President Trump’s campaign promise of massive investment in infrastructure has more natural support among Democrats than balanced budget-minded Republicans in Congress. As Democratic Party leaders debate the merits of cooperating with Trump on his proposed trillion-dollar project, they may find resonance in a striking exchange between two second-century rabbis.
The Talmud (Shabbat 33b) records Rabbi Judah bar Ilai praising the Romans for the marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses that they built in Judea. His colleague, Rabbi Simeon bar Yoḥai, caustically responded, “Everything that they established, they established only for their own purposes. They established marketplaces to place prostitutes in them, bathhouses to pamper themselves, and bridges to collect taxes from all who pass over them.”
Like Rabbi Judah, Senator Chuck Schumer sees infrastructure development as an opportunity to find common ground with a government whose policies he generally finds repellent. Calling Trump’s proposal “surprisingly” progressive and populist, he has highlighted both the need for the projects themselves as well as the employment and economic stimulus they would provide. However, as Rabbi Judah did, he faces fierce opposition from within his own camp.
One argument raised against Schumer’s position is that Trump’s proposal, developed largely by his billionaire adviser Wilbur Ross with an overwhelming focus on public-private partnerships, is “for their own purposes.” Instead of funding forward-looking projects that require significant investment in research and development, some experts say their plan is more likely to give their peers massive tax breaks to build more of the kinds of projects that are already profitable to them – and that they were going to build anyway.
Conversely, projects unlikely to make money for private-sector developers through tolls or user fees may be neglected in favor of more lucrative projects. Fixing toll-free roads and replacing defective water mains in disadvantaged neighborhoods are critical tasks that affect millions of people. However, they are best left to the government because they will never generate revenue to recoup their costs. As Rabbi Simeon argued, it is no virtue for the Roman ruling class to create infrastructure primarily for its own pleasure and enrichment.
Beyond the technical merits of Trump’s proposal, many in Schumer’s caucus also worry that cooperation on infrastructure will diffuse opposition to the far more objectionable aspects of Trump’s administration and agenda. On a purely political level, they point to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s approach to the Obama administration. By refusing to cooperate, even on areas of common interest, McConnell denied Obama the opportunity to fulfill an underlying promise of his campaign by bridging the partisan divide. At the same time, his steadfast opposition rallied his base, resulting in the election of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Recent history may prove, perhaps sadly, that the best strategy in today’s political climate is relentless obstruction, not compromise.
There is, as well, a more fundamental opposition to cooperation with a Trump administration in light of its close ties to the “alt-right” and often shocking disregard for the norms that have long protected American democracy. A 2014 National Board of Economic Research study provocatively entitled “Highway To Hitler” suggested that opposition to the nascent Nazi regime declined more quickly in areas closer to Autobahn construction activity. The simple explanation is that local populations responded to improvements in their lives that the Nazis provided, but this conclusion is somewhat problematic. There were relatively low numbers of car owners in these areas who could have driven on the new roads. Additionally, the economic stimulus generated by the construction was consistently lower than the Nazis promised.
On another level, though, the mundane political and administrative work of building roads normalized the Nazis to the point where warnings about their ultimate aims seemed detached from reality. The more they became part of the ebb and flow of everyday life, less radical they seemed. And the more the government told the people that the projects they saw being built from their windows were improving the economy, the easier it was to believe – even if the actual data was less clear.
Rabbi Simeon may have admitted the public utility of markets and bathhouses, but did not think they were worth the cost of accepting the entrenched Roman hegemony and culture that came along with them. Some contemporary Rabbi Simeons are sounding a similar alarm today.
The Talmud’s story does not end well for any of its characters. Rabbi Simeon is persecuted by the authorities for his opposition, and flees into hiding. His legacy is one of spiritual, not political impact. Rabbi Judah is praised and rewarded, but the growing pressure of anti-Jewish persecution eventually results in the disastrous Bar Kokhba Revolt and the decimation of Jewish life in Judea. [A third Sage, who hears this conversation but does not offer his own opinion, is marginalized and pushed into exile.]
For Senator Schumer, this Talmudic episode and its aftermath only underscore the peril he faces as he tries to act, from a position of political weakness, in the best interests of his own party and those that it represents.