Can a partisan political culture resolve common problems?
|America's bridges are falling down, their roads are full of potholes and their water pipes are leaking. The latest $2 Trillion Biden Infrastructure bill rides on a popular undercurrent of feeling that it is time to act. However, America's partisan political culture appears intent on sabotaging its progress. This article attempts to explore the issues surrounding this and the controversies raised by it.
WHAT IS BEING PROPOSED AND WHY?
Biden's plan addresses concerns relating to decaying infrastructure and articulates a vision of moving from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly one.
In a recent assessment of America's infrastructure America scored low compared to other developed economies receiving a C- rating. 1
Highlights of this report included:
1. an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost each day in the U.S., enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.
2. 43% of public roadways in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has remained stagnant over the past several years.
3. A quarter of all levees (e.g. preventing flood damage from rivers) are not inventoried and are in unknown condition
The key features of the "Build Back Better" Biden plan are the following:
- adding 500,000 electric vehicle chargers
- rebuilding conventional transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, rail, and public transportation)
- a carbon-neutral program to transition government vehicles to electric vehicles, along with the possible extension of consumer tax credits for purchasing electric vehicles. (Tesla and General Motors capped out the $7500 income tax credit for the first 200,000 EVs sold)
- light-rail networks and infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians for the 300 largest U.S. cities
- set a target for a "carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. 2
Analysis by Moody's Analytics and Georgetown university suggests infrastructure renewal on this scale would create 15 - 18.6 million jobs substantially increasing household income in the process.34
For instance, high-speed internet and better transport connections in rural backwaters with nearly bankrupt local economies mean that new businesses can move to these locations taking advantage of the lower housing and land prices, providing employment, and creating new wealth.
WHY IS THIS CONTROVERSIAL?
Given the massive support in the American public for the ideas proposed, opposition to its implementation in Biden's plan can seem a little puzzling to outside observers. There are five main objections voiced:
1. Mitch McConnell suggests this plan is a 'Trojan horse' for the Democrat agenda of higher taxes5. Republicans warn that the Democrats bait the public with ideas the people approve of but in practice will switch the content of this bill to affirm their own agendas and supporters. Many have pointed out for example the large sums devoted to rebuilding schools and care for the elderly facilities in Biden's bill.
2. There is the question of how it is paid for. Practically most Americans do not mind tax hikes on corporations (raising company tax from 21-28%) or ending tax breaks for fossil fuel providers but there is an ideological commitment against tax rises and especially in the Republican party. There are also concerns about the size of the national debt.
3. Many Americans lack any faith in the executive branch of American power to implement anything properly. This deep distrust is deepened by the partisan hatred of one party of the other.
4. A green revolution is not universally popular with those employed by and dependent on the energy sector. Big Oil sees Biden's initiative as a threat to profits and jobs.
5. A center-right think tank, the Tax Foundation, commented that the government's likely return on its investments was likely to be about half of the rate that would be achieved if the money were invested privately. So it would be better to leave the money in the private sector.6
Illustrations of the fake news reporting that this partisan politicking generates can be found in states controlled by both Democrats and Republicans. In Republican Texas, we have an example of misreporting with the recent Texan snowstorms. Windmills froze as indeed did much of Texas's electricity infrastructure as there has been no investment in protecting this against wintry conditions. The Republican administration in Texas has failed for many years now to insist on such investments in the energy sector. The lack of state-wide legislation has been good for fair weather profits for many key donors to the Republican party in energy companies. When the storms struck, and Texans froze however the Republican press reported that the Windmills had frozen up putting the Green Revolution on ice. They neglected to mention that this was a universal problem across the grid affecting fossil fuel dependent output also.
THE DEEPER ISSUES
The deeper issues with this bill have to do with a dysfunctional political and economic culture and the death of consensus between right and left on common sense issues like infrastructure. The bridge between the parties has been very shaky for some time now and if America's physical bridges start to literally crumble this will probably be the major reason. The distrust of the executive branch of government is as old as America's revolt against mad King George III and for most of America's history has represented a healthy skepticism about the motives of those in power. Nonetheless, partisanship in the current environment is something altogether more toxic - the death of common sense and a common sense of value.
The preference for the private sector over public sector
The view that Federal investments are less efficient than private ones ignores who gets the benefits of these investments. Everyone receives help from infrastructure spending but only a small number of already very rich individuals benefit from lower corporation tax and private sector investments praised by the CBO report, 2016. Also, the net numbers argued in the report remain controversial. How exactly do you quantify the return on investment in schools or care for the elderly? Investment in the human capital of a nation yields returns over decades. Which is worth more, a new road which everyone can use or a billion dollars in someone's private trust fund? How do you quantify these long-term returns as opposed to the single years business plan that most businesses follow?
Inequality, social immobility and debt = resistance to tax rises
Massive and growing inequality and declining social mobility have unhinged Americans and introduced a new vulnerability. In these circumstances, individualistic materialism has very often trumped communal concern. Americans are beholden to powerful and well-funded lobby groups, businesses, and rich individuals upon whom most people's livelihoods depend. Certain people's opinions now matter more than others because they can seriously hurt those that disagree with them and everyone else is dependent on their largess. The Middle class's independence and practical approach to problems have been lost in a culture where political power can increasingly be bought and sold by those with the cash. Me-First economics built on greed and individual ambition does not work so well for building community infrastructure. Also, it is dangerous to be honest when your health insurance is dependent on your boss's approval or when the Human Resource department's "thought police" will use this as an excuse to have you fired. Expectations and spending habits have not kept pace with the economic reality of income inequality however and many Americans are deeply in debt. Americans have been living beyond their means for a generation now and consistently oppose tax rises even when the benefits are obvious. The result is a debt level that threatens to overthrow America as the world's financial center in favor of more credit-worthy countries like China.
Ideological divisions on what constitutes public goods and how to provide them
There is now a complete lack of consensus about how to provide public goods and supply public infrastructure. Americans on the right will fund the military but not a welfare state that pays for abortion with public taxes. Americans on the left fail to take on entrenched lobby groups supportive of the Democrat party. So, for example the medical sector is distorted by the interests of Big Pharma, the legal sector, and insurance companies. The result is an inflation of America's health bills to roughly twice European levels while supplying a less comprehensive service and achieving lower outcomes. Republicans object to comprehensive care because it is an invitation to bankruptcy. Democrats mourn the plight of poor people who do not have a basic cover.
Partisan politics is now cemented by party-specific information networks and the propagation of fake news.
Are the party systems part of the problem?
When Republicans support Democrat bills there is a danger that their own constituencies will replace them with alternate candidates at the next election. The party apparatuses now support the partisan politics that resists bipartisan cooperation on common sense issues. The honest politicians are weeded out by their local parties in favor of ones that just do as they are told. The spin doctors on both sides make their living on making the other guy look bad not on finding a common way forward or finding a bridge between the two worlds. And so, America's bridge, the bridge between two cultures, is falling down.
THE WAY FORWARD
So is there a way forward through the Washington Swamp without opening the door of the Capitol to anarchy and revolution? Is there a working bridge across the chasm between America's two parties to be found?
Some would suggest that the two-party system is the problem. They suggest that the two-party system is controlled by entrenched interests which mold their agendas to their own interests rather than to the good of the country. If only a third party could break the mold.
Others suggest that what is needed is honest men and women in both parties to stand up and vote with their consciences rather than following the party whips. Bipartisanship and common-sense voting on matters of national interest like infrastructure or health care should replace the ideological commitments of warped party structures. Maybe if the party and election funding could be reformed and less dependent on big donors and lobby groups this might be a possible solution.
It should be a simple thing to agree on - the bridge is falling down so why cannot people pull together to raise some money to fix it, creating a bit of wealth and jobs in the process. It would be a simple thing if common sense ruled the day and truth was a higher priority than ideological and partisan commitments.
Some think votes like this are a symptom of America's inevitable decline and express the dysfunctionality and decadence that marks the death knell of its supremacy. I for one am not ready to write off the Americans right now, after all the bridge has not fallen down completely yet.
W/C - 1827