≡ Menu


It has become a mantra in America – including a mantra of some regular patrons of the Cafe – that the infrastructure of these United States is in desperate need of rebuilding or repair.

What’s the evidence for this claim?  (Please don’t mention the collapsed bridge in Minnesota or the failed levees in New Orleans.  Anecdotes are not powerful evidence.)

My question is not rhetorical.  Perhaps the infrastructure does need much attention.  But to answer my question sensibly requires some baseline.  To what do we compare today’s infrastructure?  To its size and quality of five, ten, or twenty-five years ago (reckoned, perhaps, on a per-capita basis)?  To that of some other country, or average ‘infrastructure intensity’ of other countries?  (And if so, which other countries?)

Perhaps the appropriate comparison is not to any historical or other-country fact, but to some plausible hypothetical standard.  If so, which one?

And what is infrastructure?  Just roads, bridges, and seaports and airports?  Does it include hospitals, courthouses, and schools?  Sports stadiums?   Are cell-phone towers part of the infrastructure?  What about wi-fi availability?  How about the condition of 18-wheel trucks registered in America?  The number and quality of ATMs?  The quantity and quality of accounting software?  The availability of overnight delivery services?

I’m sincere: my question is not rhetorical.  America’s infrastructure today might well be lacking.  But to establish this conclusion requires some plausible comparison: compared to what?

One thing that I am quite sure of is the fact that, without looking carefully at hard data — and having a plausible standard to which to compare the actual size and state of America’s infrastructure — it is impossible to determine whether or not America’s infrastructure really is in bad shape.

Now my priors tell me that an empirical investigation might well show that America’s infrastructure is lacking when compared to an appropriate standard.  After all, the agency chiefly responsible for building and maintaining roads, bridges, sewerage systems, and seaports and airports is government.  We’ve lots of evidence and theory to show that government lacks appropriate incentives to do even its core jobs well.

But I have seen no specific evidence on the condition of America’s infrastructure — evidence with a meaningful benchmark for comparison — to justify the conclusion that America’s infrastructure is in especially bad shape today.

Again, I readily admit that such evidence might exist; but if it does exist, I’m unaware of it.