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My former graduate school professor Robert Frank, in a discussion with Russ Roberts on “low-hanging infrastructure fruit”:

We’re the richest country in the world; we have trains on the most heavily populated corridors anywhere in the world that have top speeds of 70 miles an hour. We’re not a third world nation–we’re a fourth world nation in terms of our infrastructure.

I am not here to debate the veracity of the idea that our infrastructure could use some improvement, or that some of those investments may or very likely would return benefits well beyond their costs. I am here to make my monthly point. Professor Frank, it seems to me, has just conceded game, set, match to his opponents. He is among the most reasonable Progressives I know, and he is here calling for more government spending on “too good to pass up” infrastructure projects. And he readily admits and promotes the idea that if there is a single legitimate responsibility for government, that it would be in producing infrastructure that has public goods aspects to it.

And he admits in the podcast that our spending on infrastructure is actually going up over time. So his argument, to me, boils down to this.

(1) Government can and should take care of roads and bridges.

(2) Our government has taken up this responsibility.

(3) Our government has more resources at its disposal today than in the past with which to carry out its responsibilities.

(4) The outcome of (1) to (3) is that we are worse than a third-world nation – we are, in fact, a fourth world nation.

So please explain to me why it is that you want the government to do … anything at all? As I’ve said time and again. Government at all levels spends over $6 trillion per year, which is about the entire GDP of China, and yet we are being told that they still cannot get their most fundamental function right. Not only can they not get it right, it is said that we are being relegated back to the Stone Age.

Now, here is an idea. Frank I think fairly persuasively in the link above references the dysfunctional political process when Russ keeps asking him “what among the ($6 trillion+) should be cut so that we can have better roads and bridges?” Frank doesn’t answer of course – which is a nice illustration of ratchet (behavioral economists, I hear crickets again). But, what he does say is that basically “no one (i.e. no voter) is willing to see anything they know about be cut.” So when cuts are made, the government ends up cutting small, but important (but unnoticed) things like some NSF research funding. Wouldn’t you then think that folks who want government to “take care of us” would be making a really, really, really strong case for privatizing just about anything that can be privatized?

If the government cannot get the roads right because of political dysfunction and also because it cannot convince people that nothing truly is free, then why not have the private sector take it over entirely? Just have the government assist with cross-state and contractual issues and let the companies have at it? There are of course problems with this in transportation in particular (my sense is that it is a particularly corrupt sector until much more competition can be allowed), but this would achieve two things. First, it would take the blame off of government for allowing bridges to crumble. And second, it would allow the government to do things that its supporters really want it to do – which is to basically act as the social insurer of last resort. Now, I don’t want the government to even do that.

But do you mean to tell me that this is unacceptable, too, because … government … just … has … to … do … everything? Because really, that’s what Frank’s and other Progressives’ arguments seem to amount to when I hear discussions like this. We will spend some more time on other government spending programs in the future. But for now that’s all I’d like to say. Your government and its supporters are claiming they are incompetent as a reason to have them do more. What kind of universe are we living in?

8 Responses to “They Said It: “We’re a Fourth World Nation””

  1. Speedmaster says:

    Dr. Roberts’s frustration was palpable during that debate. You could feel his frustration.

  2. chuck martel says:

    Has anyone read any of the independent reports about the number of bridges that are, roughly speaking, in the same condition that the bridge that collapsed over I-35 on the way into Minneapolis was in when it collapsed?

    In reality, the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis occurred while maintenance/repair work was being done on it and the equipment parked on the bridge for that purpose may well have contributed to its failure.

    • Sam Mindlin says:


      I feel as if the most efficient policy to get infrastructure projects done properly while also allowing the government to sponsor/pay for such projects would probably be the most efficient way of improving infrastructure in the US. The public-private partnership model has been working incredibly in Canada, and has started becoming more popular in the US. Though only approximately 25 States (give or take a few, i think some State legislation extends only to particular sectors of infrastructure rather than being broadly applied…I could be wrong), the model still has been gaining popularity. Over the past 10 years, there have been about 30 public-private partnership concessions in the US, and even more in Canada. With private company construction and public funding, this allows governments to spend on well planned and executed projects, gives construction companies the opportunity to access capital markets for funding thus helping to strengthen credit markets, allows governments to concentrate on more important policy issues that voters care more about, creates jobs (i think, probably depends on the hiring policies/practices of the private construction companies doing the work), and voters see results.

      This is just my off the top of my head theory, but it seems rational to me.

  3. chuck martel says:

    How can anyone buy the argument that financing and completing a project now will be cheaper than doing it in the future? First of all, according to the government, there is no inflation and according to guys like Krugman the danger is deflation. If that danger becomes manifest, public works projects will become CHEAPER in real terms as time passes.

    Ultimately, however, the arguments of Frank and others runs afoul of ethics and morality. Is it morally right to commit the unborn to paying for something that they may not even need or want merely in an effort to boost current employment levels? Imagine if on your 18th birthday your father pointed to a dilapidated chicken coop over next to the barn and informed you that the structure had been built by his grandfather but never quite been paid off and from now on you would be responsible for a monthly payment to the bank. What do you suppose your response would be?

  4. jb says:

    Hey Wintercow, long time no post Just a side comment/question. I note that you agree to refer to those on the “left” side of the political spectrum as “progressives”. The root word there is “progress”. Do you really believe that? After all I note that you accurately refer to government K-12 schools as government schools rather than public schools. Perhaps when it comes to people your libertarian instincts are to use the labels that people prefer for themselves. …just wondering….

  5. Harry says:

    Are our roads and bridges crumbling? That is not my impression, though I have not been to Pittsburgh lately.

    The argument that interest rates are low now, and therefore we should waste money today seems odd.

    The flip side is that the Fed is buying Treasurys at unprecedentedly high prices in a vain attempt to depress long-term interest rates, at least until after the first Tuesday in November. This is called accommodation .

  6. Brent says:

    I have often said the reason our founding fathers gave the function of government as providing for the common defense, and promoting the general welfare, is soley due to the fact that governments are better at killing people than providing for them…

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