Infrastructure spend­ing won’t trans­form U.S.

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - GE­ORGE WILL

Ap­pro­pri­ately, War­ren be­gan the best book about Amer­i­can pop­ulism, his novel based on Huey Long’s Louisiana ca­reer, with a rolling sen­tence about a road. Time was, infrastructure — roads, es­pe­cially — was a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of pop­ulists, who were mostly ru­ral and needed roads to get prod­ucts to mar­ket, and for travel to neigh­bors and towns, which as­suaged lone­li­ness. To­day, there is no com­pa­ra­bly sym­pa­thetic con­stituency clam­or­ing for “in­ter­nal im­prove­ments,” as infrastructure was known in the 19th cen­tury when canals, and then rail­roads, trans­formed Amer­ica.

What ru­ral elec­tri­fi­ca­tion was eight decades ago, broad­band ac­cess might be to­day: a bless­ing not widely enough en­joyed. But infrastructure spend­ing will not have the eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially trans­for­ma­tive ef­fect that it had be­fore Amer­ica be­came a ma­ture ur­ban so­ci­ety. Prince­ton his­to­rian James M. McPher­son writes that be­fore all-weather macadamized roads, it cost the same to move a ton of goods 30 miles in­land as it cost to bring a ton across the At­lantic. The per­son who would be­come the 16th pres­i­dent be­gan his pub­lic ca­reer ad­vo­cat­ing canal con­struc­tion in Illi­nois, and in 1849, be­fore he be­came a pros­per­ous rail­road lawyer, he re­ceived U.S. patent 6469 for a de­vice to fa­cil­i­tate boats’ pas­sages over sand bars and shal­low water.

Some his­to­ri­ans even sug­gest that there might not have been a Civil War for him to win if the fourth pres­i­dent, James Madi­son, had not ve­toed (on con­sti­tu­tional grounds; he thought that no enu­mer­ated power au­tho­rized Congress to do such things) the infrastructure bill of South Carolina’s Sen. John C. Cal­houn, who be­came a se­ces­sion­ist fire­brand. Their the­ory is that im­proved infrastructure might have moved the South away from re­liance on a slav­ery­based agri­cul­tural econ­omy.

To­day, the na­tion needs some­what in­creased infrastructure spend­ing to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity by re­duc­ing road and port con­ges­tions and boost­ing the ve­loc­ity of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, this sub­ject is not im­mune to the rhetor­i­cal ex­trav­a­gance that in­fects all of to­day’s po­lit­i­cal dis­course.

The Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil Engi­neers has not ac­tu­ally pro­grammed the com­put­ers of politi­cians and jour­nal­ists so that when­ever the nouns “roads” and “bridges” are used, the ad­jec­tive “crum­bling” pre­cedes them. But the ASCE might as well have. It con­stantly views with high-deci­bel alarm the fact that govern­ments at all lev­els do not buy as much as the ASCE thinks they ought to buy of what civil engi­neers sell. A calmer as­sess­ment of cur­rent con­di­tions comes from the RAND Cor­po­ra­tion’s study “Not Ev­ery­thing Is Bro­ken”:

The last surge of infrastructure spend­ing, in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stim­u­lus, taught a use­ful les­son: Be­cause of the ever-thick­en­ing soup of reg­u­la­tions, there are no “shovel-ready” projects. So, such spend­ing can­not be nim­ble enough to ame­lio­rate busi­ness cy­cles. This is just as well: Govern­ment at­tempts to fine-tune the econ­omy are folly. Amer­ica got many mar­vels — e.g., the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge — from New Deal infrastructure spend­ing. It did not get what the spend­ing was sup­posed to pro­vide: a cure for un­em­ploy­ment, which never fell be­low 14 per­cent un­til the na­tion pre­pared for World War II.

Bi­par­ti­san­ship, the ab­sence of which is lamented un­til its re­cur­rence re­minds us of its costs, this month pro­duced the bud­get agree­ment. It put the na­tion on a path to tril­lion-dol­lar deficits dur­ing brisk eco­nomic growth and full em­ploy­ment. So, Democrats face a dis­agree­able de­ci­sion. They tend to re­gret pri­vate-sec­tor in­volve­ment that taints the pu­rity of govern­ment’s un­der­tak­ings. Democrats might, how­ever, have to em­brace pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships that gen­er­ate rev­enue streams — from tolls, user fees and other de­vices — for in­vestors. That is, Democrats, whose eu­phemism for govern­ment spend­ing is “in­vest­ments,” might have to tol­er­ate real ones.

“MA­SON CITY. To get there you fol­low High­way 58, go­ing north­east out of the city, and it is a good high­way and new.”

— Robert Penn War­ren, “All the King’s Men” (1946)


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