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A huge boost in infrastructure spending is very popular — if rich people pay for it

Voters don’t like deficits, and they really hate the gas tax.

Construction in Erfurt, Germany, in April.
Martin Schutt/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The idea of some kind of major federal infrastructure spending bill has circled for years now in Washington. It’s generally a popular idea that seems to have at least some support across party lines.

But new polling, provided exclusively to Vox by the Data for Progress think tank, underscores that public support for infrastructure spending is highly dependent on how you say you’re going to finance it.

When they framed the question as “some Democrats in Congress are proposing spending $100 billion per year for 10 years on a new infrastructure plan,” 62 percent of the public say they think it’s a good idea. And unlike many other progressive policy ideas that poll well but don’t get broad support across states needed to pass the Senate, infrastructure spending faces basically no penalty in the white-skewing Senate map: If you reweight the poll to account for Senate skew, it still has 62 percent support.

But actual congressional appropriations either increase the budget deficit or else need to be offset with some kind of tax increase. And what Data for Progress — a group whose mission is to use credible polling to try to figure out what kind of progressive ideas are actually popular — finds is that the popularity of infrastructure spending varies widely according to how you say you’re going to pay for it.

A $1 trillion infrastructure package described as paid for by a wealth tax is overwhelmingly popular, securing support from over 70 percent of the public. By contrast, paying for increased infrastructure spending with a higher gas tax — an idea well-liked by technical experts across the board — is very unpopular, earning the backing of just 32 percent of voters.

Results like this are important for understanding the politics of specific issues. But they also illustrate a broader message about how politics works.

Running on popular positions on issues while avoiding unpopular activist demands is a good way to win close elections. But which ideas are popular is only loosely related to their ideological coding in elite circles. The most left-wing idea about how to finance an infrastructure package may not be the best on the technical merits or the one most likely to secure cross-party support in Congress in a closed-door negotiation, but it does seem like the best one to run on in an election year.

Support for infrastructure hinges on how you pay for it

This graphic summarizes the findings of the poll, conducted in mid-May. In the left-hand column, you get the level of support for the idea in a representative national poll. In the right column, the results are reweighted to take Senate skew into account, part of a larger project to identify Senate-friendly issues for progressives to run on, given the difficulties of the political map.

In this case, unlike issues related to immigration or gun control, the Senate penalty is very mild across the board, so an infrastructure debate in general is friendly terrain for Senate-minded Democrats.

You also see that while infrastructure funding is broadly popular (that’s the control case with no stated funding mechanism), talking about funding quickly complicates the politics.

The deficit case is particularly instructive. Interest rates on government debt are very low, and in fact in inflation-adjusted terms they are negative. Under the circumstances, the substantive case for financing useful investments with greater borrowing is very strong. But while in practice voters rarely seem all that interested in the budget deficit, messages warning about the perils of debt accumulation are pretty effective. When presented with a pro argument citing the stimulus virtues of deficit spending versus “Republicans say that the national debt is the greatest threat to future generations and that increasing the debt is irresponsible,” the infrastructure package becomes much less popular, getting just 50 percent support.

By contrast, four different ways of making rich people pay for infrastructure — the wealth tax, a special surtax on incomes over $200,000, a financial transactions tax, and an effort to make corporations pay taxes on the profits they report to investors rather than the lower sums they report to the IRS — are all very popular.

But paying for infrastructure in ways that involve higher taxes on the broad mass of the public are unpopular. They’re also unpopular in ways that policy wonks might deem perverse. Compared to a broad national retail sales tax, a higher gasoline tax would at least have substantial environmental benefits and spare many of the very poorest households (who are much less likely to own cars). But the voters really hate that idea.

The promise and peril of left-wing policy

This polling illustrates a few broader themes that everyone should keep in mind.

A lot of ideas that are coded as left-wing or even fringe-y — like the wealth tax or the “real corporate profits tax” — are very popular. The mass public has no great affection for the rich and is eager to find ways to redirect their wealth to publicly spirited purposes.

At the same time, one of the main things that left-wing Americans believe is that private consumption is overrated relative to public services, and it would be better for America to be more like Europe, where taxes are broadly higher and public services are more generous. And the polling finds that idea is not really in line with public sentiment. Most people don’t really want to pay more in taxes (note the wave of bond initiative failures in California just before the pandemic took over) and are very open to conservative arguments that public-sector funds are likely to be wasted.

The United States has enough income inequality that (especially after the Trump administration passed a huge regressive tax cut) it’s pretty easy to come up with ways to pay for lots of things by taxing the rich. As long as you do that, it’s not hard to find politically appealing ways to spend the money.

But efforts to push into broad middle-class tax increases — even ones that have a lot of technocratic support and code as relatively moderate — are huge political risks, even when used to finance something as popular as infrastructure spending.

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