Here is the full text of my 46th Quartz column, coauthored with Noah Smith, “One of the biggest threats to America’s future has the easiest fix,” now brought home to supplysideliberal.com. (I expect Noah will post it on his blog Noahpinionas well.) It was first published on February 4, 2014. Links to all my other columns can be found here.
Writing this column inspired a presentation on capital budgeting I gave at the Congressional Budget Office. See my post “Capital Budgeting: The Powerpoint File.”
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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 .
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?”
In the 1990s, with its economy stagnating after a financial crisis, Japan lavished billions on infrastructure investment. The Japanese government lined rivers and beaches with concrete, turned parks into parking lots, and built bridges to nowhere. The splurge of spending may have allowed Japan to limp along without a full-blown depression, but added to the mountain of government debt that remains to this day.
Given Japan’s experience, it may seem odd for us to call for an increase in America’s infrastructure investment. In terms of infrastructure, the US now is not Japan in the 1990s. They didn’t need to build … but we do.
First, the United States is a lot larger than Japan, and larger than the densely populated countries of Europe. We have a lot more ground to cover with highways, bridges, power lines, and broadband infrastructure. We need to be spending a higher fraction of our GDP on these transportation and communication links—but instead, we spend about the same or less.
Second, where Japan’s infrastructure was in good condition when the spending binge started, America’s infrastructure is in hideous disrepair. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure a “D+”. Although infrastructure opponents typically dismiss the opinions of civil engineers (who, after all, stand to personally gain from increased infrastructure spending), McKinsey released a recent report saying much the same thing. McKinsey notes that Japan is spending about twice as much as it needs to on infrastructure. But the US is spending only about three-fourths of what we should be spending. The Associated Press piles on, saying that 65,000 American bridges are “structurally deficient.” A former secretary of energy says our power grid is at “Third World” levels. The list of infrastructure woes goes on, and on, and on.
This is not the picture of a country with a healthy infrastructure.
We need to rebuild our infrastructure, and now is the perfect time to do it. Interest rates are at historic lows, but they are unlikely to stay there forever. Our government has a unique opportunity to borrow cheaply to fund infrastructure projects that will generate a positive return for the country. (If the increased spending acts as a Keynesian “stimulus,” so much the better.)
But infrastructure budgets have been cut, not expanded. Why? One reason is that in the race to cut the deficit, infrastructure spending has been lumped in with other types of spending. That is a tragic mistake. Unlike government “transfers,” which simply take money from person A and give it to person B, infrastructure leaves us with something that helps the private sector do business, and thus boosts our GDP growth. Infrastructure is a small percentage of overall federal spending, but tends to be a politically easy target.
One idea to boost infrastructure spending, therefore, is to treat government investments differently from other kinds of government spending by having a separate capital budget. A separate capital budget has been suggested, but so far, the effort has foundered. There is a lot of confusion over which types of spending represent an “investment in the future.” Some politicians tend to argue that almost anything that helps people is an investment in the future, and so is a legitimate part of a capital budget. But of course everything in the government’s budget is something that someone thinks will help people! So what is needed is a clear criterion to determine what should be in the capital budget and what should be in the regular budget.
There should be a fairly stringent set of criteria for what belongs in a capital budget. Furthermore, these criteria should appeal to both parties. Here is what we suggest as criteria to keep the capital budget “pure”:
1. If experts agree that an expenditure will raise future tax revenue by increasing GDP, then it belongs in the capital budget. If it can pay for itself entirely out of extra tax revenue in the future then it should be 100% on the capital budget. If it can pay for half of its cost out of extra tax revenue in the future, than it should be 50% on the capital budget. The provision “experts agree” requires some sort of independent commission doing an economic analysis with appointees from both parties, and with, say, two-thirds of the commissioners needing to agree that the value of future tax revenue is likely to be above a given level.
2. Even if an expenditure will not raise future tax revenue, it can count as a capital expenditure if it is a one-time expenditure—that is, if it makes sense to have a surge in spending followed by a much lower maintenance level of spending in that area. This will only be true if it pushes the existing stock of infrastructure, other government capital, or knowledge to a higher level than before, not if it just keeps things even. Crucially, by this logic, anything that lets the stock of infrastructure or other government capital decline would count as anegative capital expenditure. This principle enables the capital budget accounting to sound a warning when the nation is letting its infrastructure crumble away, and also allows sensible decisions about shifting funds from older forms of infrastructure toward modern forms of infrastructure needed by a fast-moving economy.
As our mention of the stock of knowledge suggests, a capital budget can also be a good way to make sure that America doesn’t underinvest in basic scientific research. However great the importance of better roads and bridges, it makes sense to weigh the benefits of those roads and bridges against the benefits of research that might someday conquer Alzheimer’s disease, or research on how to make the way math is taught in our public schools so exciting that every high school graduate in America is able to do the math needed to, say, operate computerized machine tools.
With proposals like these on the table, we believe there is a chance that Republicans and Democrats could agree to set infrastructure and other legitimate capital spending aside as an issue that should not be a victim of titanic political battles over the deficit. Of course, someday, if we find ourselves in Japan’s position of spending so much on infrastructure that it starts adding significant amounts to the debt, then the capital budget should become an issue in deficit fights as well. But we are far from that point.
Both Republicans and Democrats want to govern a country that is as rich and prosperous as possible. America’s businesses need good infrastructure to move their goods from place to place—and there is no question that we need the solid new ideas that research can provide. Economists of all stripes will agree that if a nation is under-spending on infrastructure and other legitimate capital spending—as America is right now —then boosting that spending is a win-win. It’s time to look beyond our fights over how to divide America’s pie, and focus on making the pie bigger.
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.
On these technical issues, see also