Everything is Infrastructure Now
Reason magazine|October 2021
How spending got out of control and words lost their meaning
By Eric Boehm

“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,” President Joe Biden declared during a March 31 speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. What exactly could be so vitally important that not only America’s future but the entire project of liberal democracy hangs in the balance?

Infrastructure. Well, “infrastructure.” In Biden’s telling, everything hinged on passing a multitrillion-dollar spending package that was ostensibly meant to upgrade America’s basic infrastructure but that also contained a wide range of unrelated spending on new social programs, industrial policy, and other forms of federal bureaucracy. Previous generations may have fought civilization-defining battles against tyrannical rulers and such toxic ideas as slavery and Nazism. But the fate of the free world, the president would have you believe, now depends on whether 50 senators (plus Vice President Kamala Harris) will vote for bigger Amtrak subsidies and expanded government-run internet service.

On one hand, you can’t really blame Biden for overselling his infrastructure proposal. That’s what presidents have to do to get Congress’ attention, especially at a time when culture wars have come to dominate so much of the political discourse. Biden is working with a razor-thin Senate majority at a time of hardened partisan lines. He knows that Congress almost never does anything without an impending deadline or a lot of outside pressure. And infrastructure is mostly pretty boring—as most things the government does should be. Recasting his proposal as democracy’s last stand might prompt a few more people to pay attention.

On the other hand, he’s really overselling it.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan began its life in March as a $2.25 trillion proposal, but by mid-summer, it had been split into two separate legislative efforts: a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan bill that includes about $550 billion in new spending, and a parallel, Democratic-backed $3.5 trillion budget proposal that encompasses many of the so-called “human infrastructure” elements from Biden’s original plan.

However it gets divided up for the purposes of clearing the necessary votes in Congress, what the president outlined in March remains a useful framework for understanding how Democrats, in particular, have approached this summer’s debate over infrastructure—much of which has little to do with infrastructure. Only about a quarter of Biden’s initial proposal was aimed at anything traditionally classified under that term, such as roads, bridges, railroads, ports, pipes, and power lines. The original package spent twice as much to expand government-run health care as it did on highway projects.

Some parts of Biden’s plan would actually work against the stated goal of improving America’s infrastructure. His push for “Buy American” rules and union regulations would drive up prices for raw material and labor. That means taxpayers would pay more and get less.

Biden pitched his infrastructure proposal by promising “transformational progress” on climate change, corporate welfare for industries making computer chips and other “innovative edge” products, and “historic job growth.” In that March 31 speech from Pittsburgh and in remarks in the months since, the president and other officials have compared the plan favorably to interstate highways and the Apollo program.

But those were tightly focused projects with clear (if highly ambitious) goals. Build modern highways across the country. Put a human being on the lunar surface. Biden’s plan, in contrast, is a mishmash of poorly defined objectives, political giveaways, and unrelated line items.

And even that isn’t enough for some members of his party. “Paid leave is infrastructure,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) wrote in a widely parodied tweet about a week after Biden outlined his proposal. “Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.”

It’s a good thing the stakes are considerably lower than the administration would like you to believe, because the gap between Biden’s ambitions and what he’s likely to deliver is wide enough for a four-lane highway.

IT’S FITTING THAT Biden announced his infrastructure plan in Pittsburgh. More accurately, it’s fitting that Biden flew into Pittsburgh International Airport before giving the speech at the Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center.

“I just left your airport,” Biden told the crowd. “The director of the airport said, ‘We’re about to renovate the airport....We’re going to employ thousands of people.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘I can’t thank you enough for this plan.’”

The Pittsburgh International Airport is an apt symbol for the disconnect between the ambitions behind government infrastructure plans and the far-less-impressive reality that often follows. Beginning in 1987, the airport underwent a massive expansion funded largely with public dollars. By the time the project was finished in the mid-1990s, Pittsburgh International was large enough for an estimated 35 million passengers per year. If it actually handled that many, it would have been America’s fifth-busiest airport in 2019—a year when fewer than 5 million people actually passed through its gates.

Even in the parts of Biden’s infrastructure plan that actually focus on infrastructure, there are red flags warning of boondoggles like Pittsburgh’s pointlessly capacious airport.

Take Amtrak. The government-owned passenger rail service already receives about $2 billion in annual federal subsidies. The American Jobs Plan called for giving it another $80 billion over eight years. Around the same time that Biden announced that proposal, Amtrak released a comprehensive plan for the next 15 years; it envisions 39 new rail routes reaching more than 160 cities that currently lack Amtrak service. And the text of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was introduced in the Senate in early August, tells Amtrak to prioritize adding new routes over turning a profit.

Railroad aficionados may love the idea of expanding the Amtrak network to such metropolises as Pueblo, Colorado; Christiansburg, Virginia; and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. But those routes are likely to end up looking more like Pittsburgh International Airport—expensive and empty—than like the rail lines in Europe or Japan that advocates want America to replicate. At least the planned new route from New York City to Scranton, Pennsylvania, will please one very important customer.

You can break down Biden’s original proposal into three mostly distinct categories: obvious infrastructure spending, kinda-sorta-infrastructure spending, and not-even-close-to infrastructure spending. The first category is not, as Amtrak’s plans demonstrate, immune to waste—but the plan did include $154 billion for repairing highways and bridges, $77 billion for mass transit, $25 billion for airport upgrades, and $82 billion and $111 billion, respectively, for improving the electric grid and drinking water supply. Yet even throwing in the $300 billion for Veterans Affairs projects and upgrades to domestic military bases, the amount of clear-cut infrastructure spending was well below half of the total.

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