Krugman’s latest op-ed, The End of the Tunnel, reminds me a lot of a recent series of slacktivist posts, which were part of a continuing series on infrastructure: A bank run in reverse, Water, Sewers and storm drains, Offshore wind farms, The Grid, Bridges (come to think of it, I’ve never seen Krugman talk while Fred Clark is drinking a glass of water)
The American Society of Civil Engineers does a periodic assessment of the state of the infrastructure, and their 2009 report card isn’t pretty. They estimated that it would take 2.2 Trillion dollars over the following five years in order to bring our infrastructure up to “acceptable” levels (e.g. only 15% of our bridges being classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete). The problem is our scheduled spending was/is less than $1 Trillion.
Maintenance isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t tend to get you elected. Consequently, it’s been relatively safe, politically, to ignore it, as it often is in many other situations. But, as Krugman points out and is echoed in these other links, not spending money on infrastructure costs us in other ways, but that spending is in the form of taxes, and taxes are perceived as evil. Nobody in the government seem to be making the case that the money is going to be spent anyway, in the form of lost time and billions of gallons of gas wasted while we’re stuck in traffic, or in the other ways shoddy infrastructure will impede us. We’ve been sold on the idea that taxes are bad, and that we can just cut them, and everything will magically take care of itself.
And yet there’s still a popular notion that in the US we’re taxed too much, even though our income tax rates are at historical lows and are lower than most developed countries (and we lack a national VAT or sales tax, as well). The easily hidden underspending on infrastructure amplifies this illusion, since we don’t realize that our deficits would be even worse if we were properly funding our roads, bridges, dams, etc., and that we’re going to have to fix the problem sooner or later. Just that later will cost us more, since replacement tends to be more expensive, due to costs incurred while the item in question is broken and can’t be used.
NPR recently showed a receipt for a median US filer’s taxes. Of $5400 in federal and fica taxes, $64 goes to federal highways. Wow. A whole buck and a quarter a week. It’s hard to think that I’m being overcharged (even though I make more and pay more than this) when it’s put in these terms. I also look at the $1k paid into social security; one can go to the benefits calculator and see that for someone who works for 45 years and retired at 65 making that amount today (and made less and paid in less in years past) would draw of order $1k a month. IOW, in less than 4 years, they will have drawn more than they paid in. We simply aren’t paying for what we’re getting, but we’ve been sold the illusion that we’re not getting much for what we’re spending.
There’s also a notion that we can’t tax businesses, either. The idea that if they had more cash they’d expand and hire people has been neatly disproved in this recent economic crisis. And yet this unpaid-for, crumbling infrastructure is used by corporations to move goods around, and to allow customers to go shopping, but nobody wants to pay for it. In good old-fashioned capitalism the private sector would take care of this, but we went down the path of letting the government do it. Gosh, that sounds like … socialism. Since that’s bad, maybe we should send them a bill for services rendered, since that’s how capitalism works, and show them an EULA that tells them that by using the roads they agreed to pay, since that’s how they tend to do business these days.
We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.