Donald Trump doesn’t give a dam. Or a bridge. Or a road. Or a sewer system. Or any of the other things we talk about when we talk about infrastructure.
But how can that be when he just announced a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan? That’s easy: It’s not a plan, it’s a scam. The $1.5 trillion number is just made up; he’s only proposing federal spending of $200 billion, which is somehow supposed to magically induce a vastly bigger overall increase in infrastructure investment, mainly paid for either by state and local governments (which are not exactly rolling in cash, but whatever) or by the private sector.
And even the $200 billion is essentially fraudulent: The budget proposal announced the same day doesn’t just impose savage cuts on the poor, it includes sharp cuts for the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and other agencies that would be crucially involved in any real infrastructure plan. Realistically, Trump’s offer on infrastructure is this: nothing.
That’s not to say that the plan is completely vacuous. One section says that it would “authorize federal divestiture of assets that would be better managed by state, local or private entities.” Translation: We’re going to privatize whatever we can. It’s conceivable that this would be done only in cases where the private sector really would do better, and contracts would be handed out fairly, without a hint of cronyism. And if you believe that, I have a degree from Trump University you might want to buy.
At one level, none of this should be a surprise. The current infrastructure nonplan looks a lot like the sketchy proposal the Trump campaign laid out in 2016, back when he was still pretending to be a different kind of Republican, less committed to the party’s economic orthodoxy. Even then he was claiming that he could do infrastructure on the cheap, that a relative pittance of federal money could somehow generate vast investment (although the mystery multiplier has gotten even bigger this time around).
Yet there is something puzzling about Trump’s failure to come up with a remotely plausible infrastructure plan. After all, there would be major economic and political advantages to such a program.
First, the economics: America desperately needs to repair and upgrade its deteriorating roads, water systems, power grid and more. True, we’re no longer a depressed economy that needs public investment to put the unemployed back to work; massive infrastructure spending would have been an even better idea five years ago. But it’s still something that needs doing.
Where would the money come from? Well, if you don’t worry too much about deficits — and as we’ve just seen, Republicans don’t care at all about deficits as long as a Democrat isn’t in the White House — we can just borrow it. Despite a modest rise in interest rates, the federal government can still borrow very cheaply: The interest rate on inflation-protected long-term bonds is still less than 1 percent, which is below realistic estimates of long-run economic growth, let alone the Trump administration’s fantasy numbers. So borrowing now to pay for essential infrastructure would still be good economics.
And as I said, there would be political advantages, too. If Trump just pushed ahead with a straightforward, conventional public investment plan, he could trumpet the number of workers employed on new projects. Furthermore, he could surely find a way to stick his name on many of those projects. Historically, many politicians have had what’s known in the trade as an edifice complex — an urge to build big stuff to promote their personal brand and feed their vanity. Certainly Trump of all people would find that prospect appealing.
By the way, some Democrats feared that Trump really would go big on infrastructure, which might drive a wedge into their party and be highly popular besides.
Oh, and another point: Public spending can yield a lot of private profit. An infrastructure program involving real money could be very lucrative for Trump cronies, or for that matter Trump himself. Yes, there are rules that are supposed to prevent that kind of profiteering, but does anyone think those rules would be enforced under current management?
So why isn’t Trump proposing something real? Why this dog’s breakfast of a proposal that everyone knows won’t go anywhere?
Part of the answer is that in practice Trump always defers to Republican orthodoxy, and the modern G.O.P. hates any program that might show people that government can work and help people.
But I also suspect that Trump is afraid to try anything substantive. To do public investment successfully, you need leadership and advice from experts. And this administration doesn’t do expertise, in any field. Not only do experts have a nasty habit of telling you things you don’t want to hear, their loyalty is suspect: You never know when their professional ethics might kick in.
So the Trump administration probably couldn’t put together a real infrastructure plan even if it wanted to. And that’s why it didn’t.