Donald J. Trump, president-elect of the United States, sits in his New York tower confounded by the task ahead.
The morning of his victory, he stood before the cameras and sounded remarkably sober. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure – which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
Trump, on that morning, beat a liberal drum, echoing New Deal liberalism to the letter. But how could he accomplish this agenda? Trump looks at his phone. Should he call Bernie?
The Republican Party, wedded to the dogma of free markets and minimal government intervention, will not have the stomach for such a project. Paul Ryan and his Tea Party Republicans are averse to any government spending that is outside building up the military and the police. They will not allow expenditures on infrastructure.
And what a great investment is needed! The American Society of Engineers estimates that between 2016 and 2025, the United States will require an investment of $3.32 trillion to maintain the status quo. If there needs to be an improvement on the crumbling infrastructure, then spending will have to be even higher.
Where would the president and the Congress get this essential capital for this investment? To make a small dent in the large needs, the Congress raided the Federal Reserve’s capital. Such a raid makes the Fed vulnerable. Besides, the Congress cannot plunder the Fed for the entire amount needed to maintain and improve infrastructure.
Money for this investment will need to come either from increased growth or from taxation of the 1 percent. The strategy of increased growth relies upon the supply-side logic made famous in the Reagan years
To increase growth from the 1980s, the U.S. government drove the policy of globalization, which allowed firms to move their manufacturing operations around the world and collect rents on the sale of their products. This is called “jobless growth,” because it hemorrhaged jobs inside the United States while corporate houses earned high profits on their global operations. You got growth, yes, but you also got an employment problem.
The supply-side model in the current context might increase corporate profits, but it will certainly not address the economic and social crises faced by millions of the “forgotten” Americans that Trump claims to represent.
Taxing the rich is a tough proposition. The rich, in the United States, have been on strike for the past 30 years. They refuse to allow a substantial (and fair) increase in their tax burden. Their wealth sits in a banking system that is global, and to some extent untouchable.
Tax reforms that go after the holdings of the 1 percent and of the large corporations are defeated easily through the action of the armies of lobbyists in Washington, D.C. General Electric, for instance, effectively pays no taxes.
To force the very rich to pay their fair share of taxes is not solely an economic, but it is a political question. Does Trump have the political support needed to do this? Not at all. Nor does he have the stomach for it.
Trump, in his tower, will have to wonder about his program. If he cannot deliver on infrastructure and jobs, then he will have to take recourse to the cruelest side of his agenda – namely to attack immigrants, Muslims, gays, lesbians, African Americans, Mexicans … The list is long.
Is the Trump agenda fated to raise the expectations of the “forgotten” Americans, betray them on their hopes about “making America great again,” and then let them loose in a rampage against those who have been falsely accused during this campaign of being responsible for the hollowing out of America? Is that the only outcome of this presidency?
Imagine if Trump – isolated from the Republican establishment – truly thinks he can deliver on infrastructure and jobs. Imagine that he meant it when he referred to Bernie Sanders repeatedly in the debates with Hillary Clinton. Imagine that he picks up the phone in his tower and calls Bernie Sanders, who would have led the Committee on the Budget if the Democrats had won the Senate. He asks Sanders to follow the path of Henry Wallace, who was FDR’s commerce secretary.
What if Sanders agrees to join the Cabinet as long as Trump promises to do two things? First, if he agrees not to act on the most vicious side of his agenda. The social hatred of Trump’s campaign and now his movement is prepared to inflict great pain on those who it feels are responsible for the problems of America. Second, that Trump agrees not to push his infrastructure plan through as a mechanism to privatize public assets. That’s the easy way to appear to tackle the infrastructural deficit.
Handing over bridges and roads to corporate entities will allow them to collect rent from them, but not to invest in them with any robustness. Talk of “private-public partnerships” and “tax incentives” mean that the government would give away revenue generation to the private sector and defer investment by the public till things truly fall apart. These two have to be off the table.
What if? What if Sanders enters the cabinet and isolates the worst of the Trump agenda and pushes forward the infrastructure and jobs element, making clear that serious tax reform is the only road forward. What if Trump picks up that phone? What if Bernie says yes?
This column originally ran in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.