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January 28, 2009

Oh, By the Way, Three Years Ago We Had a Massive Stimulus for Infrastructure... How Did That Work Out?

Um, it didn't.

It's an interesting thing. Democrats claim to be all about the infrastructure. Even Neocon Nazis like myself don't mind government spending if it's actually being used to build and improve roads and bridges.

And yet it never actually gets done. There's always some brighter, shinier bauble for Washington to piss our money away on.

This was discussed on this blog some time ago-- a year ago? Two years? Three? I forget. I had myself suggested during one of these stimulus debates -- how they all blur together -- that we ought to kill two birds with one stone and just start spending money to improve roads and bridges. A commenter, who seemed to know what he was talking about, told me that wouldn't work, as it would take 9 months to a year or more to even begin such products, so the "stimulus" part of that idea was a non-starter.

I believed him. As we now know -- again -- there simply aren't a lot of "shovel-ready" projects ready to begin on a short time frame. Having conceded he was right, I suggested that there really ought to be some office in DC that does nothing but survey, plan, get the necessary permits, etc. for new infrastructure work on a moment's notice, and constantly update such plans and permits so that they never go stale.

Well, of course no one did that. (I don't mean to suggest DC should have jumped at my offhand suggestion; just that my offhand suggestion was common sense and should have occurred to someone.) So here we are again. All this money for kill-two-birds stimulus and infrastructure work, but we can't kill two birds, because if we work on infrastructure the money won't be stimulative now as it won't begin flowing for up to to years (or more), and if we "stimulate" the economy, it's going for condoms and diaphragms, because, apparently, you don't need as many engineers or permits or EPA impact analyses to give people birth control.

And so the money gets pissed away on a large number of smaller-bore new spending initiatives.

Mickey Kaus criticized Democrats for always wanting to piss money away on these small-bore porkbarrel mini-initiatives. Their imperative, he suggested, always seemed to be keep the budget as high as possible. This year's budget creates the baseline for next year's budget, so spending money on whatever had the sanguine outcome (to them) of always keeping as much money in federal hands as possible. Democrats, he suggested, we wary of ever restraining spending, because if they did, the budget would come down and Republicans would begin agitating for tax cuts -- anathema to Democrats.

This was a bad goal, he suggested, even from a liberal perspective. Because, he observed, if the Democrats ever became serious about budget discipline, within five or so years of slowly growing budgets, we'd have a surplus, or close to it, and could begin retiring debt as Clinton did at the very end of his term. And yes, Republicans would agitate for a big tax cut. But Democrats could at that point begin agitating for one of their Holy Grail big ticket spending plans -- the holiest among them, federal health coverage.

With all that money saved by not pissing it away on smaller programs that breed like Tribbles, each one born already pregnant with the next $300 million bike-path Tribble, the nation would find itself with enough money to actually seriously contemplate spending it on the Democrats' holy grails. Sure, Republicans would oppose and would suggest tax cuts. But at least their holy grails would be achievable and possible. They'd be potentially winnable political arguments -- we could have more tax cuts, sure (they would say), but we could also have federally guaranteed/subsidized health care instead, at the same tax rates, without fresh tax hikes.

As opposed to the situation they always (deliberately) wind up in a situation where the nation is broke as fuck and the only possible way to achieve these ginormous spending plans is to run a huge deficit or raise tax rates through the roof.

Fiscal restraint makes sense for both parties, then. And yet neither seems terribly capable of it. Neither party much likes the status quo, and yet neither can manage the fiscal restraint necessary to achieve their longer-term goals. Keep spending low for a number of years and we'll have a small surplus, and Republicans can urge a tax cut. And Democrats can urge a big, glittery new spending plan like health coverage.

But here we are again. Republicans are finally waking up to the joys of fiscal responsibility, but Democrats are busy dusting off fifteen year old wish-lists of spending "priorities" (and coming up with new ones, of course), wasting our money in new, exciting ways.

No Money For This, I'm Guessing: Polynikes wries*:

I know of a shovel ready project that should have been ready to go yesterday.

The WTC.

* Verb form of "wry." I just made that shit up. That's how I roll.

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posted by Ace at 02:53 PM

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