Cross-posted from Strong Towns blog.
Today we spend money on infrastructure in the hopes of creating growth. That’s backwards. Infrastructure should not be a catalyst for growth but something that emerges in support of productive patterns of development. There has to be a relationship between the infrastructure we build and the value that is created.
Late last month I wrote about the return on investment of our highway projects (Paved with good intentions, April 30). I pointed out what is obvious to anyone who thinks it through: Even if modern transportation improvements really did create a lot of wealth, we capture too little of it to be able to continue this system as we have built it.
The example I used was a diverging diamond in Colorado, a high return investment by today’s standards. The official numbers were that this $7.2 million investment would generate $157 million in wealth and prosperity. Instead of debating that — demonstrating the fiction of such numbers is old hat for us – we simply pointed out that $157 million in GDP growth would only return $260,000 to the federal coffers for highway projects. Since $260,000 is substantially less than $7.2 million, repeating this great wealth generation trick, not to mention maintaining this diverging diamond, is going to be difficult.
I was really disappointed that nobody took me up on my challenge to defend the value of the overall system. I did receive a second hand rebuttal that essentially argued that my analysis was too simplistic, that I’m overlooking all of the (unidentified) second order and third order growth effects. This is what I call the “it’s the system, dude” argument. Sure, we may lose money on each project that you measure, but the overall effect of the system generates more than enough wealth to keep it all going.
This is what I call the Infrastructure Cult. We have no proof for our belief that highway spending creates prosperity, we just believe it to be true. We believe it so strongly that we can easily dismiss evidence to the contrary.
I’m going to repeat my challenge: Someone demonstrate how highway funding, and American post WW II development in general, is not simply a large Ponzi scheme, where spending generates the near term illusion of wealth in exchange for massive, unfunded, long term obligations. Show us how it is making the country financially stronger. I’m dying for someone to make this case as opposed to simply spout the belief.