One of the most frustrating and depressing aspects of U.S. politics right now is that so little federal money is being spent on domestic public infrastructure.
We’re happy to spend a staggering ~$800 billion a year on our military, and one of our political parties wants to increase that spending even more. But we are so appalled by the amount that we spend on our domestic infrastructure that we recently chopped public construction spending from $320 billion to $275 billion a year.
Given our high unemployment rate and extraordinarily low borrowing costs, now would be a perfect time for the government to commit a few trillion dollars over the next decade to bringing our decaying infrastructure into the 21st Century.
After all, high-quality infrastructure improves life for everyone in the country, not just rich people or middle-class people or the other voting blocks that our two big political parties are always sucking up to.
Infrastructure spending also doesn’t train people to expect handouts or support wasteful consumer behaviour–two complaints about social programs like food stamps and Medicare. Infrastructure spending creates jobs throughout the economy. And it reduces unemployment and social program spending (because more people go back to work).
But infrastructure spending is not just not being increased in the U.S.–it’s getting cut.
If you spend a lot of time within our country’s borders, you get used to how old and decrepit much of our infrastructure is.
But step outside the U.S. for a few days, and you remember.
I’ve spent the last few days in the UK, a country whose government is even more obsessed with cutting government spending than our government is. The UK is so insistent on cutting spending that it has thrown its economy into what looks like a triple-dip recession (needlessly so, in the opinion of many respected economists).
But the UK still finds money to spend on its public infrastructure.
Such as this dime-a-dozen commuter train from London to Hampton Court. I can’t remember ever riding in a Metro-North train that looked like this. The London train was also perfectly on time, of course. With digital ticketing–the same digital ticket system that works with the London subway.
Yes, maybe this train’s just a one-off. But the other trains, subways, and buses I’ve ridden on were clean and new, too.
If even the austerity-obsessed UK can buy public transportation equipment like this, can’t we? Is that really so much to ask?
In case you prefer data to pictures, here’s some data for you.
US public construction spending has declined sharply over the last five years:
US public construction spending has now hit its lowest level as a per cent of GDP since the early 1980s:
US military spending, meanwhile, is 3X as big as US public construction spending. And it has barely decreased at all:
Yes, if we trim military spending, we won’t be able to fight quite so many wars in so many other countries at once.
But our bridges, roads, trains, airports, electrical grids, and schools in our own country are old and deteriorating.
So even assuming that was have to cut spending–which I, for one (and, more importantly, many respected economists) don’t think we have to–is this really the way we want to spend our money?
Or is it just that our government in Washington has become so bought-off and dysfunctional that it can’t even make choices that will benefit everyone?
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