Infrastructure stimulus will be counterproductive

As the economic slump persists, calls are growing for an increase in infrastructure spending as a means of boosting growth. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have announced plans for the delivery of planned schemes to be speeded up in order to bring forward the alleged benefits.

In theory, investment in infrastructure has tremendous potential to promote recovery. Improved transport links can reduce journey times and deliver significant productivity gains. Businesses can pass on their savings to customers in the form of lower prices, which in turn boost demand for their products and services. Transport investment can also increase productivity by lowering the costs of trade, which in turn promotes competition and specialisation, as well as facilitating greater economies of scale.

Energy investment can be similarly beneficial. Lower energy bills reduce business costs and increase productivity by enabling greater use of labour-saving technology. The released labour can then be put to other productive uses.

The policy of increasing infrastructure spending during a slowdown is therefore very appealing; however, there is one major problem: politics.

Politicians and senior government officials have very poor incentives to invest efficiently. Instead, they are likely to allocate resources in order to boost their own positions. Politicians may seek to satisfy special interest groups and increase their chances of re-election; senior officials may seek to enhance their power and status by consolidating their department's influence over policy. In addition, ideological considerations – such as a focus on 'fairness' or the environment – may trump economics when it comes to investment decisions.

Read the rest of the article in the PPP Journal.

The bottom line is that politicians are irresponsible. They are not spending their own money; and they are hardly accountable, since government spending on infrastructure projects is easily swamped by all the other government spending. Even the huge government project disasters to which Richard refers seem to have played no part at all in the electorate's votes in subsequent general elections. The only sensible solution seems to be to 'privatise' infrastructure decisions wherever possible.

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