Thursday, June 14, 2012

An infrastructure deficit

We hear every day about the federal budget deficit.  It's huge, and of course it should be considered carefully with every decision the government makes.

But dollars in minus dollars out is not the only deficit we're running.  There is also a growing deficit of needed infrastructure improvements and repairs, and it will continue to grow whether we add it to our actual balance sheet now or in the future.  We will have to pay to repair/replace a crumbling bridge at some point, whether it's today or in 20 years.  It will inevitably hit the real debt at some point (unless one wants to argue for private ownership of roads, which is a conversation I'd be happy to have), and our infrastructure will keep crumbling and getting more expensive to fix the longer we wait.

Given that the Treasury can borrow money at historically low rates, and also that there are lots of people looking for work, why would we not choose to borrow now and make the upgrades now?  Assuming the benefit to the economy of having better infrastructure outweighs the interest rate (which, to remind you, is historically low and will only get higher), it's a win-win.  You get "stimulus" now without a real change in the long-term debt, since money for infrastructure improvements will have to be spent eventually anyway.

The same kind of argument applies to education, research and the like.  Yes, we can save money today by cutting investments in the future.  But what do we do, then, in the future?

1 comment:

NWest said...

Your question "But what do we do, then, in the future?" carries the implication that unless we "do something right now" that we'll all be screwed in the future. I think it's not as bad as you might expect.

Here's an example. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a huge public health disaster was looming in the cities. Horse dung was everywhere! Was this problem solved with government "investment" in large horse carriages? Nope - the invention of the electric streetcar and the automobile (both done by private companies) saved the cities from a public health nightmare.

We can't pretend to know what will be the norm in 5, 10, or 50 years from now. I'm not against investment in infrastructure, but I'd suggest that maybe it's something that could be done by local and state governments instead of at the federal level. Localities and states have a closer eye on what they need, and turning infrastructure improvement into a Washington political game just leads to things such as the "Robert C. Byrd Interchange" in WV. (or the Robert C. Byrd highway, Robert C. Byrd this that and every-friggen-thing else).

As an aside, I have long thought that the highway system is a major subsidy to the automobile manufacturers & trucking industry. In theory, sure, it's paid for by gasoline taxes, but why should my gas taxes go to pay for roads primarily used by interstate travelers? Technology has reached the point where it makes sense to toll the major highways, and perhaps contract out the toll collecting duties.