Addendum on Abuja: Estimating costs

Estimating costs for a construction project many years in the future is always very uncertain.  When the project is very large, complex, and likely to require years to complete, the uncertainty will be even greater. When the project is located in an area where access is difficult; supplies of materials, equipment, and skilled labor may not be adequate to ensure steady progress; and the ability of the project’s owner to maintain long-term financial and managerial commitment is unclear, uncertainties increase further.

We therefore developed only a very approximate estimate of the cost for implementing the Abuja master plan at its initial, conceptual stage. Our first report, presented in December 1977 to the Federal Capital Development Authority, included this estimate (Table 14 of that report, shown below).  We envisioned Abuja at that time as a home for approximately 1.6 million people, occupying an urbanized area (including all the parks, roadways, and other infrastructure) of nearly 25,000 hectares.

Source: International Planning Associates, 1977. A New Federal Capital for Nigeria: Report No. 1, Concept Plan.

 

What’s it worth?—Considering the value of our infrastructure

In the early 1990s, using unit-cost assumptions derived from major new-town and regional-development projects I had worked on, I estimated a value for the nation’s public infrastructure at greater than $1.4 trillion.  Economist Alicia Munell, then at the the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, published an article in the January/February New England Economic Review that cited unpublished Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data as a basis for estimating the 1987 value of non-military public capital stock at $1886.8 billion.  Munell’s number included public buildings such as hospitals and schools; mine did not.  Without the buildings, the BLS number was $1.35 trillion.  (The BLS estimates indicated that non-military public capital represented about 29% of the nation’s total capital stock, meaning all of our homes, factories, farms, and military bases, as well as what we usually mean by the term “infrastructure.”)

U. S. population in that period was estimated to be between approximately 243 and 257 million people. Our per capita investment in highways, transit, pipelines, sewers, and the like then works out to have been $5,500 to $5,600.  This would be a depreciated value, reflecting age and current condition of the facilities.  The cost of replacing the system entirely today would be much greater.

The nation’s population has grown to a bit more than 312 million people in 2011.  The consumer price index, one measure of how prices change over time, has grown in the past 2 decades to a level about 1.55 times what it was in 1990.  McGraw-Hill, publishers of Engineering News Record magazine, calculates several specialized indices that suggest construction and materials costs—that is, what it takes to build and repair infrastructure—have grown more rapidly than the consumer price index would suggest.  Any new infrastructure constructed to accommodate our increased population has almost certainly cost more, per capita, than the average investment value of 1990.  (For my “back of the envelop” calculation, I used a factor of 1.7, meaning approximately $9,400 per person at current prices. This value again reflects age and wear of facilities that have been in use for some years.)

Not only has our existing infrastructure aged and grown worn with use; according to such experts as the American Society of Civil Engineers—whose 2009 “report card” rated our systems as only a “D”—much of it has been seriously neglected.  In the same way that an old and poorly-maintained house may sell for less than its newer and better-kept neighbors, the value of our old capital stock may have depreciated substantially over the past 20 years.  (In my calculations I assumed that the average value of what was in place in 1990 is now worth only 90% of what it was then.)

I then figure that we have a net investment in our infrastructure that in 2011 is worth approximately $1.75 trillion, excluding school, city halls, hospitals, and other public buildings.  The per capita investment works out to be perhaps $5,700.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimates per capita U. S. gross domestic product (GDP) for 2010 was approximately $14,527. The economic activities of the utilities, transportation and warehousing, and waste management and remediation sectors of the economy accounted for 5% of that GDP.  Manufacturing and construction accounted for another 15.1%.  Whether they are absolutely dependent on modern infrastructure is arguable, but these economic activities clearly could not occur in their contemporary form or level of productivity without water supplies, transportation, electric power, and the other service infrastructure delivers.  In addition, GDP as a measure of national production neglects many of the environmental and quality-of-life benefits that infrastructure delivers.  If the nation’s economy were to be viewed as a large corporation, analysts could argue that our sales-to-fixed-assets ratio is substantially greater than the 2.6 calculated from per capita GDP and the estimated

How much of U. S. GDP is attributable to our infrastructure’s enhancement of productivity of our labor, land, and other capital investments has not yet been well researched.  A recent McKinsey & Co. analysis of India (by Gupta, Gupta, and Netzer) suggests that under-performing infrastructure could reduce that nation’s GDP growth by 4 to 8%.  Studies by the World Bank in the 1980s (by Alex Anas and Kyu Sik Lee) found that the costs of goods and services in some countries with newly industrializing economies cost were as much as 30 percent higher than would otherwise have been expected, because inadequate infrastructure forced firms to provide their own water and power supplies.  Endemic traffic congestion clearly adds to the costs of companies operating in such places today.

Because of such evidence, it seems to me likely that our infrastructure produces benefits significantly greater than the 2 to 4% return on invested capital that many economists have attributed to it.  If public agencies must pay rates in that range to borrow funds in the bond market, one certainly would anticipate that infrastructures built with these funds are more productive and the investment is a good one.  Anyone who has travelled to countries that lack adequate infrastructure cannot help but appreciate that this is the case.

Living without electricity

Living without electricity for a while helps to focus the mind on how we rely on our infrastructure and our ability—or lack thereof—to make reasoned choices about that reliance.  Hurricane Irene swept up the mid-Atlantic coast on a weekend, likely reducing the storm’s impact on most businesses.  Forecasters did a nice job, giving plenty of warning of the approaching winds and rain, and many people seem to have been prepared for some inconvenience.  The hurricane’s actual path probably reduced the amount of damage at actually occurred, at least until the eye of the storm went inland and through New England to produce devastating floods.

Even so, disruption was extensive. Amid blowing winds and a torrential downpour, the power went out at my house at about 3 am Sunday morning.  A neighbor reported seeing the flashes of what we assumed to be the pole-mounted equipment blowing as downed branches and trees shorted out the overhead wires.  Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), the utility serving us, reported that some 750,000 of its 1.23 million customers in the region lost service. The public relations folks claim that crews have been brought in from as far away as Kentucky to help with repairs.

At home and still without power more than 72 hours later, I am able to use my laptop and communicate with the world thanks to cellular telephone service and 100 feet of extension cord plugged into my neighbor’s house across the street. His side of the block did not fail.  We plugged in the fridge, have a gas range and good supply of candles; I must admit that many others are suffering much more than we are at the moment.

At least three aspects of the situation nevertheless bother me.

First there is the customer service.  While BGE messages to customers claim they are working “around the clock,” local news reports that the repair crews shut down for the evening at 8 pm; the statistics reported for restorations of power show clearly there was no overnight progress. Four days since BGE claims to have started storm operations, more than 20 percent of customers who lost power are still in the dark.  Our local food market could not open and had to throw away thousands of dollars’ worth of spoiled goods.  The planned Monday opening for the city’s schools had to be pushed back to Wednesday.  I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect the utility to work around the clock to restore full service.  I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect that parts and materials should be available within a 2-day period from other parts of the continent to accommodate these foreseeable emergency demands.  Yet I cannot take my business elsewhere and there is no apparent way that failures of customer service will influence the company’s profitability or its executives’ income.

Second is the facility system.  Electricity is delivered to my city neighborhood and much of the region by overhead wires. Many storms far short of hurricane intensity cause frequent power interruptions. (To the BGE’s credit, my impression is such outages tend to be fixed within 4 to 6 hours, regardless of when and under what weather conditions they occur; this seems to me a reasonable standard.  Why are utilities and other infrastructure providers not required to make their performance statistics public, with standardized definitions and measurments?) While my definitely-leafy part of the city is less dense than many, I do not really understand why the poles have not been retired and the wires placed underground.  I know the initial cost would be high, but I not convinced it would not be more than offset by the avoidable out-of-pocket and inconvenience costs I pay for recurring outages and reductions in the utility’s maintenance expenses. I suspect that the idea of moving to underground installations throughout the city is made unattractive by utility accounting and regulatory systems (increased investment in fixed capital), not to mention the public-relations and political headaches of using cutting into city streets or securing private easements and connecting to each house and shop.  Nevertheless, I believe we should not have to consolidate to Manhattan-style densities to warrant the investment.

Finally, there is the thought of what the future may hold.  If costs for such new technologies as fuel cells, photovoltaic installations, and wind-powered generators continue to decline, as I expect they will, I think small customers located in less-dense areas will decide to cut their ties to the power grid.  Large corporate utilities will deal primarily with large consumers, whether they be businesses or multi-unit residential cooperatives and condominiums. A future in which a large fraction of households can meet their domestic energy demands from locally-supplied sun, breezes, and digested grass clippings and leaf collection is arguably more sustainable than what we now have, but it does imply maintaining what many people now call “sprawl.”

Making infrastructure investment more attractive through consumption

I must have been offered at least a dozen credit cards in the past week, each one an opportunity to spend on clothes, electronic toys, food, travel, and other items for consumption. Each of the financial institutions hoping to attract my business was also hoping, I imagine, that I might by choice or chance not pay their bills in full and thereby convert my debt to a longer-term and high-yielding asset on their books.  I would be bound, according to terms typical of the offers, to pay interest on my unpaid balance at rates significantly above 10% annually, 5 to 10 times what the banks would pay me to lend them money by purchasing a certificate of deposit.

While I am certainly annoyed by the steady barrage of credit-card offers, particularly within the context of my recent memories of financial meltdown, mortgage crisis, and federal debt-limit bickering, my deeper concern is why are there no attractve offers to buy into my city’s or state’s or nation’s infrastructure.  With aging bridges and pavements, bursting water mains, and straining levees almost everywhere apparent in this country, the demand for infrastructure investment should be booming.  Meeting that demand—whether through private initiative or government action—would not only create immediate jobs in materials, construction, and facilities management, but also provide the services to support sustained growth in the economic sectors that depend on efficient transportation, clean water supply, and flood-free operations.  Can we create ways to make infrastructure investment—a good thing—as attractive and painless as—a bad thing—going deeper into consumer debt?

I think we can.  Here’s one idea.

Suppose a state government joined with an appropriate team of banks, utility companies, and local authorities, that is, form a serious public-private partnership. (PPP)  The PPP would begin by marketing an affinity-branded credit card and matching debit card.  The attraction for consumers using the cards would be a credit—say 3 to 5 percent of all purchases—to be applied against current infrastructure services (for example, transit fares; water, electric power, and natural gas fees; tolls and or parking fees), property and real estate transaction taxes, or purchase of tax-advantaged bonds issued by the government members of the PPP.  The bonds could be of the zero-coupon variety, to reduce the need for current cash flow and to encourage longer-term consumer saving.  Employers and utilities could use the card to store transit credits and demand-management incentives for employees and customers.

The cards’ branding could celebrate the social as well as physical infrastructure of the target market region. Card-holders would receive their credits only by using the card to pay for infrastructure services and taxes (or by investing in bonds), accelerating the trend toward reducing cash processing costs and revenue leakage.  The bankers gain access to a large population for associated marketing and data mining.  There seem to me to be a lot of winners in this scheme.

Feasibility seems proven.  Affinity cards and employee-benefit debit cards are well developed, of course.  There are rudimentary versions of what I am imagining in use, such as multi-system transit fare cards (Washington’s SmarTrip and Baltimore’s CharmCard), the E-ZPass highway toll-collection system, and the services offered by Toronto-based Skymeter.  While we are not likely to change from a consumption-driven economy, perhaps we can channel some of the consumption painlessly in savings, investment, and a sustainable infrastructure.

Infrastructure principles to live by

As a child fascinated by tales of exploration and archeology of the artifacts of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Incan civilizations, I built models of balsa-wood and modeling clay to recreate in my room the temples and fortresses pictured in my books.  I channeled my university studies toward building things, the bigger the better, I thought, as my training progressed.  In graduate school I encountered Albert O. Hirschman, a Harvard economist whose seminal  book introduced me to the ideas of social overhead capital—the etymological precursor of what we mean today by economic or societal infrastructure—and its essential role in economic development. (1958, The Strategy of Economic Development, New Haven: Yale University Press)  I wrote a doctoral dissertation on “systems of constructed facilities,” and from there moved on to planning and design of new cities, airports, highways, and investment policy.  I guess it is fair to say I have been interested in infrastructure for a while, and maybe a wonk on the subject.

In any case, I was excited by the opportunity in 1992 to work with a National Research Council committee seeking to gain an understanding of what might be done to address the problems underlying the nation’s increasingly distressing instances of infrastructure inadequacy, failure, collapse, and destruction.  The group spent more than a year talking to people from cities around the country and extracting from their experience a set of three broad principles for acting locally to address what were agreed to be national and even global problems. (The committee’s report was published as In Our Own Backyard: Principles for Effective Improvement of the Nation’s Infrastructure, 1993; Washington, DC: National Academies Press)

The principles themselves are fairly straightforward, albeit cryptic: (1) Geography matters. (2) The paradigm is broadening. (3) Value the “public” in public works.

My interpretation has perhaps shifted in the years since we wrote the report.  First, infrastructure should be tailored to the specific physical, environmental, social, and economic characteristics of the area to be served.  However, these various characteristics are connected in complex ways that make the tailoring difficult, and we need good data to achieve a good fit.  Second, all infrastructure has to be understood as providing multiple services, having not just a single function.  Thinking that our highways simply let us move from place to place and water systems only provide a clean supply when we turn the tap is—pardon the possible pun—tunnel vision; we need to broaden our perspectives in funding, designing, and operating each piece of infrastructure and address the system the pieces comprise.  Third, the public is a part of the infrastructure, not simply a customer, investor, or impediment. We as a society and our infrastructure are engaged in an evolving dialogue; the better we understand our role in that evolution, the more likely it is that future generations will appreciate the legacy of our infrastructure investment.

Two decades later, I think these principles are still relevant and important.  They are also, unfortunately, no more representative of current practice than they were when written.

(A footnote:  In the course of earlier work for the National Research Council, I found that the word “infrastructure” itself was hardly used at all before 1980. (For example, see Infrastructure for the 21st Century: Framework for a Research Agenda, 1987.) Typing it into Google’s search field today returns some 270 million hits.  “Social overhead capital,” has not caught on with the Internet public, showing up not quite 8.1 million times.  “Principles of infrastructure” returns some 1.82 million hits. Narrowing down to “principles of economic infrastructure” yields 315,000; replace “economic” with “societal” and you drop to just over 9,000.  For comparison, “ten commandments” gets 4.4 million hits and “principles to live by” 820,000!)

Sustainable Values and Infrastructure

There seems to be little question that we are now in one of those historically recurrent periods of societal crisis that tell us we must change our ways.  A plethora of recent books present dismal perspectives of our clash of cultures, changing climate, losses of species and languages, and financial crises, and how each threatens our well-being and lastingness.  The threats are very real, of course, but to me are interesting because, if relief is to be found, surely our infrastructure must have an important role.

Seeking to understand this role, I have finally plowed my way through Raj Patel’s modestly titled exegesis on modern economics and human nature, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. (2009, New York: Picador)  With ample reference to both foundational and more radical texts of market economics and Western social theory as well as more personal accounts of current populist movements, the book has definitely generated buzz and expanded its author’s reputation to sometimes messianic proportions.  (For a review, see “Are You the Messiah? A political economist gets a following he wasn’t expecting,” by Lauren Collins, New Yorker magazine, November 29, 2010)

The reading took longer than expected, because as page after page turned I felt compelled to pencil in questions, opposing references, and outright objections to Patel’s perspectives. Where he sees elemental democracy in the masked pronouncements of a Zapatista Junta, I see the tyranny of the mob. When Patel disparages the possibility of getting prices right—or having any prices at all—for clean air and water, I despair at the idea that humans will forsake the desire to improve their lives, however privileged they may be, satisfied that their needs—defined by others—are being met. While Patel finds it essential to feed the world’s growing population by rationing necessarily limited food production, I wonder why humanity might not be happier and arguably better off limiting population to levels supportable with an abundant and varied food supply.  I suppose I must recommend the book at least because it offers the attentive reader ample intellectual stimulation.

Patel’s message seems to be that for two key reasons a market-based, democratic society is essentially unsustainable and revolutionary change is essential. First, there is no hope of getting the prices right for clean air, pure water, cultural diversity, historic associations, and myriad other resources we humans use in pursuit of comfortable lives. Second, our abilities as humans to work together toward success in this pursuit are hopelessly subverted by the existence of corporations, disembodied entities that behave with the legal rights and powers of a person but lack a person’s moderating moral and ethical judgment.   Without the restrictive forces of either appropriate prices or moral imperatives, corporations and people ruthlessly seek exclusive control of collective resources and private gain from exploitation of these resources.

Hope lies, for Patel, in a Buddhist theory of value.  “The real value of something,” he writes, “is not its ability to satisfy a craving, a desire, a vanity, but to meet the need for well-being.”  With enlightenment, we will recognize that our desire for cell phones, shoes, and other such “baubles and fripperies” is nothing but illusion created by hidden persuaders.  Corporations will somehow adapt, I suppose, and we will lose our lust for more, all settling happily for just “enough.”

British economist Diane Coyle’s book The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters. (2011, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) takes a similar stance on the problems but offers a more moderate assessment of the underlying issues and, to my mind, a more practical prescription for what must be done.  She focuses her attention on the inevitable necessity of making tradeoffs among efficiency, fairness or equity, and freedom in how people are able to pursue and manage their resources.  Our values and our governance, as individuals and groups within our society, determine how the balance is struck, and today we have “tilted too far”—in Coyle’s view and my own—“in favor of individualism and the gratification of immediate wishes,” toward freedom at the expense of fairness and even efficiency. Where previous generations made investments, we now are consuming our assets.

Regarding values, Coyle’s views are not so different from Patel’s: We need a change of values to guide our behavior.  In Coyle’s analysis, however, a revival of what Max Weber termed the Protestant ethic, principles that guided people to work for the future rather than immediate gratification, could be effective.  Neither author has much to say about how we are to decide what is “enough” for individuals and groups in a pluralistic society. Patel would no doubt be the more austere judge.

To Patel’s call for changed values, Coyle adds changes in measures of achievement and in our institutions of governance.  The ways we measure economic growth, productivity, and well-being are simply inadequate for dealing with our growing understanding of the importance of intangibles. With the revolution in information and communications technologies, services account for an ever larger share of production; we do a poor job of measuring  quality of services, and the shortcoming is especially severe regarding what we term quality of life matters.  The  technology revolution is also transforming how individuals, corporations, and political entities relate to one another. Coyle imagines that societal decision making can be shifted from centralized agencies to “involve a more productive  and thoughtful interplay between markets and governments than we’ve typically had in the past…”, but here I could not quite make out her image of that future. Perhaps she envisions social networking platforms supporting grass-roots participation, a sort of Swiss direct democracy via telethon or Facebook.

Development of such a participatory system would certainly signal the integration of a new set of technologies into our infrastructure.  In past decades, new infrastructure technologies have been accompanied by—and arguably enabled or perhaps caused—changes in how society operates. Rail and then highway transportation changed the patterns of human settlement; piped supply of clean water changed the way households operate.  These changes in turn have been accompanied by changes in our fundamental values, on the scale contemplated by Patel and Coyle.  If we are to have the change in values these authors argue we need for a sustainable future, then I believe we must expect to reshape our infrastructure.