- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2011

With U.S. unemployment persistently and unacceptably high, President Obama and others from all political persuasions have voiced support once again for establishment of a new government-created institution that would provide loans and guarantees to finance U.S. infrastructure. They note Asia’s continued economic growth and cite the region’s - and particularly China’s - tremendous investments in showcase infrastructure projects as reason enough to support greater government financing of infrastructure and development - and the jobs that come with such spending.

Policymakers in Washington would be mistaken, however, if they see short-term job creation as rationale for creation of another federal bureaucracy in the guise of a U.S. national infrastructure bank. The latest proposal, part of Mr. Obama’s recent Senate-rejected $447 billion jobs bill, envisioned a new $10 billion institution in Washington.

That subproposal of the “jobs” bill may well rise again. The benefits, proponents say, will be twofold: rebuilding the United States’ crumbling infrastructure and creating jobs.

Just as the World Bank helped rebuild Europe after World War II and brings critical investment dollars to the poorest nations, isn’t it time, they say, to do the same thing at home in the United States?

Yet, like many things too good to be true, caveat emptor - buyer beware. Asia, with its multitude of infrastructure projects, offers a lesson, albeit a counterintuitive one. For all the billions of dollars in projects pushed by the World Bank and other multilateral development banks, what is clear is that such institutions are not the key players when it comes to infrastructure investment and job creation for much of Asia.

Much more critical to growth have been trade, a still-evolving but strengthening infrastructure of transparency, governance and the rule of law, and allowing businesspeople the chance to, well, go about doing their business.

In that context, the recently passed U.S. Free Trade Agreements with Korea, Panama and Colombia may well do more in the long run to spur economic growth in the United States and those countries than any individual bridge or other single infrastructure project.

A further case in point: China borrows a few billion dollars annually from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. That being said, for an economy of several trillion dollars, the financial and employment impact of these banks’ infrastructure lending to China are minimal, and even questionable on other policy grounds.

And therein lies another lesson: A new U.S. national infrastructure bank may capture headlines but any proposal needs to be thoroughly vetted, lest taxpayers find themselves with another government-created institution that made political sense, but delivered very little in the long run beyond employment of the people who work there.

Certainly, the infrastructure in the United States could use some serious updating. Recall the bridge collapse in Minnesota and the continued congestion of U.S. roads and skies. Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, and others in their own proposed legislation for a national infrastructure bank have rightly and usefully drawn attention to the need for greater investment in our country’s dated infrastructure. But, as with proposed “bridges to nowhere,” not all infrastructure projects or infrastructure banks are equal.

Infrastructure spending is essential but not a panacea for persistent joblessness in the United States or persistent poverty in the developing world, particularly when larger, underlying economic issues are at play. So, what to do?

Policymakers around the world need a more balanced approach to infrastructure, one that better embraces civil society and the private sector, including new forms of investment and ownership. We also need to think more seriously about models for better funding operations and maintenance, including public-private partnerships.

In brief, this means a new attitude toward infrastructure, driven by a couple basic principles:

First, we need to stop thinking of and selling infrastructure investment simply as a direct provider of short-term employment when times are bad. To do so risks not just bridges, but roads, rails and airports to nowhere. It also risks a decline in long-term support for critical infrastructure investment when promised jobs do not materialize.

Second, we need to prioritize limited government resources on projects that will have more meaningful and sustainable economic results. We need to weed out what does not work and not be afraid to innovate.

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