President Donald Trump is still intent on being an infrastructure president. His State of the Union address Tuesday night dealt at length with his plan to commit more than $1.5 trillion to rebuild America’s roads, bridges, and more. But an economics professor and expert on the president’s so-called Trumponomics tells Inverse there’s little reason to expect he can actually follow through on such a huge goal.
“As we rebuild our industries, it is also time to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. America is a nation of builders,” Trump said before the joint session of the United States Congress. “We built the Empire State Building in just one year — is it not a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road? I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve.”
Trump went on to say he wanted Congress to produce a bill that spends at least $1.5 trillion on infrastructure investment, with additional resources coming from state and local governments and the private sector. He said it’s all in the name of permanently fixing the infrastructure deficit, which is the widening gap between the government’s decreased infrastructure spending and the increasing costs of what it will take to fix and replace what is now in disrepair.
“Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process — getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one,” he added, bringing in his avowed distaste for regulations and red tape. “Together, we can reclaim our building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.”
Inverse reached out to L. Randall Wray, who is an economics professor at New York’s Bard College and a senior scholar at the university’s Levy Economics Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. He offered his take on whether Trump can accomplish any of this. His outlook is a gloomy one for the president and his supporters.
What reaction do you have to the president’s statements about infrastructure in the State of the Union?
The American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card puts the gap at $2 trillion spending for the next 10 years. This is, in my view, a conservative estimate if we are to compete with China and other nations that are well ahead of the USA. In any case, the president has not spelled out a time frame, and his number falls far short of the ASCE estimated needs. The president also seems to rely on leveraging state and local government spending — meaning, I suppose, that federal spending will be far below the $1.5 trillion target. But most state and local governments are still struggling in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. And they’ve got their own problems with underfunded pensions, and all the other responsibilities the federal government has pushed onto them since the era of “devolution” began under the Nixon administration. They cannot be expected to provide much “leverage.” It is good to get some “buy-in” to ensure projects are needed, but the formula should be something like 90 percent federal dollars for every 10 percent of state and local government participation.
What realistically might we expect to happen, based on Trump’s record?
Unfortunately, Trump will be a failed president. He does not know how to get legislation through Congress; he has not learned the lesson that running for office is different from leading while in office. He cannot build coalitions. Nothing will come of this proposal. And right now, neither party in Congress is on board with a major spending program as they fight over deficits. They will promote more austerity (especially the Democrats now that they have Trump’s tax “reforms” to fight about) and hence will fight to widen the infrastructure gap, not close it.
What can we learn from past presidents’ efforts to invest in infrastructure?
If we look back to the Roosevelt administration, we can see how to modernize the economy. In the thirties, the US had a 19th century infrastructure. The New Deal programs brought the US into the 20th century; early post-war spending (largely justified by the cold war) continued the thrust through the sixties. After that, the federal government lost its way. So we are in a position similar to that faced by Roosevelt — an infrastructure of the mid-20th century that is totally inappropriate for the 21st. We need an effort similar to Roosevelt’s — with an alphabet soup of programs beginning with a new WPA that provides jobs and creates infrastructure. It is very instructive to look at the 1941 report of Roosevelt’s National Resources Planning Board for a roadmap — it inventoried needs around the USA and then formulated a plan.
What do you make of his call to streamline the permitting process for new infrastructure projects?
I am skeptical about the proposal to slash the time involved in permitting projects. Projects need a thorough review; they often will significantly impact local communities (including in many cases property owners) as well as the natural environment. This sounds to me like an effort to avoid a democratic process to ensure that all those affected have time to review and discuss possible impacts.