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Blue Model Spasms
How the Highway Fund Impasse Illuminates Important Truths About American Life

There is a growing, bipartisan chorus of outrage developing among U.S. Governors over Washington’s inability to cobble together a durable funding mechanism for the Highway Trust Fund, the main source for funding infrastructure investment in America’s roads, tunnels, and bridges. The Wall Street Journal:

The trust fund is financed mostly by diesel and gasoline taxes that haven’t increased since 1993 even as fuel economy has improved for most new vehicles, leaving the government without enough money to cover its share of spending on road repairs and highway construction. The gas tax stands at 18.4 cents a gallon and the diesel tax is 24.4 cents a gallon.

The measure with the best chance of passage at this point is legislation from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.) that would provide funding through May 2015.

That would be the shortest patch for the fund in years—a reality that rankled governors attending the National Governors Association summer meeting.

When you look past the political tooth-gnashing and think about it for a second, this is really good news—the kind that Malthusian greens keep trying to ignore. The U.S. highway trust is running out of money because Americans are using much less gas even as our economy grows. Vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, and the patterns of economic development are changing in ways that make energy use less intensive. As a result, gas and diesel taxes aren’t generating revenue growth in the highway fund. This is of course bad news for the highway fund, but we really should be celebrating a big national win here overall.

Since this very positive change is the result of both policy (mandated higher fuel efficiencies) and the natural growth of the information economy (people are shopping online rather than driving to malls, companies are managing deliveries more efficiently using algorithms to cut driving time and hours, etc.), this is actually an example of America working in a bipartisan, long-term way to solve important problems. But the highway tax shortfall is taken in the media coverage to be another sign of the grim slide of national decline into banana republic style polarization and social failure.

When dealing with the consequences of this happy shift, media coverage looks short-sightedly only on the revenue side. Gas tax receipts aren’t rising fast enough! But the other side of the equation also needs serious examination: What’s going on with the cost of infrastructure? From the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates artificially high labor costs, to pork barrel planning, and on to proliferating and often deeply dysfunctional planning mandates and legal delays that drive up the cost of doing ordinary business so that our highway system is in some respects as overpriced and badly managed as our health system or our post-secondary ed system, media coverage largely ignores the web of entrenched interests that make so many of our key systems so unsatisfactory. Does anybody really think that all 50 state governments and American cities and counties are all citadels of Platonic philosopher kings who never, ever, ever approve pork barrel projects for well connected political interests but act only on the merits? Does anybody think that the nests of politically connected contractors and unions and other fat pork-loving members of the Infrastructure Lobby would never, ever pad prices or collude on bids to extort money from the unthinking public?

The big force driving the impasse over the highway trust fund isn’t “polarization.” It’s uneven progress. American society is progressing and changing very rapidly in some ways, as in the case of increasing fuel efficiency as the shift to an information economy moves us from the old metal bashing, energy intensive manufacturing economy to something new. In other ways—local courthouse and statehouse politics, for example, and the huge interests bound and determined to suck at the teat of the highway trust fund now and forever—we aren’t changing nearly enough. And in other ways, as our increasingly dysfunctional legal and administrative systems impose skyrocketing costs on essential processes and services, we are changing in ways that make it progressively harder to get the country’s business done.

The fight over the highway trust fund is an example of the way our society is being stressed and tested by the transition away from the ideas, institutions, and powerful interest groups of the blue model era. On the one hand, the forces of an ever-more ravenous and less sustainable status quo inexorably demand more and more and more in a doomed effort to avoid inescapable and ultimately beneficial change; on the other, those who try to resist the unsustainable demands of a dying order lack the vision or the ability to propose a coherent alternative, much less the political strength to push far reaching reforms through the system.

The result, in which neither side is really advocating for anything sustainable or practical, is the current imbroglio. Some are trying to draw the line at new revenue and taxes in the hope that starving the beast of revenue will force it to change; others see this as simple bloody minded opposition to basic and necessary public business. People are furious, and entrenched, political interest groups are howling with fear and rage, and the country’s highways are not getting the attention (which includes deep and searching reform of the whole process) that they need.

Intellectuals and policy wonks regardless of their place on the political spectrum ought to be the ones leading us in thinking through the imaginative reforms, new institutions and other changes that could get us pass this deadlock, but in far too many cases, our intellectuals are still so locked into the assumptions and values of the blue model style administrative, progressive state and its core institutions that they are fighting against change rather than imagining how we could do it.

This is the kind of problem that cries out for deeper thinking, richer analysis and more intellectual and cultural energy than our chattering classes are willing at the moment to give it. If there are any philanthropists reading these words who want to change the world and help the United States make a successful transition to a new and better (more free, more productive, more economically and environmentally sustainable, and more humane) social order, this is the kind of problem that a first class think tank or really useful and creative public policy school could take on. We will still need infrastructure in the information economy, but our processes of planning, funding and building must change.

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  • Reticulator

    Good points, well made. This one is a keeper.

  • Boritz

    “This is the kind of problem that cries out for deeper thinking, richer analysis and more intellectual and cultural energy than our chattering classes are willing at the moment to give it.”

    Is that what they had during the Eisenhower administration when the interstate system was brought into being? &nbspThey could build it then but we can’t even maintain it now because we lack deep thinking and rich analysis compared to the 1950s? &nbspAs far as cultural energy, certainly it is focused very differently. &nbspPerhaps there will be cultural energy to spare on this project once same-sex marriage, legal marijuana, and comprehensive immigration reform are all a done deal and the war on women is won by the good guys.

    • Andrew Allison

      I think that the reason that we can’t maintain the 150s infrastructure is the (political and contractor) corruption now endemic in this country.

  • ShadrachSmith

    The hardest truth about reform is that most reforms end badly. This is the government function is best performed by a monarch and most diversely corrupt in a republic. More people get a bite at the apple in a republic so you design more ugly camels than race horses.

    On a personal note: I’m available for the think-tank 🙂

    • FriendlyGoat

      Would it be wrong to mention that your first sentence is unsubstantiated, your second one has some extra words, and the third one reaches a rather useless conclusion?

    • Curious Mayhem

      Send in your resume 🙂

  • Corlyss

    Blacks will never agree to any tampering with Davis-Bacon, much less elimination.

    • Andrew Allison

      I see that you are fully recovered [/grin]

      • Corlyss

        Thanks, but no, not fully. Other health things were going on when it hit me, and the collected conditions together means a longer recovery from everything.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Just like immigration. I know these people think they’re clever and sophisticated. In fact, they’re destructive goons.

  • FriendlyGoat

    We don’t need a think tank to know:

    1) That the Republican and Democratic governors need something in the public’s interest to agree upon. This is a good subject for that purpose. That’s a good thing. The governors need to get REALLY mad and REALLY loud about this to overcome the otherwise-partisan norm in DC.

    2) That INCOME TAX (not sales tax) revenue from the fracking boom should be funneled into road (and other) infrastructure. Fracking is the main USA boom. Booms are where you get revenue.
    Feeding boom money into other industries (construction) is how you make a bigger, wider boom.

    3) That Davis-Bacon wages, to any extent too high, go to working individuals—-the primary segment which has been screwed over by corporations for 30 years. What could possibly be wrong with that?

  • Anthony

    The despair and cynicism in America is deep but a Blue Model Spasm underlying cause remains debatable. Granted 30 years of government being declared the problem and not the solution to America’s economic (infrastructure in this instance) ills have given blue model critics ostensible evidence supporting contention, the diagnosis remains incomplete. Certainly, policy leadership going forward, as intimated in essay, requires new mindset but not one circumscribed by blue and red criteria. Likewise relative to guidelines addressing national problems (Highway Trust Funds, etc.), no new think tanks are necessary. That is, many proposals, recommendations, (set clear goals and benchmarks, mobilize expertise, end corporatocracy), models, policy actions, etc. are out there to be added to or…. The question is neither reform nor think tanks but where will political will develop to rescue American democracy sans divided nation.

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