The other day, I mentioned the Republican Party’s role in pioneering huge federal subsidies for national infrastructure investments, spurring centuries of enduring economic growth — and how it’s turned its back on that heritage, now attacking the mere notion of federal investment as “socialistic.”
Take a moment to closely consider the Pacific Railway Act ad the contrast to today’s small-bore politics gets even sharper. 1862’s Republican-dominated Congress wasn’t just preoccupied with a handful of terrorists on the other side of the world; it faced an enemy that had just stolen half the country and was just a few months into battling (and, at that point, winning!) an unfathomably costly and bloody war. That Congress allocated precious federal resources to literally lay the groundwork for a greater future for America — even at a time when it was unclear whether America even had a future.
Moreover, those first Republicans chose to create a giant federal entitlement scheme for snooty higher education — the Morril Land Grant Act — at a time when few Americans could possibly have comprehended widespread college enrollment. That investment, reinforced over the years by state appropriations, now spins off almost incalculable economic gains for the nation. They financed all this federal largesse with, naturally, new income taxes on the rich.
Later, in the Reconstruction years, the transcontinental railroad was lauded for creating publicly funded, make-work jobs for veterans — a noble cause which today’s Republicans denigrate as “buying jobs with borrowed money.” Yet that was never the point of the railroad: those employed veterans were building useful, lasting infrastructure, not ditches. Today, that same infrastructure continues to spin off billions of dollars in value, and continues to create private-sector jobs in ways that its builders could not have foreseen: the fiber-optic backbone paralleling the tracks makes possible companies like Amazon and Qwest, its sheer intermodal shipping capacity underlies UPS’s world-renowned logistics, the diesel-engine business was the basis for GE’s leading position in gas-fired electric turbines. Infrastructure investments don’t pay off next week, and they might not even pay off next year, but they ideally leave lasting benefits for the next generation. However, today’s GOP has made it clear that their vision for government is one that pays off their base now, while damning future generations (of taxpayers, of Medicare beneficiaries) to a nasty, brutish, and short life.