The Trouble with Those “Shovel-Ready” Projects

The conventional wisdom, among the punditocracy, is that a major part of any Obama stimulus package will be large-scale funding of “infrastructure.” To maximize the bang for the buck, to have a rapid effect on unemployment numbers, and to get the money into people’s hands quickly, it’s anticipated that such spending will likely go to any “shovel-ready” project. This notwithstanding Obama’s promise that the stimulus package would contain no “earmarks” or “pork barrel spending.” I get the impression most of the commentariat don’t even perceive the two commitments as a source of possible conflict.

Typical is Robert Kuttner of the Boston Globe (Dec. 25), who exhorts us to “fight the naysayers” who will resist any such stimulus package:

Others contend that government is not capable of spending large sums efficiently in short order. “It’s … hard to spend $700 billion quickly,” says New York Times columnist David Brooks. “If you’ve got a tiddlywinks hall of fame, they’re going to fund that thing.”

Excuse me, but state and local governments and school districts are likely to suffer a revenue shortfall approaching $200 billion by next year. All the federal government has to do is write a check to cover that amount, and not a single policeman, firefighter, teacher, or first-responder need be laid off; not a single human service office closed; and not a single public project deferred.

These are not new projects that take time to conceive and plan. This is about preventing layoffs and shutdowns of existing public services.

It’s hard to figure out what Kuttner thinks some of the “shovel-ready” projects are, if not the moral equivalent of tiddlywinks halls of fame.

Just who does Kuttner think has played the major role in approving, planning and prioritizing all those “shovel-ready” local projects, anyway? Local government is notorious for being a showcase property of the local real estate developers.

Tulsa blogger Michael Bates (Batesline blog) coined the term “Cockroach Caucus” to describe the good ol’ boy network in the City Council and Chamber of Commerce, whose main function is to subsidize the automobile highway complex and suburban sprawl, and promote the inflation of real estate values. Bates described the Cockroach Caucus as “the tight social network that has run local politics for as long as anyone can remember.”

This network… has pursued its own selfish interests under the name of civic progress, with disastrous results for the ordinary citizens of Tulsa and its metropolitan area….

The Cockroach Caucus is most recently infamous for convincing state and local elected officials to pour $47 million in public funds into Great Plains Airlines….

The Cockroach Caucus has wasted tens of millions in public funds on failed economic development strategies…., and has bent and sometimes broken the rules of the land use planning system to favor those with political and financial connections. The same small number of connected insiders circulates from one city authority, board, or commission to another, controlling city policy, but beyond the reach of the democratic process.

Sound familiar? You’ve probably got a Cockroach Caucus running your own community. I know I do.

Harvey Molotch, a “power elite” sociologist in the tradition of C. Wright Mills, calls them “Urban Growth Machines.” The main purpose of these coalitions of local governments, chambers of commerce and real estate agencies is to gorge themselves on billion-dollar slop at the public trough.

The Growth Machines’ approach to local economic development, like that of the federal government to industrial bailouts, is a living illustration of Einstein’s dictum: “It’s impossible to solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it.”

Take my hometown of Springdale, Arkansas. The Springdale Chamber of Commerce recently unveiled its long-term master development plan for the community. By way of background, the main economic development in Benton County (to our north) the past decade or so has been in a high-end shopping district: Pinnacle Hills Promenade, on the western edge of Rogers. In 2006 Springdale voters approved, and in 2007 the city built, a corporate welfare baseball stadium (Arvest Stadium), and recruited a baseball team (formerly the Wichita Wranglers). The Chamber’s master plan involves turning the area around Arvest Stadium into another high-end district on the Pinnacle Hills model.  Like the Promenade and the NWA Mall in Fayetteville (to our south), the new ballpark shopping district is expected to support 750,000 feet of retail shopping and several dozen stores.

Meanwhile, after Obama’s election sparked hopes for a massive program of infrastructure spending, local government and business elites expressed hopes for federal funding of the long-coveted “Western bypass.” Again, by way of background, twenty years ago the region built Hwy U.S. 471, itself a western bypass intended to relieve congestion on the old U.S. 71 that ran through the centers of all the major cities of NW Arkansas on a north-south corridor. And guess what? As anyone but an urban planner or traffic engineer might have predicted, the new subsisized highway didn’t alleviate congestion at all! Instead it generated new congestion, filling up with new traffic from the new subsidized subdivisions and strip malls that grew up like mushrooms at every single exit. And assuming that previous patterns persist, the new bypass, even further to the west, will generate even more congestion as it fills up with traffic from the new sprawl along its route. Of course, the looming depression or Peak Oil, or both, could make the issue moot by destroying the local construction industry and slashing car use–in which case the new highway, if they even manage to complete it, will be a white elephant.

And just about every week, Springdale’s newspaper (The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas) runs another editorial to the effect that the Third District Congressman’s main duty is to bring home highway pork (excuse me, “infrastructure funding” to promote area “economic growth”). See, Wal-Mart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt, and Jim Lindsey and Associates Realtors own this area; they just let us live in it.

Anyway, multiply that local mendacity a thousandfold or so, and you’ve got some idea of what will happen when the Cockroach Caucuses and Growth Machines across our great land are given a bundle of free money for their “shovel-ready projects.” Hundreds of billions of dollars will be poured down a rathole, at the discretion of local good ol’ boy networks, to perpetuate the traditional local pattern of sprawl and car-worship.

Now, I don’t favor tax-funded subsidies to anything. But I could at least understand an infrastructure program aimed at expanding local public transit, and expanding the capacity of the national freight rail system, in order to bridge the gap when gasoline hits $12/gallon. I wouldn’t approve of it, but at least cushioning disaster would be a rational use for all that stolen money.

But folks, you know that ain’t gonna happen. Instead, they’ll probably wind up spending it on the same kind of priorities that got us in the mess in the first place, wasting resources trying to prop up the current system until it’s too late.

As a Bloomberg opinion piece put it (Dec. 24):

Missouri’s plan to spend $750 million in federal money on highways and nothing on mass transit in St. Louis doesn’t square with President-elect Barack Obama’s vision for a revolutionary re-engineering of the nation’s infrastructure.

Utah would pour 87 percent of the funds it may receive in a new economic stimulus bill into new road capacity. Arizona would spend $869 million of its $1.2 billion wish list on highways….

“It’s a lot of more of the same,” said Robert Puentes, a metropolitan growth and development expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington who is tracking the legislation. “You build a lot of new highways, continue to decentralize” urban and suburban communities and “pull resources away from transit…”

“A whole lot more of the same.” Sigh.

That’s the problem with liberals’ faith in the state as a tool for promoting the “public good” and “general welfare.” They haven’t looked closely enough at how the sausage is made.

–Kevin A. Carson

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