It may surprise you to know that some policy makers and academics believe that “nothing matters” when it comes to infrastructure -- the physical structures that make water, energy, broadband and transportation work -- and economic prosperity. The thrust of the idea that infrastructure doesn’t matter may have started with Larry Summers, appointed by President Obama as Director of the National Economic Council in 2009. The New York Times says he is “the only top economic adviser with a West Wing office” – meaning he is very powerful in Washington terms.
His most vocal critic in the matter of infrastructure is Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon). DeFazio appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, criticizing Summers, saying that Obama is "ill-advised by Larry Summers” in regards to using stimulus money to cut taxes for businesses. “Larry Summers hates infrastructure,” says DeFazio, who argues that more of the stimulus should have gone to infrastructure. Summers backed away from any earlier comments when he told the Financial Times last June that there may also be “a case for carefully designed support for infrastructure investment.”
The question seems obvious. What good is it to stimulate business if they don’t have the tools they need to work with?
Summers’s attitude could make it difficult to generate major new investments in things like roads, bridges, and the broadband communication access that businesses – small and large – need to get the job done. Companies choose to locate where infrastructure is better. Businesses will leave areas where infrastructure is missing or deteriorated – taking jobs with them.
Certainly U.S. firms look for good infrastructure when they consider placing offices overseas, and foreign firms must do the same when they consider locating here. The idea that good infrastructure would enable economic specialization and lower costs – making U.S. businesses more efficient, more competitive, and therefore able to create more U.S. jobs – is clearly reflected in the way that businesses behave. Emerging market countries remain economically competitive, and are constantly building and rebuilding their infrastructure as their economies develop. Can the U.S. remain competitive if our infrastructure doesn’t keep up with them? It is becoming increasingly clear that deteriorating infrastructure in the United States may actually be contributing to increased costs (and decreased efficiency) of American businesses.
Recently, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce initiated a project under the Let’s Rebuild America initiative to find a way to measure the performance of infrastructure and the role it plays in economic prosperity. Over the next year, a team of experts (of which I am a member) led by Michael Gallis & Associates will create an Infrastructure Index that can be used to explore the contribution infrastructure makes in keeping American businesses competitive in an increasingly global economy.
What is innovative about the project team’s approach is that it measures the performance of infrastructure, and not just the size. Thirty years ago researchers on this subject limited their measurement of “infrastructure” to “government spending on public projects” to analyze the impact on economic growth and productivity. This approach is flawed for several reasons.
First, not all money designated for infrastructure is spent the same way. Government inefficiencies and political corruption plus purchasing power in local economies contribute to inconsistency in quantity and quality of infrastructure based on money spent. Measuring infrastructure in terms of spending alone doesn’t cover the impact of growth on infrastructure. In other words, that a growing economy can afford more infrastructure is just as likely a cause of positive statistical results as the possibility that more infrastructure helps the economy grow. Further, where spending is used to measure infrastructure, the studies usually consider only public spending, ignoring the contribution of investments from private companies (e.g., the contribution of private satellites to communications infrastructure).
Less than half of the statistical studies using expenditure-based infrastructure measures find that developing or maintaining infrastructure has significant positive effects on the economy. In contrast, over three-fourths of the studies using physical indicators – the number of phone lines, the miles of high-quality road -- find a significant positive contribution from infrastructure to the economy.
There is no dispute that economic growth is necessary as long as there is an increasing population, which will be the case over the next four decades in America as well as Canada and Australia. We need to address the question: is it possible for the economy to “hit a wall” because it runs out of usable infrastructure? In other words, the question is not if infrastructure helps the economy but rather can a lack of infrastructure impede the economy? Can the economy outgrow its infrastructure?
As the economy changes, so will the demands for infrastructure. The four components of infrastructure – transportation, energy, water and broadband – need to be made relevant across decades, even as the role of one industry may change within the economy. For example, while it is obvious that information-workers, such as computer programmers and software developers who increasingly work from remote locations, require access to broadband infrastructure, they also alter the way that transportation infrastructure is used. Some knowledge-based activities relying on spatial agglomeration place greater importance on rail/subway and less importance on roads. Yet, that does not mean that a knowledge-based economy will need fewer roads – someone has to service those computers and that technician will likely travel to its customers on roads.
We need to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach to infrastructure development toward better integration with the economic activity that uses it. Each region needs to assess its own needs and base their investment decisions on conditions that exist within their region.
Susanne Trimbath, Ph.D. is CEO and Chief Economist of STP Advisory Services. She will be participating in an Infrastructure Index Project Workshop Series throughout 2010. Her training in finance and economics began with editing briefing documents for the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. She worked in operations at depository trust and clearing corporations in San Francisco and New York, including Depository Trust Company, a subsidiary of DTCC; formerly, she was a Senior Research Economist studying capital markets at the Milken Institute. Her PhD in economics is from New York University. In addition to teaching economics and finance at New York University and University of Southern California (Marshall School of Business), Trimbath is co-author of Beyond Junk Bonds: Expanding High Yield Markets.