Brooks FAIL

I suppose there must be some subject out there that David Brooks knows something about. One has to figure the Times wouldn’t give him such valuable op-ed real estate if he was just going to make stuff up about random subjects. Right? Surely he knows something! Something, maybe about Patio Men, whoever they are?

If he does know anything about anything, you’d never get a sense of it from reading his column today. It starts out inauspiciously, arguing against stimulus on the same day the economic Nobelist sharing the page with him argues for it. He writes:

Government spending is growing at an astounding pace. Congress and the president have thrown hundreds of billions into stimulus packages, domestic programs, military spending and other initiatives. Total federal spending is growing at a 13.8 percent annual rate.

Has all this money done anything to actually stimulate private economic activity? Not that you’d notice. Consumption is cratering. The U.S. economy just experienced the sharpest real drop in consumer spending since 1974.

The lesson here is that we have a right to be skeptical of so-called stimulus packages. The Federal Reserve can effectively stimulate the economy. There are certain automatic government programs, like unemployment insurance, which also do it. But the history of the past century suggests that politically designed, ad hoc stimulus packages rarely work.

Let’s start with government spending, shall we? Yesterday’s GDP report noted that:

Real federal government consumption expenditures and gross investment increased 13.8 percent in the third quarter, compared with an increase of 6.6 percent in the second. National defense increased 18.1 percent, compared with an increase of 7.3 percent. Nondefense increased 4.8 percent, compared with an increase of 5.0 percent.

Emphasis mine. So, please, let’s not pretend that a 14% increase in government spending has been all about stimulus packages, okay? And really, why in god’s name does Brooks think he knows the first thing about whether stimulus does or does not work? All stimulus plans work, to some extent–$100 billion in spending or tax cuts doesn’t just vanish. The question is how well such plans work (and there’s data available!), and how efficiently they can be crafted. These subtleties are seemingly lost on Op-Ed Doofus.

But having accepted that the world is going to pass another round of stimulus, despite the rhetorical power of his inane, uninformed babbling, he suggests that infrastructure is the way to go. Which we can all get behind. Unfortunately, he immediately starts writing about more stuff he doesn’t understand, namely, transportation economics:

Major highway projects take about 13 years from initiation to completion — too long to counteract any recession. But at least they create a legacy that can improve the economic environment for decades to come…

Moreover, an infrastructure resurgence is desperately needed. Americans now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, a figure expected to double by 2020. The U.S. population is projected to increase by 50 percent over the next 42 years. American residential patterns have radically changed. Workplaces have decentralized. Commuting patterns are no longer radial, from suburban residences to central cities. Now they are complex weaves across broad megaregions. Yet the infrastructure system hasn’t adapted.

The smart thing to do is announce a short-term infrastructure initiative to accelerate all those repair projects that can be done within a few years. Then, begin a long-term National Mobility Project.

Create a base-closings-like commission to organize federal priorities (Congress has forfeited its right to micromanage). Streamline the regulations that can now delay project approval by five years. Explore all the new ideas that are burgeoning in the transportation world — congestion pricing, smart highways, rescue plans for shrinking Midwestern cities, new rail and airplane technologies. When you look into this sector, you see we are on the cusp of another transportation revolution.

A mobility project would dovetail with the energy initiatives both presidential candidates have offered. It would benefit from broad political support from liberals and business groups alike. It would rebalance this economy, so there is more productive weight to go along with Wall Street wizardry.

Now, perhaps I ought to read this charitably, as the harmless urgings of a writer who really wants us to build a better America. I’ll leave it to you all to do that on your own time. To me, it sounds like Brooks really wants to make it easier to build a bunch of highways. Commuting patterns have changed, you see (in response to what, I wonder?), and transportation hasn’t kept up. Plus we have to reduce congestion (which has grown in response to what, I wonder?), and somehow this would all “dovetail with the energy initiatives both presidential candidates have offered.” O RLY?

Look, a broad project to improve the nation’s infrastructure is very desirable. We should be spending a half a trillion dollars on this. But if we approach this effort from the position of willful ignorance that has created so many transportation problems, then we’re not helping anyone. So let’s review a few things, shall we?

Induced demand is no joke. If you build new infrastructure people will come, so it’s important to think about where you’d like the people to go when you build new infrastructure. A massive wave of highway construction will push people outward. It will increase commuting times, and in the long-run it will increase congestion. It will increase energy demand, because no matter how you power your car, longer trips mean more energy consumed. In the short-run, it will mean an increase in dependence on fossil fuels. It will massively increase maintenance costs. If you think caring for today’s highway network is expensive, then just try doubling it in size. If we try to accommodate a 50% increase in the country’s population with entirely auto-dependent, horizontal growth, then we’re all going to end up miserable and poor.

This is, quite frankly, the stupid way to think about transportation. Brooks did mention congestion tolling. The use of congestion pricing would immediately solve the congestion problem while raising billions of dollars that could be used for reinvestment in the nation’s transportation systems. Instead of building more roads, we could focus on maintaining the ones we’ve got, and on upgrading the busiest corridors within and between cities to faster, greener, higher capacity transit and rail systems. That’s how you tackle multiple problems at once. Make that shift, and you reduce maintenance costs, reduce congestion, reduce energy use, and increase economic productivity.

The downside is that there’s a higher up-front capital cost. But that’s a good thing, given that we’re also talking about stimulus, correct? Right now, when we need to spend the money, and when government borrowing is fairly cheap, we should be investing a great deal in these projects. Then later, when the economy is rolling along and we want to reduce spending, we’ll have an infrastructure that will allow us to do it.

Brooks is thinking like a man nostalgic for the 1950s. An uninformed man nostalgic for the 1950s. And he deserves to be ignored.

Comments

  1. trza says:

    I’m confused. He says that he’s in favor of congestion pricing. You agree with him. This makes him stupid…how?

  2. Rational Man says:

    The entire U.S. population doesn’t live in large urban cities. Nor in sprawling suburbs. Rather, the U.S. population is spread broadly across a large landmass. And most people like it that way.

    If you think spending trillions (yes, trillions, not billions) of dollars on rail systems will turn the U.S. into Europe or Japan, then you’re not a doofus. You’re a dickhead.

  3. aaron says:

    Basically the situation is that the government can borrow at ridiculously low rates. If the goverment is to borrow, it can be safely be assumed that it will spend the money. Now, the question is what do we want them to spend on; things people won’t use, digging holes and filling them up, or something that might further stimulate the stagnant economy by INDUCING DEMAND!

  4. Mixner says:

    Ryan,

    A massive wave of highway construction will push people outward. It will increase commuting times, and in the long-run it will increase congestion.

    Wrong on both counts. Only if employment remains centralized does sprawl increase congestion and commuting times. If jobs decentralize along with people, sprawl reduces congestion and commute times. Ed Glaeser documents this in his paper Sprawl and Urban Growth.

    Before employment decentralization, when sprawl meant suburbanites driving downtown, the link between sprawl and added street traffic on congested roads was tight. However, the decentralization of employment actually reduces the pressure on crowded downtown streets. By moving to lower densities, the traffic problem is actually reduced. Indeed one of the major appeals of sprawl cities is that they have shorter commutes than dense downtowns.

    In Table 9, we use the micro data from the 1995 National Personal Transportation Survey to study differences in one way commuting times (in minutes) as a function of distance to work and residential block density. We find that average commute times rise with population density. The effect of density is actually less on car commuters than on noncar commuters. It is also true that across cities, there is a strong positive relationship between average commute times and the logarithm of population density (see Figure 6)