Infrastructure and Infra Dig Structures–Monumental buildings or massive boondoggles?

Infrastructure and Infra Dig Structures–Monumental buildings or massive boondoggles?–4gh.,b12-1

Just about the worst thing, then, that can be said about President-elect Donald Trump’s infrastructure-building agenda is that Pelosi is all for it. Infrastructure spending is “an important priority for us,” Pelosi said the day after the election, telling her Democratic House colleagues “we should work together” with Republicans “to pass a bill very fast.”

Trump’s platform called for transforming “America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains.” That may all be imminently doable and eminently sensible. But there is always the nagging risk that spending on infrastructure, instead of promoting economic growth, degenerates into boondoggles—boat-anchors dragging on the economy. The stimulus, anyone? Anyone?

Some infrastructure projects are no-brainers. To get the Keystone XL pipeline under construction, the federal government doesn’t need to offer money, just regulatory approval. Trump promised, from the early days of his campaign, that if elected president, he would sign off on the pipeline right away.

. Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser is generally skeptical of the boffo claims made about how infrastructure investments pay off, but he cites approvingly a 1988 Congressional Budget Office study finding that “spending to maintain current highways in good shape produces returns of 30 percent to 40 percent.”

If some infrastructure ideas are easy to embrace, there are others to which the only reasonable reaction is to run away screaming. Let us please have no more said about that perennial white elephant, high-speed rail, those bullet-trains so beloved of Euro-yearning progressives and guaranteed to bleed billions of dollars away from useful infrastructure.

A tougher call are new public projects that appear to be worthwhile but have to be paid for somehow. Trump’s platform promises “a deficit-neutral plan targeting substantial new infrastructure investments.” To keep all the proposed new spending from adding to the deficit, candidate Trump proposed leveraging private investments with the promise of federal tax credits. Some pro-market economists, such as George Mason University’s Alex Tabarrok, are all in favor of this sort of “public-private partnership.”

But is such investment worth the tax breaks and forgone revenues? It depends on how much impact one thinks infrastructure spending has. Economists differ dramatically in their estimates, depending on what they’re counting and how. Harvard’s Glaeser points out that many economists assessing infrastructure investments downplay “standard cost-benefit analysis in favor of broad macro­economic surveys,” which make it easier to find elusive benefits to offset the costs. Or they adopt a broad definition of what sort of job is created by building infrastructure. For example, in the Brookings Institution report “Beyond Shovel-Ready: The Extent and Impact of U.S. Infrastructure Jobs,” Joseph Kane and Robert Puentes claim that most “workers employed in infrastructure jobs tend to operate physical assets, rather than constructing or installing them.” In other words, if you are going to count the jobs produced by infrastructure, you have to include not just the crews building the road but all the truckers who move freight on it in the years to come. You might as well count, say, air traffic controllers as infrastructure jobs because they work at airports—which is just what the Brookings team does.

As a general organizing principle, if Nacy Pelosi is for something, its probably a bad idea.

Yet if building new airports is a boon to the economy, then Spain’s economy should be booming. (It isn’t.) This proved to be a problem as Ciudad Real is over a hundred miles from Madrid, the city it was supposedly going to serve. And it’s hardly the only “ghost airport” in the country. Albacete Airport limped along with an average of about four passengers a day in 2015. At least that beats Huesca-Pirineos Airport—built for $80 million—which saw only 242 passengers all of last year. Trump made during a debate: that “our airports are like from a Third World country.”

Nearly 20 years ago, David Brooks decried in The Weekly Standard the unwillingness of conservatives to embrace an agenda of national greatness. The article called for “restoring American greatness,” and the elements of greatness Brooks identified resonate at least in part with the sort of greatness Trump has in mind. Brooks had as his touchstone the original Library of Congress, now known as the Jefferson Building. The officials behind it “saw the building as a statement of American greatness,” Brooks argued, “and as a way to elevate America to greatness.”

So too airports are important public spaces that tell travelers a lot about the city, and country, in which they’ve landed. A beautifully designed and built airport declares to passengers that they have arrived.

So too airports are important public spaces that tell travelers a lot about the city, and country, in which they’ve landed. A beautifully designed and built airport declares to passengers that they have arrived.

source–weekly standard, eric felten, edward glaeser, brookings, joseph lane, robert puentes, alerx tabarrok, ciudad real, david brooks, frank gehry, andrew ferguson,


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