The idea of some sort of large federal bill for infrastructure spending has been in circulation for years. It is generally a popular idea that seems to have at least some support for all parties.
But new polls, provided exclusively to Vox, by the Data for Progress think tank underscore that public support for infrastructure spending relies heavily on how you say you are going to finance it.
62% of the public thought it was a good idea when they phrased the question as “some Democrats in Congress suggest spending $ 100 billion a year on a new infrastructure plan for a decade.” And unlike many other forward-thinking policy ideas, which sound good but don’t get widespread support in all of the states needed to pass the Senate, infrastructure spending is not actually penalized in the white-skinned Senate map: if you re-weight the poll to take into account keep skewed in the Senate, it still has 62 percent support.
But actual conference credits increase the budget deficit or else have to be offset by some kind of tax hike. And what Data for Progress – a group whose mission is to use credible polling to find out what kind of progressive ideas are actually popular – is that the popularity of infrastructure spending varies widely depending on how you say you’re going to pay for it.
A $ 1 trillion infrastructure package described as paid by a wealth tax is overwhelmingly popular and has received support from over 70 percent of the public. In contrast, paying for higher infrastructure spending with a higher gas tax – an idea that is technically loved by technical experts across the board – is very unpopular and deserves the support of only 32 percent of voters.
Such results are important to understand the politics of specific issues. But they also illustrate a wider message about how politics work.
Running popular views on issues and avoiding unpopular demands from activists is a good way to win elections. But which ideas are popular is only loosely related to their ideological coding in elite circles. The leftmost notion of how to finance and infrastructure package may not be the best in terms of technical merit or the most likely party party support in Congress in a closed negotiation, but it seems best to continue in an election year.
Infrastructure support depends on how you pay for it
This graph summarizes the findings of the poll, which was conducted in mid-May. In the left column, you get the support level for the idea in a representative national poll. In the right column, the results are re-weighted to account for the Senate skew, part of a larger project to identify Senate-friendly issues that progressives may continue to face, given the difficulties of the political map.
In this case, unlike issues related to immigration or arms control, the penalty for the Senate is very mild across the board, so an infrastructure debate is generally friendly territory for Senate-oriented Democrats.
You also see that while infrastructure finance is generally popular (which is the audit case with no funding mechanism mentioned), talking about funding quickly complicates politics.
The shortage is very educational. Interest rates on government debt are very low corrected in terms of inflation, they are negative. Under the circumstances, the substantive argument for financing useful investments with more loans is very strong. But while voters rarely seem so interested in the budget deficit in practice, reports warning of the dangers of debt-building are quite effective. When a pro-argument is presented stating the stimulating virtues of deficit spending versus “Republicans say that public debt is the greatest threat to future generations and that increasing debt is irresponsible,” the infrastructure package becomes much less popular, with only 50 percent support.
In contrast, there are four different ways to get rich people to pay for infrastructure: the wealth tax, a special supplement on incomes over $ 200,000, a financial transaction tax, and an attempt to make companies pay taxes on the profits they make to investors reporting rather than the lower amounts they report to the IRS – are all very popular.
But paying for infrastructure in ways that impose higher taxes on the general public is not popular. Nor are they popular in ways that policy gains consider perverse. Compared to a broad national retail tax, a higher gasoline tax would at least bring significant environmental benefits and spare many of the poorest households (who are much less likely to own a car). But voters really hate that idea.
The promise and danger of leftist policies
This poll illustrates some broader themes that everyone should keep in mind.
Many ideas coded as left-wing or even marginal – such as wealth tax or ‘true corporate tax’ – are very popular. The mass audience has no great affection for the wealthy and is keen to find ways to turn their wealth into publicly inspired ends.
At the same time, one of the main things left-wing Americans believe is that private consumption is overestimated compared to public services, and it would be better if America is more like Europe, where taxes are generally higher and public services more generous. And the poll shows that the idea is not really in line with public sentiment. Most people don’t really want to pay more taxes (note the wave of failures of bond initiatives in California just before the pandemic took power) and are very open to conservative arguments that public money is likely to be wasted.
The United States has enough income inequality that (especially after the Trump administration passed a massive regressive tax cut) it’s pretty easy to figure out ways to pay for many things by taxing the wealthy. As long as you do that, it’s not hard to find politically attractive ways to spend the money.
But attempts to make a wide-ranging tax hike through the middle class – even those with much technocratic support and code as relatively moderate – are huge political risks, even when used to fund something as popular as infrastructure spending.