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The Latest Attempt at an “Infrastructure Week” and All Its Distractions

Monday kicked off President Donald Trump’s second attempt at an “Infrastructure Week.” The first attempt was barely noticed because of all the coverage devoted to the congressional testimony of fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey and the usual “tweets,” and also because it featured grandiose promises but no plan. This time around is largely drowned out by the lingering fuming about the White House’s astoundingly tone-deaf and ham-fisted handling of a couple of alleged wife-beaters who were high-ranking staffers, but at least there’s a sort of specific plan to make America’s infrastructure great again.
The plan makes the grandiose promise to spend $1.5 trillion on a wide range of projects, but with the federal government throwing only $200 billion into the pot. The rest would supposedly come from municipalities, counties, states, and the private sector, but that’s a big supposition. Trump unveiled the proposal with a rambling impromptu rift that blamed President Barack Obama for his neglect of America’s infrastructure, of course, but also dishonestly derided President George W. Bush for lying America into the expensive Iraq War, and chided the “laziness” of every administration going back to President Harry Truman, who stupidly spent all of our war spoils on the Marshall Plan, which more sane students of world history now regard as the best investment America ever made.
Most municipalities, counties and states will surely plead poverty, and because they can’t just print money they’ll mostly have a valid point. As of now the interstate highway system and other major federal infrastructure are funded with 80 percent of the money coming from Washington and the rest paid for by the states, the Trump plan proposes that the states start picking up 80 percent of the tab, so it’s hard to imagine many Republican governors going along with that, and of course all the Democrats are also going to hate it. Trump fancies himself a master salesman, and his shtick works well enough with a plurality of voters, but persuading legislators and county commissioners and city councilmen to take the heat for tax hikes and cuts to other programs so he can take all the credit for a patched pothole is a very tough pitch.
As for the private sector, they’re long accustomed to getting paid for doing all the actual work on an infrastructure project rather paying for it. Perhaps they can be induced to pay in if in the payout is substantially greater, perhaps in the proposed form of toll roads or for-profit airports and parks, perhaps in the sorts of kickbacks that the Trump real estate empire boastfully used to pay off government officials, but although we’re by no means socialists we can’t see how the general public comes out ahead in that arrangement. Here in very busy-friendly Wichita the local government is quite fond of these sorts of public-private partnerships, and while they often work out well enough both the governmental left and the free-market far right agree they often favor the interests of certain public officials and their private sector partners more than the general public, and the centrists will likely agree that the Trump administration is more likely than most to seek self-interested deals.
The plan seems likely to face bipartisan opposition, especially at the statehouse and county courthouse and city hall level, and despite the ardent support of some government-savvy and well-connected contractors it will also face opposition from big time businesses, the last of the Tea Party will Republicans will balk at adding even another $200 billion to the $2 trillion dollar deficit that’s being projected for next for year. and all the Democrats will hate it on general anti-Trump principle. As for now it’s all being widely ignored by the rest of the country.
There’s still more talk afoot  about how the president expressed his heartfelt sympathy for a poor fellow whose two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend have accused him of domestic abuse and how he couldn’t get an FBI security clearance on account of the police reports and photographs that corroborated their allegation and thus had to be let go from his high-ranking position at the White House. The critics note that Trump has a longstanding habit of siding with political allies who are credibly accused of sexual misconduct, such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and Steve Wynn and Mike Tyson and himself. His supporters note his stubborn insistence on due process for the accused, which is a a plausible enough argument. His critics note that he didn’t care much about due process when he was condemning political foes accused of sexual misconduct or charging Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad with complicity in the Kennedy assassination or leading “lock her up” chants against Hillary Clinton or calling for the execution of the “Central Park Five” even after due process had cleared them of all charges.
So far Trump’s critics have the better of the more attention-grabbing argument, and we think the damage done to the nation’s moral infrastructure will take more than a mere $1.5 trillion to fix.

— Bud Norman

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On Labor Day

Today is Labor Day, when America celebrates its workers by giving them a day off from labor, but we thought we’d sit down and write something about it anyway.
Some say Labor Day is intended to celebrate the labor union movement, but they’ve always struck us as a bunch of pinkos, and here in the proudly right-to-work state of Kansas we’ve never seen it that way. Some of the workers at the local aircraft factories gather down at the Machinists’ Hall on the south side to make a big deal about it, and we hope they enjoy their hot dogs and beer and end-of-the-summer picnic as much as the rest of us, as they’re a good bunch of guys and gals by and large, and they’re even inclined to vote Republican when their gun rights or some other irksome sort of government busybody-ness is seen to be at stake, but we are nonetheless are inclined to justify our day of idleness by thus honoring all those who labor and are heavy-burdened, regardless of whether their employment is bargained collectively or by the choice of a free-born individual. These days only 6.6 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized, far down from from a mid-’50s peak of 35 percent, and gradually moving further downward with each passing Labor Day, and the dwindling crowds down at the Machinists’ Hall reflect that objective fact, and only those hidebound types who still swell up with tears every time they hear Joan Baez singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” and of course the people that Obama administration appointed by hook and crook to the National Labor Relations Board and the rest of the federal bureaucracy, seem to care.
The latest jobs report suggests that this overwhelmingly non-unionized sector of the country isn’t faring very well, with the official unemployment rate dropping to an almost respectable 5.1 percent but the real rate that includes those who aren’t even bothering to fill out applications anymore at more alarming 10 or more percents, as even the self-described socialist and sudden Democratic Party presidential front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders admits, and the growth in wages has barely kept apace a similarly suspiciously low inflation rate, but few think that a lack of union meddling is the culprit. Wichita isn’t so bad off as Detroit, which had a lot more hot dog-eaters and beer-drinkers at the United Auto Workers’ Labor Day picnics than the Machinists’ could ever draw around here, and most of us around here will assume that it not entirely coincidental. Whatever problems the American economy confronts, and there seems to be an endless supply of them at the moment, union goons and work stoppages and regulatory schemes that don’t take into account that increased employment compensation must follow increased productivity are not likely to prove satisfactory solutions.
Meanwhile, over in the more rapidly expanding public sector, union membership is still stuck in that Eisenhower-era Golden Age achievement of 35 percent. They’re plenty powerful enough to warm the soul of the late Joe Hill, too, and their members enjoy more compensation and job security and perquisites than their more largely non-unionized compatriots in the private sector. This does provide an argument for private-sector unionism, we suppose, but we can hope that people committed to careers with companies that do enjoy such protections from ruthless competition would be susceptible to the counter-argument that the public sector unions have grown too powerful and become a drag on the overall economy. We’re still hoping that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will get his due credit for taking on the public sector unions in his state, and surviving their brutal reprisals, but for now the latest Donald Trump reality show is getting higher ratings.
Better, then, to hoist a Labor Day beer to the average workingman and the average working woman. We mean that “working woman” in the most respectful way, of course, and to those who are offended we offer our most sincere apologies and our most heartfelt assurances that we only meant to be inclusive. It is altogether fitting and proper, as Abraham Lincoln might have said, that as a nation we take a day off to honor the labor that would otherwise be done. In the third chapter of Genesis we learn that work is a curse that God placed on Adam and his descendants, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,” in the third chapter of Colossians it is described as a blessing, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not human masters,” and our long experience of work suggests that both of these seemingly contradictory notions are true. Those who endure work’s burdens and exhilarate in its joys therefore deserve that moment of reflection and swig of beer.

We’ve got some seafood and steak that we’ll put on a tiny little charcoal grill in the backyard, and we’ll do our annual playing of Merle Haggard and the Strangers wailing those “Workin’ Man Blues.” It’s a big job just gettin’ by with nine kids and a wife, as the song explains, “but I’ve been a workin’ man dang near all my life, and I’ll keep on workin’, as long as my two hands are fit to use. I’ll drink a little beer in a tavern, and cry a little bit of these workin’ man blues.” There’s a heroic guitar solo by James Burton that seems to celebrate the satisfactions of a workin’ man’s life, and Merle’s whisky-smooth vocals sum up its miseries, and there’s some politically incorrect posturing about welfare, and no mention of unions. That song and Labor Day always make us happy to be Americans, so today we can only say, “Hey, hey, the workin’ man, a workin’ man like me.”

— Bud Norman

Good Enough For Government Work

Having failed to avert the catastrophic Obamacare train wreck, the Obama administration has lately been working hard to convince the public it likes the health care reform law anyway. This is a difficult chore requiring all sorts of silly arguments, but we were especially struck by the administration’s boast that the program is operating with “private sector velocity and efficiency.”
The claim is laughably untrue, of course, but at this point no one expects candor from the administration. What’s striking abut the statement, rather, is its admission that the private sector sets a standard of effectiveness which the public sector aspires to meet.
Some significant amount of the administration’s pride had to be swallowed in order to make such a confession. A white-hot hatred of those evil top-hatted, moustache-twirling businessmen and a warm fondness for the selfless virtues of government employees was the basic rationale of Obamacare, and of modern liberalism in general, so it must be embarrassing to the high-minded bureaucrats of the Obama administration to be reduced to bragging that they can get things done just as well as those profit-motivated private sector folks. The fact that the boast is not even close to true, and that this is now objectively apparent to even the most gullible observers, can only compound the embarrassment.
Our extensive experience of private sector workers tells us that they are, on the whole, as ethical and intelligent as their public sector counterparts, and we offer due respect for the good works they occasionally accomplish. Their consistent inability to match the performance of the average small business or large corporation is all a matter of incentives. Even the best of us respond to incentives, and it is inherent in the nature of the public sector that it offers all the wrong ones. The public sector offers incentives to give a major computer programming project to a firm with a poor business record but rich political connections, overpay for its services with money that the Federal Reserve is printing up as fast as the presses can roll, and never worry that anyone will be fired when it all goes spectacularly bad. Meanwhile, over at the private sector, where money has to be earned rather than printed, there is an overriding incentive to get things done right, on time, and in the least expensive way.
Back when Obamacare was still being debated its proponents made much of the obscene 3.3 percent profit margin that the insurance companies were making, which ranked a shocking 88th place among the nation’s industries, and the implication was that the altruistic bureaucrats would put all that filthy lucre to better use by healing the sick and exetnding the lives of old folks. By now it is clear that bureacratic inefficiencies will eat up at least that small slice of the nation’s health care costs, and spend at least a similar amount on advertising campaigns intended to convince the public otherwise, and the rationale for Obamacare is harder to defend.

— Bud Norman

Doing Badly by “Doing Fine”

How nice it was to hear President Barack Obama report to the nation on Friday that the private sector of the American economy is “doing fine.” Not because the statement is true, or even remotely believable, but rather because it was so obviously another self-inflicted blow his re-election campaign.

Obama made the comment during a rare news conference, demonstrating why he so rarely faces the press, then went on to say that what’s needed for an economic recovery is more money pouring into the public sector. The Romney campaign immediately responded with a scathing rebuttal by the candidate and then, just a few hours later, an advertisement running on the internet. Conservative pundits were as quick to heap scorn on the president’s claims, and even his more loyal media allies were wincing as they struggled to downplay the remark. By day’s end the president was issuing a clarification, explaining that his statement shouldn’t be misconstrued as meaning that the private sector is “doing fine,” but it was too little and too late to prevent the gaffe from dominating the weekend’s political conversation.

Most of the criticism concerned the president’s apparent lack of awareness of economic reality as most Americans experience it, or his being “out of touch” in the current political parlance, and the point is well-made. A slew of readily available statistics demonstrate that the economy is far from fine, and anyone who regularly listens to average Americans will hear frequent reminders of that fact, so Obama’s sanguine attitude toward the private sector does suggest a worrisome perspective on his part.

Worse yet, though, is what the statement reveals about Obama’s economic philosophy. It apparently has not occurred to him that if the private sector were indeed doing fine the public sector, which always helps itself to a sizeable share of whatever wealth the private sector creates, would also be doing fine. Nor does he seem to have considered the possibility that the public sector’s bloated size and staggering debt have had a deleterious effect on the private sector. He also seems to believe that handing over large amounts of federal money to states and localities — preferably ones with a majority of Democratic voters — to forestall necessary changes in their budgets will somehow spur economic growth.

This is bad economics, as the past three-and-a-half years have proved, but there’s reason to hope that it’s also becoming bad politics. The public sector was recently pitted against the private sector in Wisconsin, the oh-so-progressive state that the public sector union chose as a battleground for the fight, and even there a clear majority sided with the non-government workers. Obama tried to clarify his way out of the “doing fine” mistake, he hasn’t backed off his contention that more spending, more debt, and more government are what’s needed to get the economy track, and that’s looking like a very hard sell.

— Bud Norman