Shovel Ready or Not

Here's a twofold thought that's been circulating around the lunch table at work: "shovel ready" projects have been touted as simultaneously accomplishing long-range structural goals and creating immediate jobs, but may not do either well. Or so says Popular Mechanics [link courtesy of Greg Mankiw's blog]:

"The programs that would meet the bill’s 90-day restriction are, for the most part, an unappealing mix of projects that were either shelved after being fully designed and engineered, and have since become outmoded or irrelevant, or projects with limited scope and ambition. No one’s building a smart electric grid or revamping a water system on 90 days notice. The best example of a shovel-ready project, and what engineers believe could become the biggest recipient of the transportation-related portion of the bill’s funding, is road resurfacing—important maintenance work, but not a meaningful way to rein in a national infrastructure crisis. 'In developing countries, there are roads that are so bad, they create congestion, because drivers are constantly forced to slow down,' says David Levinson, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s civil engineering department. 'That’s not the case here. If the road’s a little bit rougher, drivers will feel it, but that’s not going to cause you to go any slower. So the economic benefit of those projects is pretty low.'

That might be acceptable to people focused purely on fostering rapid job growth‹but, ironically, such stimulus spending could fall short on that measure, as well. 'In the 1930s, when you were literally building with shovels, that might have made sense. That was largely unskilled labor. Today, it’s blue collar, but it’s not unskilled,' Levinson says. 'The guy brushing the asphalt back and forth is unskilled, but the guy operating the steamroller isn’t. And there’s an assumption out there that construction workers are interchangeable between residential and highway projects. But a carpenter isn’t a whole lot of help in building a road.'"

So I guess if you want to fix yesterday's problems and give lots of work to really highly-paid workers, "shovel ready" is the way to go. But not if you want to move the nation towards future competitiveness and give jobs to people who have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. Go to www.stimuluswatch.org and you tell me how good you feel about the projects proposed in your area.
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