Thinking about public spending

November 3, 2015

Why We Can’t Think Straight About Public Spending: California High-Speed Rail, and the Latest USAF Bomber

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of addressing Stewart Brand’s “Long Now” seminar in San Francisco, talking about the various sorts of infrastructure on which civilization depends. Paved roads; public-health systems; the printing press; public schools; and these days the softer sorts of infrastructure that I’ve been writing about in venues ranging from China to the U.S. Capitol to the smaller-town and rural United States.Website Insert Our Name Tells Our Story copy

One of the themes in the talk was the asymmetric bias in our public/civic consideration of big infrastructure projects. As I argued last year in the gala series of posts on California’s High-Speed Rail project, starting here, democratic societies are systematically prone to spend far too little on normal civic infrastructure. Bridges, canals, new schools, new parks — we repeatedly under-imagine their benefits in the long run, and over-emphasize their hassles and costs. Most of the big public efforts we now view as no-brainer steps to national greatness, from the Louisiana or Alaska purchases to the Golden Gate Bridge to the GI Bill, were controversial and seen as barely worth it in their time.

The strange converse, as argued in my Chickenhawk Nation piece early this year (and long before that in National Defense), is that the opposite bias applies to military purchases, infrastructure, and investment.  The historical record shows strongly that we under-estimate their costs, complexities, and delays, and over-estimate how long they’ll last, how well they’ll work, and how much more they will keep us safe.

Read the full article from James Fallows at The Atlantic Notes by clicking here.


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