After several hysterical pieces in the New York Times denouncing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s refusal to sink his state deeper in debt to build a train tunnel to New York, David Brooks attempts to inject a little sanity into the debate in his column today. His colleagues Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert waxed hysterical about the decision, claiming that the governor’s reluctance to spend billions on the tunnel that the state doesn’t have is based on irrational hatred of government.
Both claim that the refusal is based on a lack of vision and imagination and bespeaks a smallness of spirit. But, of course, this is pure hyperbole, with Krugman claiming that the cause of potentially making his (and mine, as I wrote last week) commute a bit quicker is comparable to building the Erie Canal or the Hoover Dam, projects that transformed the American economy and its history.
Krugman downplays the cost overruns on the project (which even Christie’s much greater estimates almost certainly underestimate) and claims that New Jersey was getting a bargain; but when all is said and done, what Christie has refused to do is to spend $8 billion or more to get $3 billion in federal money. I guess you have to have won a Nobel Prize in economics to think that’s a bargain. Herbert laments the loss of 6,000 construction jobs involved in the tunnel’s cancellation but fails to note that at $1 million+ per job, what we’re talking about here is a boondoggle that might have made Tony Soprano’s fictional mobster exploitation of “The Esplanade” look like small change.
Brooks acknowledges that the tunnel is needed but rightly notes that the state’s inability to afford it stems from the fact that our states and municipalities are drowning in debt largely generated by the costs of paying government employees and their pensions (an issue that Jeff Jacoby explores at length in this month’s issue of COMMENTARY). It’s all well and good to say that big infrastructure projects are exactly the sort of thing government should be doing, but the liberal addiction to public-sector spending has made that impossible. And the public-sector unions that dominate the Democratic Party make sure this never changes.
One reader reacted to my earlier post on this subject by claiming that what Christie has done is to try and live without debt, a bad policy for any government, business, or family. In fact, what Christie is attempting to do is establish the principle that there must be a limit to debt. Unless our states free themselves from the massive debt that government unions have created, it will become increasingly difficult for government to afford the basic services they are supposed to provide, let alone money pits like the Hudson River Tunnel.
Brooks laments the fact that the left won’t make the hard choices about which government expenditures to prioritize. But the problem here isn’t about priorities but a liberal philosophy that wants no limits on government’s power to spend and therefore tax. Under these circumstances, commonsense conservatives like Christie have no choice but to simply draw a line in the sand and say “no” to the tunnel.