I think it’s sad that in the United States, talk of the fact that building a high-speed rail network in California, home to 12 percent of the American population, might cost something in the $40-$80 billion range prompts infighting amongst progressives as to whether that’s too high a price even while the Fiscal Year 2012 budget request for the war in Afghanistan is $113.7 billion dollars for one year. In Iraq, where $805.8 billion has already been spent and the war is “over,” $17.7 billion more has been requested for FY 2012. Heck, the total construction costs here are just two or three years’ worth of federal farm subsidies, and I hardly think the California HSR project could be completed on a three-year schedule anyway. So it’s not like this is an inconceivable sum.
Now maybe that $100 billion in Afghanistan is well-spent. That’s an argument for another day. But it’s just a signpost of how differently wired our political system is for large-scale, complicated, highly uncertain public sector undertakings in foreign countries relative to proposals for large-scale, complicated, highly uncertain public sector undertakings in the United States. We ought to be disturbed by the fact that rail construction costs in the United States seem to be senseless high in part thanks to bad regulations. The fact that there are hugely expensive road boondoggles ought to also bother us, though for some reason road construction costs don’t seem to attract nearly the scrutiny one hears about rail projects. One should try to spend one’s money in a cost-effective way. But the fact of the matter is that the United States is a very large country, and many very important parts of the country are already settled. Building new infrastructure in settled areas is expensive. But the USA is not incapable of undertaking large, complicated, uncertain public sector projects. Nor are we unwilling to spend large amounts of money on them. We seem, instead, to have enormous trouble prioritizing across different domains.