There is a lot being written about Trump’s infrastructure plans – here are two roundup articles from City Observatory and The Week. Between them, they cite a total of 16 newspaper, magazine, academic, and political articles by my count. About 5 seem positive on balance and 11 negative. You could argue that I don’t pick the most un-biased sources, but let’s be honest, even if the left-leaning press adds some political spin, they still cover basic scientific and economic facts much better than outlets like Fox News.
Anyone who flies, drives, uses water, electricity, or gas, or visits public buildings knows the country’s infrastructure needs investment. Especially if you travel internationally, the state of our infrastructure is one of the first shocks that hits you when you return home. Economists seem to be in near consensus that better infrastructure would help our private sector be more efficient and competitive, and that infrastructure can be a good way to stimulate employment and income growth during a recession.
The negative articles raise a few issues. Some are ideological – some people just hate the idea of private money being invested, while others hate the idea of public money being invested. We need to get over these ideological biases and look for solutions that work, which are likely to be a blend. A little market discipline can help investors make good decisions about which risks are worth taking on, while public investment can help get projects with high social and environmental value over the financial hump.
The concerns that seem most valid to me have to do with special interests and lobbyists capturing these government funds just like they do in other industries like health care, energy, and security. Another thing that happens is that when funds are distributed through the states, politicians from rural areas are often able to steer investments away from the population centers where they would do the most economic and social good. This happens with highways, and also with water and sewer infrastructure loans through state revolving funds, which are only loans (not grants) to begin with. None of this results in efficient, high economic return investments any more than straight-up public investment would.
Perhaps my biggest concern, which the articles don’t touch on much, is that the country has no plan for what smart, efficient infrastructure would look like. If we had such a plan, we could target any new funds to the right kinds of projects. Market discipline is not a substitute for planning.
So call me an infrastructure advocate, but a skeptic that the U.S. government is going to do it the right way. My prescription would be a constitutional amendment clarifying that free speech only applies to humans and getting the lobbyists and campaign contributions under control, a comprehensive planning approach to all kinds of infrastructure, how they tie together and what they should look like over the next 50 years, and an implementation plan that targets funding through planning organizations in major metropolitan areas, leveraging federal and local public and private funds for the most economic, social, and environmental good.
And I know I’m dreaming. Maybe Trump will get an infrastructure bank done, that would be something tangible and useful at least.