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rant

public works

In recent days the Times has had several articles that sorta fit together in my mind:
Fixing Our Broken Water Systems
What Happened to the Great Urban Design Projects?
How New York Made Pre-K a Success
Can Health Care Providers Afford to Prepare for Disaster?
How Sea Walls Around Hoboken Might have Stopped Hurricane Sandy's Floods
Finding Beauty in the Darkness

All of these articles are about projects which
(a) [would] improve a large number of people's lives a little bit each;
(b) [would] cost a lot of money, although not a lot per capita; and
(c) would be difficult or impossible to charge for individually: either they inherently benefit everyone in a geographic area, or many of their beneficiaries are liquidity-constrained and unlikely to make the individual decision to invest in them.

In short, classic examples of what economists call "positive externalities": they benefit largely people who didn't voluntarily pay for them, which means either
(a) a lot of people pay a little for them involuntarily (e.g. through taxes or surcharges on something else they need), or
(b) a few wealthy and public-spirited people voluntarily pay more for them than they personally benefit, or
(c) they don't happen, even though their total benefit may far exceed their total cost.  (To be more precise, they happen at a level below the most efficient level.)

A few decades ago, these sorts of projects might have been the subject of a bipartisan debate over whether the project in question really is cost-effective, whether there's appropriate accountability in procurement, whether to pay for it cash-on-the-nail or float a bond, boring stuff like that.  Today if you propose any such project, regardless of the specifics, Republicans will oppose it because gummint! taxes! socialism! tyranny! Today's Republican party is fundamentally, irrevocably committed to the principle that anything done by a government won't work.  If you somehow start building such a project (like Obamacare), Republicans will do everything in their power to sabotage it, make it work as badly as possible, because if (God forbid!) it actually worked, it would call this principle into question.  Indeed, if you try to study a problem that might have a positive-externality solution, Republicans will oppose even gathering the data for fear it might lead to somebody proposing government action.

This Republican axiom implies that the only effective way to fund a large project is for a large corporation to do it in the expectation of making a good ROI.  Or, if it's really not marketable, it can still be funded by a wealthy philanthropist who happens to have a hobbyist's fascination for this particular useless project.  I'm all in favor of wealthy philanthropists, but there aren't enough of them, with a broad enough range of hobbyist fascinations, to be a reliable source of funding for all the things that have good cost/benefit ratios but aren't individually sellable.  Relying on them inherently skews funding in favor of things that interest rich people, not necessarily the things with the best global cost/benefit ratios.

Mind you, there are certainly problems with funding things through government means.  Anybody who has a larger-than-usual stake in the project (e.g. somebody hoping to get the contract to build it) has an incentive to spend a lot on lobbying (aka rent-seeking) to direct the project in his/her preferred direction.  Examples are legion of government projects and regulations being "captured", managed more for the benefit of a few powerful politicians or donors than for the public benefit.  But there are also plenty of examples of government projects and regulations actually improving the broad public welfare by an amount greater than their cost. The possibility of such a project or regulation being mismanaged should inspire us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to improve government management and accountability so more of them are well-managed and cost-effective.  But that might increase public trust in government, so today's Republicans can't allow it to happen.  A party that used to be concerned with stamping out government incompetence and inefficiency now wants government to be as incompetent and inefficient as possible.

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