Interesting piece in Popular Mechanics that last night was briefly on Memeorandum and then disappeared into the ether about the value of shovel ready jobs and how they might actually make our current infrastructure problem worse:
The term arrived with all the muscle and blue-collar authority of a bulldozer: “shovel-ready.” As in, infrastructure projects that are ready or almost ready to begin, the antithesis of some dimly imagined earmark or budget-sucking bridge to nowhere. Then-president-elect Obama used the term on a December 7th visit to NBC’s Meet the Press, describing the kinds of projects that would be supported by the upcoming economic stimulus bill. Soon the phrase was being repeated by policy-makers only an almost daily basis. Now the bill is here, with one version passed by the House, and another being debated by the Senate. “Shovel-ready” isn’t language used in the bill, but the House’s version, at least, does have an enforceable short-term focus: Only projects that are able to start construction within 90 days of selection are eligible for funding from the $90 billion set aside for infrastructure.
The programs that would meet the bill’s 90-day restriction are, for the most part, an unappealing mix of projects that were either shelved after being fully designed and engineered, and have since become outmoded or irrelevant, or projects with limited scope and ambition. No one’s building a smart electric grid or revamping a water system on 90 days notice. The best example of a shovel-ready project, and what engineers believe could become the biggest recipient of the transportation-related portion of the bill’s funding, is road resurfacing—important maintenance work, but not a meaningful way to rein in a national infrastructure crisis. “In developing countries, there are roads that are so bad, they create congestion, because drivers are constantly forced to slow down,” says David Levinson, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s civil engineering department. “That’s not the case here. If the road’s a little bit rougher, drivers will feel it, but that’s not going to cause you to go any slower. So the economic benefit of those projects is pretty low.”
Read the whole thing.
One of my complaints about the stimulus bill is that there seems to be very little in it that iswhat I would call a “great public works.” From my ignorant perspective (and I mean that in every sense of the term- I need one of the economists mentioned in the story below, although I am smart enough to know what I don’t know), with the TARP bailout, we sort of just pissed make-believe money away to patch up financial holes. With the stimulus bill, I understand a good bit of money is going to help balance state budgets (If you look at this map, you will see that every state is allocated a sum of money to cover at least 10% of budget shortfalls, which could explain why Republican governors are more supportive of the current bill than the Republicans in congress), to provide unemployment benefits, medical benefits, and so on, but it would be nice that if for 900 billion we get something tangible and lasting. If I knew that the money was going to go to the reconstruction of bridges, high-speed rail, the power grid, or alternative and nuclear energy, I would be far more supportive.
Maybe some of that is in there, but the bill is named the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” and it would be nice if there was some comprehensive plan to provide something that will stimulate the economy in the short run but provide long-term benefits. There are tons of things I can think of above and beyond some road construction here and there. Why is this not happening?