Tag: infrastructure

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.

Trump’s Trillion-Dollar Infrastructure Plan

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised to spend twice as much on infrastructure as whatever Hillary Clinton was proposing, which at the time was $275 billion. Doubling down again in a speech after winning the election, Trump now proposes to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure over the next ten years.

President Obama had proposed to fix infrastructure with an infrastructure bank, though just where the bank would get its money was never clear (actually, it was perfectly clear: the taxpayers). Trump’s alternative plan is for the private sector, not taxpayers, to spend the money, and to encourage them he proposes to offer tax credits for infrastructure projects. He says this would be “revenue neutral” because the taxes paid by people working on the infrastructure would offset the tax breaks. In short, Trump is proposing tax credits in lieu of an infrastructure bank as a form of economic stimulus.

America’s infrastructure needs are not nearly as serious as Trump thinks. Throwing a trillion dollars at infrastructure, no matter how it is funded, guarantees that a lot will be spent on unnecessary things. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser recently pointed out in an article that should be required reading for Trump’s transition team, just calling something “infrastructure” doesn’t mean it is worth doing or that it will stimulate economic growth.

Infrastructure more or less falls into three categories, and Trump’s one-size-fits-all plan doesn’t work very well for any of them. First is infrastructure that pays for itself, such as the electrical grid. Private companies and public agencies are already taking care of this kind, so if Trump’s plan applied to them, they would get tax credits for spending money they would have spent anyway. That’s not revenue neutral.

A Message for Trump: Basel IV Will Kill Dreams of an Infrastructure Boom

Ever since the Financial Crisis, regulators have tightened their grip on banking activities (read: beaten up on banks) without taking note of unintended consequences. Prominent amongst these misguided regulatory interventions have been the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) mandates, which are touted as promoting global financial safety and economic stability. John Dizard of the Financial Times has seen through the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision’s smoke and mirrors display and correctly concludes that the proposals provide background noise for the next crisis.

First, the new “Basel IV” reforms will dampen economic growth globally. The European Banking Federation claims that increased capital requirements will cause European Banks to raise an additional €850bn of capital. This will exacerbate the credit crunch because banks can increase capital-asset ratios by either shrinking assets or raising capital. In both scenarios, deposit liabilities are reduced and money is destroyed. Slower growth in the money supply, broadly measured, slows the expansion of nominal GDP. The implications are dire because Basel IV seeks specifically to increase capital requirements on project lending and banks account for 80 percent of lending to the real economy in Europe.

Second, Basel IV’s push to standardize risk weighted asset calculations will actually increase risky activities. Unbelievably, Dizard reports, “under the current version of the Basel ‘standardized approach’, unsecured lending to a non-public, below investment-grade corporate borrower requires the same bank capital commitment as project financing secured by assets, liens on equity and cash lockbox arrangements.” With all corporate risk considered the same, incentives will exist for bankers to lend for a risky, high-yield project instead of a safer, more productive one. The result will be a push away from revenue-producing infrastructure projects. 

The secretive Basel Committee on Banking Supervision continues to create systemic risks, which threaten to plunge the world into a slump. Thanks to the BIS mandates, we might experience the horrors of Quantitative Tightening (QT).

Infrastructure Investment: A Look at the Data

Hillary Clinton says that “we are dramatically underinvesting” in infrastructure and she promises a large increase in federal spending. Donald Trump is promising to spend twice as much as Clinton. Prominent wonks such as Larry Summers are promoting higher spending as well. But more federal spending is the wrong way to go.

To shed light on the issue, let’s look at some data. There is no hard definition of “infrastructure,” but one broad measure is gross fixed investment in the BEA national accounts. 

The figure below shows data from BEA tables 1.5.5 and 5.9.5 on gross investment in 2015. The first thing to note is that private investment at about $3 trillion was six times larger than combined federal, state, and local government nondefense investment of $472 billion. Private investment in pipelines, broadband, refineries, factories, cell towers, and other items greatly exceeds government investment in schools, highways, prisons, and the like.

One implication is that if policymakers want to boost infrastructure spending, they should reduce barriers to private investment. Cutting the corporate income tax rate, for example, would increase net returns to private infrastructure and spur greater investment across many industries.

Infrastructure Spending and the Charleston Seaport

George Will’s oped the other day argued that Congress should hurry up and fund an expansion in the Charleston, South Carolina, seaport. But his piece revealed why the federal government should reduce its intervention in the nation’s infrastructure, not increase it, as Clinton and Trump are proposing.

The Charleston seaport has become crucial to South Carolina’s economy. Will notes that “1 of every 11 South Carolina jobs — and $53 billion in economic output are directly or indirectly related to Charleston’s port.”

There is a problem, however. The Charleston seaport:

needs further dredging in order to handle more of the biggest ships, which is where Congress enters the picture: Unless it authorizes the project and appropriates the federal portion of the $509 million cost to augment South Carolina’s already committed $300 million, the project will be delayed a year. The deepening project is only 14 percent of the $2.2 billion South Carolina is investing in its port facilities and related access.

The biggest ships pay more than $1 million to transit the [Panama] canal; if they miss their transit time, their fee is doubled. Until the port is deepened, too few can be handled here simultaneously, and they can enter and leave the port only at high tide.