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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Infrastructure Delusion: Getting Nowhere Faster

Infrastructure does not an economy make. Highways and railroads, airports and seaports, communications towers and fiber-optic cables are essential for the flow of commerce, but it is the people, goods, and information moving over and through this infrastructure that are the heart of an economy. Overinvestment in roads, bridges, and airports means underinvestment in the productive base that is an economy’s life blood. Government spending means more than just an outlay of dollars; it means consuming scarce resources that cannot then be used for other things. Such spending does not increase production; it simply shifts resources into areas where they would not otherwise have gone.

As described in William J. Bernstein’s book The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created, France’s minister of finances under Louis XIV from 1665 to 1683, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, worked tirelessly to expand commerce by improving his country’s roads and canals. Unfortunately, trade was hindered by more than potholes—a complex system of internal tariffs was throttling commerce. Colbert tried to dismantle the tariffs but was only partially successful. After his death, “all fiscal restraint was lost. By the end of Louis XIV’s reign three decades later, the State had doubled the tolls on the roads and rivers it controlled, and the nation that had once been Europe’s breadbasket . . . was bled white. . . .” Bad regulations trumped good roads.

During the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt initiated massive public-works programs to improve the nation’s infrastructure in hopes of putting people back to work and jump-starting the economy. The construction efforts were staggering. According to Conrad Black:

The government hired about 60 percent of the unemployed in public-works and conservation projects that planted a billion trees, saved the whooping crane, modernized rural America, and built such diverse projects as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh, the Montana state capitol, much of the Chicago lakefront, New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the heroic aircraft carriers Enterprise and Yorktown. They also built or renovated 2,500 hospitals, 45,000 schools, 13,000 parks and playgrounds, 7,800 bridges, 700,000 miles of roads, and a thousand airfields.

Yet these extraordinary accomplishments were not enough to pull the nation out of the Depression. Neither were the millions of jobs generated by this monumental work.

At the same time as he was directing resources away from the private sector, Roosevelt also unleashed upon it a regulatory blizzard that significantly increased the risk of doing business. Higher personal, corporate, excise, and estate taxes; wage and price controls; production restrictions; antitrust lawsuits; and constant experimentation provided few incentives for companies to expand. As in Louis XIV’s France, an improved infrastructure could not revive commerce in the face of stifling government regulations.

Enough Roads; Too Many Roadblocks

Today President Barack Obama is touting high-speed rail and other infrastructure improvements as keys to economic renewal. But if massive infrastructure investments were not enough to turn the economy around in the 1930s, they are far less likely to do so today. Because Roosevelt was starting from a lower base his improvements would have had a far greater impact on the economy of his day than would similar work done now. Also, the lighter regulatory burden in the 1930s meant there were projects then that truly were “shovel-ready.” Today environmental impact studies, possible archeological finds, and nuisance lawsuits may stall construction for years or halt it completely.

The real roadblock to economic growth is the burgeoning regulatory burden that President Obama, like Roosevelt before him, has placed on business. According to a study by James Gattuso and Diane Katz, “[T]he Obama Administration imposed 75 new major regulations from January 2009 to mid-FY 2011, with annual costs of $38 billion.” Hundreds of additional regulations will pour forth from Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and proposed EPA greenhouse gas restrictions. All this on top of an already monumental regulatory burden imposed by government. A Small Business Administration report estimates the cost of regulatory compliance at over $1.75 trillion in 2008 alone.

Briefly, our current economic woes were triggered by the collapse of a housing bubble, produced by loose monetary policy together with federal pressure on mortgage companies to lend to bad credit risks. When the bubble burst, housing prices fell, causing many homeowners to default on their mortgages. Investment vehicles based on those mortgages lost much of their value, leading to huge investor losses and the failure of some major financial institutions.

Lost in Transition

Absent government interference industry would retool, shifting capital and labor out of home construction and into other areas. Because neither capital nor labor is homogeneous, this shift takes time. Equipment that can be put to other uses may have to be sold or physically moved. Other equipment may have to be modified or scrapped altogether. Workers may need to increase their market value by relocating or by gaining new knowledge and skills. In a recession consumers typically reduce spending and increase savings, thus freeing up the resources needed to complete the shift.

Keynesian economists, however, see both labor and capital as homogeneous, aggregated lumps. Where Austrians see capital in transition Keynesians see “idle capital.” Keynesian programs to put that capital back to work only hinder or halt the needed transition, either leaving capital in its malinvested state or forcing it into the very idleness they seek to remedy. For example, expanding credit may re-inflate the collapsed bubble for a time, leading industry to continue producing unneeded goods. Stimulus spending—whether for infrastructure or other things on the government’s wish list—transfers scarce resources from industry to government, further impeding the transition. New laws, enacted to prevent future recessions, make businesses reluctant to invest until the associated regulatory structures are defined—a process that can take years. Once in place the regulations may inhibit capital flow, locking inefficiencies and malinvestment in place and propping up companies that should be allowed to fail. Unemployment insurance and other such programs eliminate or at least reduce workers’ incentives to move or reeducate themselves.

The country’s problems are not the fault of inadequate highways. They are the result of government intervention: loose monetary policies, programs that encourage unsustainable debt, explicit and implicit guarantees to financial institutions, massive spending that crowds out private investment, oppressive regulations, higher taxes with constant threats of more to come, and political payoffs to “friendly” companies and unions. Building high-speed railroads will not stop the malign effects of these policies; the solution is to stop the policies.

Goods, people, and information will not flow freely across a nation, regardless of the quality and extent of its infrastructure, if taxes and regulations block their flow. Trade perished in France as Colbert’s improved roads and canals were made all but useless by high internal tariffs. Hundreds of thousands of miles of new and rebuilt roads were not enough to move commerce past the regulatory roadblocks that Roosevelt erected. President Obama’s proposed high-speed trains—indeed, his latest nearly half-trillion-dollar jobs program—will not pull the country over the mountain of regulations that has been created in the decades since the Great Depression and that Obama has raised to new heights.

  • Richard Fulmer is a freelance writer from Humble, Texas, and the winner of the third annual Beth A. Hoffman Memorial Prize for Economic Writing for his article "Cavemen and Middlemen," from the April 2012 Freeman