Here is a link to my 46th column on Quartz, “One of the biggest threats to America’s future has the easiest fix,” coauthored with Noah Smith.I talked about some of the issues of capital budgeting addressed in this column a while back in my post “What to Do When the World Desperately Wants to Lend Us Money” and Noah has talked about the importance of infrastructure investment a great deal on his blog Noahpinion.
Other Threats to America’s Future: Our editor wanted to title the column “The biggest threat to America’s future has the easiest fix.” I objected that I didn’t think it was the very biggest threat to America’s future. I worry about nuclear proliferation. Short of that, I believe the biggest threat to America’s future is letting China surpass America in total GDP and ultimately military might by not opening our doors wider to immigration–a threat I discuss in my column “Benjamin Franklin’s Strategy to Make the US a Superpower Worked Once, Why Not Try It Again?"
Technical Afterword to the Column (Please Read Column First)
There is a very interesting feature to our proposed capital budgeting system that we should highlight. How can the capital budget ever be negative? The capital budget plus the non-capital budget must add up to the total budget. So for a given total budget, a negative capital budget makes the non-capital budget bigger. What is going on is this: regular maintenance is like a quasi-entitlement within the non-capital budget. In any given year, regular maintenance as a component of the non-capital budget is fixed in advance and can’t be altered by the legislature. The only way it changes is that it is gradually reduced if the quantity of capital to be maintained gets lower, or gradually increased if the amount of capital to be maintained gets bigger.
In this lack of discretion about regular maintenance as a component of the non-capital budget, there is no real tying of the hands of the legislature: they could always choose to have a very negative capital budget, which would increase the non-capital budget enough to cover that maintenance. So if the legislature as a whole acted like a fully rational actor, this principle is not a constraint at all. But as political economy, it makes a difference, and a good one. The legislature can increase the non-capital budget and reduce the capital budget. But what the legislature can’t do is get more funds for other things by letting capital decay without it showing up in the accounting as an increase in the regular budget and reduction in the capital budget.