Monday, January 21, 2013

Dad as a Cult Member

I’ve mentioned my father several times in this blog.  He continues to force his way into my writing.

Dad was a civil engineer for life.  By his high school years, he knew that his path in life would be engineering.  From his arrival on the University of California campus in 1940 until he left his final consulting job in about 2004, he was devoted to his craft.

And part of that devotion was his career-long membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).  ASCE’s monthly magazine, “Civil Engineering” arrived regularly at my childhood homes.  At his memorial service in 2010, I reported that “Until I was 10, I thought a toilet required a stack of ‘Civil Engineering’ magazines on the tank to flush properly.”

With that background, it was startling to have StrongTowns describe ASCE as a cult.  But they make a good case.

The StrongTowns notes that ASCE argues for infrastructure funding even when economics belie the argument.  Few seem to notice the inconsistencies.  And many in the media and elsewhere repeat the argument uncritically.  It’s as if the need for more infrastructure is so self-evident that the numbers don’t need to make sense.  Which does sound much like a cult.

At the time of the StrongTowns blog post, ASCE was calling for $2.2 trillion in infrastructure expansion and maintenance.  And they were estimating the benefits as $1 trillion.  So they were called for spending with a benefit/cost ratio of less than 0.5.  And yet no one seemed to care about the upside-down argument.

Even worse, some of the benefits seemed illusory, such as valuing extra time spent commuting at the same hourly rate earned during working hours.  Example: If you earn $25 per hour, or $52,000 per year, ASCE was arguing that it was justified to spend almost $1,100 per year to shorten your commute by five minutes each way.  I’m awfully sure that a tax measure that billed every commuter $1,100 per year to save ten minutes per day would fail badly.  But it was part of the ASCE calculation.  And few objected.  Very cult-like.

Ironically, the early 2013 ASCE infrastructure update arrived in my inbox after I’d begun this post.  The numbers have been adjusted, perhaps in response to the StrongTown objections.   Such as a footnote that “Costs do not include … value of time other than business travel.”  And the cost and benefit numbers may have been adjusted to make the benefit/cost ratio greater than 1.0.

But it’s not quite possible to decipher the numbers.  The cost of deteriorating infrastructure between now and 2020 is estimated as $0.6 trillion to households, $1.2 trillion to businesses, and $1.1 trillion in trade, for a total GDP reduction of $3.1 trillion.  I’m not an economist, but I’m not sure how those numbers are supposed to add up.  They don’t add up to the total, plus it would seem that some double-counting must be involved.

And the costs aren’t much better.  The cost for all infrastructure needs through 2020 is estimated as $2.7 trillion, with anticipated funding at only $1.7 trillion.  Against which of those costs are the benefits to be measured, the total infrastructure bill or the shortfall?  If we assume that the reduced GDP is to be measured against the total infrastructure cost, then the benefit/cost ratio is 3.1/2.7 or less than 1.2.  It’s an awfully small number for a report that is presumably written to optimize the case for infrastructure spending.

Then there is the argument that the average household will lose $3,100 per year if the infrastructure work isn’t done.  Which ignores that a big chunk of that $3,100 would be taken as taxes to pay for the infrastructure.   The chant of the cult continues.

I’m not arguing that there is no infrastructure work to be done.  One only needs to drive a short distance to understand the problems with our roads.  And concerns about flooding, water, sewer, electricity, etc. are nearly as evident.  But I’ll join StrongTowns in arguing that we can’t afford to fix all of it.  And that we need to start making hard choices about spending priorities based on credible economic analyses.

If Dad was still with us, I think he’d agree with me.  He believed in ASCE, but he believed in facts even more.  That’s one reason why I miss him.

(Acknowledgment: I’m also an ASCE member, although Dad and I worked in very different areas of the profession.  My ASCE membership is a remnant of my early days in the profession.  I remain a member because I have life insurance that would cost more to replace elsewhere.  Besides, there are still many good folks who belong to ASCE.  Perhaps they need deprogramming, but they’re decent people.  These days however, I feel far more professional connection to the Congress of the New Urbanism and the Urban Land Institute.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment