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Building Infrastructure that Even a Conservative Could Love

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"The conservatives are going to go crazy," Donald Trump's senior advisor, Steve Bannon, recently told the Hollywood Reporter about his grand plans for a massive new spending program. "I'm the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. ... It's the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We're just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution -- conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement."

Although, as a conservative, I find the description of the 1930s as an "exciting" time to be a bit odd, Bannon's sneak preview should be somewhat reassuring to those liberals who see Trump as a stark repudiation of Barack Obama. When Obama came into office eight years ago, Time magazine depicted the new president as FDR with the headline "The New New Deal."

For years, MSNBC ran ads calling for more New Deal-style spending on big projects. Host Rachel Maddow was constantly demanding more Hoover Dams. "People tell us no, no, no, we're not going to build it," she said to the camera. "Other countries have great things in their future. China can afford it. We can't."

She then replied to these unnamed naysayers: "You're wrong, and it doesn't feel right to us, and it doesn't sound right to us because that's not what America is."

Put aside the offensive notion that American greatness hinges on the size of taxpayer-funded public works projects -- a notion more closely associated in my mind with Stalin or the Ceausescus. If you do believe this piffle, than you should be reassured that President-elect Trump shares your vision of how to Make America Great Again.

Chuck Schumer, the incoming leader of the Senate Democrats, also wants to Make America Great Again by pouring money into infrastructure. The main difference between the New York senator and the New York businessman is apparently that Trump's plan concentrates mostly on tax breaks for private-sector contractors. The possible downside is that the Trump administration would be handing out subsidies for projects that would have been built anyway, in affluent communities that didn't need the help.

Schumer, meanwhile, wants the government to spend cold hard cash. "It has to have real expenditures. You can't do it with just ... tax credits," he told Roll Call.

Most conservatives are not, in fact, opposed to infrastructure spending. What rankles them are inefficient, wholly political expenditures designed to reward political constituencies -- like so much of Obama's 2009 stimulus.

Ridiculous and wasteful spending is one of the few things that enrages nearly all conservatives -- but apparently not populists and nationalists of Bannon's stripe. Indeed, his blasé desire to shovel taxpayer dollars into shipyard construction with no greater fiscal standard than "throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks" should drive pretty much everyone nuts. Meanwhile, wise and careful use of public money spent on needed projects shouldn't bother anyone.

For instance, it took 410 days to build the Empire State Building and 16 months to build the Pentagon but nearly 20 years to complete Boston's Big Dig highway tunnel project. The Hoover Dam was scheduled to take seven years but was completed in five. That would be a generous timetable for an Environmental Protection Agency review of the proposal today.

That sort of success is still possible -- if you cut out the political middlemen. In 1994, California Gov. Pete Wilson responded to the Northridge earthquake by invoking emergency powers that allowed him to go around the red tape and union-padding that usually goes with big infrastructure projects. The 10 freeway between downtown L.A. and Santa Monica was so damaged, experts thought it would take two years to repair. By offering contractors huge cash bonuses based on how quickly the work was done, the work was completed in barely more than two months. The winning bidder, C.C. Myers Inc., made almost as much off the bonuses as it did off the bid.

If the Republican Congress combined with the Trump administration can give the public some confidence that their money won't be wasted or sluiced through self-dealing bureaucrats and unions -- in other words, if the plan is based on something beyond "throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks" -- conservatives won't go crazy. Like liberals and everyone else, they might just go along with an infrastructure surge.

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