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The GOP Infrastructure Plan: Worse Than Nothing?

Mark Twain is widely credited with having said: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”  In fact, the credit ought to go to Twain’s friend and co-author of The Gilded Age, Charles Dudley Warner but so what?  It is a timely quip.   And if we substitute “infrastructure” for “weather,” we have a spot on description of the state of play in what is likely to be one of the major “issues” heading into the 2018 midterm elections.

Were Twain alive today (he would now be 183 years old), he or Warner could still say the same about the weather; we are no closer now to doing anything about it on a day-by-day or weekly basis than we were when they were around.

One thing has changed, though: nowadays we – that is, everyone less ignorant and deluded than Republican lawmakers, Donald Trump, and other assorted climate-change deniers — knows that anthropogenic global warming, a bi-product of profit driven-industrial development, sometimes makes weather conditions dangerously, even catastrophically, more turbulent than in Twain’s and Warner’s day.

The entire capitalist class, the politicians who serve them, and wide swathes of the general public are complicit – not because they too are climate change deniers or because they don’t care about the end of life on earth “as we know it,” but because they see no advantage to themselves and others they care about in calling for far-reaching changes.

The situation is complicated, however, because there are plenty of opportunities to turn a profit in the so-called alternative energy sector.  But these opportunities often come at the expense of entrenched, politically connected capitalist firms — especially, but not only, in the fossil fuel industry. The world could be done in before these and other competing interests are reconciled.

In any case, climate is one thing; weather something else.  The former emerges out of weather conditions in the long term; the latter is lived day-by-day.

If technology existed to control the weather as people directly experience it, there would be countless opportunities to turn a profit by doing something about it.  Then it wouldn’t be complicated at all because everyone who can would be lining up to cash in.

That is how it is with infrastructure.

We do know how to do something about it; we have known from the remotest antiquity to the present time.

After all, it isn’t brain surgery, as people used to say before Ben Carson became a figure on the political scene.  All that is required is technological knowledge adequate to the tasks at hand, and human and material resources capable of setting that knowledge to work.

Even so, for quite some time now, nobody has done much of anything about infrastructure in the good old USA.  Our infrastructure has therefore been going to hell.

We have our political system and the economic regime it superintends to thank for that.

And now we have Donald Trump coming to the rescue.

At this point, nobody, least of all Trump himself, knows exactly what the lobbyists, think tank “experts,” and Republican Party functionaries who make policy for him, have in mind.

One thing is certain, though: whatever it is will be bad; if not worse than nothing, then not much better.

No need to dwell on that prospect, though.  It is way more likely than not that, as with most of the things Trump goes on about, nothing will come of it.

***

Throughout most of human history, building and maintaining infrastructure was the work of political authorities — or religious authorities, insofar as there was a difference.  The one compelled compliance directly through the use or threat of force, the other through theological beliefs and practices, coercively enforced when necessary.

With the rise of capitalism, the invisible hand of the market sometimes took the place of the visible hand of the state.  But just as theocratic authority rests ultimately on force, so does the authority of markets in private property regimes.

Throughout most of American history, work on infrastructure — canals, roads, bridges, railroads and so on — provided jobs that put money in workers’ pockets directly and through the “multiplier effects” celebrated in introductory economics textbooks.

In turn, new infrastructure facilitated commercial development – unleashing yet more multiplier effect benefits.  It was a virtuous circle.

There are no intractable political or economic reasons why this could not happen again, why infrastructure restoration and development could not be funded by progressive taxation and be disbursed by public agencies administered in democratically accountable ways.  This was, in fact, the norm in twentieth century America — before the eighties and nineties when bipartisan political elites caused the country to take a neoliberal turn.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders proposed to reverse some of neoliberalism’s direst consequences.  This was not by any means the sole reason for his insurgency’s popular appeal, but the fact that it was widely, and justifiably, believed that infrastructure development would figure prominently in the policy proposals of a Sanders administration, and that infrastructure jobs would follow in turn, was certainly a contributing factor.

There are also other, less democratic and generally more dishonest, ways to raise money and disburse funds for infrastructure projects.  They involve substituting some or all public monies with private capital.

They by no means eliminate the state’s role in infrastructure maintenance and development.  They change it – from leading and directing the process to enabling it, creating opportunities for corruption in the process.

Trump’s talk of infrastructure, unlike Sanders’, was all about giveaways to private capital.   It was therefore no surprise that the usual suspects have been salivating at the prospect from the moment it became clear that lightening had stuck, that the faux-populist billionaire would indeed become president of the United States.

And now that infrastructure talk is back on the agenda, the sharks are circling in, lured by the heaps of federal money that the Trump administration wants to throw their way.

Were anything to come of it, some of that money would indeed be used to provide jobs at least for a while; bridges and roads don’t build themselves.

However, most of it would surely remain with the sharks, who would then put it to less creditable uses – like stock buybacks to boost share prices, and to fund generous bonuses to top executives.  What they would not or could not disburse right away, they would horde, to be used for similar purposes in the future if and when better opportunities for making money arise.

Keynesian economics has fallen into disfavor in some, policy circles.  But because it is sound and germane, a core Keynesian idea continues to drive public policy – that the way, in the short run, to mitigate the negative consequences of business cycles and, in the long run, to keep the economy from breaking down altogether is to boost effective demand through public expenditures that put money in the pockets of those who would actually spend it.

Keynes wanted to inject money into the economy in ways that would enhance the welfare of the general public.  The idea is too obvious to require justification.  Even American policy makers were at least somewhat on board with it, once upon a time.

But their passion since the end of World War II has been to pump money into the economy through military spending.  Perhaps they concluded that there was no other way to sell government programs to the general public.  Perhaps they thought that without huge levels of military spending, the Depression would resume.

Whatever the reason, the American way to keep the economy going has enriched the military-industrial complex, and impoverished public programs that aim to do socially useful things.

The Trump administration is therefore just the latest in a long line.

But, for sending money the military’s way, Trump is more gung-ho than any of his predecessors.  Were he not such a shallow man, one would think that he is overcompensating.   After all, during the Vietnam War, his well-connected father bent heaven and hell to keep his son out of military service.

There is a more simplistic explanation, however, one more fitting the man.  It comes down to this: that, bone spurs notwithstanding, Trump, having passed through a military boarding school — has a thing for the military.

Also, he may actually believe that military spending as great as the rest of the world’s combined is not enough to keep Americans safe or to “make America great again.”  He would not be the only one; and he is certainly dumb enough to think that.

Therefore even if Trump and his people don’t exactly understand the economic role America’s bloated military spending plays, they are not about to turn the spigot off.

Nor are they about to turn more socially useful spigots on.  Trump’s idea, to the extent he has any, is to enhance, not diminish, economic inequality – in order to disempower potential challenges, no matter how feeble, to the power of capitalists like himself.

Unlike the military Keynesianism dear to Democrats and Republicans alike, the socially useful public expenditures Keynes favored could instead upset the status quo — because whatever improves the bargaining power of workers and others who are not benefiting egregiously from the system in place, enhances their political power as well, diminishing the power of those at the top.

***

This is why the infrastructure talk coming out of Trumpland is so disingenuous.

To be sure, it is all about jobs.  Calling for jobs stirs up Trump’s base.

But, so far as one can tell from what Trump and his people say, these jobs will mostly come from public-private “joint enterprises.”  There has been a lot of that lately.  Trump is, again, just the last in a long line.

Capitalists always want to pay out as little in wages as they can get away with; that is what they do.  This should be born in mind; it puts the jobs angle in perspective.

The country desperately needs to invest in infrastructure, and many workers desperately need jobs.  But Trump’s way of addressing those needs, as best it can be ascertained, is far from ideal.  And insofar as rationality involves fitting means to ends, it is at least borderline irrational.

That irrationality is embedded in an even greater irrationality that, in an age of unchallenged capitalist ascendancy, is almost never any longer acknowledged.

It was different when political currents identified with Marxist and other socialist currents were still active players in real world politics, and when Marxist views about history’s structure and direction were still taken seriously.

Then it would hardly be news that there exists a defensible and pertinent account of how capitalism augments productive forces in capitalist societies to a point where humankind can become free from burdensome toil, enabling people to do or not do whatever meaningful, creative, life affirming activities strike their fancy, or to do whatever else, including nothing at all, that they might want to do.

There is nothing esoteric about the rationale behind this understanding of capitalism’s historical mission.  It is right there in The Communist Manifesto.

Trump blusters on about how American jobs are exported to low wage countries, blaming everybody for this misfortune — except, of course, the American capitalists doing the exporting.   In a way, he is right not to blame them; they are only doing what capitalists do – augmenting profits, the share of the total social product going to themselves, by diminishing the share going to the direct producers.

Sometimes the best way to do this is not to squeeze more out of the existing workforce, but to substitute the workforce altogether for one with workers in other countries who can be paid less.  Comparatively primitive transportation and communications technologies used to make this impracticable; nowadays, it is too easy to resist.

But the bigger problem is not so much where jobs go, as jobs themselves.  By augmenting the level of development of productive forces to the degree that it has, capitalism increasingly makes the kind of work that is done in jobs unnecessary.

The orthodox Marxist view was that capitalist economies would break down before they reached this point; that once capitalism fulfilled its historical mission, it would be superseded by a more rational economic structure – “socialism,” the first stage of the fully rational economic order Marxists called “communism.”

Things didn’t quite work out that way.  Capitalism turned out to be more adaptable and robust than anybody had imagined.

But the basic irrationality of the system has only been intensified by its durability.  We live in a world in which human needs and wants could be met at much less human cost, and yet most workers work longer, under more trying conditions, and with less to show for it than ever before.

The infrastructure jobs Trump goes on about would likely be no different.

But people do need jobs, especially jobs like the kinds that were lost with the neoliberal turn – jobs that pay decent salaries and that provide benefits that our always feeble and now increasingly embattled welfare state institutions do not.

Would the kinds of jobs that would come from whatever Trump’s people have in mind be like that?  It is not likely.  All things considered, though, even they would probably be better than nothing.  In capitalist economies, the only thing worse than having the kinds of jobs capitalism provides, is not having them.

In any case, there is no need to worry about the infrastructure jobs that will come from Trump’s infrastructure programs, because the chances of anything at all coming out of all the Trumpian brouhaha are practically nil.

But infrastructure talk, even if meretricious, can be beneficial – especially to the extent that it forces Democrats and others to put good jobs for all on the political agenda.

Good jobs empower workers and everyone else with a stake in changing the system  – that would be nearly everybody – to put reason more in control in ways that make calls for transforming work, play, and leisure more timely than calls for jobs as such.

Thanks to the economic development that has taken place under capitalism’s aegis, a radically better world is becoming more feasible all the time: one in which people can do what they freely choose to do, in harmony with others –in which as The Communist Manifesto proclaims, “the condition for the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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