What Infrastructure Crisis?

GEORGE F. WILL

January 11, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — One of candidate Clinton's constant themes was alarm about America's ''crumbling infrastructure.'' Today his rationale for a large surge of infrastructure spending is itself crumbling under the weight of analysis.

He spoke of an infrastructure spending gap between America and its competitors, a gap that is as dubious as Kennedy discovered the ''missile gap'' to be when he became president.

Many analyses purporting to prove a markedly inferior U.S. rate of public infrastructure spending fail to note that what is done by government in some countries (telephone systems, electric and gas utilities, hospitals and universities) is done here largely or partly by the private sector. Furthermore, given the cost of land in Japan, the cost of a mile of highway there is more impressive than the result.

With the recovery quickening, and Mr. Clinton already running up the white flag of surrender regarding his pledge to cut the deficit in half, it is odd to advocate a deficit-increasing stimulus package. And it is particularly odd to seek stimulus from infrastructure spending. An Office of Management and Budget study concludes that most infrastructure projects are not labor-intensive and require such high skills that they are inefficient at reducing unemployment -- at a cost per job created of between $70,000 and $198,000.

Anyway, federal spending may ''create'' jobs, but does so with money that otherwise would be employed, usually more productively, in the private sector. The Government Accounting Office reports that the Emergency Jobs Act of 1983, while supposedly stimulative, cost $128,000 for every job created.

Furthermore, the core of Clintonomics -- faith in the productivity-enhancing power of public investment -- is a faith still searching for strong evidence. The Congressional Budget Office finds ''little evidence to suggest that substantial across-the-board increases in current public capital programs would have a marked effect on economic output'' or ''be more productive on average than private investment.''

Political productivity -- producing gratitude among governors, mayors, contractors and unions -- is another matter. Paul Starobin of the National Journal notes that the most frequently cited analysis asserting the high productivity of public investment is by David Aschauer of Bates College, some of whose research has been financed and published by the Economic Policy Institute, which gets about a third of its funds from organized labor.

In the winter issue of The Public Interest, Heywood Sanders of Trinity University, San Antonio, asks, ''What Infrastructure Crisis?'' He argues that the illusion of crisis comes from inadequate statistics and numerous myths, some of them politically motivated.

One myth is that infrastructure spending is being neglected. It may seem so -- if measured on a per-population basis against the 1960s, when America was building the 40,000-mile interstate highway system and paving streets in sprawling new suburbs. Infrastructure spending in the core categories (streets and highways, transit systems and airports, water, sewer and waste treatment systems) was 41 percent higher in 1991 than in 1982.

Another myth is that highway congestion necessarily justifies increased highway construction. Pouring new lanes of concrete often is the least efficient way to deal with demand for highway space at peak traffic times. It is axiomatic that peak-hour traffic increases to fill maximum capacity.

At least it will unless peak-hour travel has a higher price. Governments would receive rather than spend money if they used new microelectronic technologies (such as zebra-stripe stickers or signal-activated radio transmitters) for billing ''congestion price'' user fees to peak-hour drivers.

It is, says Mr. Sanders, a myth that state and local governments generally are too strapped to meet infrastructure needs. St. Louis chooses to finance, with state and county help, a $245 million football stadium (in the hope of attracting an NFL franchise), and to finance a $120 million expansion of a convention center, using dedicated revenues (such as a restaurant meal tax). St. Louis cannot then reasonably say that any inadequate streets, bridges and parks are proof of an infrastructure ''crisis.''

The flooding of part of downtown Chicago when a water system broke was cited as evidence of the crisis of ''crumbling'' infrastructure. But Chicago is using new taxes for a $987 million expansion of the McCormick Place convention facility, the largest public building project in the city's history.

The mere enumeration of infrastructure ''needs,'' consisting of all the things left undone by political choices, does not establish a crisis. And the label ''infrastructure'' should not be used, as the phrase ''civil rights'' is, indiscriminately to dignify much special pleading. Even farm subsidies have become ''agricultural infrastructure.''

Perhaps new infrastructure technologies -- high-speed rail, fiber-optic ''information highways'' -- can fuel economic growth the way construction of canals, then railroads, then rural electrification and highways once did.

But incantation of the phrase ''crumbling infrastructure'' is no substitute for analysis. And analysis must begin by establishing what, if anything, needs to be done that the private sector -- remember the canals and railroads -- cannot do.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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