This Washington Post piece about America’s gigantic unmet infrastructure needs is pretty good, but in some ways I think it misses the obvious. The reason we don’t spend more money on infrastructure projects is that we have a gigantic Department of Defense, an escalating government tab for health care, and a refusal to raise taxes to accommodate that health care tab. Consequently, everything else is getting squeezed out.
“All of the numbers are so gargantuan large that they’re useless when you’re trying to communicate with the public,” said Roy Kienitz, undersecretary for policy at the Department of Transportation.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that an investment of $1.7 trillion is needed between now and 2020 to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the ends of their planned life cycles. The Urban Institute puts the price tag at $2 trillion.
That’s a lot. And of course common sense tells you that the American Society of Civil Engineers is perhaps going to overestimate the objective need to spend money on civil engineering projects. But this is comparable to what we dropped on Iraq with no return whatsoever. Conversely, what if taxes were higher? Having a home mortgage interest tax deduction gives us more “private infrastructure” in the form of big houses and less “public infrastructure” in the form of speedier commutes. At some margin the “worse commute, bigger house” social tradeoff may be worth making, but it’s difficult for me to accept the view that a paucity of large homes is one of America’s leading problems at the moment.