Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Government Infrastructure Is Inefficient Everywhere

An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today indicates that Edwards’ Law of Cost Overruns is an international standard. If a politician says that a project will cost $100 million, it will end up costing $200 million or more.

The WSJ piece by Bent Flyvbjerg and Atif Ansar examines the results of an Oxford University study looking at 245 dam projects around the world. The projects had a “dismal track record” in terms of sticking to their promised budgets. The “actual construction costs of large dams are globally on average 96 percent higher than their budgets,” say Flyvbjerg and Ansar. That means a doubling, which is right in line with Edwards’ Law.

Rachel Maddow has drawn the lesson from Hoover Dam that big government projects are really great. But Flyvbjerg and Ansar describe a more typical government project: “Brazil’s Itaipu Dam was built in the 1970s. It cost nearly $20 billion, 240 percent more in real terms than predicted and it impaired Brazil’s public finances for three decades.”

I’ve written in detail about the history of U.S. government dam building, which has been chock-full of economic and environmental mismanagement. One reason for large cost overruns is that policymakers lie or conceal. I wrote that the Bureau of Reclamation “began constructing the Grand Coulee Dam with $63 million in funding from Congress, but it later became clear that the agency had a $270 million project in mind.” And I wrote regarding Jerry Brown’s father that “in pushing for approval of the huge State Water Project in California in 1959, Gov. Pat Brown kept throwing out a bogus cost estimate of $1.75 billion, even though he knew it would cost far more, as he later admitted.”

Liberals, such as Maddow, who hunger for big government infrastructure projects would cure their misguided lust by reading Cadillac Desert. Written by an environmentalist, I think it is one of the best public policy books of recent decades.

I’ve written about government cost overruns here, partly drawing from Flyvbjerg’s excellent research on the topic.

Private Funding of Science?

According to textbook economics, government funding is crucial to scientific progress and technological innovation.  The reasoning is that pure science (e.g., the structure of DNA) underlies most applied science (e.g., genetic testing).  Pure science, however, is easily copied once discovered, so it cannot earn significant profits. Private actors therefore underinvest in pure science, and applied science suffers. In economics lingo, pure science is a public good because knowledge is non-excludable.

This perspective is reasonable but hardly decisive. Government funding suffers bureaucratic inefficiences and risks politicization of the nation’s research agenda (e.g., an excessive focus on defense research). And even if some role for government makes sense, the right amount is hard to gauge; no evidence shows that current amounts are insufficient.

In addition, the textbook argument assumes that private actors will not fund basic research. Yet as this New York Times piece documents, private actors contribute mightily to scientific research:

Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, .. set up a brain science institute in Seattle, to which he donated $500 million, and Fred Kavli, a technology and real estate billionaire, … then established brain institutes at Yale, Columbia and the University of California. …

The new philanthropists represent the breadth of American business, people like Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor (and founder of the media company that bears his name), James Simons (hedge funds) and David H. Koch (oil and chemicals), among hundreds of wealthy donors. Especially prominent, though, are some of the boldest-face names of the tech world, among them Bill Gates (Microsoft), Eric E. Schmidt (Google) and Lawrence J. Ellison (Oracle). 

So far, Mr. Ellison, listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s fifth-richest man, has donated about half a billion dollars to science. …

The philanthropists’ projects are as diverse as the careers that built their fortunes. George P. Mitchell, considered the father of the drilling process for oil and gas known as fracking, has given about $360 million to fields like particle physics, sustainable development and astronomy — including $35 million for the Giant Magellan Telescope, now being built by a private consortium for installation atop a mountain in Chile. …

Eli Broad, who earned his money in housing and insurance, donated $700 million for a venture between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore the genetic basis of disease. Gordon Moore of Intel has spent $850 million on research in physics, biology, the environment and astronomy. The investor Ronald O. Perelman, among other donations, gave more than $30 million to study women’s cancers — money that led to Herceptin, a breakthrough drug for certain kinds of breast cancer. Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft, has spent heavily on uncovering fossil remains of Tyrannosaurus rex, and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund, has lent his mega-yacht to hunts for the elusive giant squid. 

Whether a role remains for government funding is not clear; perhaps the projects funded by private investors will not address the breadth of important questions in basic science.

And government funding has undoubtedly supported huge amounts of valuable research; that is not in dispute, only whether the research would have occurred even without government.

The wealth of private funding nevertheless suggests that outrage over cuts to science budgets is misguided. The private sector will fill much, perhaps all, of the gap.

Another Defective IMF study on Inequality and Redistribution

IMF Warns on the Dangers of Inequality,” screams the headline of a story by Ian Talley in the Wall Street Journal. The IMF – which Talley dubs “the world’s top economic institution”– is said to be “warning that rising income inequality is weighing on global economic growth and fueling political instability.” 

This has been a familiar chorus from the White House/IMF songbook since late 2011, when President Obama’s Special Assistant David Lipton became Deputy Managing Director of the IMF.  It echoes a December 2012 New York Times piece, “Income Inequality May Take Toll on Growth,” and a January 14, Financial Times feature, “IMF warns on threat of income inequality.”  This isn’t news.

Talley writes, “The IMF … says advanced and developing economies need to raise more revenues through taxes, focusing on progressive taxation that moves more of the burden for social security, health care and other state benefits to the high-income earners.” That isn’t news either.  The IMF has an ugly history of advising countries to raise tax rates, with disastrous results.  The inequality crusade is just a new pretext for old mistakes.

New York Times Op-ed on Infrastructure

My op-ed in today’s New York Times has prompted numerous critical comments on the NYT website. Let me address some of them.

Some readers questioned the linked source for my statement that infrastructure spending in the United States is about the same level as in other high-income countries. This fact does need some explanation, but I didn’t have room to include it in the op-ed. The data I cited were emailed to me by the author of the linked OECD report. It is national accounts data on gross fixed investment. I charted the data here in Figure 2.

Some readers wondered about my definition of “infrastructure.” That word is often used loosely. The definition that makes sense to me is the broad one of gross fixed investment, which includes such items as government highways and private pipelines and factories. The data are available from BEA Table 1.5.5, where you can see that private investment—even aside from residential—dwarfs government investment.

One reader expressed a common view that in traveling abroad you often find nicer airports than in this country. I think that’s correct, and often those foreign airports are private or partly private, while ours are government-owned.

Numerous readers pointed to shortcomings of particular private companies, and some of those complaints are surely correct. Private companies often screw up, but my experience is that governments screw up more because of deep, structural incentive problems. Furthermore, private markets have the powerful built-in mechanism of competition to fix problems over time, whereas government shortcomings often go unaddressed. Where there is a lack of competition in private markets, policymakers should focus on opening entry to increase it.

Raise Minimum Wage, Kill Jobs

During his State of the Union address, President Obama announced that he intended to raise minimum wages to $10.10/hour for certain workers. Based on data from EU countries, it is clear that minimum wage laws kill jobs. I concluded that hiking the minimum wage will kill jobs in the U.S., too. Executives surveyed in the Duke University/CFO Magazine Global Business Outlook Survey agree.

Chief Financial Officers from around the world were interviewed and the majority of them concurred: a minimum wage increase from $7.25/hour to $10.10/hour would kill a significant number of jobs.

Here’s what the CFOs had to say:

Sweden, Spending Restraint, and the Benefits of Obeying Fiscal Policy’s Golden Rule

When I first started working on fiscal policy in the 1980s, I never thought I would consider Sweden any sort of role model.

It was the quintessential cradle-to-grave welfare state, much loved on the left as an example for America to follow.

But Sweden suffered a severe economic shock in the early 1990s and policy makers were forced to rethink big government.

They’ve since implemented some positive reforms in the area of fiscal policy, along with other changes to liberalize the economy.

I’m particularly impressed that Swedish leaders imposed some genuine fiscal restraint.

Here’s a chart, based on IMF data, showing that the country enjoyed a nine-year period where the burden of government spending grew by an average of 1.9 percent per year.

Swedish Fiscal Restraint

From a libertarian perspective, that’s obviously not very impressive, particularly since the public sector was consuming about two-thirds of economic output at the start of the period.

But by the standards of European politicians, 1.9 percent annual growth was relatively frugal.

And since Mitchell’s Golden Rule merely requires that government grow slower than the private sector, Sweden did make progress.

Real progress. It turns out that a little bit of spending discipline can pay big dividends if it can be sustained for a few years.

This second chart shows that the overall burden of the public sector (left axis) fell dramatically, dropping from more than 67 percent of GDP to 52 percent of economic output.

Swedish Spending+Deficit as % of GDP

By the way, the biggest amount of progress occurred between 1994 and 1998, when spending grew by just 0.27 percent per year. That’s almost as good as what Germany achieved over a four-year period last decade.

American Society as Chessboard

One of my favorite Adam Smith passages is:

The man of system … seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.

Today, the men and women of system in the nation’s capital have a high regard for their ability to arrange the chess pieces of American society. There are 318 million individuals, 28 million businesses, 50 state governments, 89,000 local governments, and countless churches, charities, and other organizations in this great nation. Congress passes laws to intervene in the affairs of all of these people and groups, trying to impress its design.

But federal policymakers usually ignore, or fail to understand, the principles of motion in society. They impose minimum wages and health laws, and businesses cut hiring. They subsidize water, which exacerbates droughts. They subsidize flood insurance, which increases the damage from floods. They impose the world’s highest corporate tax rate, and they are shocked when corporations shift their profits abroad.

Federal attempts to arrange state government policies bring surprises as well. Federal policymakers offer matching grants for Medicaid, and are surprised that it prompts rapid state spending growth and dubious schemes to boost payments. Federal policymakers provide state aid for schools, but states probably just substitute added federal funding for their own.

The latest lesson on society’s principles of motion regards food stamp aid. From the Washington Post:

Congress last month passed a revamp of agriculture and food policy that was supposed to save the U.S. government $8.6 billion in food-stamp costs over a decade. That may not happen, though, now that some states are finding a way to avoid the cuts.

New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are triggering extra nutrition spending by adding money to a home-heating subsidy tied to increased food-stamp aid. The move feeds needy families while thwarting spending-reduction goals … If more follow, the federal government would have to spend much of the $8.6 billion it planned to save, as states reduce spending on other programs to meet the new mandate.

“These federal cuts have made it harder for our state’s most vulnerable residents to put food on the table. The state has intervened on behalf of these low-income New Yorkers,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said in a statement Feb 25. “New York is stepping up to help families in need.”