There Has to Be a Better Way to Run the Government

I think the Department of Transportation, under Secretary Pete Buttigieg, sincerely believes climate change is an existential threat. I think it sincerely believes equity is an overriding concern. I think it sincerely believes mass transit is a public good. I don’t think it sincerely believes that all of those goals, and much more, are imperiled by the inability of Democrats to build infrastructure quickly and experiment with policy freely. Or, if it does believe that, it has not aligned its process with its values. The Federal Highway Administration has made itself into the ombudsman of congestion pricing, not an accelerator of a project that New York’s voters are perfectly equipped to judge. Elections, not technical reviews, are typically the best avenue for accountability.

And I promise you: I have not cherry-picked the most contentious program, or the worst process. Quite the opposite. Congestion pricing is a useful case study precisely because it’s a straightforward policy, with the explicit, even fervent, support of all the major decision makers. It raises revenue, rather than costing money. You don’t need to build new tunnels or dam rivers or run a train track through a city. As far as major climate policy goes, this one is easy. And yet, it’s proved to be so, so hard.

I’ve come to wonder if the recent vogue for simple programs that transfer money — and I’ve argued for these programs, too, and desperately want to see the child tax credit expansion renewed — reflect a quiet lowering of expectations. We’re sure government can send checks. We’re not sure what it can build.

I remember asking people who were helping to draft the bipartisan infrastructure deal what lessons they had learned from the 2009 stimulus. That bill was full of legacy-defining, headline-grabbing investments: high-speed rail, a smart electrical grid, a national system for digital medical records. But the more ambitious projects returned lackluster results. So the 2021 infrastructure bill was oriented toward simpler projects that the drafters were confident could be executed — notably, repairs of existing infrastructure, though not only those.

Build Back Better, to be fair, imagined a much more ambitious set of climate projects. And I want to see those pass. But if they pass, I want to see them built — and built fast. That’s not what the government we have right now is set up to do.


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