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The Bipartisan Appeal of Infrastructure Spending

David Callahan

Republicans and Democrats may never see eye-to-eye on certain types of government spending, such aid for the poor. But bipartisanship is more possible when it comes to other roles for the public sector. For instance, as I noted here a few weeks ago, President Obama's new federal initiative to map the human brain has received widespread support from Republican leaders, who have often backed increased science spending in the past two decades even as the GOP has made room for anti-science kooks like Senator Jim Inhofe. 

If you think that infrastructure spending could also attract bipartisan backing you'd be half right. Recently, U.S. Representative John Delaney, a Democrat, introduced an infrastructure bank bill—Partnership to Build America—that has 13 Republican and 13 Democratic sponsors. 

That's good to see, because in the past few years GOP leaders in Congress have consistently blocked proposals by President Obama and other Democrats to boost investment in infrastructure. 

If Republicans really do want to tack toward the center, as some suggest, and show they aren't reflexively opposed to everything government does, the 13 GOP sponsors of Delaney's bill are leading the way. Infrastructure is a great place for Republicans to soften up. 

After all, big infrastructure projects are beyond the capacity of the private market and an obvious, crucial place for collective action. And economists have long agreed that investments in infrastructure deliver lots of bang for the buck. Not only is such spending a strong fiscal multiplier in the here and now, with each dollar spent creating well over a dollar of economic activity, but infrastructure improvements help generate long-term growth by facilitating better movement of goods, services, people, and information.

And there's more: Infrastructure spending often saves money because fixing minor problems sooner is less expensive than fixing bigger problems later, when things have further deteriorated. That sounds like the very definition of "conservative" to me. 

When it comes to government, there are really two debates going on: One is about how much we as citizens should help our less fortunate countrymen, including by redistributing wealth; and the second is about how much Americans should work together to make big investments in the country's future prosperity and health. 

The first battle has often been decided by sheer political power, given  deep fault lines of class and ideology. But the second has often been less fractious, with bipartisan elites agreeing on the need for key collective investments. So it's not impossible to imagine a new bipartisan consensus emerging in support of bigger investments in physical and human capital, as well as scientific research. 

Wealthy elites and business are already there. For instance, a recent survey of wealthy people in the Chicago found that no area of government spending generated more enthusiasm among suchfolks than investments in infrastructure and science. 

One last point: investments that build national prosperity are obviously closely tied to the progressive project of rebuilding the middle class and increasing upward mobility. More overall growth -- ideally done in an ecologically sustainable fashion -- means more opportunity for everyone, including those at the bottom. 

Democrats may always be talking to deaf conservative ears when it comes to redistributional pathways to more opportunity. But if they can help forge a real bipartisanship around an investment strategy, they'll be advancing their overall historic project of an equal chance for all.