A throwaway comment in the July 25 broadcast of NPR’s “On Point” stopped me in my tracks. (If you don’t listen to Tom Ashbrook motoring incisively at speed through incredibly sticky issues, you’re missing some of the best public-affairs programming on air.) In a program on the debt debate, Daniel Mitchell, ostensibly an expert on tax policy at the Cato Institute made reference to “people in the productive sector of the economy” — meaning the private sector.
This kind of reference is common among the right-wing absolutists who now form the backbone of the Republican party. It is particularly irresponsible coming from someone at a think tank who proposes to know something about how the economy works. The presumption that government spending and government work is “unproductive” — endlessly repeated by partisan robots like Mitchell — is not refuted often enough.
Today brings fresh evidence. The FAA is stopping various airport capital projects because no agreement has been made on extending the passenger tax that supports it.
Thousands of construction jobs we need right now will be lost — at least temporarily. Good infrastructure projects link businesses to customers. So airport project jobs make more jobs, which makes them of extraordinary value to the economy.
Infrastructure investments have made cities out of villages and spurred enormously productive private wealth. Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Kansas City boomed in the railroad era. Atlanta, Dallas (DFW in photo), and Phoenix exploded in the jet age. Private investment alone cannot make this happen. Obviously infrastructure must be paid for and user fees are a fair way to do it: people who use the service pay for it, and those who use it a great deal pay more.
But if you regard user fees as a tax that must be cut or eliminated — as many in Congress today do — you knock out the financial underpinning for infrastructure. (You could toll, but, um, isn’t that another form of “tax”? The effect on the pocketbook is the same.) Without taxes, we can’t build roads, rails, and airports. We won’t thrive.
You can argue that government should finance different kinds of infrastructure than it does today. (I do so in my new bookThe Agile City. But the absolutists see only the private sector as having wisdom. Only markets need to make decisions for us in spite of the horrific evidence of the last few years. That anyone — especially anyone in Congress — can find these arguments credible horrifies me.