President Trump has pledged that his administration will soon propose a really big infrastructure program. Congress will likely debate its size and whether it will be financed through deficits or taxation. There are other issues at least as important. With our highways, sewers, bridges, and tunnels now graded at nearly failing there is widespread agreement that repairs and restoration must be funded on a massive scale. Yet what shape will this spending take? Which projects will be funded? Who will own the new and renovated structures and with what responsibilities? In a recent essay in Boston Review, Brown University political theorist Bonnie Honig, author of Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair, points out that the Trump family’s decision to opt out of residence at the White House in favor of life in Manhattan or Florida reflects a disdain for pubic things. It is a neoliberal mindset that imposes a substantial burden on citizens. I believe that mindset will also likely guide much of the infrastructure debate.
Neoliberals differ on some issues, but one key notion most hold is the right to opt out of publically provided services or goods one does not need or want. Thus the Trump family should have the right to live elsewhere. Such a decision, however, imposes substantial costs on the citizens of New York City, with some of those costs flowing into the Trump family’s personal treasury.
The opt out culture has more widespread and destructive effects. As Honig puts it: “Charter schools and voucher programs invite locals to opt out of public schools while drawing on public funds that might have improved the public education system rather than provide an alternative to it.” When these schools succeed, often by excluding special needs children, their success is taken as proof of the inadequacy of public education.
Neoliberals generally resist or seek to limit the services that must be provided by public entities, but when these must be provided, the service should be privately owned and run like any other profit maximizing business. This requirement, however, exposes some of the tensions and contradiction within neoliberalism. What if, as is often the case, there are very few businesses that can provide the service. Won’t these be in position to charge monopoly prices for their services? If you believe in limited government—at least limited with respect to any possible downward redistribution—you will allow monopoly to serve in the faith that in the long run everything will work out. Economists more attuned to Smith, Mill, and Ricardo demand anti trust or insist on regulation of “natural monopolies.”
Historically the former course has prevailed, with privatization becoming a means by which corporations and individuals politically and socially well positioned have increased their power. University of Missouri-Kansas City economist Michael Hudson puts it thus:
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To prevent such price gouging and to keep economies competitive with low costs of living and doing business, Europeans kept the most important natural monopolies in the public domain: the post office, the BBC and other state broadcasting companies, roads and basic transportation, as well as early national airlines. European governments prevented monopoly rent by providing the basic infrastructure services at cost, or even at subsidized prices or freely… The guiding idea is for public infrastructure to lower the cost of living and doing business…[With privatization]. the economy ends up being turned into a collection of tollbooths instead of factories…”
Trump’s detailed infrastructure proposals are not yet out, but early talk of tax credits to corporations that supply such infrastructure are problematic. Corporations are likely to invest only in those projects with likelihood of monopoly profits, i. e. those where they can impose their own tollbooth. This will leave some very important services underdeveloped and others overly costly or inconvenient.
Converting public things into private goods reinforces a trend toward corporate oligarchy. It also has consequences that move beyond economic inefficiency. And economic efficiency is unlikely to be an adequate defense of a robust infrastructure. Traditional fiscal conservatives appeal to metaphors of the home to attack government deficits. Their stated concern is bankruptcy, but their real worry is the greater equality generous public things might foster and the coalitions across borders, ethnicities, and faiths it might encourage. There are good counterarguments, but the best approach touches the aesthetic and affective dimensions of our democratic experiment. Honig puts it eloquently: “The democratic experiment involves living cheek by jowl with others, sharing classrooms, roads, and buses, paying for them together, complaining about them together, and sometimes even praising and enjoying them together, as picnickers will do on a sunny afternoon in Central Park. But the neoliberal corrective absolves us of this necessity and responsibility. That Central Park—landscape architecture’s ode to the power of democratic beauty—is just a stone’s throw away from the barricaded Trump Tower is only one of the many sad ironies of the story to be told here.”
Public things and the democratic space they foster and are fostered by encourage both collective responses to common problems and an opportunity to address the injustices (remainders) that emerge from even the most egalitarian and idealistic processes. The physical state of our infrastructure reflects more than a conventional repudiation of purported governmental excess. It is an attack on democracy and must be resisted by appealing to and enhancing democracy itself.