Infrastructure Spending: High Speed Rail, High Speed Internet - And Paul Krugman

by Geoff Gannon

Paul Krugman blogs about Republicans railing against rail. He links to an article by Jonathan Cohn who says:

The Recovery Act, of course, has a lot of transportation funding in it--with a particular emphasis on high-speed rail, the area in which the U.S. may be most conspicuously behind other countries. It's one of those investments that virtually every reasonable expert, from left to right, would agree is worthwhile. But reasonable people appear to be in short supply in the Republican Party these days. 

I’m not an expert. And I’m not reasonable. Because I think building high-speed rail in the U.S. ranks somewhere behind digging ditches and filling them in.

I have no problem with infrastructure spending. Should we build nuclear power plants, solar panels, broadband networks, and a million other things? Sure. But I’m with Charlie Munger on this one. High speed rail is basically spending billions of dollars today to give some folks subsidized taxi rides tomorrow.

Trains moving stuff is a great idea. Planes moving people is a great idea. Trains moving people is a dumb idea.

Krugman is honest about why he likes high-speed rail:

I suppose there’s some echo of this attitude on the other side; people like me probably have a slight affinity for rail because it’s a kind of socially provided good. But I don’t think it’s comparably irrational: rail just makes a lot of sense for densely populated regions, especially but not only the Northeast Corridor. 

High-speed rail is a kind of socially provided good society doesn’t want. They want planes. And they want cars. And the private sector gives them both – often bankrupting itself in the process.

And – no – high speed rail doesn’t make sense for densely populated regions. It makes sense for cities. Like Krugman: I live in New Jersey. I take trains. You know where I never go? New York.

In New Jersey: most people don't go to New York. They go from town to town. Is that the kind of high-speed rail we want? We’re going to crisscrosss a state more densely populated than Japan with railroads so I can get to Summit or Madison in 5 minutes?

Railroads don’t work in densely populated regions. They work in cities. And New Jersey isn’t a city. What Krugman wants is fast travel to New York, Boston, D.C, and Chicago. We have that. It’s called a plane.

At the end of his post, Krugman touches on a useful socially provided good:

…rail makes even more sense in the digital age. I almost always take trains both to New York and to Washington, and consider the time spent on those trains part of my productive hours — with notebooks and 3G, an Amtrak quiet car is basically a moving office. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

No. I’m right there with you. But is Krugman using rail infrastructure? Or is he using internet infrastructure?

If Krugman wants to spend money bringing fast trains to Americans – he’s on his own. If he wants to bring fast internet to Americans – I’m right there with him.

Fast internet is a socially provided good society actually wants. It’s more flexible than high speed trains. Will tommorow’s workers need to commute to a city? Who knows? But they will need to telecommute.

Now – living where I do – the rugged individualists known as the Dolan family bring me my fast internet. I don't need Uncle Sam. Most Americans aren’t so lucky. Uncle Sam can help.

Not with rail. But with cable.

Talk to Geoff about Infrastructure Spending