Piling Up Monuments of Waste
New York Times, 2008-11-19

[An excerpt; emphasis is added.]

[W]hen it comes to the nation’s infrastructure,
money isn’t the main problem.

A lack of adequate financing is part of the problem, without doubt.
But the bigger problem has been
an utter lack of seriousness in deciding how that money gets spent.
And as long as we’re going to stimulate the economy
by spending money on roads, bridges and the like,
we may as well do it right.

It’s hard to exaggerate how scattershot the current system is.
Government agencies usually don’t even have to do
a rigorous analysis of a project
or how it would affect traffic and the environment,
relative to its cost and to the alternatives —
before deciding whether to proceed.
In one recent survey of local officials,
almost 80 percent said they had based their decisions largely on politics,
while fewer than 20 percent cited a project’s potential benefits.


By Fareed Zakaria
fareedzakaria.com/Washington Post, 2011-09-29

President Obama’s jobs bill is better than doing nothing
in the face of a national crisis,
but it won’t have much impact on unemployment.
Many of the measures are short-term tax breaks and benefits
that are unlikely to affect demand for products and services —
business’s fundamental problem —
and so won’t boost hiring.

[Although generally I agree with the thrust of Zakaria’s article,
I certainly do not with his premise, which sadly seems so common in “elite” opinion, that
“demand for products and services [is] business’s fundamental problem.”
What scum they are, to refuse to address the fundamental problem:
America’s lack of competitiveness in the world labor market,
due to the policies they have pushed for the last sixty years.

Anyhow, here is a bit more from the article which does go against much of prevailing “wisdom” and with which I happen to agree.]

The other problem is that the law requiring infrastructure projects to pay the “prevailing wage” means a relatively small number of highly skilled workers
get all the jobs.
What if the goal were to, say,
pay people to dig up the concrete around the Detroit River and create parklands?
If people were hired not at union-level wages of $26 per hour
but at half that price,
an army of unemployed workers in that area could be tapped.
By getting unions to agree to below-prevailing wages,
General Motors has been able to hire thousands of workers over the past two years.

[For some other policies causing the job dearth,
see “Policies of mass economic destruction.”]


Billions needed to upgrade America’s leaky water infrastructure
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post, 2012-01-03


Beneath Cities, a Decaying Tangle of Gas Pipes
New York Times, 2014-03-24

It is a danger hidden beneath the streets of New York City, unseen and rarely noticed: 6,302 miles of pipes transporting natural gas.

Leaks, like the one that is believed to have led to the explosion that killed eight people in East Harlem this month, are startlingly common, numbering in the thousands every year, federal records show.

Consolidated Edison, whose pipes supplied the two buildings leveled by the explosion, had the highest rate of leaks in the country among natural gas operators whose networks totaled at least 100 miles, according to a New York Times analysis of records collected by the federal Department of Transportation for 2012, the most recent year data was available.

The chief culprit, according to experts, is the perilous state of New York City’s underground network, one of the oldest in the country and a glaring example of America’s crumbling infrastructure.


Invest in infrastructure that pays for itself
By Lawrence Summers
Washington Post Op-Ed, 2014-10-07

People have lost faith with companies and governments
By Lawrence Summers
Washington Post Op-Ed, 2014-12-07

Walk from the US Airways shuttle at New York’s LaGuardia Airport
to ground transportation.
For months, there has been a sign saying
“New escalator coming in Spring 2015.”
The Charles River at a key point separating Boston and Cambridge
is little more than 100 yards wide.
Yet traffic has been diverted for over two years
because of the repair of a major bridge
and work is expected to continue into 2016.

The world is said to progress, but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine is much wider than the Charles, yet Gen. George S. Patton needed just a day to create bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it.
[Pontoon bridges, and it was combat engineers of the Army Corps of Engineers,
not Gen. Patton, who put those in place.]

It will take almost half as long to fix that escalator in LaGuardia
as it took to build the Empire State Building 85 years ago.

Is it any wonder that the American people have lost faith in the future and in institutions of all kinds? If rudimentary tasks like keeping escalators going and bridges repaired are too much for us to handle, it is little wonder that disillusionment and cynicism flourish.

Political debates are often framed in terms of the respective roles of the public and private sectors, with progressives stressing private market failure and conservatives stressing the dysfunctionality of the public sector. The sad truth is that there is merit in both perspectives.

The escalator that will take five months to repair is privately owned. Although it is in an airport, failure cannot be blamed on public authorities. Necessary maintenance had been delayed for years — with the escalator in question even being stripped for spare parts to support other escalators. Now, the new owner has many priorities; the replacement of the escalator system is only one.

On the other hand, repair of the bridge across the Charles is the responsibility of local governments. A combination of budgetary short-sightedness, excessively rigid labor practices and a failure to take account of the costs of traffic delays appears to account for the project’s remarkably long gestation.

While much political debate takes place on a macro level, focusing on large-scale changes in spending, tax or regulatory policies, I suspect that much of what frustrates the public happens on a more micro scale. A government that has to install nets under bridges to catch falling debris will not inspire confidence when it aspires to rebuild other nations. When major companies cannibalize their machinery for spare parts, it is hardly surprising that they are not trusted to embark on voluntary long-run programs to control greenhouse gases, promote diversity or develop technologies.

What is to be done?

the focus of infrastructure discussions needs to shift from
major new projects whose initiation and completion
can be the occasion for grand celebration
to more prosaic issues of upkeep, maintenance and project implementation.
For example, before anyone contemplates spiffy new high-speed rail systems,
consideration should be given to repairing existing lines and stations.

accountants in the public and private sectors need to develop
methodologies for capturing the cost of deferred maintenance
and show this in financial accounts for what it is —
borrowing from the future.
What is counted counts.
If maintenance deferrals were made transparent,
they would become much more expensive for decision makers.

the public, and the media on its behalf,
need to be much less accepting of institutional failure.
It has been said that
we do not want to know all to which we can become accustomed.
A vicious cycle in which governments perform poorly,
and so are starved of resources,
and so perform worse is a serious threat to healthy democracy.
Something similar can happen to business.
If owners distrust management,
they will insist on taking cash out rather than
permitting its use for long-term investment.
The only answer is prompt and aggressive responses to failure
that ensure that it is short-lived.

More important than any specific remedy, there is a reason beyond the media and the public’s own economic problems that there is so much disillusionment with so many institutions. They do not seem to perform as well as they once did. We see it every day. Fixing escalators and building bridges may seem like small stuff at a time of economic crisis and geopolitical instability. But it is time we recognize the importance of what may seem small to what is ultimately important — the faith of citizens in their collective future.

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