The Mythology of Infrastructure


Bloomberg News offers a sneak peak at Obama’s next big “pivot to job creation.”  Of course, it’s all stuff you’ve heard before, because it’s the same program of miserable failure he’s followed ever since he got to the Oval Office:

The White House is considering more infrastructure spending, tax incentives to spur hiring, a reduction in the employer portion of the payroll tax credit and changes to unemployment insurance to subsidize worker retraining for inclusion in a jobs plan Obama is to announce next week, said a person familiar with the discussions.

Obama said at a White House ceremony yesterday he will use the moment to lay out proposals “to put more money in the pockets of working families and middle-class families, to make it easier for small businesses to hire people, to put construction crews to work rebuilding our nation’s roads and railways and airports and all the other measures that can help to grow this economy.”

Obama has spent much of the year pressing Congress to act on a familiar set of plans: renewal of a two-percentage-point cut in the employee-paid portion of the payroll tax and extended unemployment benefits, which are both scheduled to expire on Dec. 31; establishment of an infrastructure bank to fund public works spending; ratification of free-trade deals; and overhauling patent law. Obama has said those also will remain priorities.

You would think someone on Obama’s political team would clear his throat at a meeting and point out that endlessly announcing the exact same things you’ve been doing all along, as if they were bold new initiatives, makes the President look both ridiculous and out of touch. 

The dream Obama refuses to let go of is “infrastructure spending.”  It has an enduring appeal to Obama-style statists for a number of reasons.  Most obviously, it gives Big Government a perpetual excuse for spending boatloads of money.  Note that Obama is still talking about “rebuilding our nation’s roads,” even though he already grabbed over $800 billion for “infrastructure” just two years ago.  By any logical standard, his own demands paint him as an utter failure who should be answering questions under oath about where all of the previous “infrastructure” money went. 

Instead, the President cheerfully demands we forget all about the last round of spending, and give him another dump truck full of money to fill the American moonscape of potholes.  If voters are unwise enough to return Obama to office in 2012, you can bet it wouldn’t be long before he announced his next huge “infrastructure” initiative, confident that few in the press will ask him why America is still a blasted wasteland after he was already given hundreds of billions of dollars to fix it.

It’s important to remember that much of this “infrastructure” money goes to labor unions, who extract mandatory dues from their workers’ paychecks, and return millions to the Democrats in campaign donations and packaged votes.  Every “infrastructure” dollar includes a compulsory taxpayer donation to the Democrat Party.

Beyond the cream he skims off the top for his Party, the President can use those big construction bucks to influence local politics.  A great deal of the last trillion-dollar “stimulus” vanished into thin air.  The same fate awaits the next delicious Slurpee of slush-fund money Obama gulps down.

Infrastructure spending also has profound ideological appeal to statist liberals.  The construction of roads, bridges, and railways is a highly visible demonstration of central planning.  While private firms may be contracted to do the work, redrawing the map is a righteous expression of power that will forever be denied to the private sector.  Wal-Mart and McDonald’s may pave their parking lots, but highways will always belong to the State.  The sight of free people zipping around in Earth-destroying private automobiles is deeply disturbing to the hard Left, which dreams of orderly queues marching aboard high-speed trains.

Naturally the fiction that government can “create jobs” by seizing bales of money from the private sector, and spending it more wisely, is nourishing to the liberal imagination.  Infrastructure is a garden only the government can tend, and dead-end Keynesian economics insist thousands of jobs would surely bloom there.  Never mind that any given road or railway project would, by definition, have an end point, when all of those jobs would go away.  There will always be another road to build… say the people who spend their days shrieking about deforestation and urban sprawl, when they’re out of power.  They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot… oooooh bop bop…

As a bonus, the infrastructure canard contains the seeds of a built-in excuse for Obama’s catastrophic failures.  Of course his Administration is marked by stagnant job growth!  There aren’t enough roads and bridges to connect workers with employment opportunities!  Don’t you see?  It’s not really his fault – he’s trying to build some roads across the barren wasteland of flyover country, but those evil Republicans keep mumbling about “debt ceilings” and getting in his way!

The new money Obama wants for infrastructure would become risk-free markers to claim credit for any job growth that might come along.  He would race to the nearest microphone if unemployment went down, and claim it never would have happened in the “Road Warrior” white-line nightmare that existed before he got those bulldozers and cement trucks moving.  If unemployment remains dismal, he can claim he wasn’t given enough money for infrastructure, and more is clearly needed.

It’s a pure expression of the heroic myth that sustains Big Government’s most fervent advocates.  It even contains a response to the moral argument against outrageous deficits, because unlike so much of our government’s lavish entitlement spending, “infrastructure” is a tangible “gift” that can be given to the future… along with the invoice for its construction.  Today’s all-knowing politicians are perfectly entitled to bill the future for all the important work they’ve done on the Bridge to the Twenty-First Century, which will always be under construction.