Like asking a fish not to swim

Fareed Zakaria’s new column on the economy touches on a variety of points, only some of which I agree with. But his overarching point — simply waiting for job growth to start happening on its own isn’t good enough — is a good one.

The problem is his misguided assumptions about Republicans.

Zakaria makes the case that additional steps are necessary to strengthen the recovery, and failure to do so would carry awful consequences. The columnist even offers a constructive suggestion on a way forward:

[W]e could enact some measures that would spur job creation, many with a limited effect on the deficit. Most immediately, Washington needs to find ways to employ the millions of workers whose jobs disappeared with the housing bust. The simplest way to help them, and the country, would be to create a national infrastructure bank to repair and rebuild America’s infrastructure — which is in a shambles and ranks 23rd globally, according to the World Economic Forum — down from sixth only a decade ago. […]

In many countries in Europe and Asia, the private sector plays a large role in financing and operation of roads, highways, railroads and airports, as well as other public resources. An infrastructure bank would create a mechanism by which such private-sector participation would become possible here as well. Yes, some public money would be involved, mostly through issuing bonds, but with interest rates at historic lows, this is the time to rebuild. Such projects, with huge long-term payoffs, could genuinely be called investments, not expenditures.

A national infrastructure bank would also address a legitimate complaint of the Tea Party — earmarks. One of the reasons federal spending has been inefficient is that Congress wants to spread money around in ways that make political sense but are economically inefficient. An infrastructure bank would make these decisions using cost-benefit analysis, in a meritocratic system, rather than basing decisions on patronage and whimsy.

Sounds good, right? A focus on infrastructure would give the economy a boost, put a lot of Americans back to work, and help over the short- and long-term. What’s not to like?

But then Zakaria notes how congressional Republicans have responded to previous talk about an infrastructure bank: “House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has played down this proposal as just more stimulus, but if Republicans set aside ideology they would see….”

There’s no point in even quoting the rest of the sentence. Asking conservatives to set aside ideology is a fool’s errand. Before the radicalization of the Republican Party, infrastructure investments were exactly the sort of thing that enjoyed bipartisan support, but those days are long gone.

I’m glad Zakaria mentioned Cantor, because the Majority Leader offers the perfect example that proves the point.

In early 2009, when the Recovery Act funded a high-speed rail project in his home town of Richmond, Cantor was delighted. He said at the time that the project would spur economic development and create as many as 185,000 jobs in his area. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, alongside officials from both parties, Cantor said, “If there is one thing that I think all of us here on both sides of the political aisle from all parts of the region agree with, it’s that we need to do all we can to promote jobs here in the Richmond area.”

Two years later, Cantor announced his opposition to the same infrastructure proposal he’d already championed. He agreed that the funding would create jobs and spur economic growth in his district, but Cantor concluded that “shrinking the size of government” was more important.

“If Republicans set aside ideology they would see….” I know what Zakaria is trying to say, and I desperately wish Republicans were as serious about policy as the columnist thinks they can be, but I’ve seen no evidence that GOP officials are still capable of governing with common sense in mind.