgets, Davis Bacon would be toast.

If infrastructure is still in bad shape after the largest surge in federal government spending in a generation, then I don't think we should have much faith in the federal government to fix the problem.

Posted by: justin84 | December 10, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

krazen et al:

What a silly statement since Republicans are no more likely to invest in infrastructure than Dems. The problem is that the construction lobby is one of the weakest on Capitol Hill excepting the mega companies like Haliburton and Bechtel which don't confine themselves to jobs like this in the US.

The companies that do this work, are much more fratured than other industries such as oil or insurance. Most of their lobbying occurs on the state level and is highly successful there. If you want road building and public water related work, you need to form an effective lobbying group.

Posted by: 54465446 | December 10, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

The ASCE's numbers do not add up to $2.2 trillion, so far as I can tell -- maybe the country needs $3.4 trillion instead?

http://www.aqueousadvisors.com/blog/?p=397

has a table. If someone can get a clarification on the sums from the ASCE, that would be welcome.

Posted by: matthewfrank1 | December 10, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Here's the problem with Democrats complaining about needing more money to invest in 'infrastructure'. Just yesterday it was reported that Obama is taking away money from Ohio and Wisconsin that was in the original 'stimulus' bill earmar...errrr, 'budgeted' for high-speed rail. He's reallocating it instead to states like California, since they elected Democr....errrr, because they are more serious about developing energy-friendly mass transportation.

Here's the rub....Ohio and Wisconsin committed the sin of electing Republican governors, who ran against the silly ideas of wasting billions building high-speed rails that nobody will use because Americans like to drive cars.

Their new GOP governors instead petitioned Obama to allow them to use the funds to do just what Ezra is pitching above....repairing/rebuilding roads and bridges.

But Obama would have none of it, because progressives would rather waste billions in their quixotic pursuit of pet projects like high-speed rail...i.e., it's more important to progressives to advance their ideaological agenda than to do realistic things that best leverage tax dollars to help the most citizens.

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

dbw:

Very quixotic of you. If the situation was reversed, how likely would Republican governors be to support the President? How much help has Obama received from Republicans in Congress?

This is the big leagues, and everybody knows the price before they enter the game.

BTW, I agree with you about high-speed rail, just not about the whining about losing the political game.

Posted by: 54465446 | December 10, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

dbw1 - Maybe high-speed rail doesn't make sense in Cleveland or Madison, but it makes infinite sense in Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, and probably some other places. Saying Americans love driving and love cars and love traffic jams and ex-urban suburbs completely flies in the face of the amount of money people are willing to pay to live in well-maintained urban cores. Somehow people never connect "You can buy a lot more house out here" with "This is a less desirable place to live". Give someone a realistic option of taking a bus or a bike or a train to work and they will do it.

Posted by: willows1 | December 10, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

willows1:

You just made a tremendous point. For all I know, high speed rail may be a great idea for California. But I live in Ohio, and can discuss why it would be a disastrous waste of money here. So why should the federal government take money from me (or anyone else who doesn't live in California) and give it to California so they can build a high-speed rail line in California that I will never use?

That's why projects like these are best left to the states. If those are great ideas for those cities states, then let the citizens of those cities/states pay for it!

This is the problem progressives always run into...why should it be up to the federal government to tax all taxpayers to fund social/domestic projects where one region gets all the benefit. In other words, why should someone in Idaho have to pay for the health care, high-speed rail, or art enjoyed by someone in New York?

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

willow:

Sorry to disagree, but on what basis would hgih speed rail be a good deal?

Posted by: 54465446 | December 10, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

dbw, CA is very happy to have those HSR dollars.

CA is so happy to have it, that we are paying for it, and those funds we are getting are matching funds.

Look up CA Prop 1a (2008), where we agreed to pay $10B for it.

We voted for it because none of us like to drive through Central California and we all hate LAX.

Also, I advise looking at how tax dollars flow. Dollars flow out of wealthy (and Democratic leaning) states into poorer, more rural (and Republican leaning) states.

Californians pay more tax dollars than they receive from the federal gov't. And so do New Yorkers. AND WE WANT HIGHER TAXES, TOO!!

A real wonder, isn't it?

Posted by: will12 | December 10, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

54465446
"This is the big leagues, and everybody knows the price before they enter the game. BTW, I agree with you about high-speed rail, just not about the whining about losing the political game."

I can only speak for Ohio...if you ever listened to incoming-GOP-governor Kasich during the campaign, I never heard him rail against the idea of "stimulus" (which should make Ezra smile). In fact, I even took what he said in one interview to imply he could go along with the general idea of one-time stimulus to build permanent structures that otherwise might never be funded with normal operating budgets (e.g., the Blue Ridge Parkway build with FDR's equivalent of 'stimulus' in the 1930's).

What Kasich railed against was that Obama and Democrats misused the idea of 'stimulus' to fund all the wrong things. They either restricted the usage to their preferred ideaological projects (read: high speed rail) that may or may not work for every state/region, or they allowed stimulus funds to be used to plug gaps in state/county operating budgets.

This latter provision, of course, was pretty stupid. So great, a city was able to employ 20 workers for 6 more months than they would have....but then the stimulus money was gone, the workers were still laid off, and there was nothing to show for the stimulus money spent (i.e., a bridge, a new road, etc).

So the point was that even the GOP governors were willing to do what Ezra seems to be pitching above (building roads and bridges), but Obama refused to let them use the money for that because HE wants to build high-speed rails come hell or high-water. So Democrats have no room to complain that there isn't money available for building roads/bridges....it's just the money that exists they have already earmarked for their preferred projects. You can't have it both ways.

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Clearly it's more important to maintain low taxes--especially but not only for millionaires and billionaires--than give real jobs to people to fix our infrastructure. Ask real people--not economists or politicians--whether they'd prefer a little extra in their paychecks versus jobs for their neighbors and a more modern infrastructure. I think the answer has been clear to most people for well over a year now.

Posted by: pjro | December 10, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

dbw1 - By the same logic that the Federal Government takes money from Ohio to pay for a military base in South Carolina. Or money from Indiana to pay for roads in Texas or money from New York to subsidize logging projects in Oregon. The government is acting as a "broker" to make things happen that the states wouldn't otherwise be able to do.

Posted by: willows1 | December 10, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

"So why should the federal government take money from me (or anyone else who doesn't live in California) and give it to California so they can build a high-speed rail line in California that I will never use?"

Great point.
Brilliant really.

I wish we had people like you around 140 years ago with low-speed rail. The West and Plains would still be wild with buffalo, Indians, and Prairie Dogs.

Of course if we did have people like you around then, people like you today wouldn't exist today. Would that be a good thing? Hmmm...

I am always amazed by what our country could do back then and can't do today. Once we were giants, a can-do nation in ascent. Why even in the 60s it was: Ask not what your nation can do for you, for we are going to the moon...

Today?

We've become a nation of me-first whiners.
The decay is palatable.
And printable.

Just click on any political comment thread.
(Assuming of course, you can handle the grammar and spelling.)

Posted by: AgaBey | December 10, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

will12:

What don't you understand....those 'matching funds' are still dollars coming from outside California into California. That means citizens of other states are paying some of the cost for you to have high-speed rail, because your citizens don't want to pay for ALL of it.

And I don't have numbers in front of me to prove you otherwise, so I'll concede for a moment your point that Californians pay out more to the federal government than they get. Why would you want to do that? If that's really true, wouldn't you be better off then to lower your federal tax rates so you can keep more of your own money, and then if you and your fellow citizens in California decide you want to pay 50% of your income to support a litany of state programs and shiney high-speed trains....more power to you.

But again, why should taxpayers in Ohio, Idaho, and New Hampshire have to pay money to build you a high-speed rail system that they will never use? Progressives have to defend that concept, and yet they never do. Because they can't. A real wonder, isn't it?

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

dbw:

I can't disagree with you about how the stimulus money was spent. But then again, I don't believe in the concept of stimulus in the first place. The effects of what the Dems did had no more stimulus effect on jobs, than calling the current tax cut package stimulus.

If we had any REAL wise people in government, we would change over to having a capital budget separate from an operating budget, similar to how larger businesses do. Don't hold your breath!

Posted by: 54465446 | December 10, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

AgaBey:
"I wish we had people like you around 140 years ago with low-speed rail. The West and Plains would still be wild with buffalo, Indians, and Prairie Dogs."

Perhaps you are more attuned to 1800's history than I am. Can you point me to the government stimulus program that funded the Intercontinental Railroad? Or, just maybe, did the money that funded the explosive growth of rail lines across the west come from....dare I say it....greedy rich business owners looking to make even more money?

I think you misunderstand my point. High-speed rail may be a great idea. It might be the best idea since the steam locamotive....for California. Or for the East Coast. But not for all states, or all regions of the country. So why should all states have to pay tax dollars to support a high-speed rail line that benefits only those in a limited geographic area?

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

dbw1 - But the entire Department of Transportation works under this model. All of these federally-subsidized road projects have matching dollars from Washington. Ohio gets dollars from Pennsylvania and Ohio gives dollar to Indiana and Illinois gives dollars to Wisconsin, etc. Think of high-speed rail as a kind of road and I think you'll sleep a lot better at night.

Posted by: willows1 | December 10, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

willows1:
"By the same logic that the Federal Government takes money from Ohio to pay for a military base in South Carolina. Or money from Indiana to pay for roads in Texas or money from New York to subsidize logging projects in Oregon."

My, my...did your liberal professor do a number on you if you can't differentiate between things that benefit the whole country (military) vs things that benefit a select few (a local road in Indiana).

I tend to be one of those quirky individuals who believes our founders had the right idea...there are a certain LIMITED number of things that the federal government is best served to do, that individual states/cities can't do for themselves....you know, like fund and deploy a strong, effective military. I have no problem with that. A strong military benefits me as much as it does someone in California.

What the founders did not intention, I don't believe, was for the federal government to be using their power to redistribute wealth from someone in New York to pay for a bridge in Atlanta.

I invite you to read one of my favorite passages ever. It's called the 10th Amendment. I'm just guessing your liberal professor didn't give it much coverage during your American Government class.

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

dbw:

Sorry, you're completely mistaken about the sources of funding for the Trans-Continental Railroad. While there were private investors, they made most of their money by bilking the government for construction costs.

They got public land in lots on either side of every mile of track, and the investors like Stanford and Huntington set up separate construction companies to which they awarded the contracts for construction. They also constantly lobbied the government to increase the allowance for construction rates.

In one final brilliant move, because they got more money for construction in mountainous areas than plains, they "moved' the Rocky Mountains to where smallest hill was characterized as the beginning of the mountainous region.

Still considering this project was begun in an effort to keep California etc in the Union during the Civil War, it was arguably worth it to the nation

Posted by: 54465446 | December 10, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

"What a silly statement since Republicans are no more likely to invest in infrastructure than Dems. The problem is that the construction lobby is one of the weakest on Capitol Hill excepting the mega companies like Haliburton and Bechtel which don't confine themselves to jobs like this in the US.

The companies that do this work, are much more fratured than other industries such as oil or insurance. Most of their lobbying occurs on the state level and is highly successful there. If you want road building and public water related work, you need to form an effective lobbying group.
"


Oh, Republicans don't care about infrastructure either.

All they have to do is set up adequate tolls and use the toll revenue to fix that infrastructure.

It costs $10 to cross the damn Verrazano Narrows bridge. If they can't maintain infrastructure its because they are diverting money to other crap.

Posted by: krazen1211 | December 10, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

dbw, I believe things that benefit Ohio benefit the entire country. That's why I will gladly pay money to help schoolchildren in your neighborhood receive a better education, even if you're neighborhood can't afford to fund that education locally.

I would gladly send my tax dollars to your cities to revitalize your infrastructure so that more commerce can flow through Ohio and provide more jobs to Ohioans and any Americans that seek those jobs. More jobs anywhere in America makes this nation stronger.

That is the progressive ideal explained.

Posted by: will12 | December 10, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

willow:
"Think of high-speed rail as a kind of road and I think you'll sleep a lot better at night."

Exactly the point! A highway may serve Ohioans best, while a high-speed rail may be best for Californians. Instead of letting Ohio spend 'transportation' money as we think is best for our state, though, Obama took money away from us to give it to California...because he wants high-speed rails!

If the federal government feels the need to fleece money from us citizens, just to turn around and give it back to us to build transportation infrastructure.....fine, but let states determine what transportation infrastructure works best for them.

Progressives, however, are determined to advance their ideaological agenda...which has nothing to do with what's the best use of our tax dollars. So that's why stimulus money is taken from Ohio and given to California, when progressive-liberals don't like how Ohio wants to spend it because it doesn't fit their ideaological temmplate.

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

dbw1 - I can respect your consistency. If you think we should completely do away with the federal Department of Transportation and just allow states to fend for themselves when it comes to roads and bridges and rail projects, then that is a logically defensible position and I commend you for it.

Posted by: willows1 | December 10, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

"Can you point me to the government stimulus program that funded the Intercontinental Railroad?"

http://www.jstor.org/pss/3112740

Please don't make me put in any links showing that the automobile and oil companies didn't pay for the National Highway System either. Or that Comcast didn't develop the web. Or that... etc. etc. etc.

Because...

My post is about something much larger than that.

(Although I do apologize for the tenor and temperature of it.)

Posted by: AgaBey | December 10, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

willow:
"dbw, I believe things that benefit Ohio benefit the entire country. That's why I will gladly pay money to help schoolchildren in your neighborhood receive a better education, even if you're neighborhood can't afford to fund that education locally.
That is the progressive ideal explained."

Close, but I think what you were looking for is "that is the progressive ideal exposed."

Do you not have poor school districts in California who need your tax dollars? Or has California eradicated poverty, and I missed the memo?

The fact is, if you take care of the poor neighborhoods around you, and I take care of the poor neighborhoods around me, there is no need to have a federal government program that is taking money from rich people in Cleveland to fund poor schools in the San Fernando valley, or to take money from rich people in San Francisco to fund poor schools in inner-city Cincinnati.

This is the fallacy of progressivism....that the federal government is the only entity that can adequately and efficiently fill the basic needs of ALL citizens. Some how, some way, our country managed to educate generations of citizens without a federal agency re-allocating money from one state to another before progressives brought us the DOE. How did that magically happen?

Posted by: dbw1 | December 10, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

dbw1 - "Progressives, however, are determined to advance their idealogical [sic] agenda"

True. We have beliefs and we do what we can to advance those beliefs.

Posted by: willows1 | December 10, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Yes, California went from having one of the best education systems in the country to one of the worst. But that is the fault of our local legislators, not the DOE.

Not all states have the resources to address their own needs.

I agree with willow, though. Your consistency is commendable, and if you think all federal aid and redistribution of resources should be abolished to let all states fend for themselves, more power to you.

Does that argument extend to military bases as well?

Posted by: will12 | December 10, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

dbw1 - I don't think it's just the federal government that can take care of poverty, but you do have regional problems that can't be adequately addressed by the states themselves. In this case the federal gov't acts as a kind of ballast to the whole country. It also sets a kind of minimum standard that states shouldn't fall below. This way very stingy states can't just export their problems to more liberal states. No more checkpoints at the California border.

Posted by: willows1 | December 10, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

dbw1 - I don't think it's just the federal government that can take care of poverty, but you do have regional problems that can't be adequately addressed by the states themselves. In this case the federal gov't acts as a kind of ballast to the whole country. It also sets a kind of minimum standard that states shouldn't fall below. This way very stingy states can't just export their problems to more liberal states. No more checkpoints at the California border.

Posted by: willows1 | December 10, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Samwick's idea is simply another by sensible economists that doesn't have 60 votes in the Senate.

Posted by: fredbrack | December 10, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Samwick's idea is nothing more than another by economists that doesn't have 60 votes in the Senate.

Posted by: fredbrack | December 10, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

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