The Corner

Politics & Policy

The State of Our Union Is Red

President Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, called for fewer new programs than many other presidents have on such occasions, but there was still a lot of talking about new spending needs. He asked to spend $200 billion out of the $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending that he would like to see materialize over the next ten years. He called for one more job-training program to be added to the dozens of existing and inefficient ones. He called for opening vocational schools. He would like to implement paid family leave, which taxpayers could end up having to pay for. He would like more immigration-enforcement money and a wall on the southern border. He would like money to fight the opioid crisis and more money for defense, which would require the end to the defense sequester. (He would like that too.) He would like to modernize and rebuild the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Not surprisingly, he didn’t say a word of how he will pay for all that spending on top of the spending we already have going. President Obama would have a laundry list of new programs that he would offer to pay for with taxes on the rich. Other Republicans usually paid lip service to spending cuts to discretionary non-defense programs and the promise of entitlement reforms many, many, many years down the road. It wasn’t great but it was a sign that it was still on their mind or at least that they thought it was on the mind of the voters.

This time around however: nothing. No plan to pay for anything nor worries that anyone will notice or care. I guess there is something to be said for being honest about not caring about debt and deficits — but it sucks for future generations.

As Jonah wrote late Tuesday night, the only mention of a deficit was to talk about an infrastructure deficit. I assume the deficit in spending that he is talking about is what produced our “crumbling infrastructure.” Now, the good news is that our infrastructure isn’t crumbling, so maybe we don’t have have to force-feed federal infrastructure spending into the system and stick to the president’s plan to streamline the permitting process. From Reuters:

* About 9 percent of highway bridges were considered structurally deficient in 2017. But only 4 percent of bridges carrying significant traffic, at least 10,000 daily vehicle crossings, were deficient. That does not mean an imminent danger of collapse, just that repairs are needed.

* For those with more than 200,000 crossings, roughly the nation’s 1,200 busiest bridges, that figure drops to under 2 percent, or fewer than 20 bridges.

* The share of all bridges deemed structurally deficient has been falling for decades, down from 22 percent in 1992 and 12 percent in 2009.

Indeed, though an 2014 academic study of bridge failures found roughly 120 bridges collapse or partially collapse every year, most do so because of floods, fires and collisions rather than structural decline.

Other government data show roughly the same results:

While conditions vary from state to state, the most recent data on highway quality (from 2012) classify 80 percent of urban highways as either good or acceptable. For rural highways, the figure is almost 97 percent. Meanwhile, the quality of bridges has improved as well. In 2004, 5.7 percent of bridges were classed as structurally deficient, meaning that the bridge isn’t unsafe but that it could suffer from a reduction in its load-carrying activities. By 2014 that number had declined to 4.2 percent.

Incidentally, Chris Edwards at Cato points us to this new academic paper that shows that users of infrastructure projects should be the ones paying for them, not taxpayers.

Back to paying for all that spending. It’s not as if we aren’t seriously in the red already. We will have $1 trillion deficits soon. Trillion-dollar deficits are one thing at the end of a recession but here we are talking about trillion-dollar deficits after ten years of an economic recovery. That’s just the beginning, with the CBO projecting that we are heading toward $1.5 trillion deficit in ten years before accounting for any additional spending. I know that economic growth could make the numbers look better, but it could be jeopardized by idiotic moves on trade, as I argue here.

Also, assuming the best about trade, economic growth won’t save us from our long-term spending, deficit, and debt trends. We should be cutting spending right now; we certainly shouldn’t be increasing it.

Does anyone in the Republican party care about spending anymore? I realize I am pretty much talking to myself at this point, but I will continue to try to convincing people that something needs to give. Until then, one thing is sure: No matter how good people thought the president’s speech was Tuesday night (and it was good on many levels, including the tone and the call for unity), I can tell you that the State of our Union is red and our financial long-term looks bleak.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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