Speaking at an industry forum earlier this spring, economist Barry Asmus declared that politicians have got it all wrong when it comes to the economy in general and employment in particular. "They all talk about creating jobs," he told his audience. But job creation is not what drives economic growth.
"If we want to simply create jobs," Asmus quipped, "the federal government should just shut down all heavy equipment manufacturers, take their existing equipment out of the market, and ... give everyone a shovel." Instead of having three people operating heavy equipment, we'd have 3,000 people doing the same work by hand, he said. "So we created jobs, but we put productivity in the tank. The politicians have got to learn—and quickly—that it's not about jobs; it's about productivity."
His words seem ironic in light of the recent talk about "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects— the ones that were supposed to get under way as soon as federal economic stimulus dollars began to flow. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama talked a lot about the need to rebuild America's infrastructure, including its roads and bridges. In a radio address a month or so before his inauguration, he outlined ambitious plans to make the biggest federal investment in infrastructure in 50 years.
But now, eight months later, it appears that some of those shovels weren't quite as ready as we were led to believe. Not only have the infrastructure funds yet to be put to their intended use, but infrastructure spending in the first year of the new administration will actually fall below spending in the last year of the previous regime. Yes, you read that correctly. Even without stimulus dollars at his disposal, President George W. Bush spent more money on infrastructure in his final year in office than Barack H. Obama will in his first.
A research report issued last month by the very sharp minds at IHS Global Insight projected that despite the promised infusion of stimulus funds, overall infrastructure spending in America would decline 4.3 percent in 2009 compared to 2008. And the report held out little hope that the situation would improve anytime soon. In fact, it may well be another two years before the current administration's infrastructure spending will reach—never mind surpass—2008 levels.
We've all become accustomed to politicians who talk the talk and then fail to walk the walk. But this is more than just another example of failure to follow up campaign rhetoric with action. It is an outrage, pure and simple, and the nation's logistics community is not happy.
Among the first to respond to the IHS Global Insight report was the American Trucking Associations, the motor freight industry's voice in Washington. Just one day after the report's release, the group issued a statement warning that "it's time to get serious about highway infrastructure investment."
In its statement, the ATA pointed to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Research Institute that found that "12,676 new lanemiles of highways and roads are needed to keep up with congestion" (never mind accommodate future growth). It also noted that IHS Global Insight had projected that real spending on highway and street projects would not increase in 2009, but rather, contract by 5.5 percent. "While federal economic stimulus funds for transportation infrastructure have already injected an additional $16 billion into highway and street projects," the ATA concluded, "the boost is insufficient compared to the investment needs."
Also insufficient compared to needs, it appears, is the supply of shovels at the ready!