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 Infrastructure:  Europe, China – and America
By Shlomo  Maital 
 
    In Economics, there are not many principles we can cite with absolute certainty.  Here are two of them:
   1.  The rate of return on investment in Research and Development is in many cases astronomical.  In 1958 Prof. Zvi Griliches found that investing in research in hybrid corn “paid a return of at least 700 per cent”.   Few other social investments can rival this. Yet countries continue to underinvest in R&D.
   2.  The rate of return on investment in infrastructure (roads, transportation, communication, education) is equally astronomical.  Yet in the West countries continue to undersave and underinvest in infrastructure.
   The contrast between Europe, China – and the US under Trump is stark.
    The EU, not noted for bold innovation, is undertaking a huge infrastructure project that will link Malmo, a Scandinavian port, with Palermo, a port in Italy.  This project will help reduce the large gap between the wealthy Northern EU and the relatively poor Southern EU.  It will do much to knit the fractured EU together, in the wake of Brexit. 
     China has a bold vastly expensive program to build a new Silk Road, linking China with Europe, the Mideast and Africa.   The One Belt One Road initiative, now changed to “Belt and Road Initiative”   is, according to Wikipedia “one of the largest infrastructure and investment mega-projects in history, covering more than 68 countries, equivalent to 65% of the world’s population and 40% of the global GDP as of 2017.”
     And the US?   Well,  on a recent visit there, I used Waze (an application developed originally in Israel, now owned by Google) to navigate.  In the US,  Waze informs the driver of potholes. And, trust me – I heard about a LOT of potholes from Waze while driving in the eastern United states.  Some of them were big enough to swallow Trump’s ego.
      President Trump speaks often about infrastructure.  He has plans to fix it, including thousands of crumbling bridges. But here’s the catch.  The latest Trump tax cut put a huge hole in the government budget and added $1.5 trillion to the deficit.   So there is no money left for infrastructure investment.  The solution?  Trump thinks he can get private industry to finance it, using tax credits.
       This is science fiction.  Basic economics shows, the return on infrastructure investment is largely “social”,  that is,  not captured by private investors, but accruing in a diffuse manner to all of us.  So why would private money invest in it? 
         China, EU – and the US.  Another instance of how the US has become a Third World nation, and China, in the Third World, is becoming First World. 

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Why U.S. Dams (and Society) Are Crumbling

By Shlomo Maital

dam

      Two newspaper items (one in New York Times, the other, Financial Times) reveal why America is crumbling.

         California’s Oroville Dam, America’s tallest, has a crumbling spillway that forces evacuation of 200,000 nearby residents. (A dam collapse in California in 1928 killed 400, as a wave of water swept over them). As early as 2005, experts spotted a design flaw in the dam – never corrected. Heavy rains filled the reservoir to capacity, and severe weather because of global warming reveals that this dam, and many others, are not up to the changing weather patterns, for which they were not designed.

         There are 1,585 dams in California, notes the NYT, and 90,000 dams across the U.S. Many are in poor shape. Why? “Government is more inclined to invest money in building new projects, than in less visible and glamorous maintenance”.

         America is a consumption-driven society that under-saves. A $500 b. trade deficit (imports minus exports) for nearly 3 decades is a symptom. China is not to blame. The U.S. itself is. It is comfortable to borrow money from China to buy consumer goods. Some 23 years ago, my wife Dr. Sharona Maital and I published an article, in the Journal of Socioeconomics, in which we warned about a drastic fall in savings behavior in the US and    Western countries. *   Nothing has changed since.

           The Financial Times notes today:

     “China ended a six-month streak disposing of its US Treasury holdings in December, adding to its position for the first time since last May as the country’s central bank seeks to manage capital flight. The country, which ceded its status as the world’s largest owner of haven Treasuries in October to Japan, added $9.1bn of US sovereign debt to its reserves in the final month of 2016, new data from the Treasury and Federal Reserve showed on Wednesday.”

         So, in the post-Trump era, America has gone back to borrowing, to buy consumer goods rather than maintain its dams, its roads, schools and infrastructure.

       And President Trump? He is rapidly running down his checklist of promises, issuing so far 11 Executive orders.   But what about that trillion-dollar infrastructure plan? Dead silence. Why? Because it will take a vast plan to design and implement it. In the current chaos of the new Administration, it is unclear whether the Trump presidency is up to the challenge – or even whether it is aware of the problem.  

         So America – at least, its dams and roads – are crumbling. I don’t see a solution in the near term.

 

* Shlomo Maital and Sharone L. Maital. “Is the Future What It Used To Be? A Behavioral Theory of the Decline of Saving in the West”. Journal of Socio-Economics, vol. 23, 1,2.   1994.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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