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Infrastructure: The best deal in the economy

PH2010100103516.jpgPeople say that the government should be run more like a business. So imagine you are CEO of the government. Your bridges are crumbling. Your schools are falling apart. Your air traffic control system doesn't even use GPS. The Society of Civil Engineers gave your infrastructure a D grade and estimated that you need to make more than $2 trillion in repairs and upgrades.

Sorry, chief. No one said being CEO was easy.

But there's good news, too. Because of the recession, construction materials are cheap. So, too, is the labor. And your borrowing costs? They've never been lower. That means a dollar of investment today will go much further than it would have five years ago -- or is likely to go five years from now. So what do you do?

If you're thinking like a CEO, the answer is easy: You invest. You get it done. Happily, that's what the administration is proposing to do. But its plan is too modest. The $50 billion bump in infrastructure spending it has proposed is only for surface transportation. The infrastructure bank envisioned in the proposal is also likely to be limited to transportation. And as for our water systems, our schools, our levees? This is not a time for half-measures. It's a rare opportunity to do what we need to do and to save money doing it.

In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, known to its friends (and enemies) as the stimulus. Billions of dollars went to the Transportation Department to improve our roads, rails and runways. That money was in turn given to the states, which quickly drew up lists of what they needed to do and how much it would cost.

When the feds checked in on the funds, what they found shocked them. The project costs were coming in at 18 to 20 percent less than estimated. The Transportation Department then looked at the share that went to the Federal Aviation Administration for runway repairs. The money that the FAA had thought would complete 300 projects was going to finish 367 projects -- about 20 percent more than projected.

The stimulus, they realized, had blundered into an incredible bargain. The recession was driven by the collapse of the construction sector. People who built things were now out of work. The materials used to build things were now on fire sale. The companies that organized the building of things were suddenly desperate for jobs. As a result, building things was suddenly dirt cheap.

And it still is.

Unemployment in the construction sector is at 17 percent -- and that doesn't even count the construction workers who've simply given up looking for new jobs. Steel, gas and lumber prices are all well below their pre-crisis highs.

"There's work that needs to be done," says Larry Summers, outgoing chairman of the National Economic Council. "There are people there to do it. It seems a crime for the two not to be brought together."

But what about the debt, you might ask? Well, what about it? Delaying a dollar of needed infrastructure repairs is no different than racking up a dollar of debt.

"You run a deficit both when you borrow money and when you defer maintenance that needs to be done," Summers says. "Either way, you're imposing a cost on future generations."

Plus, if America has to borrow money, now is the time. The interest rate on 10-year Treasuries is less than 3 percent - the lowest it's been since the 1950s. So a dollar of debt is cheap, and a dollar of infrastructure investment goes far.

"There's a 20-dollar bill laying on the ground here," says Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT and director of the Hamilton Project at Brookings Institution. "We should pick it up."

We'll have to pay down that debt, of course. But part of paying down the debt is increasing economic growth. What worries the market is the size of our debt against the size of our GDP. If our economy grows faster than our debt, then in the eyes of the market our debt shrinks. But if our economy is going to grow fast enough to outpace our debt, we'll need an infrastructure that can support that kind of growth. Tomorrow's energy contracts won't be won by the country with yesterday's energy grid.

'Grand bargain' needed
The problem is that the way we choose our infrastructure projects is an embarrassment. About 10 percent of infrastructure spending comes from politicians securing earmarks. Most of the rest depends on a formula in which the government just hands money over to the states. There's no requirement for cost-benefit analysis or rate-of-return calculations. The decisions are horribly politicized.

If taxpayers are going to make a huge investment in our nation's infrastructure, then we're owed an assurance that policymakers are choosing the best projects. That suggests a grand bargain, in which more infrastructure money is tied to reforms ensuring a better process for spending that money.

The infrastructure bank takes a step in this direction, but making good decisions with taxpayer money should be the rule, not the exception.

There has never been a better moment for America to rebuild its infrastructure - and reform the way it makes infrastructure decisions going forward. An unlikely and unwelcome array of forces have converged to match our needs and the economy's bargains almost perfectly.

The only question is whether we'll run our government like a business, alert to good opportunities, or whether we'll run it as we have done, squabbling among ourselves while things get worse.

How about it, chief?

By Ezra Klein  | October 4, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

I remember Nancy Pelosi saying publically during the early stages of the stimulus debate that she did not want to spend all of the stimulus on "middle-aged white men" who own and work for constuction companies. This is the great failure of the stimulus bill. It was geared to serve the political interests of a diverse political party as opposed to what whould best serve the American people.

I agree with Ezra that stimulus spending should be on redevelopment of our nation's infrastructure. But Nancy Pelosi wanted to make sure that much of the stimulus went to social services and retaining teachers for one more year. That was a grave error for stimulus supporters.

Posted by: lancediverson | October 4, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This is exactly right, and the 2009 stimulus bill included $72 billion in infrastructure spending. Unfortunately, Republicans are engaging in their typical obstructionism to make sure we cannot invest any more funds in infrastructure upgrades. Yet another reason why we need to elect more and better Democrats in November.

www.winningprogressive.org

Posted by: WinningProgressive | October 4, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Um, we knew infrastructure was in a hole back in early 2009.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/us/politics/28projects.html

So the CEO decides to go on an $800 billion spending spree. Shareholders are concerned that funds are being spent on wasteful projects, but the CEO and his supporters assure them that as long as money is spent, everything will be fine and dandy.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/09/what_wastes_money_in_stimulus.html

Now, the CEO comes around and tells us that there are vital projects in need of funding - the same set of projects identified prior to the spending spree!

The CEO had a blank check for $800 billion and failed to fix the problem! Why should we trust this CEO not to screw up again?

Posted by: justin84 | October 4, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

--*The only question is whether we'll run our government like a business, alert to good opportunities, or whether we'll run it as we have done, squabbling among ourselves while things get worse.*--

How dumb do you have to be not to know the answer to the question, or how dumb do you think your readers are to go ahead and ask it, anyway.

There are several blatantly obvious reasons that governments don't run like businesses, but I'll keep it short:

As long as people are free to petition against the government, and as long as the political establishment fails to prevent the erosion of its machine at the edges, then governments will operate as all semi-chaotic, large, committees are bound by nature to operate.

What Klein wants, of course, is the sort of autocracy where dissent is squelched, diversity of opinion is repressed or eliminated, and the terms of government endeavor are dictated, with redress unpermitted. A dictatorship that announced "free" health care, elimination of carbon exhalations, and that boldly spent the citizenry's wealth bringing airports into the 1990s, etc., would be fine with him. The evil in it wouldn't occur to him unless and until he found himself on the wrong end of one of the dictates, but he's pretty sure, with the fine set of connections his slurping job has given him, that there will be a Dacha on the Black Sea where he can retire in comfort, priding himself in the great cause of shepherding his fellows.

Posted by: msoja | October 4, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

"This is exactly right, and the 2009 stimulus bill included $72 billion in infrastructure spending. Unfortunately, Republicans are engaging in their typical obstructionism to make sure we cannot invest any more funds in infrastructure upgrades. Yet another reason why we need to elect more and better Democrats in November."

Maybe the Republicans believe the Democrats wasted a whole lot of money in ARRA and aren't up to let them do it again? Back to early '09...

"Even some Republicans echo the call for more infrastructure spending, saying they would be more willing to support the bill if it showed more tangible and focused benefits, instead of being scattered across an array of existing programs. Rep. John L. Mica (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the transportation committee, called the proposed infrastructure spending "almost minuscule" and expressed regret that the administration had not crafted its plan around an ambitious goal such as building high-speed rail in 11 corridors around the country, which Mica said would cost $165 billion.

"They keep comparing this to Eisenhower, but he proposed a $500 billion highway system, and they're going to put $30 billion" in roads and bridges, he said. "How farcical can you be? Give me a break.""

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/27/AR2009012703655.html

Posted by: justin84 | October 4, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

"This is exactly right, and the 2009 stimulus bill included $72 billion in infrastructure spending. Unfortunately, Republicans are engaging in their typical obstructionism to make sure we cannot invest any more funds in infrastructure upgrades. Yet another reason why we need to elect more and better Democrats in November."


Of course, you Democrats chose to spend 90% of the money on non-infrastructure.


In the 50s, the government spent on infrastructre. Now, you've changed that to transfer payments, in-kind benefits for the government health care industry complex, in-kind benefits for the government education industry complex, and of course, paying off the labor union largesse (especially at the state level).

Posted by: krazen1211 | October 4, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse


"[it is] estimated that you need to make more than $2 trillion in repairs and upgrades."

"Now, the CEO comes around and tells us that there are vital projects in need of funding - the same set of projects identified prior to the spending spree!"

Unless we already spent $2 trillion on infrastructure(and we didn't), this makes perfect sense.

We have a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, financing has never been cheaper, we have a ton of people with the desired skills who are out of work, and supplies are cheap.

Throw in the fact that these newly paid people will want to spend their salaries and push up demand for other goods, and that these projects will make America more productive and efficient for years to come.

Its a once in a lifetime opportunity and this country is blowing it. That alone should be a very sad thing, but the saddest part is how many people would actively oppose it and see it as a bad thing to put Americans back to work and build a better future.

Posted by: Nylund154 | October 4, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Of course, that is almost exactly what businesses are doing - they are borrowing money at the lowest rates they have ever seen, and hoarding the cash until they need to expand capacity. It's just that they won't be expanding capacity anytime soon, because no one has money to spend on their stuff. This is the "paradox of thrift" that is discussed (See, Krugman, Delong, Roubini, and many others who were "right", rather than the many who claim that noonecuddaknown).

The US Government, because it is not a business, remains the most trusted and secure borrower in the world. As such, it is in the unique position to borrow the money and spend it - increasing demand for private inventory and increasing the ability of the consumer to spend, thereby also increasing demand.

Really, these are not complicated concepts.

Posted by: marc24 | October 4, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Of course, that is almost exactly what businesses are doing - they are borrowing money at the lowest rates they have ever seen, and hoarding the cash until they need to expand capacity. It's just that they won't be expanding capacity anytime soon, because no one has money to spend on their stuff. This is the "paradox of thrift" that is discussed (See, Krugman, Delong, Roubini, and many others who were "right", rather than the many who claim that noonecuddaknown).

The US Government, because it is not a business, remains the most trusted and secure borrower in the world. As such, it is in the unique position to borrow the money and spend it - increasing demand for private inventory and increasing the ability of the consumer to spend, thereby also increasing demand.

Really, these are not complicated concepts.

Posted by: marc24 | October 4, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Of course, that is almost exactly what businesses are doing - they are borrowing money at the lowest rates they have ever seen, and hoarding the cash until they need to expand capacity. It's just that they won't be expanding capacity anytime soon, because no one has money to spend on their stuff. This is the "paradox of thrift" that is discussed (See, Krugman, Delong, Roubini, and many others who were "right", rather than the many who claim that noonecuddaknown).

The US Government, because it is not a business, remains the most trusted and secure borrower in the world. As such, it is in the unique position to borrow the money and spend it - increasing demand for private inventory and increasing the ability of the consumer to spend, thereby also increasing demand.

Really, these are not complicated concepts.

Posted by: marc24 | October 4, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Of course, that is almost exactly what businesses are doing - they are borrowing money at the lowest rates they have ever seen, and hoarding the cash until they need to expand capacity. It's just that they won't be expanding capacity anytime soon, because no one has money to spend on their stuff. This is the "paradox of thrift" that is discussed (See, Krugman, Delong, Roubini, and many others who were "right", rather than the many who claim that noonecuddaknown).

The US Government, because it is not a business, remains the most trusted and secure borrower in the world. As such, it is in the unique position to borrow the money and spend it - increasing demand for private inventory and increasing the ability of the consumer to spend, thereby also increasing demand.

Really, these are not complicated concepts.

Posted by: marc24 | October 4, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

This is an excellent column that included great arguments in favor of infrastructure investments. (Full disclosure, I work for an association that represents construction contractors.) Just wanted to add one other benefit: unlike many other forms of federal transfer payments, investing in infrastructure is a transaction, not a handout. If a state invests $1 million for a new bridge, at the end of the day taxpayers end up owning - and enjoying the benefits of - a $1 million bridge.

Posted by: brianturmail | October 4, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

"Unless we already spent $2 trillion on infrastructure(and we didn't), this makes perfect sense."

The government already had $800 billion to play with. It's gone. I'm sorry (though unsurprised) it has been wasted.

The government just ran up everyone's credit card to the tune of $2,600, and they felt they could afford to blow it on, among other things, putting new windows on an unused building (and surely hundreds of equally silly examples).

Now the government returns, cap in hand, saying that it largely failed to resolve the infrastructure problem, and wants billions and billions more in order to do so.

If infrastructure was such a big problem two years ago and yet the government couldn't solve the problem with a blank cheque for $800 billion, why on earth should I hand back the credit card?

After adjusting for inflation and population growth, we are spending 3x as much on transportation today as when we were building the interstate highway system ($300 per capita in 1955, $906 per capita in 2010, 2005 dollars each)!

http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/downchart_gs.php?year=1950_2015&view=1&expand=&units=d&fy=fy11&chart=60-total&bar=1&stack=1&size=m&title=&state=US&color=c&local=s

Total inflation adjusted (but not population adjusted) spending is up more than five fold since 1955! The problem isn't the money, it is institutional. Privatize as much as possible - no, not every private management company will be successful, but the failed companies will have their assets bought on the cheap by successful ones.

"Its a once in a lifetime opportunity and this country is blowing it. That alone should be a very sad thing, but the saddest part is how many people would actively oppose it and see it as a bad thing to put Americans back to work and build a better future."

The government blew it already. Even if the money is found, it will simply be blown again.

The best government can do is provide short-term bandaid solutions. Cash for clunkers? A month or two of decent sales, then a cratering. Homebuyer tax credit? Same. A short term jump then a crash. Stimulus is even more questionable as it is far easier to subsidize a sector than for an economy to subsidize itself, but at best it is the same - a jump then a crash.

What happens to the millions of workers employed by infrastructure projects after the $2 trillion is spent on infrastructure?

Posted by: justin84 | October 4, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

--*If a state invests $1 million for a new bridge, at the end of the day taxpayers end up owning - and enjoying the benefits of - a $1 million bridge.*--

Taxpayers end up "owning" nothing. Otherwise, as a taxpayer, I'd gladly sell you my portion of that bridge. And you'd be free to buy it, were you so inclined. But, of course, I can't, and you can't, because neither of us owns a damn inch of that bridge.

But, of course, the "bridge" thing is a bit of a red herring. It would be slightly harder to argue with building bridges if giving a billion dollars to the DOT to build bridges gave us back a billion dollars worth of bridges in places they were arguably needed (not that the whole notion of needing government to decide where people need bridges isn't a load of hooey.) But go to the DOT web site and there's very little there about infrastructure. There's "DOT Women and Girls". There's "High Speed Rail Plan", which, you know is throwing billions more down the drain. There's "TIGER II Discretionary Grants", and isn't that a nice waste? It's all a bunch of politically correct collectivist CRAP.

It'd be nice if we could get a bridge or two out of the government, but experience (and common sense and a simple respect for ethics) shows us we can't even get that much.

The U.S. Department of Transportation should be abolished, and all the money wasted in it should be returned to those from whom it was stolen. Then those people can decide on their own if they want to maintain the bridge over the creek or not, and if they want to employ former U.S. government contract workers to maintain it.

Posted by: msoja | October 4, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Justin84 misses the point. In the link he posted from Ezra,
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/09/what_wastes_money_in_stimulus.html

Here's what Ezra actually said about his example of stimulus spending:"...from the point of view of stimulus, that project wasn't wasteful at all."

A CEO would see the results of the first stimulus and agree that we need a second, larger stimulus. Constantly having to remind conservatives of this fact is tiresome but vital. Even though its like talking to somebody with a short term memory disorder, one hopes GOPers will eventually understand its easier to pay of George W. Bush's doubling of our national debt when we have a stronger economy.

America was losing 700,000 jobs a month in January of 2009, there had been and we still have a severe drop in aggregate demand, the banks aren't lending and sitting on 1.8 trillion dollars. Obama's stimulus package, along with the controversial TARP program and other financial measures taken by the Fed, stopped the massive job loss and avoided a second Great Depression.

We saw this in December of 2009
http://www.economy.com/dismal/article_free.asp?cid=119925&src=nytimes

Or you can read the CBO report from this summer.
http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/117xx/doc11706/08-24-ARRA.pdf

"CBO estimates that [the Recovery Act's] policies had the following effects in the second quarter of calendar year 2010:
* They raised real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) by between 1.7 percent and 4.5 percent,
* Lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 percentage points and 1.8 percentage points,
* Increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million, and
*Increased the number of full-time-equivalent jobs by 2.0 million to 4.8 million compared with what would have occurred otherwise"

Austerity will not put Americans back to work, grow our economy, or help us pay down our debt. Cutting federal spending will reinforce the budget cutting at the state level, inducing a "paradox of thrift" national nightmare. Growth is what we need now. We need to borrow and spend at our current obscenely low, interest rates.

The multiplier effect on the economy with spur growth, the inflation adjusted interest rate payments will be affordable, and all of this can be managed until the US economy rebounds back to the pre-bank induced financial collapse, or when the banks decide to loan some of the money we invested in them when we were forced to bail them out.

Not only did the stimulus work, in came in under budget, "The massive economic stimulus package President Obama pushed through Congress last year is coming in on time and under budget - and with strikingly few claims of fraud or abuse."
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/30/AR2010093007382.html

Posted by: gregw571 | October 4, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

--*A CEO would see the results of the first stimulus and agree that we need a second, larger stimulus. Constantly having to remind conservatives of this fact is tiresome but vital.*--

How many CEOs do you know who can conjure up wads of money they don't have?

I daresay, that if the CEO of Exxon was inclined (and had the ability) as to steal unlimited amounts from the nation's citizens, he could find all sorts of whacky ways to boost Exxon's productivity, etc.

That the government has exempted itself from all notions of honor and honesty in regards to the monies it appropriates does not exactly make its actions honorable and honest.

Posted by: msoja | October 4, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

"Here's what Ezra actually said about his example of stimulus spending:"...from the point of view of stimulus, that project wasn't wasteful at all." Posted by: gregw571

Yes, that's what Ezra said about $500 million spent to put windows on empty buildings. It's that sort of thinking and those sorts of results that have dried up the well of public support. The Democrats blew a golden opportunity to put this country on the path to energy independence through intelligent and properly directed infrastructure spending, and instead we are left with bridges to nowhere and windows on empty buildings.

"We need to borrow and spend at our current obscenely low, interest rates."

Unless you have a plan to pay off the principal of that debt by the returns we get from investing in windows on empty buildings, that debt will be rolled over at obscenely high interest rates in the not too distant future.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 4, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

"Here's what Ezra actually said about his example of stimulus spending:"...from the point of view of stimulus, that project wasn't wasteful at all."

Putting windows on an unused building is wasteful, and that such projects are continually defended are but another reason to keep money out of the hands of like minded politicians.

Do you spend your own money buying windows for an unused building? Why not? It certainly put people to work, would it not?

"The multiplier effect on the economy with spur growth, the inflation adjusted interest rate payments will be affordable, and all of this can be managed until the US economy rebounds back to the pre-bank induced financial collapse, or when the banks decide to loan some of the money we invested in them when we were forced to bail them out."

There is no multiplier effect. A dollar borrowed is a dollar another cannot use. The half million spent putting windows on the unused building would not otherwise have sat in a safe. They would have been put to some use, a use we cannot see because it never occurred.

Note that despite severe spending cuts by the Harding Administration and constant budget surpluses, the recovery from the very deep 1920-1921 recession was very rapid. This historical example stands in stark contrast to today's recovery, the weakest economic recovery on record.

"the inflation adjusted interest rate payments will be affordable, and all of this can be managed until the US economy rebounds back to the pre-bank induced financial collapse,"

Grab a snickers. Even if sales manage to grow 4% per year after inflation, it will take 4 1/2 years to catch up to trend. By the way, the growth rate over the past five quarters has been just 0.9% (that is, on a per capita basis, sales haven't recovered one bit since the spring of 2009).

Factory orders were lower in August than in March. Inventories of existing homes were running at 11.6 months of supply (2nd highest on record, roughly triple the normal level). On a per capita basis, auto sales remain lower than at the bottom of the last four recessions. Unemployment remains slighly higher than at the end of the recession in June 2009 (9.6% vs. 9.5% then).

At it's very best, stimulus employs some marginal workers, but by drawing resources to the stimulus projects, a new unemployment problem is created when the stimulus ends. Rather than recalculating to a new sustainable path, the economy relapses.

"or when the banks decide to loan some of the money we invested in them when we were forced to bail them out."

Haven't you heard? Most of the big banks have paid the money back, and the ones which haven't are too capital constrained to lend.

The banks are finally lending responsibly, despite constant calls for the punch bowl to be put back and for the party to be restarted.

Posted by: justin84 | October 4, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Can I interest any of you folks who want to borrow lots of money because interest rates are low in an Option ARM mortgage?

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 4, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

The stimulus bill was hardly a "blank check"... over a third of it was stipulated to go to the GOP's beloved tax cuts. The Act specifies that 37% of the package is to be devoted to tax incentives equaling $288 billion and $144 billion or 18% is allocated to state and local fiscal relief (more than 90% of the state aid is going to Medicaid and education). The remaining 45% or $357 billion is allocated to federal spending programs such as: transportation, communication, waste water and sewer infrastructure improvements; energy efficiency upgrades in private and federal buildings; extention of federal unemployment benefits; and scientific research programs. Yes, more needed to be done and still does. The tea party is screaming about taxes and yet taxes haven't been this low a proportion of national income since 1950 and these conservative wingnuts screaming for spending cuts are modern day Hoovers and are pushing us to repeat a very bad part of our history... 1929 here we come...

Posted by: muggleduffy | October 5, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Americans need to wise up and realize that if we want to be the best we need to invest in our infrastructure - the things private industry won't: public schools, roads, bridges, freeways, transit, runways, etc. Much of it many will not like. But much of it is stuff that we all want, and we need to grow up and pay for it. Be proud. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Paying-Taxes/112221112221

Posted by: eeeeeeeli | October 5, 2010 10:35 PM | Report abuse

It's pretty clear that our entire infrastructure is crumbling and we need to invest in this NOW. The fact that this investment has the potential to stimulate economy is a bonus. How it is funded is the big question for sure. Roads, bridges, runways -- all good. But, what about the water/sewer infrastructure the oh-so-invisible infrastructure that is collapsing. www.metro-dc-utilities-blog.com

Posted by: utilitiesblogger | October 6, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

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