When it comes to policy matters, it is nearly impossible to know what Donald Trump wants to accomplish. He has filled his cabinet with extreme right wing ideologues, but he (still) spends much of his time insulting people, such that we know more about Trump’s opinions of Saturday Night Live than we do about his views on, say, tax policy.
During the campaign, one of the two issues on which Trump deviated most dramatically from his party was infrastructure spending. (The other, of course, was international trade.) In fact, Trump ran to Hillary Clinton’s left on this issue, promising to spend twice as much as Clinton had proposed to spend. He spoke enthusiastically about modernizing roads and airports, and he seemed to understand that doing so would require spending a lot of money.
In light of his short attention span, however, we do not know whether that was a passing fancy or instead represents something that Trump genuinely cares about. Here, I will argue that Trump should be enthusiastic about infrastructure spending—so much so that the he should be willing to offer meaningful concessions to the Democrats in order to get the funding he needs.
Just as importantly, if Trump ends up having to choose between his proposed enormous regressive tax cuts and a meaningful infrastructure spending program, he should be willing to forget about the tax cuts. His political fortunes will suffer if he sticks with Republican orthodoxy rather than dealing with the Democrats.
As far as we know, there are still plenty of Republicans who are all in for tax cuts for the rich but are absolutely opposed to any kind of government spending. We can assume that some of them will be unwilling to oppose Trump and will do whatever he tells them. Many others, however, might well decide to oppose him when it comes to borrowing money for a big government spending program.
After the election, Trump initially talked about passing an infrastructure bill, and Democrats immediately said, “Let’s talk!” In a recent column, however, I suggested that Democrats should not simply grab onto an infrastructure plan for its own sake, because they can use their possible support to extract concessions from Trump.
How would this work? Let us assume that Trump was willing to propose or support a genuine infrastructure plan, that is, a plan that is not merely a way to divert already-committed government funds into the hands of privateers. Unless Trump is talking about real increases in infrastructure spending, there is no good reason even to begin a conversation.
My argument in that earlier column was that the Democrats’ highest priority—in fact, their only meaningful goal—should be to guarantee voting rights. For Democrats in a post-2016 world, fighting gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts by Republicans is a matter of survival. Without that, meaningful elections will become a thing of the past.
But why should Trump make a deal with his opponents that would empower them, making his own reelection less certain and undermining his fellow Republicans’ efforts to subvert democracy for partisan advantage?
The answer is that Trump can benefit politically from an infrastructure spending bill in a way that he will care about, because it will be good for his own political fortunes. Whether or not it is good for other Republicans is hardly Trump’s concern.
Why would a big infrastructure deal be so enticing to Trump? The short answer is that it not only will help the economy overall in a way that would enhance his political standing, but it would be a boon for exactly the kinds of jobs that he needs to bring back to his blue-collar voters.
The fact is that Trump, for all his bluster, will not be able to change international trade policy in a way that will bring back manufacturing jobs to the formerly powerful industrial states in the Midwest. He also has no hope of bringing back the coal industry to help his devoted followers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere.
What can Trump do? The overwhelming majority of infrastructure spending dollars would go to construction workers. We have over two trillion dollars in delayed rebuilding costs for our sewers, bridges, water systems, and so on. We could spend trillions more to go beyond simply bringing our outmoded infrastructure up to date and move on to building modern airports, power grids and so on.
In fact, if Trump really wants to get serious about helping our schools (rather than listening to the people who have spent decades trying to divert public money into religious and other private schools), he would also get serious about rebuilding and expanding our schools. It turns out that “throwing money at the problem” really does work when it comes to education.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has put together a very good summary of our infrastructure spending needs, making the economic case for a big push to rebuild America. As EPI makes clear, this needs to be a large, politically transparent program that helps workers across the country.
Democrats, in fact, have been trying for years to get Republicans to budge regarding infrastructure spending. Most (if not all) Republicans were opposed for ideological reasons—believing that all government spending is wasted—but the politically savvy (and deeply cynical) additional reason was that infrastructure spending is good for the economy and thus good for the president and his party.
With Barack Obama in retirement, Trump stands to benefit if he can push through a big infrastructure spending bill. Assuming that enough Republicans continue to oppose such a plan for reasons of economic faith, Trump and the Democrats could bypass their opposition.
The immediate benefit to Trump, of course, is the bump in the economy that would follow from hiring workers for these relatively high-skill, higher-paid—and in many cases unionized—jobs. The longer-term benefit is that the economy would benefit from what those workers actually build.
Trump has said that he wants the economy to grow faster—that is, to make the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increase more quickly—so that the debt-to-GDP ratio becomes more manageable. An economy with modern communication, information, and transportation networks can grow faster over time. A country that spends real money to educate all of its children will be more prosperous than our current economy could ever be.
But what about all of that debt? Have we not been told ad nauseam that the government’s borrowing is a cancer on the economy, so that any benefits of government spending will be swamped by the perils of increased debt?
The short answer is that the economy can grow even while debt goes up, so long as the money that we borrow is spent wisely. Deficits and debt are neither good nor bad in an abstract sense, because the question is always whether we get something good in return for being willing to pay interest on our debt.
Even so, our ability to borrow is certainly not infinite. A few weeks before the election, when everyone still believed that Trump would lose badly, the “deficit scolds” came out of their hole to warn that the next President Clinton should not increase federal borrowing.
Responding to one such argument, the liberal economist Paul Krugman argued that there really is no immediate reason to worry about a debt crisis. Even so, he noted that “it’s probably true that something will eventually have to be done to bring spending and revenues in line.” Krugman, however, would surely be the first to say that borrowing to pay for infrastructure is a good idea.
What we should not do is increase federal borrowing in order to give huge tax cuts to the wealthy. Although Trump opportunistically adopted the Republicans’ obsession with regressive tax cuts, he could drop that commitment as easily as he has said that he will not actually build a wall (or deport eleven million immigrants, or put Hillary Clinton in jail).
Large regressive tax cuts are a bad idea for many reasons, but given that our borrowing capacity is finite, they are an even worse idea when we need to borrow so much money to finance a massive infrastructure program.
All of this means that Trump should be eager to deal with the Democrats to push through an infrastructure plan. It is the only plausible path to making good on his promises to blue-collar voters, and the resulting prosperity would only help him politically.
As I noted in my recent column on this topic, Democrats need to resist the urge to simply agree to support infrastructure on its own merits, because they will not receive political credit for doing so. Therefore, Democrats should make a deal only if they can gain the ability to compete on an even playing field in future elections.
Why should Trump be willing to deal with Democrats on an infrastructure-for-voting-rights quid pro quo? Trump could make the calculation that he can all but guarantee his own reelection by delivering prosperity during his first term.
And why should Trump care about Republican leaders’ opinions, anyway? They uniformly opposed his nomination, and almost all of them refused to campaign for him. If Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell want a big tax cut, so what? Why should Trump not want to disappoint them, out of spite if nothing else?
In short, Trump has only two paths to a safe political future. One is to join the Republicans in continuing to manipulate voting rules to turn the United States into a one-party state. He can, in other words, rig future elections.
The other path is to be a real leader and find willing partners who would join him in doing something good for America. Republicans have shown for decades that they are not interested in any of that. Democrats are, and Trump should be very interested in finding a win-win approach that would make him genuinely popular.
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.
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