Is democracy to blame for our infrastructure problems?

In general, if you ask people if they would prefer to pay less, or more, for a given product, the answer is likely to be “less”. Democracy is, at root, the process of asking such a question.

This, Manny Teodoro argues, is at the heart of the U.S. infrastructure problem:

The trouble is that, in too many cases, local democratic governance is a big part of why America faces an infrastructure funding crisis. State and local politicians have been too often unwilling to raise the taxes and fees necessary to maintain infrastructure adequately—even with municipal bond rates at historic lows. National political dynamics make it unlikely that Congress will produce a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bailout. Long-term shifts in national politics might eventually change that picture, but the roads, dams, plants, pipes, and ports don’t care. They’ll continue to degrade without reinvestment.

I’ve written before about a related argument made by Teodoro, a political scientist at Texas A&M, regarding democratic governance and water conservation. More from him on infrastructure problems and new discussions of federal funding initiatives here.


  1. I don’t believe democracy needs to shoulder the blame for our failure to fund water infrastructure. The cause is reactionary ideology, especially that advocated by Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, who created a no-new-taxes pledge that both federal and state conservative politicians eagerly signed and then refused to pass legislation containing measures that required funding through new taxes or even new bond issues. We live in a time when both sides of our nasty political impass want to cast blame on their opponents but when one party adamently refuses to increase taxes to fund infrastructure improvements it’s not too difficult to understand what’s going on, not when compromise has been branded a dirty word.

  2. I think that’s kind of the point, Bob, which is that the democratic system includes incentives for politicians to not raise taxes or utility rates, and that when they do, they get reelected, and that infrastructure decays as a result.

  3. I disagree entirely. Here’s what Teodoro says: “National political dynamics make it unlikely that Congress will produce a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure bailout.” Making a statement about the effects of disfunction without discussing the disfunction itself and how it has come about fails to shine light on the reasons for and the dimensions of the disfunction. It’s like saying we have some sort of constraint without identifying the nature of the constraint. As an urban planner with more than 40 years experience in creating workable plans for communities with people a wide variety of political views, I know that failing to specify the nature and structure of a constraint is highly unlikely to result in that constraint being treated appropriately and the possibility of that constraint being transformed into an opportunity. I have never believed ignorance, even partial, is bliss.

  4. Bob –

    I was very specific in my discussion of the nature of the constraint, the dysfunction that has brought this about: “In general, if you ask people if they would prefer to pay less, or more, for a given product, the answer is likely to be “less”. Democracy is, at root, the process of asking such a question.” The product here is government (or more specifically infrastructure) and if you ask people if they would like to pay more or less for it, a majority seem to prefer paying less, and therefore democracy tends to incentivize politicians who promise lower taxes and or utility rates, with the result that infrastructure is underfunded. I am arguing that this is a system designed to produce Grover Norquists and their followers, not a system created by them.

  5. If your generalization about government and people wanting to pay less for services were correct, our military would be a small percent of what it is today and we would have no Social Security or Medicare. Reducing democracy to asking a question such as you propose is simplistic and fails to take into account its innate complexity and the fact that changes in citizen understanding of the political process drives so much of what we see on the ground today. The same system was designed to and produced JFK and LBJ and the Civil Rights Era as well as Richard Nixon and Watergate. So, how does your definition of American democracy account for that and other enormous variances? To me, it doesn’t.

  6. Bob – This is an old argument, dating to the Federalist Papers, that we’re not going to settle in the comments of a blog, about the strengths and weaknesses of relatively direct democracy versus governance more removed from the whims of voters. I’m arguing, as did Hamilton, that the closer you get to the voters’ direct involvement, the more likely you are to have the kinds of problems Teodoro’s work points out – city councils don’t want to raise water rates at risk of not being reelected, legislators won’t raise gas taxes at risk of not being reelected, etc., and infrastructure decays. States with the option of direct democracy through voter initiative, for example, are more likely to impose tax limitations. When water utilities are removed from direct voter involvement, as through settings in which rates are governed by a state public regulation commission rather than a local city council (this is what Teodoro’s work has shown), they are more likely to raise rates and take other steps that would be politically costly if taken by an official accountable to reelection. There’s a number of lines of empirical evidence in a variety of settings where we have the ability to compare more direct democracy (elected boards of special municipal districts versus more general utility government, municipal versus regulated private utilities) that all point in this same direction. The more directly and narrowly responsible to voters the decision makers are, the less likely they are to raise taxes and rates.

  7. Again, I disagree.
    Here’s what Teodoro writes: “State and local politicians have been too often unwilling to raise the taxes and fees necessary to maintain infrastructure adequately . . .” His statement is one that relates to the here and now but not to the even fairly recent past, else how was the damaged infrastructure, which we have today and manifestly required oceans of taxpayer dollars, put in place? Examples include Eisenhower’s massive national interstate program, hundreds of BLM dams, the huge expansion of airports largely paid for with federal dollars (80% federal with a 20% state-local match), the federal aid urban highway program, and many, many others.

    On the other hand, your statement is a sweeping generalization that apparently knows no historical bounds and seems to be a criticism of what you think is the “flawed” nature of democracy and the popular vote. If your argument were correct, not a single one of those national scale infrastructure programs would have been implemented. That citizen opposition to tax and spend across the board was championed by Reagan and passed down by conservatives to this day. But it was not evident earlier in American history. If you are going to pull a “Hamilton” and blame democracy and the popular vote for our infrastructure funding problems you have to do it in a manner that is consistent with history and not just the last few decades.

  8. “For it is increasingly clear–to those in Government, business, and labor who are responsible for our economy’s success–that our obsolete tax system exerts too heavy a drag on private purchasing power, profits, and employment. Designed to check inflation in earlier years, it now checks growth instead. It discourages extra effort and risk. It distorts the use of resources. It invites recurrent recessions, depresses our Federal revenues, and causes chronic budget deficits…. I shall propose a permanent reduction in tax rates….”

    That’s JFK in his 1963 State of the Union speech, laying out what is basically a supply-side economics argument for what was the greatest tax cut since FDR-led tax increases of the great Depression. He died before the bill was completed, but shortly after his death, it became one of LBJ’s first major legislative achievements.

    If you look at the long history of US government taxation, what FDR did, in response to a national emergency, stands as the exception. The era of significant federal taxation and significant government investment in infrastructure really starts there. In the new book I’m working on, we’re writing among other things about the decision to build Hoover Dam, and it’s fascinating to watch people grapple for the very first time with the notion of a federal government that does such things. It took them a while to grasp the idea that general taxpayers might pay for stuff like that because it was in some sort of national interest. The phenomenon that we’re trying to explain, a willingness of members of a democracy to tax themselves to pay for infrastructure, largely starts there. I argue that the crisis of the Depression was such that self-interested voters were less concerned about taxes and more concerned about “DO SOMETHING!” It is the exception that enabled the grand infrastructure that we are talking about here, providing revenue streams that built all the infrastructure we’re talking about. And to be clear I think it’s the way we ought to do things. But the era when we were willing to do all that, from the 1930s until the 1960s, began its downward spiral with JFK and LBJ’s enthusiasm for cutting taxes. With the crisis of the war gone and the great stabilization of our economy completed, voter self-interest narrowed, and the popularity of cutting taxes rose. Nixon tried to goose the economy by cutting taxes, Jimmy Carter pushed big tax cuts, Reagan you already mentioned. Politicians for more than a half century have been doing this. The growth of ambitious US investment in infrastructure dates to our response to the national crises of the Depression and World War II. The data show that the decline in government investment in infrastructure – federal, state, and local – as a percentage of GDP dates to the mid-1960s, coincident with the JFK-LBJ tax cuts. The era of a willingness to tax broadly and invest in great infrastructure spans just three presidential administrations – FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower – and stands as the exception that requires explanation, not the rule throughout our nation’s history.

    As you said, we’ve got to properly identify the root causes here. It may be easy to retreat to our tribal identity bunkers and blame Howard Jarvis and Grover Norquist and Ronald Reagan. But if it was JFK and LBJ and Carter too, the root cause something deeper in democracy and the behavior of self-interested voters who just like the idea of paying less for stuff, the solutions we need will look very different.

  9. First, you wrote: “the popularity of cutting taxes rose . . .”
    Of course “the popularity of cutting taxes rose.” Not to nitpick, having been a college student through that period, but in 1963 the higher FIT brackets ranged from 75% for a gross adjusted income of $50,000 to 91% for those in the highest bracket. Naturally, everyone in Congress and the White House knew taxes no longer needed to be so punitive. So, I cannot believe JFK was making a horse-and-sparrow economic argument, something which Democrats had been deriding for more than a half century. His intention was to tie the tax cuts to domestic spending programs he and LBJ advocated, such as Medicare and the costs of the anticipated civil rights-oriented programs.

    Second, how can you claim that the “rule” of government, tax reluctance, and infrastructure funding is what we see today and what happened from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s is the exception since government and the popular vote resulted in them both? What empirical evidence demonstrates that the era of willingness on the part of the public to tax broadly and invest in great infrastructure projects was basically an aberration?

    If, as you claim, democracy is to blame for our present infrastructure problems, then democracy was to blame for the growth of ambitious US infrastructure investment during the Depression, World War II, and the post-War period. You seem to be using both sides of the coin to support your argument.

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