Making America Great Again

PBS recently featured a show describing 10 Modern Marvels that Changed America.[1]  These included such projects as building the Erie Canal, the first suspension bridge in the U.S., the Hoover Dam, the Interstate Highway System, and most recently, the New Orleans Flood Risk System, built to protect the city from another major hurricane.  The one thing all ten of these engineering feats have in common is they were built as public works projects paid for through either state or federal taxes.  More specifically, they were built by private contractors but paid for by the government, because they were beneficial to society.  A number of these projects were built to enhance interstate commerce and some, like the New Orleans Flood Risk System, was constructed for public safety.[2]

This is an example of how a mixed economy works.  Some things the private sector does well, some things the public sector does well, and some things both sectors do well when working together.  The universal health care system I’m proposing is an example of a mixed economic model – the private sector delivers health care which is paid for by taxes.  It benefits the country, because, as this website’s logo states, the health of a nation is dependent on the health of its people.

Unfortunately, Republicans have been good at convincing Americans that taxes are a bad thing, even when we benefit from the activities that taxes provide, and Democrats have not been as good at countering that message.  As a result, while I like the phrase “Make America Great Again” I realize it will never happen when Republicans are the majority party because many of the things that make America great are paid for by taxes.

For me, a time in our country’s history I identify as being great was from the late 1930s to the late 1960s.  President Roosevelt’s economic policies, the New Deal, helped bring the country out of the Great Depression.  Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, turned to Republican economic policies – leave it to the private sector to dig itself out – and it didn’t work.  In 1932, when Roosevelt took office, the unemployment rate was at 23.6% and GDP growth was -12.9% (the only time in our history GDP was a negative number).  New Deal programs, paid for by taxes, put millions of Americans back to work, while a high marginal tax rate kept deficits low.  By 1941, prior to our entry into WWII, unemployment had dropped to 9.9% and GDP growth was also at 9.9%.[3]  

During WWII, America’s manufacturing sector went into overdrive and unemployment hit the lowest levels in our country’s history – below 2%.  And after the war, economic growth continued, keeping unemployment low and expanding economic opportunity to an increasing number of Americans.  The 1950s and 1960s saw one of the greatest public works projects in U.S. history, construction of the Interstate Highway System, which now extends over 46,000 miles.  It was also a time when more and more employers began to offer their workers health care insurance.

Economic growth continued in the 1960s culminating in our nation’s crowning achievement, sending and returning men to the Moon.  And thanks to continued high tax rates (millionaires were paying as much as 90% of their income in taxes) deficits continued to remain low, even when the country was engaged in the Vietnam War.  The truth is, all the things Republicans disdain, including high individual and corporate taxes and government spending on activities to help make our nation strong, are what made America great.  An added benefit of all this economic growth was that tax revenues increased allowing the government to continue to invest in the nation through public works projects, expanding health prevention activities, improving the nations educational system, and the like.

So what happened?  Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party are what happened.  In the 1980s they began to cut taxes while continuing to spend large amounts of money.  This created large deficits and restricted how government money would be spent; i.e. more on military spending and less on public works and the social safety net.  This has been their modus operandi for the past 40 years as evidenced by the 2017 tax cuts which are estimated to add $1.5 trillion to the national debt.  And because Republicans disparage government spending on anything other than military outlays, our country has become less competitive globally.

Compare that to China, which has been on an infrastructure binge for the past decade.  They now have more airports, more hydroelectric producing dams, more miles of railroad track, more roads, and some of the longest and tallest bridges in the world.  China is financing construction of a road to Europe and Africa to facilitate expansion of their markets to the rest of the world.  (Which is why, in the long-term, they don’t care about Trump’s tariffs – they plan to sell their goods elsewhere.)  They’ve constructed a 1,215 mile railroad to Tibet.  On some parts of the train trip the elevation is so high the passenger cars have to be pressurized like an airline cabin.  And some Chinese engineers are looking at expanding the railroad through the Himalayas, including possibly tunneling under Mount Everest!  Like Roosevelt’s New Deal Programs, these projects put millions of Chinese to work, create needed infrastructure, and generate tax revenues that strengthen the Chinese economy.[4] 

In comparison, Republicans in the U.S. did not enact infrastructure legislation when they were the majority party and their proposals for infrastructure funding are anemic.[5]  They are committed to their petroleum industry donors and have rejected efforts to expand use of renewable energy.[6] 

The takeaway from this is if we want to make America great again, it will never happen as long as Republican’s are the majority party in Congress.  The same holds true for universal health care and even there we are being beaten by the Chinese who plan to guarantee everyone basic affordable health care by 2020.


[2] I’d add New York City’s Eastside Access Subway line to the list. Under construction for more than a decade, it has generated thousands of jobs.


[4] It has also expanded China’s trading partners, so the country can absorb the Trump administration’s tariffs easier than the U.S. can absorb China’s retaliatory tariffs.



1 thought on “Making America Great Again”

  1. Dave,

    Excellent points on infrastructure development and the role of government. The key here is the payer/doer relationship which should be attractive to even most reasonable conservatives not to mention moderates and progressives. As you point out, the US has been able to put together massive and significant construction projects throughout its history by leaving the building up to the professionals (private contractors) but subsidizing the work through tax payer dollars (the deepest pockets available). Throw into the mix nonpartisan oversight (best handled by government) and you have a winning combination.

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