Notes Towards a Policy Platform: Part V

Another short one: Infrastructure.

Notice how President Obama and a variety of talking heads said a lot during the stimulus debate about infrastructure projects, but almost none of that money has been disbursed? Notice that China seems to be able to build entire cities faster than we can build a single skyscraper in New York? Think that might be a problem?

We’ve come a long way from the days of Robert Moses. The local regulatory net that entangles any effort at development is not exclusively a left- or right-wing phenomenon; generally, what it’s about is protecting economic incumbents without regard to ideology in any larger sense, to say nothing of any public interest. The result is not only to stifle development but to wildly raise costs because of lack of competition. Nobody wants to get into the game unless they have a lot of political chits and very deep pockets. Lack of competition means that the few who are in a position to play can now hold up the local administration for a variety of “incentives” to bother to build the project they wanted to build in the first place. Other “incentives” are provided to local interest groups to buy their acquiescence in the project. Then once ground is broken and the public is desperate just to get the project done, the project is changed – costs to the public go up while the public benefit goes down as the project is scaled down in various ways. All of this feeds further opposition to development.

I wish I knew the solution to this problem. But I have a suspicion as to one part of the solution: streamline democratic accountability and create incentives for functioning political competition.

When it’s not clear who is responsible for these kinds of decisions, you practically guarantee local regulatory capture by parochial interests, whether these are NIMBY types out to block development or incumbent developers out to stop competition. And when you don’t have functional political competition (which is the case in many urban areas that are effectively one-party states) there is limited incentive for public officials to effectively tend to the public interest. This is one reason I’d like to see an effective Republican party in the Northeast.

At a Federal level, though, I don’t know how much one can do about these problems. They are a huge impediment to effective public spending on infrastructure, though.