The boon­dog­gle of in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Ge­orge Will

— His­tory has a sly sense of hu­mor. It caused an epiphany re­gard­ing in­fra­struc­ture projects — roads, har­bors, air­ports, etc. — to oc­cur on a bridge over Bos­ton’s Charles River, hard by Har­vard Yard, where rarely is heard a dis­cour­ag­ing word about gov­ern­ment.

Last spring, Larry Sum­mers, former trea­sury sec­re­tary and Har­vard pres­i­dent, was mired in con­gealed traf­fic on the bridge, which is be­ing re­paired, and he sud­denly un­der­stood “Amer­i­can sclero­sis.” Re­pair­ing the bridge, which was built in 11 months in 1912, will take about five years. The prob­lem, he con­cluded in a blog post, is “a gag­gle of reg­u­la­tors and veto play­ers” — Mas­sachusetts’ gov­ern­ment, con­trac­tors, en­vi­ron­men­tal agen­cies, the his­tor­i­cal com­mis­sion, etc. — “each with the power to block or to de­lay, and each with their own parochial con­cerns.” Sum­mers’ sun­burst of un­der­stand­ing con­tin­ued:

“I’m a pro­gres­sive, but it seems plau­si­ble to won­der if gov­ern­ment can build a na­tion abroad, fight so­cial de­cay, run schools, man­date the de­sign of cars, run health in­surance ex­changes or set proper sex­ual ha­rass­ment poli­cies on col­lege cam­puses, if it can’t even fix a 232-foot bridge com­pe­tently. Wait­ing in traf­fic over the An­der­son Bridge, I’ve em­pathized with the two-thirds of Amer­i­cans who dis­trust gov­ern­ment. ... We seem to be caught in a dis­mal cy­cle of low ex­pec­ta­tions, poor re­sults and shared cyn­i­cism.”

There is a trope for th­ese times: “I’m a pro­gres­sive, but ... .” Barack Obama should have un­der­stood this in 2009 when he serenely promised “shov­el­ready projects,” the scarcity of which was one rea­son his stim­u­lus barely stim­u­lated.

Ground­break­ing for the Em­pire State Build­ing was on March 17, 1930. Con­struc­tion soon be­gan and the build­ing of­fi­cially opened May 1, 1931 — just 410 days, dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. The Pen­tagon was built in just 16 months, dur­ing wartime. Af­ter see­ing re­con­struc­tion of Man­hat­tan’s West Side High­way take 35 years (con­struc­tion of the Ge­orge Washington Bridge took 39 months), Sen. Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han de­spaired that whereas Amer­ica once cel­e­brated peo­ple who built things, it now hon­ors those who block build­ing.

To­day’s long lag be­tween the con­cep­tion and ex­e­cu­tion of in­fra­struc­ture projects is one rea­son they are du­bi­ous as coun­ter­cycli­cal eco­nomic stim­u­lants, and as jobs pro­grams for the un­em­ployed. The econ­o­mist Mil­ton Fried­man said that once, while he was taken to see a canal that was be­ing dug, he ex­pressed as­ton­ish­ment that

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there was no heavy earth­mov­ing ma­chin­ery, only men with shov­els. A gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial said that was be­cause the project was a jobs pro­gram. Well, then, Fried­man replied, shouldn’t they use spoons rather than shov­els?

New Deal pub­lic works gave the na­tion splen­didly use­ful engi­neer­ing mar­vels, in­clud­ing the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam. It did not, how­ever, sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce un­em­ploy­ment, which never came be­low 14 per­cent un­til pre­war mil­i­tary spend­ing be­gan.

Both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates en­dorsed huge in­creases in in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, so we are about to re­learn that bi­par­ti­san­ship, what­ever its many mer­its, usu­ally means a reck­lessly open spend­ing spigot. Will there be waste­ful projects? In­deed, boon­dog­gles are trans­ac­tion costs of democ­racy. As is the in­cli­na­tion to di­rect in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing to stag­nant re­gions, where it is un­likely to stim­u­late growth, rather than to re­gions where eco­nomic dy­namism is putting pres­sure on, and be­ing damp­ened by, in­ad­e­quate in­fra­struc­ture.

Be­sides, the eco­nomic bang from ev­ery in­fra­struc­ture buck is big­gest in a so­ci­ety that is start­ing from a low base, as Amer­ica did in the first half of the 19th cen­tury. Prince­ton his­to­rian James M. McPher­son in “Bat­tle Cry of Free­dom” noted that be­fore 1815 — be­fore all­weather macadamized roads — the only ef­fi­cient means of mov­ing goods long dis­tances was sail­ing ships and down­river floats. “The cost of trans­port­ing a ton of goods 30 miles in­land from an Amer­i­can port equaled the cost of car­ry­ing the same goods across the At­lantic.” So, “Amer­ica’s transat­lantic trade ex­ceeded in­ter­nal com­merce” and “the econ­omy grew lit­tle if any faster than pop­u­la­tion.”

Then came the Erie Canal and the fren­zied fund­ing of em­u­la­tive projects, many of which failed, but the suc­cesses re­deemed the rest. Next came rail­roads, and soon Amer­i­cans re­garded in­fra­struc­ture — then called “in­ter­nal im­prove­ments” — as em­blems of na­tional great­ness. When the Mar­quis de Lafayette toured Amer­ica in 1824, a cou­ple of years be­fore the 50th an­niver­sary of the Revo­lu­tion, his New York ban­quet ta­ble groaned be­neath the weight of a 75-foot model of the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825.

Amer­i­cans hoped that com­merce, ig­nited by in­fra­struc­ture, would weld the na­tion’s sec­tions, de­fus­ing the dan­ger of dis­union. Ac­tu­ally, this would re­quire a rail­road lawyer from Illi­nois.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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