The boon­dog­gle of mod­ern in­fra­struc­ture spending

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will Colum­nist Ge­orge Will’s email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­post.com.

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:

There is a trope for these times: “I’m a pro­gres­sive, but ... .” Barack Obama should have un­der­stood this in 2009 when he serenely promised “shovel-ready 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 there was no heavy earth-mov­ing 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 all-weather macadamized roads — the only ef­fi­cient means of mov­ing goods long dis­tances was sail­ing ships and down-river 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.”

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.

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