TRUMP’S INFRASTRUCTURE PLAN: A BOONDOGGLE

Trump promised during the campaign that he would stimulate up to $1 trillion of investment in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. This sounds surprisingly like President Obama’s efforts throughout his presidency to spend a similar amount on public infrastructure. Obama’s proposal would have stimulated job growth and the economy. It would have helped the US more quickly and fully recover from the Great Recession of 2008. But the Republicans in Congress would have none of it. It will be interesting to see how Congressional Republicans react to a major infrastructure investment proposal from President Trump, assuming he does put a proposal forward.

There are major differences between what Trump has described and what Obama proposed. Obama proposed spending federal government money using a public decision-making process to determine the projects to be undertaken.

Trump’s plan, rather than spending federal money as Obama proposed, would provide big tax breaks to private developers. The private developers, not public officials, would select the projects to undertake. The projects would, of course, be ones on which the developers would make a profit. The private developers would effectively own the completed facility and would receive federal tax credits of 82% of their equity investment. [1] That is the equivalent of buying a home and receiving 82% of the cost back in tax credits, meaning the home that you now would own outright would only have cost you 18% of its value.

Thus, the projects that would be undertaken under Trump’s plan would be quite different than those of Obama’s approach. For example, it’s unlikely under Trump’s plan that many school buildings would be renovated or that new schools would be built. Many of our school buildings do need major renovation or to be replaced, but this is not a profit-making undertaking. Similarly, public transportation is not likely to receive much investment. Public facilities, including water and sewer systems and public housing, would only receive investments if private developers were allowed to effectively own the resulting facility and make a profit from it. We’ve already seen what happens if private interests are given control of water systems. For example, in Detroit, water rates were increased to the point where many customers couldn’t afford their water bills. Then, the water authority callously shut off water to those who were behind on their bills.

Investments in our deteriorated roads and bridges would occur only if private developers were allowed to effectively own them and to charge tolls so they could profit from their investment. Investments in buildings for commercial or residential use probably would occur, because developers can charge rents and make profits. Investments would likely be made in high-income, well-developed communities where the return on investment is assured, not in communities suffering from under-investment where infrastructure improvements are most needed.

Furthermore, many of the projects that would benefit from Trump’s plan would have been undertaken anyway, without the tax credit. Therefore, the tax breaks would be windfall profits for developers and nothing more. In addition, important sources of investment capital, such as pension funds, endowments, and collective investment funds, would not be incentivized to make infrastructure investments because they are tax-exempt, non-profit entities and would not benefit from the proposed tax credit.

Trump’s advisors claim that his infrastructure plan would pay for itself because the new revenue resulting from its projects would fully cover the lost revenue from its tax credits. This conclusion is based on clearly unrealistic assumptions. It assumes that all the projects that receive the tax credit wouldn’t have otherwise occurred, that all the workers on the projects would otherwise have been unemployed, that the workers would have taxable incomes 3 to 4 times that of typical construction workers, and that all the money invested in these projects would otherwise have been sitting idle rather than invested elsewhere. [2]

In summary, the Trump infrastructure plan would not produce the infrastructure investments that are needed and that would benefit the public. It would provide private developers with windfall profits from a big tax credit that would increase the federal government’s deficit. It would privatize decisions on infrastructure investments, the effective ownership of the facilities built, and most of the resulting benefits.

Direct spending by the federal government on needed public infrastructure would be an economically sound, rational policy for making needed investments. Given the very low interest rates at which the federal government can currently borrow money by selling Treasury bonds, the cost of raising money for such investments would be very low. Therefore, the return on investment would be unusually high.

I urge you to contact your Congress people and ask them to support infrastructure spending that will benefit our nation as a whole and not just line the pockets of private developers. Ask them to ensure that the projects undertaken create infrastructure that meets public, not private, needs.

[1]      Huang, C., Van de Water, P.N., Kogan, R., and Kamin, D., 12/2/16, “Trump infrastructure plan: Far less than the claimed $1 trillion in new projects,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (http://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/trump-infrastructure-plan-far-less-than-the-claimed-1-trillion-in-new)

[2]      Huang, C., et al., 12/2/16, see above

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2 comments

  1. Jeanne Snodgrass · · Reply

    My friend, John, has this to say. He’s a smart guy and worth listening to. AND he’s a member of Progressive Democrats.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. Thanks, Jeanne! I’ve been busy lately so haven’t been posting as much as I’d like to. I hope t0 get back to it soon!

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