Fix Infrastructure – But Not With Blank Checks

Repairing infrastructure can help repair economy – The Washington Post.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation and finance blog The Big Picture offers his list of infrastructure projects that the U.S. needs to undertake in order to ensure our future competitiveness.

While he draws some of his data from a report by The American Society of Civil Engineers (which, apart from being a professional association, is also a lobbying organization with a political point to make), Ritholtz is correct when he notes:

We still enjoy the benefits of the interstate highway system, which allows goods to be moved cheaply around the nation. Innovations at NASA led to many new products and industries, including innovations in the semiconductor, satellite and mobile computing sectors. And DARPAnet? You might recognize that as today’s Internet. All three are massive economic wealth generators, filling a role that is too long term and too expensive for the private sector. [Emphasis mine]

Ritholtz makes an essential point. Whatever the virtues of the private sector, long-term vision and a willingness to make investments of this nature are not among them. Nor should they be. Some infrastructure and research needs to be government-driven, or it simply would not happen, to the detriment of us all.

What we should not do, however, is write checks for infrastructure projects without thinking through the process and oversight first. The nation has plenty of money to spend on roads, ports, the grid, and future-oriented research, but it does not have a single penny to waste. As important as infrastructure reconstruction is to this country, a massive project of this nature can all to easily turn into a morass of waste, inefficiency, corruption, and worse.

History has proven that organizations both public and private will, if left to their own devices, become bogs of lousy performance, especially when the taxpayer is paying the bill. We need to stop trusting both businesses and bureaucracies to do things right: we need to build performance standards into every contract, and painful penalties for failure to perform.

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