As the Senate prepares to take up a well-intentioned, if sorely inadequate, transportation funding bill this week, the Associated Press distributed a “news” story Monday that offered little “news” but much in the way of ideological framing for the opponents of federal transportation spending.
And, as if the AP story itself wasn’t enough of a screed worthy of RedState, The Washington Post’s web site used a headline—really, more of a statement than a headline—that sealed the deal: “Highway bills pitched by lawmakers as job generators, but are they really? Economists say no.”
Now that’s a headline worthy of a RedState.com link. Daniel Horowitz used the AP story today to condemn the “tax and spend highway bill” that he calls “a monstrous piece of legislation,” incorrectly crediting The Washington Post for “pouring cold water on this Keynesian way of thinking” that a transportation funding bill is good jobs legislation.
This matters in the struggle over whether we will have a burgeoning middle-class economy built on a robust public infrastructure that serves national interests, or a fragmented and dysfunctional patchwork of whatever states and localities can do on their own, alongside a few transportation assets turned into corporate profit-making ventures answerable to Wall Street, not public, interests. Congressional conservatives are rather unapologetically driving the nation toward that latter dystopia by tossing national transportation policy into the category of so-called “spending we can’t afford” by a government “that doesn’t create jobs.” The Associated Press gives them aid and comfort. What it doesn’t offer is facts sufficient to support its central assertion, much less the loaded headline assigned to it by The Post.
Here’s how this afternoon’s version of the AP story started:
The lure of roads, bridges, buses and trains isn’t enough anymore to drive an expensive transportation bill through Congress. So to round up votes, congressional leaders are pitching the bills as the hottest thing around these days: job generators.
But do they really create more jobs? Not really, is the answer from many economists. The bills would simply shift investment that was creating jobs elsewhere in the economy to transportation industries. That means different jobs, but not necessarily additional ones.
The story about the view of “many economists” is built on the statements of exactly two economists—the center-right Alice Rivlin at the Brookings Institution and Alan D. Viard at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Neither are specialists on transportation policy. Not only is two not “many,” but these two economists hardly represent the spectrum of mainstream debate on the impact of transportation spending on the economy. What about one of the economists at the Economic Policy Institute? Or at the Center for Economic and Policy Research? Or some of the dozens of economists who signed our own “don’t kill jobs” statement last year?
For example, Josh Bivens and John Irons, economists with the Economic Policy Institute, have worked with EPI’s senior policy analyst and transportation expert Ethan Pollack on several briefs related to transportation spending. It was Bivens and Irons who concluded in 2009 that transportation spending in the Obama administration’s Recovery Act would create 1.1 million net new jobs for every “$100 billion of new infrastructure spending targeted to modernize the American transportation sector,” based on their own economic modeling. But there is no evidence they were asked to lend their perspective to the story.
Probing by the AP reporter would have shot holes in the statements of the two economists she did quote. “Investments in transportation infrastructure, if well designed, should be viewed as investments in future productivity growth,” Rivlin was quoted as saying. “If they speed the delivery of goods and people, they will certainly do that,” she added. “They will also create jobs, but not necessarily more jobs than the same money spent in other ways.”
So, is Rivlin saying that a billion dollars spent widening a road, repairing or improving a bridge or financing the purchase of American-made buses or rail cars is not necessarily as good a job-creator as a billion dollars spent on military aircraft or a billion dollars spent on tax subsidies to the wealthy? And doesn’t an “investment in future productivity growth” that helps “speed the delivery of goods and people” have a significant, positive impact on jobs growth, whereas failing to make those investments would retard jobs growth?
Viard is brought in to offer a line that was part of the conservative criticism of President Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act, that, in his words, infrastructure spending “is not spending that occurs very rapidly.” That’s true enough (although the meaning “very rapidly” is left undefined). But speed is not the core question, even though during the Recovery Act debate President Obama and Democrats perhaps overused the availability of “shovel-ready” projects as a selling point. The central question is whether the transportation bills currently before Congress move us toward a vibrant, jobs-producing economy in both the short- and long term. There’s no answer to that question in this story.
In fact, the story that the AP had an opportunity to tell and missed is that the Congress, thanks to a combination of right-wing ideological extremism and a failure of political courage outside of the extreme right, has offered the nation two choices for its transportation future that are both fundamentally unacceptable: One, up for a vote in the Senate this month, would allow us to hobble for $109 billion with something resembling the status quo for two years. The other, tabled for now by House Republicans but due to reemerge soon, would upend the status quo for something far worse: far fewer resources to keep roads and bridges from crumbling, fewer public transportation options just when people need them as an alternative to high gas prices, and weaker safety and environmental protections. Amid the ideological hot air generated by right-wing transportation spending opponents, there is almost no discussion of the consequences of starving our transportation network—on jobs, on productivity, on global competitiveness. Given those consequences, the Obama administration’s six-year, $476 billion proposal for transportation should be considered the bare minimum for what we should be investing.
“By and large, our elected officials have failed to produce a bill that will do anything but fill the coffers of the oil industry,” Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins of Green for All wrote today in The Huffington Post. “If Congress is serious about putting Americans back to work — if they’re serious about reviving communities, keeping our roads and bridges safe, and protecting our kids and our health — they’ll pass a transportation bill that America needs now. If they want joblessness to keep climbing, small businesses and neighborhoods to wither, traffic accidents to rise, and more and more kids to struggle with asthma, they’ll keep on doing what they’ve been doing.”
This is money worth spending that will produce jobs that we need for building the economic foundation for shared prosperity. “Many” economists stand ready to support that claim.