I liked Louis Uchitelle’s article on the dearth of infrastructure “superprojects” in the contemporary United States. The strangest thing about the situation, which he notes and doesn’t quite dwell on as much as I would have, is that the Obama administration actually is pursuing two superprojects — the construction of a national high-speed rail network, and the construction of a national health care information technology backbone. But it’s somewhat oddly shied away from making the case for really funding them at the required level:
If there is anything in the Obama administration’s approach that can be compared to the megaprojects, it would be the giant computer system, now being planned, to make health records available in hospitals and doctors’ offices across the country. Some economists argue that computerized records would raise economic output just as the Hoover Dam did 73 years ago. Still, only $19 billion has been set aside; the project is expected to cost nearly $100 billion, and who knows if the funding will materialize. […]
Mr. Obama has allocated just $8 billion as a down payment for high-speed rail — in Mr. Rendell’s view not a drop in a $3 trillion bucket, a bucket that seems unlikely fill anytime soon.
The perversity of this is that you’re really unlikely to find better times than 2009, 2010, and 2011 to spend a bunch of money on large-scale projects. Most of the time, this kind of spending would involve a short-term economic cost in exchange for a long-term economic benefit. But faced with such a weak labor market, it’d be a short-term benefit with even more benefits over the long-term. Clearly there are limits to what you could actually get done in a 30 month time frame — $3 trillion worth of new passenger rail wouldn’t be doable — but the allocations that have been made don’t really seem to be designed to test the limits of the possible.
There also seems to me to be a somewhat counterproductive obsession with avoiding waste. Like there’s an implicit idea that doing $100 million worth of useful projects is better than doing $180 million of useful projects plus $20 million worth of stuff that doesn’t work out. I see the political logic in that, sort of, but it doesn’t really make sense.