The War of 1812 demonstrated that our young nation was in dire need of internal improvements as it had been extremely difficult to advance armies, artillery, and military supplies from point a to point b. Commander-in-Chief President James Madison realized, all to well, that the nation's infrastructure was in need of improvements when American plans to invade Canada during the war had failed. The early 1800s was a time in which travel on the Mississippi River was only one way, and on a decent road it took nearly half a dozen horses to haul a ton of commercial cargo. And in those days American roads were impassable during much of the year.
There was a strong sense, especially among those Americans in the West, that it was up to the federal government to implement infrastructure improvements. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky took up the cause on behalf of his constituents on Capitol Hill, but not all of Clay's Republican allies were ready to fall in behind the federal funding of American infrastructure, and that even resonated with President Madison who vetoed Representative John C. Calhoun's "Bonus Bill." Madison justified his veto by arguing that the use of federal money to improve a transportation network is constitutional overreach.
By 1840, however, the U.S. would experience a wave of projects that would add over 3,000 miles of canals, and the amount of railroad track in terms of mileage would parallel the number of miles of canals. By 1932, with the U.S. engulfed in the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover, who had always maintained a limited role for the federal government regarding direct federal relief, signed the bill that established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. The RFC made billions of dollars in loans to railroads, insurance companies, banks, and state and local governments with an emphasis on "self-liquidating" projects including toll bridges and dams.
President Trump's recent decision to walk out on an infrastructure meeting with congressional leaders is very disconcerting when the necessity to implement internal improvements is of the utmost importance. If you look at the quadrennial report card which is put out by American civil engineers, our nation is not scoring very well in the 16 measured infrastructure categories. The Democrats have taken Trump to task over the source of the infrastructure funding, and Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY, has spoken of how Trump was put on the spot regarding the funding at which point the president simply took the high road.
I think that part of the conversation about infrastructure in America should include alternate means for raising the revenue beyond stimulus packages. In 1939, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau informed some members of the House Ways and Means Committee that "We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. ... I want to see this country prosperous. I want to see people get a job. I want to see people get enough to eat. We have never made good on our promises. ... I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. ... And an enormous debt to boot!"
It is true that federal spending enacted during the administrations of Hoover and Roosevelt did not end the Great Depression, and it was ultimately War Department-related industries in the early 1940s that would cure the quandary regarding unemployment. President Ronald Reagan did not push for a stimulus plan, and with his strong beliefs about supply-side economics, Reagan claimed that the best way to stimulate an economy was to reduce taxes as well as deregulate.
Obviously we are in need of improving our infrastructure, yet the FDR method of pouring money into the economy via federal spending should be called into question. When taxes are imposed there is the danger of cost overruns, and shouldn't the Schumer-Trump $2 trillion dollar proposal call into question the justification of public works projects with this type of price tag?
Brent Been is a Tahlequah educator who is currently teaching at Alice Robertson Junior High in Muskogee.