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Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

When I argue with my statist friends about the proper size and scope of government, they accuse me of not wanting public services.

My typical response is to explain that I am a strong supporter of markets as the method to get high-quality roads, schools, and healthcare.

But I’m wondering whether this answer pays too much attention to the trees and doesn’t focus on the forest.

After all, the debate isn’t whether we should be Liberland or Venezuela. It’s whether government should be bigger or smaller compared to what we have now.

So the next time I tussle with my left-leaning buddies, I’m going to share this chart (based on data from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database) and ask them why we can’t be like the fast-growing, small-government nations of Asia.

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To elaborate, not only do jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and Singapore enjoy impressive growth, they also get very high scores for infrastructure, education, and health outcomes.

In other words, these nations are role models for “public sector efficiency.”

What they don’t have, by contrast, are expensive welfare states that seem to be correlated with poor outcome for basic public services.

For all intents and purposes, I want to focus the debate on how much government is necessary to get the things people want, sort of like I did in Paris back in 2013.

I asked the audience whether they thought that their government, which consumes 57 percent of GDP, gives them better services than Germany’s government, which consumes 45 percent of GDP. They said no. I then asked if they got better government than citizens of Canada, where government consumes 41 percent of GDP. They said no. And I concluded by asking them whether they got better government than the people of Switzerland, where government is only 34 percent of economic output… Once again, they said no.

I assume (hope) Americans also would say no given these choices. And hopefully they would say yes when asked if we should be like Hong Kong and Singapore.

P.S. If I rotated the above chart clockwise by 90 degrees we’d have a pretty good approximation of the downward-sloping portion of the Rahn Curve.

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Happy New Year!

We listed yesterday the good and bad policy developments of 2017, so now let’s speculate about potential victories and defeats in 2018.

Here are two things I hope will happen this year.

  • Welfare reform – If my friends and contacts on Capitol Hill are feeding my accurate information, we may see a bigger and better version of the 1996 welfare reform in 2018. The core concept would be to abolish the dozens of means-tested programs (i.e., redistribution programs targeted at low-income people) in Washington and replace them with a “block grant.” This could be good news for federal taxpayers if the annual block grant is designed to grow slowly. And it could be good news for poor people since state government would then have the ability and flexibility to design policies that help liberate recipients from government dependency.
  • Collapse of Venezuela – Given the disastrous deterioration of the Venezuelan economy, it’s difficult to envision how the Maduro dictatorship can survive the year. Yes, I know the regime is willing to use the military to suppress any uprising, but I suspect hungry and desperate people are more likely to take chances. My fingers are crossed that the corrupt government is overthrown and Venezuela becomes another Chile (hopefully without a transition period of military rule).

Here are two things I fear may happen in 2018.

  • Pulling out of NAFTA – America dodged a bullet in 2017. Given Trump’s protectionist instincts, I worried he would do something very dangerous on trade. But pain deferred is not the same thing as pain avoided. The President has made some very worrisome noises about NAFTA and it’s possible he may use executive authority to scrap a deal that has been good for the United States.
  • A bad version of Brexit – Given the statist mindset in Brussels and the continent’s awful demographics, voting to leave the European Union was the right decision for our British friends. Simply stated, it makes no sense to stay on a sinking ship, even if it sinking slowly. But the net benefits of Brexit depend on whether the United Kingdom seizes the moment and adopts pro-growth policies such as tax cuts and free-trade pacts. Sadly, those good reforms don’t appear likely and it appears instead that the feckless Tory leadership will choose to become a satellite member of the EU, which means living under the thumb of Brussels and paying for harmonization, bureaucratization, and centralization. The worst possible outcome in the short run, though at least the U.K. is better positioned to fully extricate itself in the future.

I’m adding a new feature to my hopes-and-fears column this year.

These are issues where I think it’s likely that something consequential may occur, but I can’t figure out whether I should be optimistic or pessimistic. I sort of did this last year, listing Obamacare reform and Italian fiscal crisis as both hopes and fears.

It turns out I was right to be afraid about what would happen with Obamacare and I was wrong (or too early) to think something would happen with Italy.

Here are three things that could be consequential in 2018, but I can’t figure out whether to be hopeful or fearful.

  • Infrastructure reform or boondoggle – I put an “infrastructure boondoggle” as one of my fears last year, but the President and Congress postponed dealing with the issue. But it will be addressed this year. I’m still afraid the result may be a traditional pile of pork-barrel spending, but it’s also possible that legislation could be a vehicle for market-based reform.
  • Normalization of monetary policy – I try to stay clear of monetary policy, but I also recognize that it’s a very important issue. Indeed, if I was to pick the greatest risk to the economy, it’s that easy-money policies (such as artificially low interest rates) have created a bubble. And bursting bubbles can be very messy, as we learned (or should have learned) in 2008. The Federal Reserve supposedly is in the process of “normalizing” monetary policy. I very much hope they can move in the right direction without rattling markets and/or bursting bubbles.
  • A China bubble – Speaking of macroeconomic risks, I’m very glad that China has partially liberalized and I’m ecstatic that reform has dramatically reduced severe poverty, but I also worry that the government plays far too large a role in the banking sector and interferes far too much in the allocation of capital. I’m guessing this eventually leads to some sort of hiccup (or worse) for the Chinese economy, and all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that the government responds with additional liberalization rather than the bad policies being advocated by the OECD and IMF.

By the way, I fully expect the Democrats to sweep the 2018 elections. And since the Party is now much farther to the left than it used to be, that could lead to very bad news in 2019 – particularly if Trump unleashes his inner Nixon.

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In 2011, I wrote about how taxpayers were getting pillaged to finance a new metro line in Fairfax County, Virginia.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that California taxpayers are getting screwed even worse.

I’ve since learned, however, that the real experts at wasting money are in the Big Apple. Earlier this year, as part of a column on why the federal government shouldn’t be involved with infrastructure, I shared some depressing details about a far more expensive subway project in New York City.

And now the New York Times has a must-read report about how another big infrastructure project in NYC is an even more absurd boondoggle. The story starts with an anecdote

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there. …“All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

Nice “work” if you can get it, as the old saying goes. A pretend job that pays $1,000 per day.

That makes the gravy train for federal bureaucrats seem miserly by comparison.

Unfortunately, that anecdote is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire project is a monument to how money gets wasted in New York City.

The estimated cost of the Long Island Rail Road project, known as “East Side Access,” has ballooned to $12 billion, or nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track — seven times the average elsewhere in the world. …a host of factors have contributed to the transit authority’s exorbitant capital costs. …public officials have stood by as a small group of politically connected labor unions, construction companies and consulting firms have amassed large profits.

In other words, the story’s headline is no exaggeration.

The special deals for unions are jaw-dropping.

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show. …Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

The featherbedding belies belief.

Mr. Roach, a California-based tunneling contractor, was…stunned by how many people were operating the machine churning through soil to create the tunnel. “I actually started counting because I was so surprised, and I counted 25 or 26 people,” he said. “That’s three times what I’m used to.” …documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. …In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on…many similar projects around the world.

The international cost comparisons are the most persuasive part of the story.

Taxpayers in New York City are paying far more to get far less.

…transit construction is booming around the world. At least 150 projects have been initiated since 1990, according to a recent study by Yale University researcher David Schleicher. The approximate average cost of the projects — both in the U.S. and abroad — has been less than $500 million per track mile, the study concluded. “There was one glaring exception,” Mr. Schleicher said. “New York.”

If you want a partial explanation of why this staggering level of graft and corruption is allowed, this sentence is a good place to start.

The unions working on M.T.A. projects have donated more than $1 million combined to Mr. Cuomo during his administration, records show.

And I’m sure huge amounts of money have also been diverted to city politicians as well.

It’s almost as if the whole thing is a racket, with politicians and union bosses conspiring to rip off taxpayers.

“Almost”? I must be getting soft in my old age. Let me rephrase that sentence: It is a racket to rip off taxpayers.

But let’s be fair. I don’t want to imply that it’s all the fault of the unions. The contractors also buy off the politicians.

…the…main engineering firm: WSP USA, …has donated hundreds of thousands to politicians in recent years, and has hired so many transit officials that some in the system refer to it as “the M.T.A. retirement home.”

Speaking of the M.T.A., the bureaucrats also get a sweet deal, with the rest of us picking up the tab.

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. …A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010.

There’s a lot more to read in the article, including details on how a big French infrastructure project is being built at far lower cost.

It’s basically a perfect example of what Milton Friedman said about what happens when you get to spend other people’s money.

For instance, the story also has grim data about cost overruns, which are a routine feature of government infrastructure scams, both in America and other nations.

But one thing that isn’t in the report is the degree to which Washington is subsidizing this wretched boondoggle.

This is the part that irks me. I wouldn’t get too upset if New York City politicians were conspiring with interest groups to rip off New York City taxpayers. Heck, I wouldn’t even care if they were ripping off taxpayers from elsewhere in the state.

But the fact that I’m also paying for this pork-barrel project is very distressing. And it helps to explain why I want to shut down the Department of Transportation in Washington. That’s the real moral of this story.

P.S. Trump’s infrastructure plan will be unveiled next year. I’m not overflowing with optimism, but hope springs eternal that maybe he’ll listen to my advice.

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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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