Economic policy is taking on a surreal appearance in Washington. President Bush has gambled everything on a massive tax cut based on the quicksand of long-term projections of yetto- be-achieved budget surpluses. A bi-partisan majority in the Congress has enthusiastically endorsed the President’s philosophy of “tax cuts cure all” with the Democratic opposition chipping away only at the margins.
The final version of the tax cuts seems certain to be another bonanza for the wealthy. The richest one percent of taxpayers-citizens with annual incomes over $375,000-would receive a third of the benefits of the cuts while the bottom 60 percent of the taxpayers would get only 15 percent of the benefits.
Leaving the fairness issue aside, the decision to place tax cuts at the top of the nation’s economic agenda seems unreal even in the fantasy world of Washington. It is as if President Bush and Congressional leaders see no unmet needs across the nation. In the real world there is a mounting backlog of delayed solutions to national problems ranging from health to affordable housing to a decaying infrastructure. The ability to deal with these and other unmet needs is placed at risk by a policy which puts tax cuts for the wealthy ahead of investments in the economic future of the nation.
The neglect of the nation’s infrastructure-everything from water plants to transportation systems-is a national disgrace that threatens not only the economy, but the health and safety of the entire citizenry.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently published a report card ( www.asee.org/reportcard) which came up with a near failing grade of D+ across 12 critical areas of the nation’s infrastructure. Ironically, the engineers estimated that $1.3 trillion was needed in the next five years just to repair current and looming infrastructure problems-a sum just about equal to the amount that President Bush plans to push out the door in the form of tax cuts.
“Without these resources, we gamble America’s prosperity on an infrastructure whose pipes, schools and airports are literally at the bursting point,” says ASCE President Robert W. Bein, a civil engineer from Irvine, California.
Here are some of the areas that the engineers cited as candidates for immediate action:
- Roads-One third of the nation’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition, costing American drivers an estimated $5.8 billion and contributing to’ 13,800 fatalities annually.
- Bridges-As of 1998, 29 percent of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
- Transit-Transit rider ship has increased 15 percent since 1995-faster than airline or highway transportation. Capital spending needs to increase at least 41 percent just to maintain the system in its present condition.
- Schools-Seventy-five percent of the school buildings are inadequate to meet the needs of school children.
- Drinking water-The nation’s 54,000 water systems face annual shortfall of $11 billion needed to replace facilities nearing the end of useful life and to comply with federal water standards.
- Wastewater-Some sewer systems are 100 years old. There is more than a shortfall of $12 billion annually in investment needs of the systems.
- Dams-There are more than 2,100 unsafe dams in the U.S. with 61 failures in the past two years.
Not only are these critical needs for health and safety, but public monies that would go into these improvements would provide local jobs and stimulate a slowing economy. As Louis Uchitelle writes in the New York Times, Democrats used to carry the flag for critical public investments to meet these needs, but the emphasis shifted under the Clinton-Gore Administration to keeping government less involved and preserving surpluses.
Uchitelle also makes note of recent polls by Louis Harris and Associates which indicate that citizens do favor more spending on services they want such as education, health care, medical research, highways, police and air traffic control.
But, neither the Bush Administration nor the Congress has the courage to test the waters and do the right thing in investing in programs that build the nation and meet real needs of the people. It is easier to pass out candy in the form of tax cuts than to go to the people as a community of citizens with a real economic program for the future. The nation will pay dearly for a White House and a Congress which dodged the hard choices and left our country in poor repair.