Infrastructure

Biden's Infrastructure Bill Is a Foolish Way To Fight China

The effort to redefine everything as infrastructure is a gift to central planners—because infrastructure is, almost by definition, centrally planned.

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For President Joe Biden, a proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure spending package is about more than rebuilding bridges and fixing up America's water and sewer systems. It's about more, even, than the overpriced high-speed rail boondoogles that Biden loves so much.

In Biden's telling, the infrastructure bill might very well be the last stand of liberal democracy in the world.

"I truly believe we're in a moment where history is going to look back on this time as a fundamental choice that had to be made between democracies and autocracies," Biden said last month as he rolled out his infrastructure proposal in a speech from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "There's a lot of autocrats in the world who think the reason why they're going to win is democracies can't reach consensus any longer."

Later in the speech, Biden refined that point.

"That's what competition between America and China and the rest of the world is all about," Biden said. "It's a basic question: Can democracies still deliver for their people?"

It may very well be a politically savvy maneuver to turn the infrastructure bill into an epoch-defining moment that could tip the scales between freedom and autocracy. In reality, Biden's proposal is a messy collection of infrastructure-ish items—about $1 trillion of the total would be spent on things like job training programs and expanded home health care services, which can only be defined as infrastructure if you really, really stretch the definition of the word. But you can't worry about details like that when the very existence of democracy is at stake! America must prove it can do Big Things again, and here's a big thing, so America must do it.

The problem for Biden isn't merely that this bit of circular logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, it's not meant to be an intellectually rigorous justification for passing an infrastructure bill. It is just meant to trigger a swell of patriotism and maybe convince a few nationalist Republicans to back his proposal.

No, the real problem for Biden is that this conception of the conflict between liberal democracy and authoritarianism—or between the U.S. and China, if you want to get right down to it—is exactly backward. In fact, it gets both the political and economic parts wrong.

Politically, the great advantage that democracies have over authoritarian regimes is the necessity of consensus building through mechanisms like elections and legislative bodies. Biden has stressed the need for "unity" and "bipartisanship" in his public remarks about the infrastructure plan, but he's also suggested that "unity" means little more than getting on board with what he's proposing.

A few days after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) said Republicans would likely oppose Biden's plan, the president said that "compromise is inevitable"—as long as it's the other side compromising.

"I've heard from my Republican friends, many of them say it's too big. They say, 'Why not focus on traditional infrastructure?'" Biden told reporters on April 7. He dismissed a $600 billion GOP-backed infrastructure plan as being too small. "If they come forward with a plan that did the bulk of it," Biden continued, "that allowed me to have pieces of all of this in there, I would have been prepared to compromise."

Biden is recasting consensus-building as a problem, as if it only prevents good ideas from taking form. But the requirement of consensus also prevents bad ideas from becoming reality.

Think about it like this. Much of Biden's infrastructure plan is full of cronyistic giveaways to political allies like labor unions, as Reason's Peter Suderman has detailed, that in many cases will make the underlying infrastructure projects more expensive. In an autocratic system, there would be no mechanism to oppose or block those provisions. This is part of the reason why, historically, autocratic regimes have a huge malinvestment problem—that is, they don't spend public money efficiently. Of course, no one would accuse Congress of being a faithful steward of the public purse, but the requirement of consensus-building and the threat of political competition are still benefits, not drawbacks.

Economically, Biden is making the mistake of ignoring the role of private investment—particularly when it comes to things that aren't physical infrastructure like roads and bridges.

"Do you think China is waiting around to invest in this digital infrastructure or in research and development?" Biden said at the White House on April 7. "I promise you, they are not waiting, but they're counting on American democracy to be too slow, too limited, and too divided to keep pace."

Thankfully, the American system doesn't require a fast-moving government to be successful. America succeeds because it is the best place in the world for investors to put their money, and that money drives the research and development that spur innovation. Even though China attracted more foreign investment than the United States in 2020 due to the pandemic, the total amount of foreign investment in the U.S. remains far greater.

Fending off the economic challenge that China presents is not going to be accomplished with high-speed rail boondoggles. It doesn't require becoming more like China, but rather being more like America has always been: a place where innovation has flourished from the bottom-up, not from the top-down.

Biden wants to know if democracies can still "deliver for their people." That's a question that is answered best by looking at what happens outside the public sector, not within it.

Far from being the last stand of liberal democracy, Biden's infrastructure plan—and the associated attempt to redefine everything as infrastructure—is a gift to central planners. Because infrastructure is, almost by definition, something that must be centrally planned. There isn't a lot of room for spontaneous order when it comes to building bridges or airports. There might be a few competing ideas, but someone ultimately has to decide that the railroad will go here instead of there.

In that regard, it makes sense that governments more heavily invested in central planning will complete more infrastructure projects. That's not the same as saying they build better infrastructure—or that they make decisions in more efficient and cost-effective ways. And it discounts all the ways in which countries compete for investments that have nothing to do with infrastructure.

Biden is offering none of that context. The argument never seems to go further than the threat of national shame if America doesn't spend hundreds of billions of dollars on dubious agenda items. Asking questions is just handing an advantage to China.

This is keeping up with the Joneses applied to the global level. Xi got a new boat, so we better buy one too—even though you know those things are just money pits. America must match China's centrally planned malinvestments, or else what will the neighbors think?

NEXT: Republicans Open Schools, Democrats Still Keeping Them Closed

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  1. Call it infrastructure or public health crisis. Fucking left wing democrat illiberal authoritarian assholes.

    Oh btw fuck you Olbermann you cock sucking shit faced pile of vomit.

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  2. In Biden’s telling, the infrastructure bill might very well be the last stand of liberal democracy in the world

    Because if it goes through, it will be the end of liberal democracy?

    1. Yeah, Boehm’s quoted passage unequivocally means that Biden says his own infrastructure bill might very well doom liberal democracy worldwide.

      This makes absolutely no sense, but that’s about par for poor Boehm.

      To Boehm, I say this: Do yourself a favor, read ‘Plain Words’ by Sir Ernest Gowers. You will learn how to make yourself understood in the written form.

  3. “If they come forward with a plan that did the bulk of it,” Biden continued, “that allowed me to have pieces of all of this in there, I would have been prepared to compromise.”
    This frustrates me because, as Boehm points out, this presumes he would have compromised if everyone just gave him what he wanted, which isn’t compromise. Maybe even more annoying though is there is surprisingly little specific in the bill to haggle over. Biden makes it sound like the compromise is over the Brooklyn Bridge gets N amount of money for repairs vs. N-1. The bill that I’ve seen so far is just nice round numbers thrown towards institutions to use however they wish, and at that point there really isn’t anything to argue over except whether pissing away money is the correct decision.

    Politically, the great advantage that democracies have over authoritarian regimes is the necessity of consensus building through mechanisms like elections and legislative bodies.
    I’m glad you called this out as well. There’s a rhetorical trick in Biden’s speech that makes it sound like China or whatever is better at consensus building, when really it’s just China doesn’t bother with consensus.

    1. I’m glad you called this out as well. There’s a rhetorical trick in Biden’s speech that makes it sound like China or whatever is better at consensus building, when really it’s just China doesn’t bother with consensus.

      That’s what makes Thomas Friedman wet himself.

    2. Bribing could be considered a compromise, “make my life easy and I’ll give you some of what you want instead of nothing”.

    3. Jeez, if my dog whined like you I’d kick him.

      If a Democrat offered you a hundred dollar bill you’d complain because one corner was creased.

      Evidently you prefer a liar who likes to be pissed on by prostitutes and cowers in front of despotic foreign leaders, and knowingly permanently separates young children from their parents (and who do you think pays for that, fool?). All because you hope you might make a few more bucks out of a Trump government.

      As for consensus, Moscow Mitch, mate. There’s the unraveling of your last argument. You write about consensus as if you think it’s a good thing. But you don’t really, do you? You had a clue what McConnell did with supreme court nominees during Obama’s presidency, and then Trump’s, didn’t you. Yet you didn’t complain, did you? Even though you knew it was a perversion of the US governmental system.

      Secretly you must love countries like Russia and China, and despise the American way. Then why not move to Siberia where you can live in a rotting village under a despot like Trump and smoke all the dope you want, because it’s Siberia and nobody cares.

  4. >>The argument never seems to go further than the threat of national shame

    you already knew this is M.O. of (D) yes? I mean I’m cool watching you stumble across knowledge and growth and shit if you’re my puppy, but you get paid to write words dude.

  5. C’mon man! You wanna challenge me to a push up contest? Let’s step outside and I’ll take you out behind the barn. I’ll put my IQ up against yours any day of the week. I’ll have you know I graduated at the top of my class and was named outstanding student and that’s after working all day in the mines and coming up and playing football afterwards. Bin Laden learned the hard way what Corn Puff already knew, you don’t mess with JoJo the dog-faced pony soldier, let me tell you, Jack. Don’t make me laugh.

    1. You should lay off the “Old Joe stories”. The media is producing new stories that are super positive. If you read them enough, you will see Joe in a whole new light.

  6. The goal is to become china, not fight it.

  7. Biden isn’t interesting in fighting China. He’s just tacking on some rhetoric to appease those that think China needs to be checked.

  8. “I truly believe we’re in a moment where history is going to look back on this time as a fundamental choice that had to be made between democracies and autocracies,” Biden said last month as he rolled out his infrastructure proposal in a speech from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

    Hello Cleveland!

  9. He doesn’t want to fight the Chinese government, but to emulate it.

  10. I admit I don’t pay much attention to infrastructure bills. As a Koch / Reason libertarian, I voted for Biden hoping he’d accomplish one thing — make the richest people on the planet (especially our benefactor Charles Koch) even richer. And barely 3 months into his Presidency, he’s already a smashing success.

    #InDefenseOfBillionaires

  11. Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Is Foolish…. because if fixes almost no infrastructure, it just redefines more Democratic wish list items as infrastructure. Our roads will still need repair, or bridges will continue to all down killing more people.

  12. This publication is dismissive of honest, blue collar Americans. These are good, hard working men and women, and it’s offensive to me to read your trash talking of these fine people. Labor unions exist to create safe working conditions with fair pay. What’s wrong with that? Oh Amazon, yeah, people really love working there, don’t they? You don’t hear steel workers or shipyard workers complaining like Amazon workers, do you? No. Why? Because they have unions, dummy!

    You’re not really that stupid, are you? You’re just a cynical agent of the aristocracy, working for people that want something for nothing.

    You should be standing up for your country, not dismissing it like that imposter Donald Trump did. He’s the man who tried to sell America while telling us he was pro US. What a carpetbagger!

    What’s wrong with high speed rail anywa? Every other country has figured out this is a good idea, and if you’d ever tried it you’d know, but not you, not America. Why not? Because you probably think that it’s Socialism. Hahahahaha! Then so is freeway travel and plane travel. Figure that one out, brainiac!

    America learned last century that infrastructure investment is not only good, but necessary. The question is scale. We’ve been investing heavily in our military infrastructure since the Civil War. I don’t hear you whining about that. Government funding of civil and military infrastructure helped make this country a world leader with the greatest bridges, dams and road networks in the world. It helped make us the most powerful nation in WWII. Personally I am proud of that record, and if you aren’t then go live in Siberia where you can live under a despot in a rotting village with few sealed roads, smoke your dope all you like, and they won’t care because you’re in Siberia. That’s what you want. It’s there, go get it. Vladimir will welcome you!

  13. Boehm doesn’t understand how infrastructure should be done, and probably not the necessary role of government in setting and enforcing standards either.

    Take road maintenance for example. If left to the private sector, potholes in a road are filled with a composite that works for the contractor’s pocketbook, but might wear poorly.

    People like Boehm think the private sector can solve everything, but as the 2008 world economic crash showed most plainly, without adequate government control things head south.

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