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Becker on infrastructure spending

Gary Becker raises several sharp questions on using infrastructure to stimulate the economy. Chief among them are: 1) the biggest job loss happened in financial, housing, and manufacturing sectors, however the proposed infrastructure plan concentrates on roads, energy and healthcare, etc. There seems to be a mismatching of skills. Is Obama’s plan expecting all financial engineers to become real engineers overnight? 2) the severity of the recession requires a speedy stimulus plan. However, any hasty plans by government will make the stimulus plan less effective — do we just throw money to fill the holes and can government cherry-pick the right projects?

Infrastructure in a Stimulus Package

Last week we blogged on how much stimulus to GDP and employment might be expected from a version of the Obama fiscal stimulus plan. I concluded that the amount of stimulus from the spending package would be far less than estimated in a study by the incoming Chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisers (“The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan”, by Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein, January 9, 2009). The activities stimulated by the package to a large extent would draw labor and capital away from other productive activities. In addition, the government programs were unlikely to be as well planned as the displaced private uses of these resources.

The stimulus package’s plans for spending on “infrastructure” clearly illustrate both concerns. I put this word in quotation marks because of the many definitions of what is included in the concept of infrastructure. Promoters of various stimulus packages- such as the just released House Committee on Appropriations $825 billion stimulus plan- include in infrastructure not only the traditional categories of roads, highways, harbors, and airports. They also include spending on broadband, school buildings, computers for school children, modern technologies, research and development, converter boxes for the transition to digital TV, phone service to rural areas, sewage treatment plants, computerized medical records and other health expenditures, and many other activities as well.

Some of this infrastructure spending may be very worthwhile-I return to this issue a bit later- but however merited, it is difficult to believe that they would provide much of a stimulus to the economy. Expansion of the health sector, for example, will add jobs to this sector, but it will do this mainly by drawing people into the health care sector who are presently employed in jobs outside this sector. This is because unemployment rates among health care workers are quite low, and most of the unemployed who had worked in construction, finance, or manufacturing are unlikely to qualify as health care workers without considerable additional training. This same conclusion applies to spending on expanding broadband, to make the energy used greener, to encourage new technologies and more research, and to improve teaching.

An analysis by Forbes publications of where most jobs will be created singles out engineering, accounting, nursing, and information technology, along with construction managers, computer-aided drafting specialists, and project managers. Unemployment rates among most of these specialists are not high. The rebuilding of “crumbling roads, bridges, and schools” highlighted by in various speeches by President Obama is likely to make greater use of unemployed workers in the construction sector. However, such spending will be a small fraction of the total stimulus package, and it is not easy for workers who helped build residential housing to shift to building highways.

A second crucial issue relates not to the amount of new output and employment created by the stimulus, but to the efficiency of the government spending. Efficiency is not likely to be high partly because of the fundamental conflict between the goal of stimulating employment and output in order to reduce the severity of the recession, and the goal of concentrating infrastructure spending on projects that add a lot of value to the economy. Stimulating the economy when employment is falling requires rapid spending of this huge stimulus package, but it is impossible for either the private or public sectors to spend effectively a large amount in a short time period since good spending takes a lot of planning time.

Putting new infrastructure spending in depressed areas like Detroit might have a big stimulating effect since infrastructure building projects in these areas can utilize some of the considerable unemployed resources there. However, many of these areas are also declining because they have been producing goods and services that are not in great demand, and will not be in demand in the future. Therefore, the overall value added by improving their roads and other infrastructure is likely to be a lot less than if the new infrastructure were located in growing areas that might have relatively little unemployment, but do have great demand for more roads, schools, and other types of long-term infrastructure.

Of course, at some point new taxes in some form have to be collected to pay for infrastructure and other stimulus spending. The sizable adverse effects on incentives of these taxes also have to be weighted against any value produced by the infrastructure (and other) stimulus spending.

The likelihood that such a rapid and large public spending program will be of low efficiency is compounded by political realities. Groups that have lots of political clout with Congress will get a disproportionate amount of the spending with only limited regard for the merits of the spending they advocate compared to alternative ways to spend the stimulus. The politically influential will also redefine various projects so that they can fall under the “infrastructure” rubric. A report called Ready to Go by the U.S. Conference of Mayors lists $73 billion worth of projects that they claim could be begun quickly. These projects include senior citizen centers, recreation facilities, and much other expenditure that are really private consumption items, many of dubious value, that the mayors call infrastructure spending.

Recessions would be a good time to increase infrastructure spending only if these projects can mainly utilize unemployed resources. This does not seem to be the case in most of the so-called infrastructure spending proposed under various stimulus plans.

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