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Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

I’ve called for the abolition of the Department of Transportation. On more than one occasion.

So I was very excited to see this new video about infrastructure from Johan Norberg.

Very well put. As Johan says (channeling Bastiat), we should remember that jobs are destroyed when money is taken out of the private sector to build infrastructure.

So it behooves us to make sure that any new project isn’t a boondoggle and instead will increase the economy’s productive capacity.

Which is why we should strive for decentralization and shrink Washignton’s footprint. If a state or local government is paying for its own projects, presumably it’ll have a greater incentive to avoid wasteful pork. When the federal government pays, by contrast, that’s a recipe for waste.

Veronique de Rugy explains the issue in a column for Reason. She starts with some economic analysis.

Economists have long recognized that roads, bridges, airports, and canals are the conduits through which goods are exchanged, and as such, infrastructure can play a productive role in economic growth. But not all infrastructure spending is equal. Ample literature shows, in fact, that it’s a particularly bad vehicle for stimulus and does not, in practice, boost short-term jobs or economic growth. …Publicly funded infrastructure projects often aren’t good investments in the long term, either. Most spending orchestrated by the federal government suffers from terrible incentives that lead to malinvestment—resources wasted in inefficient ways and on low-priority efforts. Projects get approved for political reasons and are either totally unnecessary or harmed by cost overruns and corruption.

And she concludes by arguing for market forces rather than federal involvement.

[Trump] should put an end to the whole idea that infrastructure should be centrally planned, taxpayer-funded, and the responsibility of the federal (as opposed to state or local) government. The current system obliterates the discipline that comes from knowing a project needs to pay for itself to survive. User fees should become our preferred option for funding infrastructure. That change kills two birds with one stone: It lessens the need for massive federal expenditures, and it gives the private sector an incentive to spend money on crucial but not exactly sexy maintenance tasks. …If Trump wants the United States to have “world-class” infrastructure, the surest way is through market-based reforms that increase competition while reducing subsidies and regulations. Embrace real privatization, not federally directed private investments.

Writing for U.S. News & World Report, Tracy Miller similarly argues that decentralization is the best approach.

Highways as well as public transportation are currently funded with money from the federal Highway Trust Fund, and by state and local governments. …Money from the fund has strings attached that raise costs and limit state and local governments’ ability to choose which projects have priority. These strings include prevailing wage laws, which require contractors receiving federal money to pay unionized wages even if they could attract qualified workers willing to work for less. High-profile projects chosen by politically powerful congressmen can easily take priority over projects that would generate greater benefits for their constituents. From an administrative standpoint, it would not be very difficult to reduce or eliminate the federal government’s role in highway and transit funding. Instead of gas taxes going to the federal government before being returned to the states, as is presently the case, each state could collect all taxes on fuel sold within its borders and decide how best to spend it. This would make it possible to downsize the U.S. Department of Transportation, saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

He explains why reform will lead to better – and cheaper – transportation.

Local governments – with greater awareness of the local needs of metropolitan areas, small towns or rural areas – can do a better job of funding and managing roads, highways and public transportation that serve primarily local residents. State governments or private firms, meanwhile, can best manage interstate and other major highways that cater mostly to long-distance travelers, especially if they could cover expenses with user fees. …Many drivers object to the idea of paying tolls for the use of currently “free” interstate highways, whether they are managed by private firms or state governments. But highways aren’t free – the costs are hidden within our fuel taxes. If mileage-based user fees are applied to all highways and set at the correct levels, they can become a much more efficient (and ultimately cheaper) replacement for fuel taxes.

Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard summarizes the issue nicely in an article for CNBC.

Our current system of federal funding for transportation means that taxpayers in New York fund highways in Montana and drivers in Utah pay for New York’s airports. If President Trump wants to seriously improve American infrastructure spending, he should champion a new federalism for transportation, in which infrastructure is funded by states, localities and especially the users themselves. …The best decisions are made when decision-makers bear the costs and reap the benefits. When companies invest, they agonize about whether future customers will pay enough to cover the production costs. …Having lived through Boston’s Big Dig, I am well aware of how the promise of federal funding skews local decision-making. Local leaders stop asking themselves whether the benefits cover the costs because it’s somebody else’s nickel. …Detroit would have never built its absurd People Mover Monorail without federal encouragement and funding.

He elaborates on some of the implications for different types of infrastructure.

If new automotive infrastructure is meant to be self-financing, then the decision to build is a straightforward business investment and there is little need for large-scale federal funding. …The beneficiaries of metro systems are the businesses and commuters within a state. They could be funded with local property or sales taxes. My favorite metro funding model is in Hong Kong, where the city’s private mass transit system funds itself by building high-rises atop new train stops. …More federal funding for dysfunctional airports just perpetuates the status quo. They would be far healthier if they were split apart from the larger agency and allowed to operate, compete and charge higher landing fees, either as independent self-funding public airports, as in the U.K., or as private entities.

Amen. I’m not surprised to see Hong Kong as a role model. And I’ve already written about the U.K.’s success with privatization.

Speaking of privatization, a column in the Wall Street Journal points out that this is the way to improve airports in America.

Why do American passengers pay so much to get so little? Because their airports, by global standards, are terribly managed. Cities from London to Buenos Aires have sold or leased their airports to private companies. To make a profit, these firms must hold down costs while enticing customers with lots of flights, competitive fares and appealing terminals. The firm that manages London’s Heathrow, currently eighth in the international ranking, was so intent on attracting passengers that it built a nonstop express train to the city’s center. It’s also seeking to add another runway, as is the rival firm running Gatwick Airport. American airports are typically run by politicians in conjunction with the dominant airlines, which help finance the terminals in return for long-term leases on gates and facilities. The airlines use their control to keep out competitors; the politicians use their share of the revenue to reward unionized airport workers. No one puts the passenger first.

The author cites the San Juan airport as an example of what can happen under privatization.

If you want to see how much better American airports could be, take a plane to Puerto Rico. Until four years ago, the main airport in San Juan was run, and neglected, by an unwieldy bureaucracy, the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. The terminal was a confusing jumble of dim corridors. On rainy days, the ceilings leaked; on hot days, the air conditioning faltered. The stores were tacky and the restaurants greasy spoons, often rented at bargain rates to politicians’ friends or relatives. …Airlines switched operations to other Caribbean hubs. In 2013 the Ports Authority leased the airport for 40 years to Aerostar, a partnership operating airports in Cancún and other Mexican cities. The new managers agreed to make capital improvements, reduce landing fees and pay the Ports Authority $1.2 billion—half up-front. The result, three years later, is an airport nobody would call Third World. The redesigned concourses are sleek and airy, and revenue from new retail and restaurants has doubled. …Airlines no longer control the gates, but they’re reaping other benefits. “We’re paying lower fees for a much better airport,” says Michael Luciano, who runs Delta’s operations in San Juan. “Almost every area has been renovated. You go into any restroom, and it’s bright and clean—things like that are really important to our customers.” Passenger volume has been growing 4% annually, well above the industry average.

I can personally vouch for this. Because of all my travel in the Caribbean, I’ve used the San Juan airport extensively over the years, including just last week for the Liberty International conference.

The difference between today’s airport and the dump that used to exist is like the difference between night and day.

By the way, let’s also dismiss the notion that there’s some sort of infrastructure crisis.

I’ve already shared data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which shows that the United States actually ranks relatively high compared to other nations.

And I’ve also shared solid numbers making the same point from Chris Edwards, one of my colleagues at the Cato Institute. Michael Sargent of the Heritage Foundation has a tweet that nicely shows that there isn’t a crisis.

Oh, and let’s also consider the example of Japan, which thought infrastructure spending was some sort of economic elixir. That didn’t work so well, as pointed out by the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. economy isn’t growing at merely 2% because of potholes or airports… The prime illustration is Japan, which since the 1980s has tried to build its way out of stagnation. The country now boasts perhaps the world’s most spectacular suspension bridges, maglev trains, elevated highways and man-made islands, but the cost was trillions of yen of debt (now 230% of GDP) and no better growth. Nor could a monorail save Detroit. Projects make economic sense only to the extent they clear rigorous cost-benefit tests.

And if you want to know the infrastructure that is least likely to pass a cost-benefit test, just look at mass transit.

A good place to start is the Wall Street Journal‘s recent editorial on a subway line in New York City.

New York City opened a new subway line—about a century after the project was proposed and merely decades after ground-breaking in 1972…by far the most expensive train track in the history of the world. The story is an example of what not to do… This first phase of the new line—amounting to 1.6 miles in a single neighborhood, with three new stations and a renovated stop—cost some $4.451 billion. …The next leg of the Second Avenue subway, which would extend the train 29 blocks north into Harlem starting in 2020, is projected to cost an astonishing $6 billion, and that is surely an underestimate.

Gabriel Roth, writing for the Washington Examiner, has the right idea.

…abolish the subsidies. The federal government forces road users to spend some $10 billion a year on non-road assets of little or no benefit to them. Those payments are not only wasteful in themselves; they also encourage states and local governments to squander money on mass transit, whose costs users are not prepared to cover — not even the operating costs. If local communities consider such expenditures important, they should pay for them themselves.

By the way, just to show my libertarian bona fides, I think decentralization is just part of the answer. In my fantasy world, the private sector plays a bigger role.

And the good news, as I wrote back in 2014, is that my fantasy is reality in some instances.

Here’s another example from Hawaii.

Their livelihood was being threatened, and they were tired of waiting for government help, so business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island pulled together and completed a $4 million repair job to a state park — for free. …The state Department of Land and Natural Resources had estimated that the damage would cost $4 million to fix, money the agency doesn’t have, according to a news release from department Chairwoman Laura Thielen. …So Slack, other business owners and residents made the decision not to sit on their hands and wait for state money that many expected would never come. Instead, they pulled together machinery and manpower and hit the ground running March 23. And after only eight days, all of the repairs were done, Pleas said. It was a shockingly quick fix to a problem that may have taken much longer if they waited for state money to funnel in. “We can wait around for the state or federal government to make this move, or we can go out and do our part,” Slack said. “Just like everyone’s sitting around waiting for a stimulus check, we were waiting for this but decided we couldn’t wait anymore.” …”We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic, something that took us eight days would have taken them years,” said Troy Martin of Martin Steel, who donated machinery and steel for the repairs. “So we got together — the community — and we got it done.”

Reminds me of the guy who built some stairs at a park for $550 because the Toronto government was taking too long and planned to spend $65,000 to do the same thing.

And here’s another case study from Portland.

Portland Anarchist Road Care (PARC) is a community collaboration of skilled workers who volunteer their services to fix the damaged roads around Portland, Oregon. Citing concerns about governmental bureaucracy, the current political climate, a lack of funds and a seeming lack of care, the members of PARC decided to take things into their own very capable hands.

I have no idea whether these people are libertarian-minded anarcho-capitalists or deeply confused left-wing nihilist anarchists, but kudos to them for steeping up and doing a job cheaply and efficiently. The very opposite of what we expect from government.

P.S. Since Nazis are in the news and since I’m writing about infrastructure, here are some blurbs from an academic study on how Germany’s National Socialists used autobahn outlays to generate political support.

The idea that political support can effectively be bought has a long lineage – from the days of the Roman emperors to modern democracies, `bread and circus’ have been used to boost the popularity of politicians. A large literature in economics argues more generally that political support can be ‘bought’. …In this paper, we analyze the political benefits of building the worldʹs first nationwide highway network in Germany after 1933 – one of the canonical cases of government infrastructure investment. We show that building the Autobahn was highly effective in reducing opposition to the Hitler regime. …What accounts for the Autobahn’s success in winning “hearts and minds”? We discuss the economic and transport benefits. In the aggregate, these have been shown to be minimal (Ritschl 1998; Vahrenkamp 2010). …we argue that the motorways…increased support because they could be exploited by propaganda as powerful symbols of competent, energetic government. …Our results suggest that infrastructure spending can indeed create electoral support for a nascent dictatorship – it can win the “hearts and minds” of the populace. In the case of Germany, direct economic benefits of pork‐barrel spending in affected districts may have played a role.

Seems that politicians, whether motivated by evil or run-of-the-mill ambition, love spending other people’s money to build political support. Is it any wonder that we hold them in such low esteem?

P.P.S. Fans of “public choice” doubtlessly will be amused by the IMF’s 2014 flip-flop on infrastructure.

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Canada is now one of the world’s most economically free nations thanks to relatively sensible policies involving spending restraint, corporate tax reform, bank bailoutsregulatory budgeting, the tax treatment of saving, and privatization of air traffic control. Heck, Canada even has one of the lowest levels of welfare spending among developed nations.

So when I saw a column in the Atlantic, suggesting that America can learn from Canada, I was instantly intrigued.

But it turns out that the author, Jonathan Kay, was more interested in extolling the virtues of big government rather than boasting about his nation’s economic reforms.

He starts by grousing about sub-par infrastructure in America.

There hasn’t been a new major airport constructed in the United States since 1995. And the existing stock of terminals is badly in need of upgrades. Much of the surrounding road and rail infrastructure is in even worse shape (the trip from LaGuardia Airport to midtown Manhattan being particularly appalling). Washington, D.C.’s semi-functional subway system feels like a World’s Fair exhibit that someone forgot to close down. Detroit’s 90-year-old Ambassador Bridge—which carries close to $200 billion worth of goods across the Canada-U.S. border annually—has been operating beyond its engineering capacity for years.

I have little doubt that America has serious infrastructure problems, particularly in big cities (such as New York, Washington, and Detroit) where spending decisions are driven by a desire to line the pockets of unionized bureaucrats rather than to provide services to taxpayers.

But is the United States really some sort of third-world backwater compared to our northern cousins? A few years ago, I looked at data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report to see how the United States was ranked for infrastructure and discovered America was in 12th place. Which was higher than Canada’s 15th-place ranking.

But maybe things have changed since 2014. So I perused the most recent rankings. Lo and behold, the United States actually jumped one spot, to #11, while Canada remained in 15th place.

I don’t want to imply that the United States has good infrastructure policy. As far as I’m concerned, increased federal involvement has caused our system to become somewhat dysfunctional.

But since Canada ranks even lower, perhaps Mr. Kay shouldn’t be throwing rocks in a glass house.

What makes his error noteworthy is that he then tries to argue that America’s supposedly inferior infrastructure is the result of inadequate taxation.

The United States is falling apart because—unlike Canada and other wealthy countries—the American public sector simply doesn’t have the funds required to keep the nation stitched together. …The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a group of 35 wealthy countries, ranks its members by overall tax burden—that is, total tax revenues at every level of government, added together and then expressed as a percentage of GDP—and in latest year for which data is available, 2014, the United States came in fourth to last. Its tax burden was 25.9 percent—substantially less than the OECD average, 34.2 percent. If the United States followed that mean OECD rate, there would be about an extra $1.5 trillion annually for governments to spend.

The obvious implication of Mr. Kay’s column is that a much bigger tax burden would lead to much better infrastructure.

Yet if that was the case, then why does the United States rank above Canada?

Heck, I also want to ask why Mr. Kay to explain why the l0w-tax outposts of Hong Kong and Singapore ranked #1 and #2 for infrastructure?

His entire column is a case study of sloppiness. He starts out with an easily falsifiable assertion about infrastructure and he then makes another easily falsifiable claim about taxes. Does the Atlantic not have any editors?

By the way, none of this is an attack on Canada. Indeed, if you look at Economic Freedom of the World, you will see that Canada has passed the United States and now has more economic liberty. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that America’s score dropped faster and farther than Canada’s score. In any event, Canada is now ranked #5 and the United States is #16.

In other words, there is much to admire in Canada. And much to copy.

But Mr. Kay apparently doesn’t want America to mimic pro-market reforms. Instead, he thinks the lesson to be learned is that there should be higher taxes in the United States.

Let’s look at two final excerpts from his column, starting with his observation about the joy of taxation.

It’s really quite simple: When Canadian governments need more money, they raise taxes. Canadians are not thrilled when this happens. But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, taxes are the price paid “for civilized society.”

I can’t resist pointing out that Justice Holmes made his point about taxes and civilization back when the federal government only consumed about 5 percent of economic output. As I wrote in 2013, “I’ll gladly pay for that amount of civilization.”

And the final excerpt implies that the business community in Canada doesn’t mind taxes.

…when I recently interviewed Canadian business leaders about the challenges they perceive, the word taxes didn’t get mentioned much.

Since the federal corporate tax rate in Canada is 15 percent, far lower than the 35 percent federal corporate rate in the United States, I’m not surprised that Canada’s business leaders no longer think taxes are their biggest problem. So why doesn’t Mr. Kay argue we should copy that feature of the Canadian system?

Sigh. I joked back in 2012 that supporters of small government in the United States might want to escape to Canada because of all the market-oriented reform. These are the changes that Mr. Kay should be extolling.

P.S. I’m surprised Mr. Kay didn’t advocate that we copy Canada’s government-run health system. You know, the one that is so wonderful that a Canadian politician escaped to the U.S. for surgery while leaving ordinary Canadians stuck in long waiting lines.

P.P.S. To close on a light note, here’s a satirical article about American leftists trying to escape to Canada after the 2010 elections.

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Every so often, I run across a chart, cartoon, or story that captures the essence of an issue. And when that happens, I make it part of my “everything you need to know” series.

I don’t actually think those columns tell us everything we need to know, of course, but they do show something very important. At least I hope.

And now, from our (normally) semi-rational northern neighbor, I have a new example.

This story from Toronto truly is a powerful example of the difference between government action and private action.

A Toronto man who spent $550 building a set of stairs in his community park says he has no regrets, despite the city’s insistence that he should have waited for a $65,000 city project to handle the problem. …Retired mechanic Adi Astl says he took it upon himself to build the stairs after several neighbours fell down the steep path to a community garden in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont. Astl says his neighbours chipped in on the project, which only ended up costing $550 – a far cry from the $65,000-$150,000 price tag the city had estimated for the job. …Astl says he hired a homeless person to help him and built the eight steps in a matter of hours. …Astl says members of his gardening group have been thanking him for taking care of the project, especially after one of them broke her wrist falling down the slope last year.

There are actually two profound lessons to learn from this story.

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, the part that grabbed my attention was the $550 cost of private action compared to $65,000 for government. Or maybe $150,000. Heck, probably more considering government cost overruns.

Though we’re not actually talking about government action. God only knows how long it would have taken the bureaucracy to complete this task. So this is a story of inexpensive private action vs. costly government inaction.

But there’s another part of this story that also caught my eye. The bureaucracy is responding with spite.

The city is now threatening to tear down the stairs because they were not built to regulation standards. …City bylaw officers have taped off the stairs while officials make a decision on what to do with it. …Mayor John Tory…says that still doesn’t justify allowing private citizens to bypass city bylaws to build public structures themselves. …“We just can’t have people decide to go out to Home Depot and build a staircase in a park because that’s what they would like to have.”

But there is a silver lining. With infinite mercy, the government isn’t going to throw Mr. Astl in jail or make him pay a fine. At least not yet.

Astl has not been charged with any sort of violation.

Gee, how nice and thoughtful.

One woman has drawn the appropriate conclusion from this episode.

Area resident Dana Beamon told CTV Toronto she’s happy to have the stairs there, whether or not they are up to city standards. “We have far too much bureaucracy,” she said. “We don’t have enough self-initiative in our city, so I’m impressed.”

Which is the lesson I think everybody should take away. Private initiative works much faster – and much cheaper – than government.

P.S. Let’s also call this an example of super-federalism, or super-decentralization. Imagine how expensive it would have been for the national government in Ottawa to build the stairs? Or how long it would have taken? Probably millions of dollars and a couple of years.

Now imagine how costly and time-consuming it would have been if the Ontario provincial government was in charge? Perhaps not as bad, but still very expensive and time-consuming.

And we already know the cost (and inaction) of the city government. Reminds me of the $1 million bus stop in Arlington, VA.

But when actual users of the park take responsibility (both in terms of action and money), the stairs were built quickly and efficiently.

In other words, let’s have decentralization. But the most radical federalism is when private action replaces government.

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We have reached the 50th full day of the Trump Presidency.

In that span of time, we’ve had lots of political wrangling between Trump and the media. We’ve been introduced to the concept of the “Deep State” (yes, there is a permanent bureaucracy that acts to protect its own interests, but it’s silly to call it a conspiracy). There have been some controversial executive orders. And Trump made his big speech to Congress.

Lots of noise, though, does not mean lots of action. The President hasn’t signed any big legislation to repeal Obamacare, or even any legislation to tinker with Obamacare. There haven’t been any big changes on fiscal policy, either with regards to spending or taxes.

Heck, Trump hasn’t even told us what he really thinks on some of these issues.

In other words, the biggest takeaway after 50 days is that we still don’t know whether Trump is going to make government bigger or smaller.

I address some of these issues in two recent interviews. We’ll start with this discussion on the day of Trump’s Joint Address. I mostly focus on the need for entitlement reform and explain how Trump could do the right thing for America…if he wants to.

You’ll also notice, right at the end of the interview, that I made sure to sneak in a reference to fiscal policy’s Golden Rule. Gotta stay on message!

In this second interview, which occurred a couple of days later, I start the conversation by fretting about how the border-adjustable tax could kill the chances of getting good tax policy.

In the latter part of the interview, the discussion shifts to infrastructure and I make the rare point that we should copy Europe and get the private sector more involved (it’s generally a good idea to do the opposite of Europe, to be sure, but there are a small handful of other areas – including corporate tax rates, Social Security, and privatized postal services – where various European countries are ahead of us).

The bottom line is that we didn’t know before the election whether Trump wants to limit the burden of government, and we still don’t know today. My guess last year was that we’ll get the wrong answer, though I confess that the jury is still out.

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When politicians create programs and announce projects, they routinely lie about the real costs. Their primary goal is to get initial approval for various boondoggles and they figure it will be too late to reverse path once it becomes apparent that something will cost for more than the initial low-ball estimates. Obamacare is a classic (and discouraging) example.

These “cost overruns” are very bad news for taxpayers, of course, but the system works very well for insiders. Bureaucrats get more money. Interest groups get more money. Government contractors get more money. Government consultants get more money. And some of that money gets funneled back to politicians in the form of campaign contributions, so they get more money as well.

This scam is particularly prevalent whenever politicians decide to build infrastructure. And there are lots of local examples in the Washington area.

But it’s definitely not limited to Washington. There are ridiculous examples of cost overruns elsewhere in the world.

And it goes without saying that places controlled by statists often produce the most absurd examples of wasteful boondoggles. Indeed, is there anyone in the world surprised to see this headline from a story in the Los Angeles Times?

Here are some of the details from the report.

A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion. …The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

Over budget and overdue? Gee, who could have predicted that would happen with a government infrastructure project (other than every single person with an IQ above room temperature).

What happens next is unclear. The federal bureaucracy that disburses grants presumably wants to keep the gravy train on the tracks (pun intended), though hopefully Congress will tell California there won’t be any more federal handouts.

The Federal Railroad Administration is tracking the project because it has extended $3.5 billion in two grants to help build the Central Valley segment. …Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), chairman of the House rail subcommittee, said Friday… “Despite past issues with funding this boondoggle, we were repeatedly assured in an August field hearing that construction costs were under control,” he said in a statement. “They continue to reaffirm my belief that this is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.” …About 80% of all bullet train systems incur massive overruns in their construction, according to Bent Flyvbjerg, an infrastructure risk expert at the University of Oxford who has studied such rail projects all over the world.

Unsurprisingly, the various interest groups that are feasting on this boondoggle want it to continue, whether the money comes from federal taxpayers or state taxpayers.

The California system is being built by an independent authority that has never built anything and depends on a large network of consultants and contractors for advice. …Proponents of the project, including many veteran transportation experts, have said that California’s massive economy can handle higher costs for the project — even more than $100 billion — by increasing sales taxes.

For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly care if California voters want to squander their own money and hasten the state’s economic decline.

But I’m very much against the idea that my income should be forcibly redistributed to support this foolish bit of pork. And this is why I’m very nervous about Donald Trump’s infatuation with infrastructure. Though since he hasn’t provided many details, so we don’t know whether he wants a business-as-usual expansion of pork or a much-needed expansion of private-sector involvement. But I’m not optimistic.

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Since yesterday’s column was a look back on the good and bad things of 2016, let’s now look forward and speculate about the good and bad things that may happen in 2017.

I’m not pretending any of this is a forecast, particularly since economists have a miserable track record in that regard. Instead, the following lists are simply things I hope may happen or fear may happen.

We’ll start with the things I want.

  • Reform of healthcare entitlements – Republicans in 2017 will control Congress and the White House, so they’ll have the power to fix our broken entitlement system and dramatically improve America’s long-run outlook. And since the House and Senate GOPers have voted for budgets that presume much-need structural changes to Medicare and Medicaid, that bodes well for reform. The wild card is Donald Trump. He said some rather irresponsible things about entitlements during the campaign, which suggests he will leave policy on autopilot (which is not a good idea when we’re heading for a fiscal iceberg). On the other hand, politicians oftentimes disregard their campaign commitments (remember Obama and “you can keep your doctor“?), especially when they get in power and finally take a hard look at budget numbers. Perhaps the most optimistic sign is that Trump has appointed Budget Committee Chairman Congressman Tom Price to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and Congressman Mick Mulvaney to be Director of the Office of Management and Budget.  I very much hope Trump seriously addresses the health entitlements.
  • A lower corporate tax rate, “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax – During the campaign, Trump proposed a very large tax cut. With Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, some sort of significant tax cut should be feasible. It’s highly unlikely that Trump will get everything he wants, but the three items at the top of my wish list are lowering the corporate tax rate, ending the tax code’s bias against new investment by replacing punitive “depreciation” rules with “expensing,” and repeal of the death tax. Those reforms would have the strongest impact on long-run growth. And the icing on the cake would be a repeal of the state and local tax deduction, which subsidizes high-tax states such as California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey (I’d also like to see repeal of the healthcare exclusion, but I’m focusing on things that might actually happen in 2017 rather than what’s on my fantasy list).
  • Regulatory reform – The tentacles of the regulatory octopus are stifling the American economy. There’s no single fix for this problem. The overall system for approving regulations should be changed (I will write on the “REINS Act” in a few days), but that’s a partial solution for future red tape. To deal with the existing burden of red tape, a different set of answers will be necessary, including sensible political appointees so that bureaucrats will have a harder time pushing for regulations that are needlessly expensive and misguided and instead will be charged with undoing existing red tape. In some cases (Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, etc), it will be necessary to change current law in order to roll back regulatory excess.
  • Italian default – I’m not hoping for Italy to face a fiscal crisis, but it almost certainly will happen in the near future. The nation’s demographic decline, combined with its bloated welfare state, are a horrible recipe. And while it’s theoretically possible to avert a mess by capping spending and fixing programs (just as it is still possible to fix the mess in Greece), I don’t think good policy is very likely. So Italy will soon face a fiscal crisis and the real question is whether there’s a good response. Ideally, if this happens in 2017, Italy will be allowed to default (presumably because Trump’s representative at the International Monetary Fund vetoes any sort of bailout). This will mean, a) the people and institutions who were silly enough to lend money to a profligate government will suffer losses, making them more prudent in the future, b) Italy will lose the ability to borrow more money, putting an end to additional red ink, c) Italian politicians will be forced to immediately balance the government’s budget, which hopefully means genuine budget cuts, and d) the Italian people will (hopefully) realize that a system based on looting and mooching can no longer be maintained.

Now here’s a list of things I’m afraid may happen.

  • Punting on entitlement Reform – As noted above, the wild card for any sort of genuine entitlement reform is Donald Trump. If he decides to to be President Santa Claus by appeasing various interest groups (like the previous GOPer in the White House), then reform will be dead. Simply stated, House and Senate Republicans will not push good changes without support from the White House. But that’s only a partial worst-case scenario. Trump may choose to be like the previous Republican President and actually expand entitlements (perhaps by borrowing a page from Elizabeth Warren’s playbook and expanding Social Security). If Trump decides to punt (or, gulp, make things worse), that has very grim implications. Reform will be dead for at least eight years (either because Trump gets reelected or because he’s replaced by a Democrat who also opposes reform) and the longer we wait to address the problem, the harder it will be to save America from a Greek fiscal future.
  • A “Poison Pill” in tax reform – While there is a great opportunity to fix some of the biggest warts in the internal revenue code, I worry that lawmakers will include some bad revenue raisers to help “pay for” the good provisions. I don’t think there’s any danger (at least for 2017) of a value-added tax, but the plan from House Republicans includes a “border adjustable”/”destination based” tax on imports (known as a DBCFT) that is not only protectionist, but could eventually morph into a VAT. A smaller tax cut without a DBCFT would be better than a bigger tax cut with a DBCFT.
  • An infrastructure boondoggle – It appears that some sort of infrastructure plan will be approved in 2017. I wrote last year to suggest three guidelines for the incoming Trump Administration on this issue, but I fear that this initiative will become a typical DC feeding frenzy. Lots of spending with no accountability.
  • Italian bailout – If the inevitable Italian fiscal crisis occurs in 2017, the worst possible outcome would be a Greek-style bailout. That approach has several undesirable implications. It will a) exacerbate moral hazard by rewarding the investors who bought Italian bonds, b) it will enable Italian politicians to incur more debt, and c) it will enable the Italian people to continue thinking that big government is good because someone else is paying for it. To be sure, because there’s so much more debt involved, bailing out Italy will be much harder than bailing out Greece. But so long as the corrupt and venal IMF plays a role, it’s always prudent to assume the worst policy will be imposed.

I hope all readers have a happy new year. And I hope. for the sake of America and the rest of the world, that the first half of today’s column is more accurate than the second half.

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During the election, Donald Trump promised a big package of infrastructure spending, twice as much new spending as Hillary Clinton was proposing.

During his victory speech the night of the election, he doubled down on this approach, promising that more infrastructure spending would be one his first priorities.

This sounds like bad news for advocates of limited government. And it may turn out to be bad news. Though if you look at what the Trump campaign actually proposed, there’s a lot of wiggle room.

I will work with Congress to introduce the following broader legislative measures and fight for their passage within the first 100 days of my Administration: …American Energy & Infrastructure Act. Leverages public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over 10 years. It is revenue neutral.

In other words, it’s possible that President-Elect Trump might give us an Obama-style stimulus scheme. Or he may take a radically different approach by removing roadblocks that hinder more private-sector involvement.

And my colleague Chris Edwards points out that the private sector already does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to infrastructure spending.

Hillary Clinton says that “we are dramatically underinvesting” in infrastructure and she promises a large increase in federal spending. Donald Trump is promising to spend twice as much as Clinton. …But more federal spending is the wrong way to go.  …let’s look at some data. There is no hard definition of “infrastructure,” but one broad measure is gross fixed investment in the BEA national accounts. …The first thing to note is that private investment at about $3 trillion was six times larger than combined federal, state, and local government nondefense investment of $472 billion. Private investment in pipelines, broadband, refineries, factories, cell towers, and other items greatly exceeds government investment in schools, highways, prisons, and the like. …if policymakers want to boost infrastructure spending, they should reduce barriers to private investment.

This is very helpful and interesting data. And one of the obvious conclusions is that the types of infrastructure that historically are the responsibility of the private sector (pipelines, cell towers, etc) are handled much more efficiently than those (highways, mass transit, etc) that have been monopolized by governments.

Trump presumably intends his infrastructure plan to focus on the latter type of infrastructure, so let’s consider three simple rules to help guide an effective approach for transportation.

1. More private-sector involvement

A key principle for good infrastructure policy is to harness the efficiency of the private sector.

Why? Because, as Lawrence McQuillan of the Independent Institute argues, governments naturally are inefficient and incompetent at building and managing infrastructure.

Government authorities view maintenance solely as a cost, rather than as an investment that can increase future revenues. As a result, roads remain riddled with potholes, bridges crumble, airports are overcrowded, water is contaminated, and we have classrooms with mold and falling ceilings. Moreover, without a profit motive, repairs are seldom done in a timely manner or at lowest cost. Instead of assets being owned and controlled by people who understand the economics of the industry and have the technical knowledge to operate and repair them efficiently, politicians (the majority of whom appear to be lawyers these days) and bureaucrats control them. This guarantees waste, inefficiency and cronyism, such as the greenlighting of white-elephant projects that are driven by politics rather than economics.

But there is some good news.

Chris Edwards explains that the private sector is taking a larger role.

Before the 20th century, for example, more than 2,000 turnpike companies in America built more than 10,000 miles of toll roads. And up until the mid-20th century, most urban rail and bus services were private. With respect to railroads, the federal government subsidized some of the railroads to the West, but most U.S. rail mileage in the 19th century was in the East, and it was generally unsubsidized. The takeover of private infrastructure by governments here and abroad in the 20th century caused many problems. Fortunately, most governments have reversed course in recent decades and started to hand back infrastructure to the private sector. …Short of full privatization, many countries have partly privatized portions of their infrastructure through public-private partnerships (“PPPs” or “P3s”). PPPs differ from traditional government contracting by shifting various elements of financing, management, maintenance, operations, and project risks to the private sector. …Unfortunately, the United States “has lagged behind Australia and Europe in privatization of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and tunnels,” notes the OECD. More than one fifth of infrastructure spending in Britain and Portugal is now through the PPP process, so this has become a normal way of doing business in some countries. Canada is also a leader in using PPP for major infrastructure projects.

2. Less involvement from Washington

To the extent that government must be involved, another important principle is to let state and local governments handle infrastructure.

That’s what I argued back in 2014.

…the Department of Transportation should be dismantled for the simple reason that we’ll get better roads at lower cost with the federalist approach of returning responsibility to state and local governments. …Washington involvement is a recipe for pork and corruption. Lawmakers in Congress – including Republicans – get on the Transportation Committees precisely because they can buy votes and raise campaign cash by diverting taxpayer money to friends and cronies. …the federal budget is mostly a scam where endless streams of money are shifted back and forth in leaky buckets. This scam is great for insiders and bad news for taxpayers. Washington involvement necessarily means another layer of costly bureaucracy. And this is not a trivial issues since the Department of Transportation is infamous for overpaid bureaucrats.

For a more detailed explanation, Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard has some devastating analysis in an article for City Journal.

The most pressing problem with federal infrastructure spending is that it is hard to keep it from going to the wrong places. We seem to have spent more in the places that already had short commutes and less in the places with the most need. Federal transportation spending follows highway-apportionment formulas that have long favored places with lots of land but not so many people. …Low-density areas are remarkably well-endowed with senators per capita, of course, and they unsurprisingly get a disproportionate share of spending from any nationwide program. Redirecting tax dollars across jurisdictions is rarely fair—and it isn’t right, either, that poorer, lower-density regions should subsidize New York’s subway and airports. Washington’s involvement also distorts infrastructure planning by favoring pet projects. The Recovery Act set aside $8 billion for high-speed rail, for instance, despite the fact that such projects would never be appropriate for most of moderate-density America. California was lured down the high-speed hole with Washington support… Detroit’s infamous People Mover Monorail would never have been built without federal aid. Alaska’s $400 million Gravina Island bridge to nowhere was a particularly notorious example of how Congress abuses transportation investment. As the Office of Management and Budget noted, during the Bush years, highway funding was “not based on need or performance and has been heavily earmarked.”

3. Sensible cost-benefit analysis

Our third principle is that infrastructure should only be built if it makes sense. In other words, do the benefits exceed the costs?

In the private sector, the profit motive automatically generates that type of calculation.

With government, that effort becomes much more challenging.

Professor Michael Boskin at Stanford explains the problem in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

…a huge pot of additional money earmarked for infrastructure, on top of the recently passed $305 billion five-year highway bill, is sure to unleash a mad scramble in Congress to secure funds for the home turf. The logrolling and pork will get ugly without far tighter cost-benefit tests and oversight. …Most federal infrastructure spending is done by sending funds to state and local governments. For highway programs, the ratio is usually 80% federal, 20% state and local. But that means every local district has an incentive to press the federal authorities to fund projects with poor national returns. We all remember Alaska’s infamous “bridge to nowhere.” In other words, if a local government is putting up only 20% of the funds, it needs the benefits to its own citizens to be only 21% of the total national cost. Yet every state and every locality has potential infrastructure needs that it would like the rest of the country to pay for. That leads to the misallocation of federal funds and infrastructure projects that benefit the few at the cost of the many. …taxpayers generally don’t notice all the fiscal cross-hauling, sending their money to Washington to be sent back in leaky buckets to local jurisdictions. Since we all reside in a state and locality, it’s an inefficient negative sum game with complex cross-subsidies. If these local projects are so good, why aren’t citizens willing to finance the projects locally?

And don’t forget government infrastructure always is more expensive – sometimes far more expensive – than politicians first promise. Chris Edwards has the details.

Federal infrastructure projects often suffer from large cost overruns. Highway projects, energy projects, airport projects, and air traffic control projects have ended up costing far more than promised. When both federal and state governments are involved in infrastructure, it reduces accountability. That was one of the problems with the federally backed Big Dig highway project in Boston, which exploded in cost to five times the original estimate. U.S. and foreign studies have found that privately financed infrastructure projects are less likely to have cost overruns.

The challenge, of course, is getting governments to produce honest cost-benefit analysis. Bureaucrats respond to the people who control their jobs and control their pay. So if politicians want to squander more money, it’s quite likely that bureaucrats will concoct the numbers needed to justify the expansion of government.

To cite a high-profile example, I caught the IMF making up numbers to justify infrastructure boondoggles, even though that politically driven analysis contradicted the work of the bureaucracy’s professional economists.

Let’s finish with two additional points.

First, advocates of more infrastructure spending act like there’s some national crisis.

But if this is true, why does the United States get relatively high scores from the World Economic Forum?

Second, let’s consider the example of Japan. That nation has been stuck in a multi-decade period of stagnation, with very little expectation of an economic turnaround. But if infrastructure spending was some sort of elixir, that economy should be booming.

…a look at ailing Japan, which has spent over $6.3 trillion since 1981 on truly impressive bridges and bullet trains, suggests infrastructure isn’t always a cure for economic woes.

The bottom line is that Donald Trump should not follow the business-as-usual approach of simply dumping more money into a system that almost always produces poor results.

P.S. Whoever does the “Redpanels” cartoons is very clever. I’ve already shared ones on the minimum wage, universal basic income, and Keynesian economics. Now, here’s one on federal infrastructure.

P.P.S. I wrote two years ago about the guy in England who built a private road to help drivers avoid lengthy delays caused by poor government planning. We have an even more…um…interesting example from Russia of how the private sector can take over when the government founders.

Gangs smuggling goods into Russia have secretly repaired a road on the Belarussian border in order to boost business, the TASS news agency reported Monday. Smugglers have transformed the gravel track in the Smolensk region in order to help their heavy goods vehicles traveling on the route, said Alexander Laznenko from the Smolensk region border agency. The criminal groups have widened and raised the road and added additional turning points, he said. The road, which connects Moscow to the Belarussian capital of Minsk, is known to be used by smugglers wishing to avoid official customs posts.

This is like a libertarian fantasy. The private sector builds a road to help entrepreneurs avoid trade taxes. What’s not to love? And unlike the libertarian sex fantasy or my 1992 debate fantasy, it’s actually true!

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