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Crumbling Infrastructure

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Conservative TV anchor Joe Scarborough says the recent New York commuter train crash highlights the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. It’s an interesting analysis from a Republican, as it ignores the role of conservative rhetoric and ideology in limiting government spending for roads, bridges, airports, trains, and the like.

The host of MSNBC’s punningly eponymous Morning Joe is right: The national infrastructure is a disgrace. Anyone who has traveled to Europe or to booming developing countries such as China and India has seen gleaming airports, high-speed trains, and expertly engineered highways that outstrip similar American facilities.

The New York accident may be the result of operator error; still, trains in Europe easily negotiate curves at much higher speeds than recommended for the Metro-North train, which traveled on tracks badly in need of upgrade. Federal spending to improve train roadbeds is unlikely in this era of anti-spending and anti-tax dogma.

To be fair, Scarborough, whose brand of conservatism is far removed from many current right-wingers in Congress, has called for spending $200 billion to update infrastructure. Yet at the same time Scarborough opposed President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, claiming it would only add to exploding deficits.

The Morning Joe host is either disingenuous or naive in focusing on our decrepit infrastructure while ignoring four decades of conservative railing against big government and tax increases. Conservatives have argued for years against government spending, have allowed Grover Norquist to intimidate members of Congress with his “starve the beast” anti-tax message, and have extolled the notion of small government. It is no accident the federal government has neglected infrastructure spending.

The so-called Reagan revolution won the day: Government is viewed as the problem and the whole national political debate has moved to the right, with Democrats as well as Republicans wary of tax increases and bold spending proposals. The $800 billion 2009 stimulus package reflected current accepted norms: Much of the stimulus came in the form of tax cuts instead of direct spending on infrastructure. Such spending would have improved the national infrastructure, created jobs, and increased tax revenues, since people who work pay taxes. It would have been a win-win-win.

But Democrats bowed to perceived wisdom in limiting spending on infrastructure improvements in a fruitless effort to gain Republican votes for the stimulus bill.

Reluctance to spend money on the infrastructure is a chronic problem. The Highway Trust Fund, which funds road construction and mass transit, is depleted because Congress has not raised the federal gas tax in two decades. Democrats have introduced a measure in Congress to raise the tax by 15 cents a gallon to replenish the fund and pay for new construction. The fate of the bill is uncertain.

Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, said, “Every credible independent report indicates that we are not meeting the demands of our stressed and decaying infrastructure system — roads, bridges and transit.” That’s an understatement; The American Society of Civil Engineers has concluded that the United States must spend $3.6 trillion on transportation and other infrastructure by 2020 to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

It’s easy to see the need. Bridges have collapsed in recent years; roads are full of potholes; train travel is agonizingly slow compared to Europe and Japan; airports are overcrowded and uncomfortable; and so on. Local and state governments can’t afford the huge amount of money needed; the construction projects are beyond the purview of private industry.

We used to do great things. During the Great Depression, the nation built the Tennessee Valley Authority and Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams. These were public projects built with public money; they answered real needs, providing flood control and electric power to millions of people, among other benefits.

Instead, the national debate, guided by conservative ideology, extols smallness. Limited government, inevitably, means limited accomplishments.

The issue is not to single out Joe Scarborough. The issue is that conservatives won the debate: We no longer have the money, because we won’t raise revenues, and we no longer have the will to tackle big projects.

Joe Scarborough: It’s no surprise our infrastructure is third world.

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