This post is part of an ongoing series featured on Market Urbanism called Urbanism Legends. The Urbanism Legends series is intended to expose many of the myths about development and Urban Economics. (it’s a play on the term: “Urban Legends” in case you didn’t catch that)
Last week President-elect Obama announced some details of his economic stimulus package:
Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways
This further taxpayer subsidization, beyond currently insufficient highway revenue sources, of sprawl and auto-dependency seems to contradict Obama’s promise of “green jobs”. As Tyler Cowen remarks, “for better or worse you can consider the opposite of a carbon tax.” Furthermore, the Obama plan intends to fund the stimulus directly to states, as opposed to metro areas, which have historically received almost two-thirds of the funds directly.
Certainly, Obama’s plan is not an urbanism-friendly plan, yet I consistently hear urbanists subscribing to and spreading the myth that jobs can be created by spending on infrastructure, and that these jobs will lead to economic recovery. Even if the job creation myth were true, and could stimulate the economy immediately, you would think urbanists would not sacrifice urbanist ideals for the sake of short-term recovery through their commitment to so-called progressive ideology.
A bridge is built. If it is built to meet an insistent public demand, if it solves a traffic problem or a transportation problem otherwise insoluble, if, in short, it is even more necessary to the taxpayers collectively than the things for which they would have individually spent their money had it had not been taxed away from them, there can be no objection. But a bridge built primarily “to provide employment” is a different kind of bridge. When providing employment becomes the end, need becomes a subordinate consideration. “Projects” have to be invented. Instead of thinking only of where bridges must be built the government spenders begin to ask themselves where bridges can be built. Can they think of plausible reasons why an additional bridge should connect Easton and Weston? It soon becomes absolutely essential. Those who doubt the necessity are dismissed as obstructionists and reactionaries.
Two arguments are put forward for the bridge, one of which is mainly heard before it is built, the other of which is mainly heard after it has been completed. The first argument is that it will provide employment. It will provide, say, 500 jobs for a year. The implication is that these are jobs that would not otherwise have come into existence.
This is what is immediately seen. But if we have trained ourselves to look beyond immediate to secondary consequences, and beyond those who are directly benefited by a government project to others who are indirectly affected, a different picture presents itself. It is true that a particular group of bridgeworkers may receive more employment than otherwise. But the bridge has to be paid for out of taxes. For every dollar that is spent on the bridge a dollar will be taken away from taxpayers. If the bridge costs $10 million the taxpayers will lose $10 million. They will have that much taken away from them which they would otherwise have spent on the things they needed most.
Therefore, for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing. But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $10 million taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project. More bridge builders; fewer automobile workers, television technicians, clothing workers, farmers.
But then we come to the second argument. The bridge exists. It is, let us suppose, a beautiful and not an ugly bridge. It has come into being through the magic of government spending. Where would it have been if the obstructionists and the reactionaries had had their way? There would have been no bridge. The country would have been just that much poorer. Here again the government spenders have the better of the argument with all those who cannot see beyond the immediate range of their physical eyes. They can see the bridge. But if they have taught themselves to look for indirect as well as direct consequences they can once more see in the eye of imagination the possibilities that have never been allowed to come into existence. They can see the unbuilt homes, the unmade cars and washing machines, the unmade dresses and coats, perhaps the ungrown and unsold foodstuffs. To see these uncreated things requires a kind of imagination that not many people have. We can think of these nonexistent objects once, perhaps, but we cannot keep them before our minds as we can the bridge that we pass every working day. What has happened is merely that one thing has been created instead of others.
Unfortunately, big spending on infrastructure projects are political chess pieces. As politicians align themselves for the handout, Governors are sure to push for spending that will allow them to funnel federal tax dollars into vanity projects that will do the most to boost visibility and popularity. I wouldn’t expect any wise long-term planning on the part of the spenders.
From an economic recovery point-of-view, it will be years before the money spent on infrastructure trickles back into the overall economy, and even longer for any productivity gains to be realized by the newly constructed infrastructure. This pervasive myth is a dangerous enabler of one of the least effective strategies for recovery (in the short-run), and a harmful disservice the the environment and living patterns (in the long-run).
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