Donald Trump may not have a long history as a politician, but he flip-flops with the best of them. He has done a complete switcheroo on the Iraq War (he was for it before he was against it, despite what he claims now), immigration (he criticized Mitt Romney’s harsh talk about undocumented immigrants before embracing even harsher measures), and trade (he was a free trader, even defending outsourcing, before he became an ardent protectionist).
But one theme he has consistently stuck to is that he’ll Make America Great Again by rebuilding its allegedly crumbling infrastructure. During the first presidential debate, he once again dissed America’s roads, bridges, and airports, noting that when “you come into LAX or LaGuardia or JFK…. from Dubai, Qatar, and China,” it seems like you’ve come to a “Third World country.”
But the countries Trump is praising as models for a better America are all autocracies that have made a complete hash of things.
Consider China: A September study coauthored by University of Oxford’s Bent Flyvbjerg, the world’s leading authority on mega-projects, found that even though Beijing’s autocrats have all the power in the world to seize property, disregard environmental consequences, and ignore safety concerns, the vast majority of the country’s infrastructure projects are delayed and over budget. Worse, because Beijing’s primary objective is not to facilitate commerce or fulfill some genuine economic need, but instead to dazzle the hoi polloi with the nation’s engineering virtuosity, over half of its projects end up destroying rather than creating economic value. China has built entire ghost towns full of state-of-the-art apartments and offices that no one uses. “Unless China shifts to fewer and higher-quality infrastructure investments the country is headed for an infrastructure-led national financial and economic crisis, which is likely to spread to the international economy,” Flyvbjerg concludes.
None of this seems to faze Trump.
Now, to be fair, Trump is hardly the first one to be fooled by the Middle Kingdom’s glittering airports, highways, and high-speed trains. President Obama, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and numerous other liberals were beating the “we are losing to China” drum long before Trump arrived on the scene.
But Trump has vastly upped the ante. He has proposed a $500 billion to $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus package—much yuuuger than Hillary Clinton’s $275 billion proposal. What’s more, he justifies this spending less in the name of jobs and stimulus, as is the wont of liberals, and more through raw appeals to “my airport is bigger than yours” nationalism. This is also why he needs to rally the public by wildly exaggerating the awfulness of America’s infrastructure.
But contrary to his assertions, America’s roads, bridges, and airports are doing just fine—even improving. The percentage of U.S. bridges rated as structurally deficient (which does not mean unsafe, just in need of repairing) has been cut in half since 1992. Furthermore, a comprehensive assessment by the Federal Highway Administration found that the percentage of vehicle miles traveled on the national highway system with “good” ride quality increased from 48 percent in 2000 to 60 percent in 2010. Something similar is true for state highways, according to a study by the Reason Foundation, where I work. But upping federal spending on roads won’t do much to improve road quality for the simple reason that 80 percent of road mileage is in the hands of local municipalities, not Uncle Sam.
As for American airports, there is no doubt that many of them are dated. But that’s largely because they were among the first to be built and airport design and architecture have evolved since. Tearing down perfectly serviceable structures before the country has squeezed all the value out of them just because a billionaire builder-turned-politico does not find them up-to-snuff would be economic stupidity.
If America must look abroad for lessons on airports, it should look not to autocracies like China, but democracies like those in Europe, where many major airports are in private hands and have an inherent incentive to tailor their ambitions to actual consumer need, not fanciful designs of rulers. Indeed, America is one of the few countries in the West whose airports are still predominantly government owned.
To the extent that America needs to boost its infrastructure, then, it doesn’t need more spending by Washington, but more local control and privatization. This, however, would not allow a potentate to build monuments to his glory.
The tragi-comedy of all this is that Trump has become the standard bearer of a party that for the last eight years has defined itself by its opposition to mindless infrastructure and other spending by President Obama. It seems like a distant memory now, but it wasn’t too long ago that Republicans were fighting tooth-and-nail to eliminate earmarks, impose sequesters, and prevent any raising of the debt ceiling—all of which will be back with a vengeance if Trump becomes president.
The choice for Republicans, then, would be whether to oppose their own party’s president or go along with his demands to open the spigot. It is hard to imagine the GOP standing on principle after the havoc Trump has already unleashed on the party. So if you really worry about America becoming a Third World country, hope that Trump never enters the Oval Office and spends the U.S. into the poor house to promote his infrastructure nationalism.
This column originally appeared in The Week.