Elizabeth Warren Is Just Wild about China

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 4, 2012

Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is going to be a prime-time speaker at the upcoming Democratic national convention. In her race, she aired an ad that expressed regret that the United States is not more like China when it comes to refurbishing infrastructure.

This editorial treats Warren’s lament with the contempt that it deserves:

It’s easy to build in China. Take, for example, the massive Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydropower project. Of course, it also required the relocation of at least 1.2 million people and the submersion of two cities and hundreds of towns. No problem in a Communist dictatorship.

Nor have the Chinese forgotten their public transit system. The Wall Street Journal reported just this week that the nation’s railway budget was increased by 16 percent and the Railway Ministry expects to spend some $73 billion on infrastructure investment. However, that same ministry has also been accused of sacrificing safety in its drive to get things done quickly. A year ago its new bullet train crashed, killing 40 people and injuring 192.

But then China won’t really need to be worried about annoying lawsuits resulting from the crash, now will it?

Ira Stoll piles on:

. . . U.S. gross domestic product is about $15 trillion a year. Increasing infrastructure “investment” to the 9% Chinese level that Warren cites would mean an additional $1 trillion a year in government spending. That’s an immense spending increase. To put it in context, the entire federal government spent about $3.6 trillion in 2011, on revenues of about $2.3 trillion.

Where would this money come from? Not tax increases, right? Warren has already reportedly promised nearly a trillion dollar tax increase, spread over ten years, by raising the estate tax, imposing the Buffett Rule, and letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those earning $250,000 a year or more. But that money, she has said, would go toward deficit reduction. If Warren really wants to spend $1 trillion a year more on infrastructure, she’d need to eliminate all national defense spending ($705 billion) or all Social Security spending ($730 billion) and then find another more than quarter trillion dollars. Or else she’d have to go on the biggest borrowing or taxing binge in American history.

Math, though, is hardly the only problem with emulating China’s approach to infrastructure spending. History is another. America and China are at different junctures in our development. America built a lot of bridges, tunnels, and highways in the 1950s and 1960s when China was stuck under Communism. A lot of China’s spending now isn’t going to outpace America but to catch up with things that we’ve had here for decades, like potable water and a population that is mostly non-rural.

Finally, not all of China’s infrastructure spending is worth emulating. The Chinese Communist treatment of those who stand in the way of their projects makes Robert Moses, the mastermind of so many of New York’s neighborhood-destroying highways, look like Mother Teresa. For example, the group International Rivers reports that 1.2 million people were displaced to construct the Three Gorges Dam. That $40 billion project also reportedly had devastating effects on the Chinese river dolphin, river sturgeon, and paddlefish.

China is able to spend so much on infrastructure because it’s an unfree country. It lacks the rule of law that lets American community groups wage legal and political battles against big government projects. Warren may protest that when she’s talking about “infrastructure” she mainly means maintaining existing roads and bridges, not building brand new projects that flatten urban neighborhoods or destroy scenic rivers. But that’s not what’s happening in China.

I do very much hope that Warren discusses her China envy when she speaks to a nationwide audience at the Democratic National Convention. Massachusetts residents–and the rest of the country–deserve to see just how shallow her thinking is when it comes to considering issues associated with infrastructure policy and human freedom.

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