Barack Obama’s election to the presidency seemed to confirm an old theory of American politics proposed by the elder Arthur Schlesin-ger—that the economic/political consensus tends to swing between liberal and conservative cycles in roughly twenty-five-to-thirty-year arcs. Such swings are healthy. Once-fresh ideas harden into dogma; incumbency breeds complacency. Liberals succumb to the corruptions of power, conservatives to the corruptions of money.
The new liberal consensus that emerged toward the end of the Eisenhower era reshaped American social provision before being crushed by Vietnam, OPEC, and inflation. In the same way, Reagan-style conservatism re-energized business and the economy before pushing its nostrums to extremes that almost destroyed world banking.
The Obama election was right on schedule. The old regime was thoroughly discredited. And the new big-ticket priorities—infrastructure, energy, and health care—had been badly served by the privatizing, decentralizing biases of the conservative ascendance.
By comparison with any other high-income country, in all three areas America’s performance is simply disgraceful. The dilapidation of highways, bridges, dams, airports, and water systems is reaching the point of peril. The share of American GDP spent on transport and water systems has been falling for fifty years, and is now about half the average of other advanced industrial countries. Citizens in other rich countries pay more for their...