Poll: Americans Are Confused About Infrastructure Spending

Pollster Frank Luntz, the guy that does those debate focus groups with the dials, has done a new poll on stimulus plans and found overwhelming support for massive infrastructure plans. He says it’s like nothing he’s ever seen before in a poll: right-wing, left-wing, west coast, east coat, everybody wants more spent on roads!

And here’s the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It’s not uncommon for people to say they’d pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates. (That 74% of normally stingy Republicans are on board for the tax increase is, to me, the most significant finding in the survey.)

We’re not surprised by these results. Everyone on TV and in politics says infrastructure is the closest thing to an economic silver bullet, and a 1% tax increase just doesn’t feel like that much. So they think they’ll get something for free. Actually, that’s how Luntz sums up his findings:

The context of the poll is clear: Americans have a serious case of bailout fatigue. They’ve seen government pony up to Wall Street and Motor City. Yet the stock market continues to fall, jobs continue to disappear and the spending just plain continues. Top executives received their Christmas bonuses, and the rest of America was left asking, “Where’s my bailout check?”

See, taxpayers want their own bailout (understandable), even if taxpayers are footing the bill — unfortunately, not everyone can get more out than they put in, though many must believe they can.

Again, what Luntz doesn’t make clear is whether Americans want infrastructure spending because they think our roads are in disrepair, or whether they think it will stimulate the economy quickly. We suspect it’s the latter.

If people really did believe that our roads are in need of a massive renovation, then it means our current recent, non-stimulating road spending has been incredibly wasteful.

NYT’s David Leonhardt noted last November:

There are monuments to the resulting waste all over the country: the little-traveled Bud Shuster Highway in western Pennsylvania; new highways in suburban St. Louis and suburban Maryland that won’t alleviate traffic; all the fancy government-subsidized sports stadiums that have replaced perfectly good existing stadiums. These are the Bridges to (Almost) Nowhere that actually got built.

They help explain why our infrastructure is in such poor shape even though spending on it, surprisingly enough, has risen at a good clip in recent decades. Spending is up 50 per cent over the last 10 years, after adjusting for inflation. As a share of the economy, it will be higher this year than in any year since 1981.

Bottom line, the fact that everyone wants to see their potholes filled or more hardhats adding more lanes to their highway isn’t in itself a good case for the spending. We should first ask why our existing spending hasn’t satisfied their needs and if their attitudes are basically a reflection of the natural desire for a free lunch.

If people were asked about their support for a homeowner bailout that included homeowners in good standing, or a bailout for parents, that would probably generate huge support too. Spending choices shouldn’t be based on what’s popular, but what the economy needs.

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