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.
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.