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Archive for September 6th, 2014

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute looks at the topic of infrastructure spending and I’m left with mixed feelings.

Some of what he writes is very good.

Yes, the claims of an “infrastructure crisis” by President Obama, many liberals…are exaggerated. …yes, existing laws and regulations turn infrastructure projects into boondoggles that take an order of magnitude longer to complete than necessary and cost more than they should.

Amen, particularly with regard to the absurd notion that America is suffering some sort of crisis. The International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, publisher of the World Competitiveness Yearbook, puts the United States in first place when ranking nations on the quality of infrastructure.

Moreover, the just-released Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum puts the United States in 12th place for infrastructure, which also is a rather high score (if you want to know where the United States does lag, we’re in 73rd place for wastefulness of government spending, 82nd place for burden of government regulation, and 102nd place for the total tax rate on profits).

And I also agree with his second point about infrastructure programs being very vulnerable to waste (see here and here for jaw-dropping examples).

But I’m nervous that he nonetheless wants to a new program of infrastructure investment.

…conservatives should put that skepticism aside and proceed — as always, with apprehension and great prudence — with a program of infrastructure investment.

Though maybe this isn’t a bad idea. After all, he specifically says that the new government spending would be based on what generates a good rate of return.

We shouldn’t follow the left’s approach to infrastructure stimulus, calculating the number of jobs we’d like to create. …a conservative approach to infrastructure would begin with a question: What are some projects that we actually need to fund? We all know by now that “shovel ready” projects are rare. So we should take some time to actually figure out which projects offer the highest value to society.

Sounds like he’s wised up since he wrote in favor of Keynesian “stimulus” earlier this year.

Unfortunately, later in his most recent article, he does use failed Keynesian theory to justify his call for more infrastructure spending.

A multi-year program will help growth and employment over the next few years, when the economy will probably still need a boost.

But let’s set that aside. If there are sound economic reasons to build a road, I’m not going to be opposed simply because Keynesians support the spending for the wrong reason.

Indeed, I don’t even necessarily object that he entitled his article, “How the government can spend billions of dollars on a new policy and still win conservative support.”

My one real problem with Strain’s column is that he wants Washington to be involved. He specifically refers to:

…the federal government’s share of the money to pay for these infrastructure projects.

Sigh.

We should be eliminating the Department of Transportation, not giving it more money to waste. That’s the answer I give when some people want a higher federal gas tax to fund more transportation spending. And it’s the answer I give when others whine about a supposed deficit in the federal highway trust fund.

The answer is federalism, not more centralization.

Want some very timely evidence in support of my position? Here are some excerpts from a new Wall Street Journal report on how infrastructure programs are ridiculously wasteful.

The most expensive train station in the U.S. is taking shape at the site of the former World Trade Center…the terminal connecting New Jersey with downtown Manhattan has turned into a public-works embarrassment. …How could such a high-profile project fall eight years behind schedule and at least $2 billion over budget? An analysis of federal oversight reports viewed by The Wall Street Journal and interviews with current and former officials show a project sunk in a morass of politics and government. …When completed in 2015, the station is on track to cost between $3.7 and $4 billion, more than double its original budget of $1.7 billion to $2 billion. …“the station is a national symbol for government waste…,” Mr. LaVorgna said.

So why am I citing a boondoggle project in New York City when I want to disagree with Strain’s call for more federal spending?

Because thanks to existing federal handouts, I’m paying for a big chunk of it!

…the Federal Transit Administration…is funding $2.87 billion of the train station project.

And when Uncle Sam is paying part of the tab, state and local politicians are more than happy to squander money in hopes of memorializing themselves.

The terminal’s delays and cost overruns were “certainly unfortunate,” said Mr. Pataki, a driving force in the early years of the World Trade Center redevelopment. “But I think 50 years from now, people are going to say, ‘Wow, they did it the right way.'”

But let’s ignore headline-seeking and glory-hunting politicians. What we should care about it getting good value when the government spends our money.

My point is that we’re more likely to get acceptable results (not great results since I realize that waste isn’t limited to Washington) when state and local governments are raising and spending their own money.

When other people pick up the tab, by contrast, you get absurd examples of waste.

P.S. I also heartily recommend this National Review column on getting the federal government out of the infrastructure business.

P.P.S. And don’t forget that the private sector should play a bigger role in building and operating roads.

P.P.P.S. I’m in Mexico City, having just spoken to the Society of Trust and Estate Professionals on the latest developments in the campaign by high-tax nations to cripple tax competition.

They had a nice gala dinner last night, which was the favorite part of the trip for the Princess of the Levant.

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Since I’m a policy dork, I was much more enthusiastic about rallying opposition to bad policies such as FATCA and a global network of tax police.

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