The Slowest Stimulus

Barack Obama is supposed to talk jobs tonight. Of course, what he’s really going to talk is spending, likely on our “crumbling infrastructure”. Gregg Eastebrook has a roundup of what our efforts to deal with this cost:

*Boston’s Big Dig, mostly funded by the federal taxpayer though benefits went exclusively to Massachusetts, was supposed to take 10 years at a cost of $6.2 billion in today’s dollars. Instead it took 21 years and cost $22 billion.

*The Washington, D.C. metro is building a mainly federally funded extension from its current Virginia terminus to Dulles Airport. The next leg of the project was just priced at $3.1 billion for 11.5 miles – that’s $270 million per mile, not for subway but for above-ground rail on the median of a highway the public already owns. The price is so extreme that even Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, representing an administration that loves to spend borrowed money, says the price must be cut.

*My home county, Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., wants $1.9 billion for a 16-mile trolley line which would be mainly funded by federal taxpayers though the benefits would go exclusively to Maryland. That’s $121 million per mile for simple above-ground construction of trolley line.

*The federal government just gave contracts to renovate the Reflecting Pool that fronts the Lincoln Monument. The renovation is expected to take 18 months — longer than it took to build the pool in the first place, 90 years ago when machinery was much less efficient.

*Baltimore wants the federal government to fund a new light-rail line for the city. Set aside why taxpayers in Nebraska or Wisconsin should pay for a system solely for the convenience of Marylanders. In line is projected to cost $2.2 billion for 14.5 miles, about $2,400 per inch, entirely for above-ground work. Construction is projected to require nine years. That’s a pace of 1.6 miles per year. At that pace the First Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869 using far less machinery than available today, would have taken more than a thousand years to build.

*On the George Washington Parkway that runs along the Potomac River in the nation’s capital, there is a Depression-era humpback bridge that needed replacement. In January 2008, federally funded contractors began work on this small, low, four-lane, short bridge (80 yards) that crosses a shallow channel. Almost four years later, the job still is not finished. In the 1950s, the three-mile long, 140-foot high, seven-lane Tappan Zee Bridge, spanning the Hudson River at a deep point, took less time to construct. At the pace of the humpback bridge project, the Tappan Zee Bridge would have taken two centuries to build.

And he doesn’t even get into high speed rail. The fact is that we’ve spent hundreds of billions on infrastructure with very little improvement.

Eastebrook sites two reasons for this ridiculous inefficiency: Davis/Bacon rules that require union wages and work rules that stop construction when speciality work is needed. I would also add enormous regulatory requirements such as environmental impact studies. But the key point here is that, when you see infrastructure spending primarily as a jobs program, paying people to stand around or push pencils is a feature, not a bug. The more time and money a project costs, the more stimulating it is.

Keynesians can trot out their “aggregate demand” argument all they want. It still amounts to paying people to dig holes and fill them up again, which has almost no economic multiplier. If these projects are so important to the health of our economy, the Left should be the first ones insisting on efficient spending. But spending is the end, not the means.

Update: I think I muffed an important point. Infrastructure spending is a much about patronage as it is about jobs. If jobs were the priority for Obama, he would have relaxed the Davis/Bacon provisions. This would either have cut the cost or increasing the number of hires while decreasing their average pay.

He still could work with the GOP to relax Davis/Bacon to make federal spending more efficient in terms of jobs per dollar. But his union allies would never allow it.

Comments are closed.

  1. AlexInCT

    Keynesians can trot out their “aggregate demand” argument all they want. It still amounts to paying people to dig holes and fill them up again, which has almost no economic multiplier.

    You won a prize for that comment Hal. Brilliant.

    I think you should expect some people to dismiss you outright or demand you provide proof of this obviously unsubstantiated and ideological comment on your part, sooner than later, and then dismiss you anyway. But that’s what these progessives believe in: that government should pay for massive “make work” programs so people that don’t really want to work hard, efficiently, or earn what the work they do is worth, can have jobs.

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  2. hist_ed

    In Seattle we are going to spend billions on a tuneel to replace an again viaduct. The viaduct is definately unsafe and not up to a major earthquake. An independent engineering firm did a survey and estimated that it would cost 500 million to upgrade it to up to code. Alas, our state and city (except for the new mayor) want to dig a big deep tunnel so instead of 500 million we will spend billions to build a short tunnel with fewer lanes. One state study showed that because the tunnel will be tolled it will actually make traffic on surrounding roads worse than if it is not built.

    I think one key to this is that politicians really want to be able to say they did something. They want to be able to point to something big and say they made it happen. It’s tought to show your grandkids the leger entries that show you saved some money here and there but take them on a tour of a huge tunnel or ride a big subway with them and you get to brag about it..

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