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Posts Tagged ‘infrastructure’

In my last two posts, I showed that the U.S. has a large social welfare state by cross-national standards, maybe even the second-largest in the OECD. However, the U.S. welfare state is much less redistributive from rich to poor than most other welfare states.

In this post, I tackle spending on infrastructure (“gross fixed capital formation”) and subsidies. According to the punditocracy, the U.S. always needs to spend more on infrastructure. Conversely, the populist mood in this country stands firmly against subsidies to business, and perhaps rightly so — very few subsidies seem rationally designed to compensate for positive externalities.

But it turns out the U.S. spends more than almost every other OECD country on public investment in fixed capital, and less than every other OECD country on subsidies. Take a look:

u.s. spends a lot on infrastructure

u.s. spends little on subsidies

The first plot shows public investment by country, divided by GDP, in 2012. It includes spending by all levels of government. The U.S. places near the top of the international standings in that year, but this is no fluke: throughout the last three decades, the U.S. has been near the top of international tables in this measure. Maybe everybody needs to spend more on infrastructure, but this certainly doesn’t seem like a uniquely American problem. And maybe you think that a less densely populated country has a higher optimal level of public infrastructure spending, but I’m not so sure: higher infrastructure spending in such a country could subsidize an inefficient distribution of population.

The second plot shows public subsidies by country, divided by GDP, in 2012, again summing up the figures for all levels of government. The U.S. stands right at the bottom, with less than half a percentage point of GDP going to subsidies. Further, state and local governments spend only about 0.1% of GDP on subsidies, so the federal government is the main sinner here. Now, these figures don’t seem to be picking up tax advantages like “tax increment financing” districts popular at the local level. Still, businesses can typically be exempted only from taxes that they otherwise would have paid; expenditure-side subsidies are potentially unlimited.

I should note that federalism doesn’t seem to be the key to U.S. spending patterns here: federal Austria and Switzerland are among the highest subsidy spenders, and are not very high on infrastructure spending.

Bottom line: it’s not clear that, at the margin, the U.S. needs a lot more infrastructure spending, and the subsidy picture certainly complicates any plausible “libertarian populist” movement aimed at big business privileges.

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At the Economist‘s Democracy in America blog, R.A. makes some good points in favor of skepticism on the question, riffing on Robert Fogel’s research on the economics of the railroad. Excerpt:

Highway construction generated some positive effects and some negative effects. We tend to focus on the positive effects and remark on how constrained the economy might have been without a highway boom. But absent a highway boom something would have been built and markets would have optimised to that something. It’s not clear that the savings from highways are so substantial that the American economy is clearly better off as a result of the system’s construction.

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