Highway construction

Cars drive past construction workers along Interstate Highway 66 in Fairfax, Virginia, on August 10, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Big, Bold, and Visionary Government Can Work--If We Let It

Though the Biden administration has carried forward some of Trump's worst policies, investing in infrastructure breaks with forty years of Reagan-style cuts to public services.

The Senate's passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure package--with another $3.5 trillion plan waiting in the wings--provides an opportunity for Americans to consider how prevailing notions about society, prosperity, and economics are often false and destructive.

After forty years of relentless, often bipartisan pursuit of a corporate and antisocial agenda, beginning with Ronald Reagan's declaration in 1980 that "government is the problem," the big business, profit maximization consensus in Washington, D.C., is finally breaking down. The political calculus has shifted to welcome collective investment in public goods and services--and it took only the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the most severe liquidation of working class and middle class wealth in multiple generations, and a worldwide pandemic to make it happen.

In the first infrastructure bill, the United States government will allocate billions of dollars to repair dangerously broken roads and bridges, eliminate lead pipes and toxic chemicals in previously neglected water supply systems, remove environmental waste from post-industrial landscapes, and improve ailing power grids through the implementation of clean energy sources, among many other worthy projects.

Most of these efforts will enhance the quality of life for the rural and urban poor. Residents of isolated outposts will benefit from the $65 billion funding access to broadband Internet, while workers and students in the inner cities will anticipate rewards from an expansion of public transportation services.

When Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg provoked rightwing mockery by explaining that "There is racism physically built into some of our highways," he was referring to the deliberate racial segregation of urban planning. For example, the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago displaced thousands of Black residents, and forced the closure of many Black businesses. Its construction also bifurcated white and Black neighborhoods.

The Democratic infrastructure package will dedicate at least $1 billion to "reconnecting" alienated sections of cities.

At a unique and perilous moment when several crises are converging--COVID-19, climate change, widespread poverty and financial precarity--the infrastructure proposal, like the pandemic relief package that preceded it, affirms the essential role of government in ordinary people's lives, and establishes its capacity to strengthen a diverse range of communities.

Objections to the plan range from the psychotic and deranged--like Fox News fop and neo-fascist Tucker Carlson having Christian nationalist Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene on his show to proclaim that provisions within the package aimed at assisting "disadvantaged" women entrepreneurs are "disgusting"--to more boilerplate forms of conservative ignorance. An example of the latter is Allison Schrager, an economist and investment consultant at the rightwing Manhattan Institute, arguing that investment in the future should be led by the private sector because "when government gets involved, those decisions become concentrated in fewer hands."

Yet the main economic story of the twenty-first century is the siphoning of wealth and power into increasingly narrow and elite pockets. A recent study from Oxfam International found that 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet's population. How much of what we call "the economy" is under the control of merely one of those billionaires--such as the space cowboy Jeff Bezos?

Political observers and economists genuinely interested in the cultivation of broadly shared prosperity would do well to track contemporary inequality. But they should also study the underrated economic policies of Abraham Lincoln, the man many historians consider the country's greatest and most brilliant President.

Among Lincoln's admirers is John F. Wasik, former journalist for Bloomberg News and an Illinois Road Scholar for the Illinois Humanities Council. Wasik is the author of an insightful and important new book, Lincolnonmics: How President Lincoln Constructed the Great American Economy.

At a brisk pace and in engaging prose, Wasik presents a persuasive case that Lincoln's obsession with public goods and services led to a series of policies that built modern America. In political and philosophical defiance to the "states' rights" conception of the U.S. Constitution, Lincoln created the national railroad, various canal projects, the first public health agency, and the land grant system that led to the nation's state universities and community colleges.

Connecting "Lincolnomics" with the Union's victory of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Wasik concludes that "infrastructure initiatives were Lincoln's way of creating democracy through economic progress and freedom."

It is necessary to offer similar assessments when examining the New Deal policies of the Roosevelt Administration, the New Frontier programs of John F. Kennedy, and the Great Society agenda of Lyndon Johnson. Without robust social spending and public investments, the economic engine of the United States, which generated a stable middle class for most of the twentieth century, would not exist. Beginning with the railroads and extending all the way to the Internet, private companies--far from proving the genius of the market's "invisible hand"--were dependent on public infrastructure and government largesse to succeed.

Wasik is also careful to avoid the traps of sentimentality and hero-worship. He writes bracingly about how Lincoln's infrastructural agenda routinely robbed Native Americans of land, excluded Black workers, and exploited the labor of the poor.

President Joe Biden, in his infrastructure plan, must maintain a fundamental commitment to justice and common sense. As it currently stands, the bill contains troubling and harmful inconsistencies that contradict its noble aims. Even as the climate crisis threatens to incinerate the planet, his Democratic administration is advancing some of the world's most devastating policies. Biden is on pace to approve more oil and gas drilling on public lands than Donald Trump, and he refuses to consider any reduction in the budget for the Pentagon--the world's single worst emitter of greenhouse gases.

The infrastructure bill wisely allocates funds for water programs and recruitment of additional "hot shot" firefighters to prevent and mitigate wildfires. But then it contradicts itself with subsidies for the ecological monstrosity of logging--a process that most environmentalists believe make forest fires much more likely to burn through acres and acres of land.

Despite its flaws, the infrastructure package is worthy of celebration, because it signals a redemptive break from forty years of the federal government's continual reduction, or outright elimination of social services, public programs, and communal assistance--from Reagan's closure of mental health hospitals and Clinton's ending of "welfare as we know it" to Trump's deliberate sabotage of the pandemic response.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously warned that "we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

The pandemic and climate crisis, along with the severe stratification of class, present the United States with the perfect opportunity to select one of King's two options.

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