Tag: infrastructure

Trump’s Bad Economic Reasoning on Infrastructure

Last night’s address to Congress by President Trump was devoid of detail on infrastructure investment. But in justifying his desire to harness $1 trillion of public and private funds for “new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways”, the President used two lines of bad economic reasoning sadly all too prevalent in public debate on this issue.

First was to invoke the building of the interstate highway system. “The time has come,” Trump declared, “for a new program of national rebuilding.” The implication: the interstate highway system was good for the economy, so we should invest more in roads today - a common rhetorical technique, but one which confuses average with marginal.

Previous economic research has indeed found that the construction of the interstate highway system substantially boosted productivity for industries associated with road use. But the same research finds those benefits to be largely one-offs, meaning this analysis does nothing to inform us about new decisions. In fact, more recent work has found that too many new highways have been built between 1983 and 2003, and that marginal extensions to the highway system tend not to increase social welfare, because the cost savings of reducing travel times are small relative to incomes and prices.

In other words, building a highway system can boost growth. Building a second highway system? Not so much. Rather than appealing to grand projects based on historical experience, all new government projects should stand up on their own merits – ideally having high benefit to cost ratios and being things that would not be undertaken by the private sector.

The second mistake was to highlight “creating millions of new jobs” as an aim or positive of any infrastructure spending. When the government is investing to build something, it should aim to do so most efficiently. “Jobs” in this sense are a cost, not a benefit, and ones “created” only come through the diversion of resources and opportunities in other parts of the economy.

Upon visiting an Asian country in the 1960s, Milton Friedman is frequently quoted as reacting to the absence of heavy machinery in a canal build by asking why the project was being undertaken by men with shovels. Upon being told it was a “jobs program,” he is said to have remarked: “Oh, I see. I thought you were trying to build a canal. If you really want to create jobs, then by all means give these men spoons, not shovels.”

If one is concerned with improving the economic growth potential of the economy, then you would base both the selection of projects and the means of undertaking them according to that objective. Sadly, when governments are involved, other ambitions (be it stimulating particular regions, appeasing certain interests, obtaining political prestige or facilitating observable jobs) tend to interfere with the stated aim. The constant talk of the benefits of wise, productive investment is an ambition, rather than something we should expect.

Condition of Highway Bridges

Mainstream media reporting on infrastructure seems to be driven by the lobby groups that are pushing for more federal spending. A Washington Post article today reflects two popular lobbyist themes: “the bridges are falling down” and “the federal government needs to solve the problem.” For today’s story, the Post could have saved the reporter’s salary and simply asked the press office at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) to write it.  

The headline, “More than 55,000 bridges need repair or replacement,” captures the bridges-falling-down theme. That figure is the number of “structurally deficient” bridges, which the Post sources from the ARTBA. But the story does not mention that these bridges (56,007 according to federal data) are 9.1 percent of the nation’s 614,387 bridges, which is the lowest such percentage in 24 years. The chart below shows that the share of bridges in this category fell from 21.7 percent in 1992 to just 9.1 percent in 2016.

Confusion over Infrastructure

The Christian Science Monitor thinks that the Democrats wrote their infrastructure plan as a “political bridge to President Trump.” Fox News thinks that Trump might “get on board” the Democrats’ plan. Statements like these show that many reporters–and by extension members of the public–haven’t yet figured out the real issues behind the infrastructure debate.

As Business Insider points out, there’s a bigger difference between the two sides over “how it’s paid for” than “what gets built.” The Democrats want the federal government to spend a trillion dollars, money it would have to borrow. Trump wants private investors to spend their own money. Never the twain shall meet. 

But Business Insider doesn’t understand how Trump’s idea will work. If Trump is going to rely on the private sector, it says, then only projects that generate revenue will be built because “projects that don’t generate revenue for the private sector generally don’t get financed.” But there are two kinds of public-private partnerships. The kind that Business Insider is writing about is called demand risk because the private partner takes the risk that tolls, fares, or other user fees won’t repay the cost.

The second kind is called availability payments because the government agrees to pay the private partner the cost of the project over time, whether or not anyone pays user fees or even uses it at all. In this kind, the public takes the risk. While I much prefer the demand-risk form because I think nearly all infrastructure ought to be paid for out of user fees, Trump may be happy to go with availability payments so long as state or local governments are making the payments, not the feds. Democrats in Congress don’t like either one because they short-circuit their ability to appear to give gifts to their constituents.

Trump and Democrats Issue Competing Infrastructure Plans

Senate Democrats have proposed an infrastructure plan that calls for $1 trillion in federal deficit spending. In detail, the plan calls for:

  • $100 billion for reconstructing roads and bridges;
  • $100 billion to “revitalize Main Street,” that is, subsidies to New Urbanism and affordable housing;
  • $10 billion for TIGER stimulus projects;
  • $110 billion for reconstructing water and sewer;
  • $50 billion for modernizing rail (Amtrak and freight railroad) infrastructure;
  • $130 billion to repair and expand transit;
  • $75 billion for rebuilding public schools;
  • $30 billion to improve airports;
  • $10 billion for ports and waterways;
  • $25 billion to improve communities’ resistance to natural disasters;
  • $100 billion for a next-generation electrical grid;
  • $20 billion for broadband;
  • $20 billion for public lands and tribal infrastructure;
  • $10 billion for VA hospitals;
  • $10 billion for an infrastructure bank;
  • $200 billion for “vital projects” that “think big,” such as building “the world’s fastest trains.”

In response, someone has leaked what is supposedly the Trump administration’s own list of 50 infrastructure priority projects. It includes such boondoggles as a Dallas-Houston passenger rail line, the congestion-inducing Maryland Purple Line, the $14 billion Hudson River tunnels, and completion of the $2.2-billion-per-mile Second Avenue Subway. Except for the Dallas-Houston line, most of the passenger rail projects were already pretty well decided, but they are still foolish investments that will cost a lot and return little to the economy. There are supposedly more than 250 other projects on a priority list, but it isn’t absolutely certain that this list was endorsed by Trump or merely proposed to him.

Update: While I am now certain that the supposed Trump priority list was really “fake”—that is, not really from the administration—it appears that the reason why the Dallas-Houston line was on the list is that it is supposed to be entirely privately financed. While I am skeptical that private funders could profitably build and operate such a line, if they could, it would be appropriate (though unnecessary) to have it on such a priority list.

What most people have been calling Trump’s infrastructure plan calls for giving tax credits to private investors who spend money on these kind of infrastructure projects. This has some virtues over the Democratic proposal of direct federal spending:

  1. While the Democrats take a top-down approach dictating where the money will go, Trump leaves the setting of priorities to state and local governments, which have already approved most of the projects on his top-50 list;
  2. Where Democrats would commit the federal government to spend an arbitrary amount of money whether it needs to be spent or not, Trump lets state and local governments decide how much to spend and how they will pay for it;
  3. Where Democrats would add $1 trillion to the deficit, Trump relies on a tax credit program that will cost the feds no more than $167 billion per trillion in spending (less, obviously, if less than $1 trillion is spent);
  4. Where a lot of the Democrats’ money would go down a rat hole, at least some of federal tax credits that Trump’s plan would issue will be offset by the reduced use of tax-free municipal bonds and taxes paid by companies and workers earning the money.

Typical of central planners, the dollar figures in the Democrats’ plan are completely arbitrary.

  • Why should trains and transit, which carry 1 percent as many passenger miles as roads, get roughly as much money as roads and bridges (and probably more considering much of the $200 billion “vital infrastructure” fund would go for high-speed rail)?
  • Why spend $40 billion expanding transit and no money expanding highways when highway use is growing faster than transit in most places and most years?
  • Why no money for upgrading the air traffic control system (which is on Trump’s top-50 list)? I don’t support the use of tax dollars for such things, but it is a huge oversight from a plan predicated on the idea that federal central planners know the best places to spend your money.
  • Why $110 billion on water and sewer, and not $100 billion or $120 billion? It seems the point of these numbers is to add up to a nice round $1 trillion while divvying up the money to special-interest groups.
  • For that matter, why any at all on water, sewer, and the electrical grid when these should already be adequately funded through user fees?
  • Why is education even on the list when the federal government has never spent more than token amounts of money for school infrastructure?

My complaints about the Trump plan have been:

  1. It’s not really a plan—it’s just one funding tool;
  2. It doesn’t prevent state and local governments from spending the money on completely looney projects such as the aforementioned Dallas–Houston high-speed rail; and
  3. The private-partnership aspect has confused many people into believing that it will only fund projects that can be paid for out of user fees when in fact most projects would require state and local taxpayers to ultimately repay the private contractors out of tax dollars.

While these are valid complaints, the Trump plan is more bottom-up than top-down, as most if not all of the projects on the possibly fake priority list are supported by state and local officials. And while Trump brought a new idea to the table, the Democrats’ plan is the same old borrow-and-spend formula that they have used in the past. This is actually worse than tax-and-spend because taxing and spending doesn’t leave huge debt problems and interest payments for the future.

While we can hope that Trump’s projects will rely more on user fees more than taxes, at the moment the score has to be Trump 1/2, Democrats minus 1.

The False Promise of “Buy American”

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, where will President Trump turn when his “America First” policies lay waste to the very people he professes to be helping?

The ideas conjured by “Buy American” may appeal to many of President Trump’s supporters, but the phrase is merely a euphemism for doling political spoils, featherbedding, and protectionism. The president may score points with union bosses, import-competing producers, and some workers, but at great expense to taxpayers, workers and businesses more broadly.

Cordoning off the estimated $1.7 trillion U.S. government procurement market to U.S. suppliers would mean higher price tags, fewer projects funded, and fewer people hired. In today’s globalized economy, where supply chains are transnational and direct investment crosses borders, finding products that meet the U.S.-made definition is no easy task, as many consist of components made in multiple countries. And by precluding foreign suppliers from bidding, any short-term increases in U.S. economic activity and jobs likely would be offset by lost export sales – and the jobs that go with them – on account of copycat protectionism abroad.

Trump’s $10 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

President-elect Donald Trump has promised large increases in infrastructure investment. He has not proposed a detailed plan yet, but $1 trillion in new investment is being discussed as a target.

Actually, Trump has already made a specific proposal that would increase investment by far more than $1 trillion: his tax cut plan. His proposed corporate tax rate cut from 35 percent to 15 percent would increase the net returns to a vast range of infrastructure, including pipelines, broadband, refineries, power stations, factories, cell towers, and other hard assets. With higher net returns, there would be more capital investment across many industries.

How much more? The Tax Foundation estimated that the overall Trump tax cut would expand the U.S. capital stock by 20 percent above what it would otherwise be within 10 years. TF economists tell me that private capital stock is about 189 percent of gross domestic product under the baseline, which would be about $35 trillion this year and more than $50 trillion in 2026. If the Trump tax cut was enacted and the capital stock grew as TF projects, the capital stock would be $10 trillion or more higher than otherwise by 2026.

Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon, Andrew Jackson, and Infrastructure

On his radio show last night, Mark Levin asked his audience whether they thought President-elect Donald Trump would turn out to be a big-government Richard Nixon or a small-government Ronald Reagan. On the infrastructure issue, I fear that we may be headed in a big government direction.

Trump, of course, is a “populist,” not a small-government conservative. His advisor, Stephen Bannon, indicated the other day what that means:

Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” Stephen K. Bannon told the Hollywood Reporter. “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.

Bannon should know that on fiscal policy, Jackson’s populism was anti-debt and small government. Echoing Thomas Jefferson’s views, Jackson thought that federal debt undermined liberty, and he pushed to eradicate it. Jackson’s views were in tune with the public, which strongly supported frugality in the federal government.

Jackson and his allies were dubious of federal investments in infrastructure (“internal improvements”). His vice president, Martin Van Buren, thought that “Congress had no power to construct roads and canals within the states.” He said that spending on such projects “was sure in the end to impoverish the National Treasury by improvident grants to private companies and State works, and to corrupt Federal legislation by the opportunities it would present for favoritism.”

On assuming office, Jackson made a list of his priorities, including “the Public debt paid off, the Tariff modified and no power usurped over internal improvements.” In his first inaugural address, he promised “extinguishment of the national debt, the unnecessary duration of which is incompatible with real independence.” Jackson famously vetoed funding of Kentucky’s Maysville Road in 1830, citing constitutional objections and his goal of debt elimination.

Jackson was also skeptical of federal investments for practical reasons. In his 1830 message to Congress, he said, “Positive experience, and a more thorough consideration of the subject, have convinced me of the impropriety as well as inexpediency of such investments.” One practical concern was what we now call “crony capitalism.” Jackson noted that when the government gave some initial subsidies to companies, they tended to get hooked on the hand-outs and kept coming back for more.

In his book about the Jackson era, Carl Lane concluded that federal debt elimination, “Americans in the Jacksonian era believed, would improve the material quality of life in the United States. It would reduce taxes, increase disposable income, reduce the privileges of the creditor class, and, in general, generate greater equality as well as liberty.”

Back then, the belief was that a frugal federal government that balanced its books and did not interfere in state and local matters would secure liberty and benefit average citizens. That is the type of Jacksonian populism that Bannon and Trump should pursue.

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