More bridges, less war spending for America

May 24, 2013

This week a semi truck plowed into the I-5 bridge crossing the Skagit River in the State of Washington, causing part of the bridge to collapse. The incident echoes the failure of the Minneapolis bridge in 2007. These are serious but rare occurrences in the U.S. Even so, the nation’s infrastructure needs more attention.

Here is the estimate of necessary infrastructure spending for the next seven years by the American Society of Civil Engineers:

Note the last line that shows an annual funding gap of $200 billion a year. Where can this money be found? Let’s have a look at defense spending:


Since September 11, 2001, national spending on defense has doubled to more than $800 billion per year. Historians will argue over whether the United States’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan left the nation safer, but the fact is that we have underspent on public infrastructure, while overspending on military operations. The following chart contrasts the two types of spending. The blue line is military spending and the red line is infrastructure spending. It’s clear where the nation’s priorities have been:

Bear in mind that neither war nor infrastructure spending creates cash flows to cover their own costs, so it’s a clear case of setting priorities.

President Obama has proposed a national infrastructure program. I said this in February:

The sum of [Obama’s] proposal, $50 billion, is barely enough to excite a huge amount of support or a significant fight in Congress. For 2013 the budget of the Department of Transportation is $98 billion. State and local governments issued $54 billion of municipal bonds to fund transportation last year. The president’s proposal is about 1/3 of current annual transportation spending, and he proposes no way to pay for it. It’s rhetorical fluff meant to sound good to voters, but it has little chance of going anywhere.

Obama has also long proposed a national infrastructure bank, but Republicans are not interested. The Hill reported:

Republicans in Congress have said they favor allowing states to create their own infrastructure banks, but transportation supporters have noted that more than 30 states do not have one in place.

I have proposed that the Federal Reserve substitute buying infrastructure bonds instead of mortgage-backed securities in its bond-buying program. There are many ways to fund infrastructure, but the nation needs to consider cutting war spending to do it. The economic returns are much higher, and it would help America readjust its role globally while limiting the economic impact of demilitarization.

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