Let’s get this out of the way: President-elect Donald Trump is a serial liar, a con man, and an egotistical misogynist who rode to the presidency on a national wave of populist self-delusion.
But there is one thing that I think he gets right. Mostly.
One of the issues both Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigned on was the need to dedicate a huge amount of money and time to fixing the nation’s infrastructure. Trump has vowed to push through a plan that would spend up to $1 trillion on transportation projects.
Connecticut’s senators have signaled their very guarded approval. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that there is “immense potential” in these projects, and Sen. Chris Murphy said he’d “… be here to work with [Trump] if he is sincere in wanting to put people back to work to build roads and bridges.”
But both senators expressed concern that the plan would do nothing but shovel out tax breaks for Trump’s pals on Wall Street, and that labor wouldn’t be adequately compensated. Those are real worries.
So far, Trump has packed his Cabinet full of extremely rich people, so it’s not a stretch to think that his policies would end up benefiting wealthy owners of companies. As for paying workers well, I have my doubts. The private sector is notorious for trying to get construction projects done on the cheap, after all. I also have little faith in the incoming government when it comes to actually paying people in the working class what they’re worth.
I also do wonder if this is serious. Sure, Trump seems to indicate that he’ll try and get it done, but this is a man who believes in nothing and has no real goals apart from the need to feed his own ego. If it looks like it won’t work, he may find himself distracted by the next shiny thing to come along and it could be forgotten.
What gets me, though, is the plan itself. Trump’s campaign put out a wafer-thin report detailing what he intends to do — and it’s a remarkable example of confusing the free market with magic.
Basically, what this plan proposes is providing huge tax incentives to private companies and investors to coax them in to backing transportation projects.
In the past, which now often seems like it happened in a different country, federal transportation projects were funded by the issuing of public bonds or through direct taxation and spending from existing government funds. Here in the gloomy hermit republic of Connecticut, this is still how we do things. But Trump’s plan offloads almost all of that onto the private sector, which would be backing projects, loaning money, and doing the actual construction work. The only thing the government would do would be to hand out the tax credits.
Of course, tax credits do cost money — they’re essentially handouts to corporations with a few strings attached here and there. But Trump’s plan claims that these tax credits would pay for themselves through increased tax revenue from contractors and workers who were earning money. It would, in the plan’s words, be revenue neutral.
In fact, tax cuts and tax credits almost never pay for themselves — they only leave us with debt. The Bush tax cuts were supposed to pay for themselves, after all — they landed the country with a massive deficit instead, and despite a fairly strong economy. When we are presented with something will be “revenue neutral” because of vague economic theories of how taxes work, it’s safe to assume something fishy is going on.
It’s also worth wondering whether he’ll get enough companies to actually bite. Transportation projects have a tendency to spin out of control and over budget very fast. My guess is that very few companies will be interested in public transit projects. These are the projects that we need the most — but they tend to be the most expensive and they produce very little return.
So what we have here is free market magical thinking. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised — this is the year that facts died, after all. If we can imagine in our heads that tax credits will result in brand new, well-constructed bridges built by well-paid workers, and that they won’t result in any debt, then why shouldn’t it be real? Evidence is for the coastal liberal elites sitting in their ivory towers.
All of that said, I hope something like this does happen. We need investment in infrastructure. Maybe if I close my eyes and wish hard enough, this Trump plan won’t be a total disaster.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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