Monday, December 14, 2009

The infrastructure clown parade

Following up on Karen Fann's two-part Talk of My Ass two weeks ago, today we see a letter from the Yavapai County Contractors Association neatly juxtaposed with the editorial saying essentially the same things Mayor Fann did, adding exactly nothing to the argument.

All three of these entities argue quite reasonably that our infrastructure is in sad shape and needs revamping. I agree completely. But none bothers to lay out any ideas for how to pay for it other than vague references to federal stimulus funds.

None seems to notice that we gave up trillions in revenue with the Bush tax cuts for the rich, that we've run our economy on the rocks with insane spending on pointless, self-defeating wars, or that we're giving away hundreds of billions to patch the mistakes of crazed profiteers in financial institutions. These are a big part of why there's no money, folks. And they all -- the editor, Ms Fann and I'll bet Ms Griffis -- supported every one of these stupid decisions to the hilt, so I wouldn't look to them for sensible solutions to the problem.

We're where we are, so what can we do about infrastructure? First we have to look at the problem in realistic context. A given bridge or highway is the responsibility of a municipality, the state or the federal government, so funding for the repair has to come to its governing authority. The federal government legally can't do it all, as our commenters imply. Even if it could, the money has to come from somewhere, just printing it at the mint would rob us all in a hundred ways. So we have to grit our teeth and admit that we have to pay for it.

At the state level, expenditures this year are still running around 20% ahead of revenues even after the draconian cuts the legislature has instituted, and the numbers continue to head south. Everyone who's paying attention on left and right agree that this derives from structural problems in the budget, specifically an overdependence on sales taxes (generated primarily by home construction) and neglect of more dependable revenue sources, specifically income and residential property taxes, both among the lowest in the nation. This is a bit like basing your weekly budget on your Xmas bonus.

We can do a lot to fix that and it won't hurt much, by raising the income tax a little or by broadening property taxes and lowering the rates. Our legislative Democrats are waiting with the ideas in hand for when the Republicans finally realize that their ideas can't work, cut their radical fringe loose and grudgingly let the Dems into the room. There's really no other good option on the table.

At the federal level, we need a massive rethink of our spending priorities, particularly on our war machine. We're like a 16th-century mounted knight, weighed down with so much armor that we can't stand up on our own (our Chinese squire propping us up), while our adversaries have switched to light infantry with economic rifles. Our dependence on war as an industry is serving everyone's interests but our own. Diverting just a small part of the resources we devote to warmaking instead to clean energy development would build us an industry for the future as well as bring that value back into our economy as vital long-term infrastructure.

On the revenue side, we still have to repair the damage done by the Bush administration. Allowing those tax cuts to expire will be a huge help and won't hurt anyone at all, and moving a portion of those funds into New Deal-style infrastructure-building is exactly what the doctor is ordering here. Going further and reregulating the financial industry, starting with reinstituting Glass-Steagall (the repeal of which was a Clinton-era mistake) will help stabilize our economy and get us back on track to sensible growth by repairing our credit infrastructure. This will require steady public pressure, as it appears the Obama administration is substantially favoring Wall Street over Main Street.

You may notice that while they are coming from the political left, all these ideas are deeply conservative at their core. Sensible revenue-generation, sensible spending on things that will have lasting value. The years-long binge by the political right has reached its inevitable sad end, much as it did in 1929, albeit with far less extreme results, and now we have to be adults and deal sensibly with the mess.


Mia said...

I don't suppose The Courier would be willing to publish this?

Steven Ayres said...

I appreciate you vote of confidence, Mia.