Raising up the middle class on steel beams

So far, in this election, the headlines have been dominated by health care, criminal justice system reform, immigration, national security, and many other issues—for good reason. Making sure the sick have an affordable path to a cure, making sure only those that deserve it spend time behind bars, and ensuring our country’s safety are all noble goals, but for some reason, our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is not a part of the conversation (at least not as prominently as it should be). By enacting legislation that both funds construction and creates scores of reliable, high-paying jobs, a massive infrastructure spending package can put blue-collar Americans back to work in the sort of jobs they were used to decades ago. With the National Highway System in disrepair, an increasing number of roads and bridges deemed unsafe and dangerous, and thousands of workers sitting idly by as their jobs go overseas, now is the time to pass an ambitious and far-reaching infrastructure bill that will revitalize the American economy and reverse our pattern of slow GDP growth.

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Nicole/" title="View all of this person's work">"Nicole</a></span>

graphic by Nicole Ng

This investment would also specifically assist those that have been hit hardest by the recession and the overall modernization of the economy: men, especially Latinos, without a college degree. As the United States’ manufacturing sector continues to turn away from rudimentary manufacturing to focusing on high-tech and innovative products, more workers will either be out of a job or be forced to take one that is far below their pay grade. By solving two problems at once—employing highly skilled workers and fixing a road and highway system in desperate need of a makeover—an infrastructure bill would be both cost effective and extremely efficient. These workers would no longer need to rely upon unemployment or welfare benefits, and would have more expendable income that can be pumped back into the economy and can multiply the government’s original investment.

Of course, as with any bold and sweeping spending plan, it has encountered considerable resistance and trouble. Whether it be liberals’ lack of political guts and capital or conservatives’ complete aversion to any legislation with lots of dollar signs, a massive infrastructure plan—a sort of reincarnation of the WPA during the Great Depression—has struggled to get off the ground in Congress. Often it has been subjugated to the back burner in place of other, seemingly more politically advantageous pieces of legislation. President Obama had control of both the House and Senate during his first year in office and enough political capital to enact one pillar of his agenda, either infrastructure or health care. He chose the latter. As a result millions of Americans have gained health insurance, and though there have been some issues—such as rising premiums and a limited choice of doctors—the Affordable Care Act has been a relative success. But healthcare doesn’t solve two of the most basic problems plaguing the American worker: stagnant wages and increased competition. And providing workers with long-term jobs would allow them to go outside of the constrained public health care system and into the private market to purchase the best insurance for themselves and their families.

The largest question, and blockade, looming over such a bill is where the necessary funds would come from. The most commonly discussed paths for funding are taxes—either regressive or progressive—or cuts to government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. But these modes are simply a continuation of prevailing ideology in Washington and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the most cost-effective measures to acquire the billions of dollars needed. Instead of adding new taxes and regulations to the books, Congress should fund the program through a debt-financed model. While the assumption of new debt may scare off many, it has been well documented and promulgated, most notably by economist John Maynard Keynes. When government spending is increased during tough economic times—especially when the government is ramping up deficits— those tides can be reversed and growth increased to such a degree that the government receives a return on its investment in the long run.

Such a plan is common sense. It is cost-effective, job creating, and desperately needed. What is also needed is courage: the courage of legislators to propose spending a huge amount of capital that could have gone elsewhere or could have saved, as well as the courage from the President to a make a case to the American people that there is merit in such an ambitious proposal.The American working class is not calling for more social welfare programs to simply sustain them through existence. What it needs are jobs; jobs that will give it the security promised by unemployment benefits and the satisfaction of societal contribution that government welfare programs never could. There are roads to be built, bridges to be erected, and tracks to be layed—do not stand in their way.

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