American Society of Civil Engineers, Border Wall, capital costs, Donald Trump, infrastructure, Infrastructure Tax Credits, Jeffrey Harding, Milton Friedman, P3s, Private Benefits, Public benefits, Public-Private Partnerships, Reason Foundation, Underpricing, User Charges
The exaggerated deterioration of American infrastructure is the basis of a perfect bipartisan spending coalition. Proposed public spending on capital such as roads, bridges, high-speed rail, locks, dams, and water and wastewater systems is of obvious value to those who would build it, but the benefits for the public are not always beyond question. As Jeffrey Harding notes at the link, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rates U.S. infrastructure as seriously deficient, but it is in their interests to do so. The news media finds the kind of horror story promoted by ASCE hard to resist:
“What they don’t tell you is that if you look at transportation issues over time, things have been getting better, not worse. … The Reason Foundation’s studies on state-owned highways (they are widely recognized as being leaders in this field) and other studies on highways and bridges reveal that there have been significant improvements of infrastructure measures like road and bridge quality and fatalities over the past 20 or 30 years. The facts are that, on the state level, overall spending on highways doubled during that period, and overall measures of highway transportation have improved.“
The point of building new infrastructure is the future flow of service it can offer. Creating construction jobs is not the point. If it were, the government could hire workers to dig holes with spoons, to paraphrase Milton Friedman. Nor should the timing of infrastructure investment be dependent on employment conditions. Unworthy projects are not made worthy by high unemployment. Politicians often attempt to sell projects to the public on exactly that basis, yet as Harding points out, increases in public spending on infrastructure seldom happen in a timely manner, and they often fail to create jobs in any case. This is partly due to the regulatory morass that must be navigated to get approval for new infrastructure, and also because the skilled labor required to repair or add infrastructure is usually occupied already, even when the jobless rate is elevated. In addition, expensive infrastructure projects are vulnerable to graft, which is compounded by the many layers of approval that are typically required.
Harding questions the ASCE’s insistence that inadequacy of our infrastructure is inhibiting U.S. productivity growth. If there is any truth to this assertion, it is probably more strongly related to how infrastructure is priced to users than to the state of the facilities themselves. For example, road congestion in certain areas is a chronic problem that can only be solved via efficient pricing, not by endless attempts to expand capacity. Not only does efficient pricing ease congestion, it enhances the profitability of improvements as well as other modes of transportation. A proposal to add infrastructure that is destined to be mis-priced to users is a plan to waste resources.
Donald Trump conveniently bought into and re-sold the notion that America’s infrastructure is unsound, and he is likely to garner support for an infrastructure initiative on both sides of the aisle. He would undoubtedly include the proposed wall at the Mexican border as an infrastructural need, but we’ll leave the wisdom (and payback) of that project aside for purposes of this discussion. As I’ve discussed before on Sacred Cow Chips, President Trump has at least learned that infrastructure is not and should not be the exclusive domain of the public sector. Trump’s infrastructure proposal calls for tax credits for “public-private partnerships” (Harding’s acronym: P3s). As Harding says:
“P3s let private companies design, build, and operate new infrastructure projects. According to Bob Poole, the Reason Foundation’s expert on privatization, P3s will result in projects that will be more economically productive (no bridges to nowhere) and would be much more cost effective. … These projects would be based on privatized systems which generate an income stream, and are financed by revenue bonds. Thus, the risks of these projects are shifted to private companies rather than to taxpayers.“
P3s solve several problems: they allocate private resources toward facilities for which developers expect high demand and user willingness to pay; they avoid higher levels of general taxation, instead allocating costs to the cost causers (i.e., the users); they give users a more accurate measure of opportunity costs when considering alternatives; and they avoid overuse. Too often, users of public infrastructure pay nothing, or at most they pay enough to cover operating costs with very little contribution to capital costs. Ultimately, that makes the quality and service level delivered by the infrastructure unsustainable. Private developers are unlikely to invest in such boondoggles as long as taxpayers are not obliged to subsidize them.
The P3 tax credits in the Administration’s proposal would certainly represent a public contribution to the funding of a project, but the incentive provided by those credits helps avoid a much more substantial committment of public funds. Moreover, the credits do not create the degree of forced economic stimulus that publicly executed projects often do. Rather, the availability of credits means that projects will be initiated when and if they are economically viable and profitable to do so. We can therefore dispense with the nonsensical goal of “job creation” and focus on the real problems that infrastructure investment can solve.
Some would argue that many types of infrastructure are too public in nature to be left to P3s. In other words, projects with pure public benefits would be under-provided by P3s due an unwillingness to pay by users of “the commons”. Yet there is no rule limiting the public role in the design of a public-private partnership, whether that refers to physical development, operation, or funding. Presumably, the more “public” (and non-exclusive) the benefits, the greater the share of development and maintenance costs that should be funded by government. Whether a piece of true public infrastructure should be funded is a standard question of public finance. Assuming it should, there is likely to be a significant role for private builders and operators. Finally, P3’s do not eliminate the potential for graft. Public review and ongoing regulation would still be demanded. In a sense, P3s are all formalized corporatist efforts, but a key difference relative to current practice is the use and risk of private capital rather than public funds. Ultimately, that won’t matter if failed developments are bailed out by public “partners”. The assets of a failed infrastructure project must be sold off to the highest bidder, presumably at a steep discount.
The standard narrative is that America suffers from substandard infrastructure is highly misleading. There are certainly needs that should be met, many with urgency, and there will always be a series of worthwhile repairs and replacements that require funding. Using P3s to accomplish these objectives demands recognition that 1) users typically derive significant private benefits from infrastructure; and 2) use is often underpriced, especially with respect to allocating capital costs. Infrastructure development can be encouraged by inducing private firms to put “skin in the game”. High-risk but potentially valuable projects might have trouble attracting private funds, of course, and that is as it should be. Politicians might ask taxpayers to fund such a project rather than shopping it to private developers. It therefore behooves voter/taxpayers to evaluate the benefits and sustainability of the project with the utmost skepticism.
Postscript: The image at the top of this post prompts me to reflect on whether a starship is infrastructure. It is certainly a transportation system. Is it a public good? In a large sense, the diversification offered by spreading humanity across multiple worlds can be viewed as a benefit to mankind in the future. But rides on the starship would offer private benefits, depending on one’s sense of adventure as well as the prospects for the home planet. Those private benefits, and the voluntary payments they induce, just might get it done.