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I strongly recommend reading Alex Tabarrok’s short e-Book Launching the Innovation Renaissance, which I will blog on shortly. Professor Tabarrok blogs it a little today, here is the entire thing:

We like to think of ourselves as an innovation nation but our government is a warfare-welfare state. To build an economy for the 21st century we need to increase the rate of innovation and to do that we need to put innovation at the center of our national vision. Innovation, however, is not a priority of our massive federal government.

Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. federal budget, $2.2 trillion annually, is spent on just the four biggest warfare and welfare programs, Medicaid, Medicare, Defense and Social Security. In contrast the National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research, spends $31 billion annually, and the National Science Foundation spends just $7 billion.

That’s me writing at The Atlantic drawing on Launching the Innovation Renaissance. Here is one more bit:

Our ancestors were bold and industrious–they built a significant portion of our energy and road infrastructure more than half a century ago. It would be almost impossible to build that system today. Could we build the Hoover Dam today? We have the technology but do we have the will? Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the infrastructure of our past to travel to our future. Airports, an electricity smart grid that doesn’t throw millions into the dark every few years, ubiquitous Wi-Fi — these are among the important infrastructures of the 21st century, and they are caught in the regulatory thicket.

Putting innovation at the center of the national vision is not simply about spending more, it’s about how we approach all problems. Read the whole thing for more discussion of regulation and other issues.

Here is the link to his book on Amazon. Now, if we are going to have a government, I certainly would advocate one that is more in line with what Tabarrok implies. I would strongly, and I mean strongly, caution everyone that the most likely scenario that will come out of the work of Tabarrok is that the big tall bars on the right side of that chart will remain the same, and political and interest group pressure will be to ramp up the bars on the left – with no true reforms of the tax code, welfare state, or the educational or health systems. I put my odds at any meaningful increase in innovation funding at 10%, and I put my odds at doing it right at 0.1%.

6 Responses to “Could America Build the Highway System Again?”

  1. Steve says:

    The first “book” I read to completion on my iPhone, quite enjoyable, if slightly light. Anticipating what you have to say about it next. I agree with your assessment.

  2. Harry says:

    I was wondering where WC was going until he wrapped it up, provoking all sorts of replies. That’s what WC does, getting us all to read his lively blog, making us reread his post in full.

    One interpretation of the graph might be that we are spending too little on NIH and other government research. Listen to Obama, and the government researchers will discover a perpetual motion machine that will power the new cheap batteries, the light small ones, that will be recyclable ones, that go into Chevy Volts that do not catch fire.

    One useful model is that everything the government touches will be screwed up, which is a corollary of the general micro principle that every area is screwed up. This principle has worked every time in my experience.

  3. IWroteThat says:

    The better question should be, “Do we want to build the highway system again?” Even when the federal government has something to show for all the money it spends and convinces people that the result is both necessary and the way things should be, the result often has a negative impact that a free market may have prevented.

    The highway system was a government innovation that destroyed private public transportation and American cities and also increased sprawl, pollution, car and oil dependence — which contributed to ill health, poor communities, and a host of other problems. It effectively killed innovation in one of our most common activities of going place to place. We can only guess how we’d be living if that federal activity never developed — but my guess is we wouldn’t be talking about everything “crumbling” all the time.

    Tabarrok assumes that the problem is simply we don’t have the will to do great things (by which he means the will to let the federal government do “great” things) because we spend too much on welfare and warfare. But the federal government rarely produces great innovations — when it gets involved, it mainly protects the old innovations.

    So, even if the bars on the left went up and the bars on the right went down — the result wouldn’t necessarily be a good one. The highway system is an example of that.

  4. Harry says:

    Ever since the highway system was built, it has been rebuilt, over and over, most of the time by ten men watching and one man working.

    I have many times driven I-81 in West Virginia between Maryland and the northern Virginia border, a twenty-five mile or so stretch. Never during the past three decades has it ever been not under construction, and the short piece they are working on now, after completion, will be replaced by the other side in a year or two. It’s the Robert Byrd Highway, after all. One day the road will be as wide as the Long Island Expressway, and they will be finished, when Wintercow has retired to the Old Folks’ home.

    But to answer WC’s question, it would be much more expensive today to build any roads, including the interstates. If we do not become a poor country, I think we might have the wherewithal to do it all over. Since we are rich and free, I would say that anything is possible, including adding six lanes to every mile of interstate highway. This project could be sold, too, as a job creator. Why not an eight-lane bypass for all towns? Or, how about a jobs bill to repave every qualified person’s driveway? (Qualified means anyone earning an amount equal to or less than an Associate Professor [tenured] at Princeton.)

    Of course, we might run out of meaningful money during the project, but we will not go hungry, right?

  5. chuck martel says:

    A major externality of the highway arterials and the automobile cells that flow through them is the opportunity that it has given every level of government to intrude upon the citizenry. Automobile transportation has already enabled a national identification card which is not carried in your pocket but bolted to the rear of your car where it can be inspected and recorded and researched in seconds by any law enforcement agency without warrant, probable cause or notification. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement is focused on what happens on the streets and highways, which makes it a good idea to avoid those places in an automobile. Seat belt and child restraint laws are mandates designed to foster unthinking obedience. Arbitrary age and alcohol specifications achieve similar results with an immense financial bonus to the state. Eminent domain and highway easements and construction have removed millions of acres of fertile ground from the US agricultural inventory while dividing communities urban and rural into disconnected and isolated fragments. Americans have paid a stiff price for easy, spontaneous transportation.

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