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Lessons for Obama's infrastructure plans

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama put forward a plan this week for the largest government infrastructure project in a half-century. The idea is to revive the economy and create jobs for America's unemployed. But huge public works projects often fail to revive national economies. Consider the example of Japan in the 1990s.

The situation in Japan then was similar in some ways to that in the United States today. A dramatic market crash and a plunge in real estate prices shook what had been a confident nation. Japan turned inward; economists talked earnestly about paradigm shifts. The obsession with exporting no longer seemed to be serving the country well. Leaders cast aside their previous concerns about budget deficits. The then-Ministry of International Trade and Industry sorrowfully let it be known that there were "areas in which Japan lags behind major developed nations."

One such area was infrastructure - even though Japan is so often rocked by earthquakes that it tends to operate in Katrina mode: always fortifying for a meteorological or geological crisis. The central and local governments began spending billions of yen on construction. In short, Japan traded its export complex for an edifice complex.

The projects were similar to some infrastructure plans under discussion here today. Bridges? Japan put up the longest suspension bridge in the world. Airports? Kansai International, yes, on an artificial island, but also local fields such as Ibaraki Airport near Mito. Roads? Japan built new streets and highways, including the famous New Tomei Expressway. For biotech and telecommunications, Japan poured out the subsidies.

When one plan proved insufficient, another was begun. In 1999, Japan announced a scheme to create 700,000 jobs, much as Obama recently announced a plan to create or save 2.5 million jobs. As with the U.S. example, politicians were precise about the number of new jobs ... and less precise about their cost. Between 1992 and 2000, the Japanese launched 10 stimulus packages that included public works. The Land of the Rising Sun became the Construction State. Other worthy issues, such as consistent tax reform, lagged. In fact, fiscal reform overall was postponed. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake claimed thousands of lives, the focus on infrastructure was reinforced.

Some of these projects were valuable, some risible. As Bloomberg News recently reported, Japan Airlines Corp. and All Nippon Airways, which run nearly all flights within Japan, don't even expect to fly to the Ibaraki Airport. With the Japanese turning to trains, the New Tomei Expressway seemed a waste.

The spending yielded painfully little for the rest of the economy. The Nikkei stayed down. The country's standard of living failed to keep pace with the rest of the world's. The average Japanese's purchasing power had been moving closer to that of the average American, Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation has noted. But in the 1990s the Japanese saw few advances. The gap between America and Japan widened again.

"The construction state is in some respects akin to the military-industrial complex in cold-war America (or the Soviet Union), sucking in the country's wealth, consuming it inefficiently, growing like a cancer and bequeathing both fiscal crisis and environmental devastation," commented Gavan McCormack, a professor at the Australian National University. The stimulus plans had the opposite effect of what was expected. Appalled at the country's new deficits, Japanese consumers closed their wallets.

Worst, though, was the failure on jobs. Unemployment fell in many nations in the 1990s. In Japan, the '90s were a lost decade: The unemployment rate more than doubled and surpassed the U.S. rate - an unthinkable occurrence just a few years earlier.

Even today, Japan is having trouble climbing out of its cement pit. At its high, in the mid-1990s, infrastructure spending accounted for 6 percent of its gross domestic product, double what the United States allocated for infrastructure in the '90s and still higher than what politicians are considering spending today. In estimates of national debt, the world's second-largest national economy is near the top of the list, perched between Lebanon and Jamaica. Last year, Japan's public debt was far greater than the size of its economy, a burden that makes its demographic challenges more difficult to address.

What lessons should the United States take away? It is wrong to assume that construction will guarantee a two-fer for the economy - shining structures and redemptive growth. The private sector is often better than politicians at guessing what the market needs. And infrastructure projects demand so much political energy that there's too little energy left over for everything else. Congress might want to remember all this as it debates infrastructure funding in the coming months. An edifice complex seems more likely to petrify a country than to move it forward.

• Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "The Forgotten Man," a history of the 1930s.



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