When American politicians talk about the legacy we are leaving to the next generation, their usual theme is financial deficits, as if there were no other kind. Figured on a per-capita basis, the real and imputed debt that today’s children will assume someday as taxpayers can seem daunting. But what our political leaders rarely even attempt to calculate is the other debt that we are leaving to our heirs — a decayed and inadequate infrastructure that doesn’t deserve to be compared with what earlier generations bequeathed to us.
The best recent estimates by civil engineers and government experts indicate that we would have to spend well over $2 trillion during the next five years on roads, bridges, airports, railways, transit, sewers, waterways, ports, dams, parks and schools simply to maintain them in decent condition. Such estimates do not include the kind of modernizing improvements that the United States requires to remain competitive with other nations or to protect the global environment from disaster. But the political momentum appears to favor politicians who have no will to preserve — let alone better — the national inheritance that we have allowed to fall into sorry disrepair.
The destructive dynamic was illustrated again in recent days, when President Obama offered a very modest $50 billion program that would begin to address America’s infrastructure needs, and not incidentally create jobs in a deflated economy. Although he sought bipartisan agreement, flanked by former transportation officials from Republican administrations, his partisan opponents instantly dismissed his proposals as political. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell — who has directed millions of federal dollars to his home state for boondoggles named after him — now sees no benefit in federal spending on basic transportation and environmental projects.
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Perhaps it is understandable, if still deplorable, that Republicans like McConnell prefer to stop any Democratic or bipartisan initiative that might give hope to voters frustrated by slow growth and high unemployment. More troubling by far is the absence of any plausible suggestion from the Republicans as to how they would address the need to rebuild and restore a country that is literally falling apart.
Listening to them — and looking over their scant policy pronouncements — it is clear that they plan to spend less, not more, on these critical needs. Republican promises to reduce the deficit while cutting taxes are unfulfillable, but the only way they can even pretend to fulfill them is by slashing domestic spending (especially because they consider the defense budget untouchable). So the physical deficit will continue to swell — and the cost of the repairs that will someday become absolutely unavoidable will continue to rise, as well.
The great inheritance left to those of us who grew up in the postwar era was the product of decades and even centuries of planning, construction and maintenance, from the building of the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System and the Clean Water Act. Restoring what we inherited to a tolerable level of usefulness would require difficult choices, from cutting wasteful military budgets to raising taxes, which are now lower than at any time in the postwar era.
Yet the Republicans insist that we should not only preserve the George W. Bush tax cuts favoring the wealthiest few, but lavish still more cuts on them — while slashing spending on infrastructure below the cost of crucial maintenance, let alone real renewal. Their ironically named budget “road map” created by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, would cut in half the taxes for the richest 1 percent of taxpayers, while freezing spending on infrastructure for the next 10 years.
Such schemes are worthy of a generation of termites — but not of Americans who revere our forebears and value our posterity.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com).
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