January 22 2013

The Infrastructure Myth

Carrie L. Lukas

 

Larry Summers writes soberly in the Washington Post that we should be concerned about intractable budget deficits… but not so concerned that we don’t continue “investing” in important priorities like health care and new infrastructure project.  He intones:

No one who travels abroad from the United States can doubt that this country has an enormous infrastructure deficit. 

This is something that Americans hear quite frequently:  Europeans are far wiser than American rubes, understand the value of good “infrastructure,” so have been investing in these economy-enhancing projects and are now reaping the benefits.  Sophisticated Americans supposedly just know this to be true, and the rest of us are supposed to accept this as fact.

Yet I’ve been living in Europe—first in Austria and now in Belgium—since 2008 and I have no idea what they are talking about when people refer to this obviously superior European infrastructure. 

Surely it cannot be the roads and highway system, which may not be categorically worse than that of the U.S. but certainly also is not meaningfully better.   Certainly the roads in and around many European cities are far worse than those in the U.S. for an obvious reason:  They were constructed long ago before cars so they are ill-suited for modern traffic. 

I live in a suburb of Brussels and getting into the city in a car is as much of a traffic-nightmare as it is to get into downtown Washington from Northern Virginia.

Yes, there is a good metro system in Brussels.  It’s comparable to that of Washington DC, and probably slightly better maintained than New York’s and Boston’s.  Liberals seem to envy the cross-country train system in Europe, which certainly is nice but seems far more a function of Europe geographics than any grand design.  In Europe, major cities serve as population centers and aren’t terribly far away from each other, making the train systems convenient.  There’s a reason why few people would want to take the train from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, and it’s not because the trains aren’t nice enough.  The distances are just too far.

European cities tend to have much better public spaces—more extensive parks and playgrounds—than those in U.S. cities.  Yet part of that is surely because a smaller share of the American population live in city centers and Americans tend to have larger houses and bigger yards than people in Europe making them less necessary.

Even if we expect the assumption that European infrastructure is inherently superior to that in the United States, why do we assume that this is a huge economic advantage?  Because of Europe’s incredibly dynamic booming economy? 

Clearly, basic infrastructure yields economic benefits.  Highways and train systems facilitate all manner of exchange.  Yet once a country has reached a certain level of infrastructure, the economic benefit of further improvement isn’t clear cut.

There is much to love and learn from in Europe.  Living abroad I am far more struck with the realization at how over-regulated American public life has become due to a fear of lawsuits.  Europeans seem to trust that they don’t need to mar public fireplaces with signs warning people not to stick their hands in the flames and playgrounds aren’t cushioned and safety-gated to make it impossible for Johnny to skin his knee lest his parents sue. 

I’m going to investigate the findings of real economic studies on the payouts for infrastructure upgrades to see what’s out there.  But in general, it seems that Americans shouldn’t accept statements about how we are so obviously and stupidly behind in terms of infrastructure as the gospel.   

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