Thursday, August 23, 2007

troubled bridges over all kinds of waters

The Economist weighs in on the Minneapolis bridge collapse and the larger public policy questions surrounding infrastructure. A nice article including, among other things, a discussion of bridge taxes, the possibility of private sector activity, and the role of easy government in mitigating that possibility.

Joel Belz's essay in World is shorter and more articulate on the private/public piece of the equation.

It is, I guess, the most natural thing in the world, following the collapse of the big Mississippi River bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., for folks across the country to start calling for a massive public investment in the repair and possible replacement of our highway system...

But the solution need not necessarily be public/governmental...

Indeed, Steven Malanga reported in The Wall Street Journal...that "a few states and cities are now creatively turning to the private sector for help. They are partnering with private investors to build from scratch new toll roads, bridges, and other infrastructure that the private owners—not government—will finance and operate.

But Belz is also careful to note the possibility of what economists (unfortunately) call "market failure"-- and what could more aptly be described as "market struggle". In such cases, the practical issue is whether government activism in reality/practice, with all of its struggles, will be an improvement over whatever market struggles would occur.

No one should pretend, of course, that such a proposal is a panacea. The buyers of these enormously costly facilities will need to build a trustworthy track record of their own. They'll have to show that they can keep the bridges and highways they buy in good repair. But they have a similarly enormous motivation for doing so—for if they don't, drivers will simply choose some other route.

Belz concludes by drawing applications to other areas where government clearly struggles-- and markets should be examined (if not embraced) as an alternative.

The real point of all this, however, is not about bridges and roads. The bridges and roads in this case are simply a metaphor. The issue is instead about how folks should respond when government demonstrates it doesn't have a clue how to handle the important facets of our lives that have become so badly broken.

That includes a shattered educational system. It includes a retirement program in disastrous fiscal imbalance. It includes a postal system in perpetual crisis. It includes an air traffic control system called scary even by its own staff.

That's the bad news. The good news is that there are buyers out there ready to pay a decent price to take charge of all this junk. Maybe it's time for one big national fire sale. And afterwards, we might well look back and call the Minnesota bridge collapse—even with a few lives tragically lost—a blessing in disguise.

It's odd (and sad) when people depend on something for sustenance, security, and solutions-- and then see it fail-- and then run back to it again, not having learned their lesson. We saw this with the consequences of the Flood of New Orleans (often mislabeled Hurricane Katrina). All levels of government failed. So, what's the solution? More government! Christians have a term for this: idolatry...


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