Strictly Business: On the austere road to ruin

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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You may have missed it, but a smart group of folks recently told us that our infrastructure — roads, bridges, mass transit, airports, and power and water lines — are in terrible shape.

I know, infrastructure. You're yawning, right? Well, stifle it. Because that smart group of folks — the American Society of Civil Engineers — is worth listening to. "Infrastructure encompasses your local water main and the Hoover Dam; the power lines connected to your house and the electrical grid spanning the U.S.; and the street in front of your home and the national highway system," according to the group's 2013 Report Card.

But we don't seem to care about the upkeep or expansion of all that important stuff, according to the ASCE.

The group gave the nation an overall grade of D+.

Ouch.

In Washington state alone, the ASCE report says, driving on roads in need of repair costs Washington drivers "$1.349 billion a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs."

The nation's price tag, if it wants to avoid letting its human-made landscape fall apart, is an estimated $3.6 trillion by 2020.

That's daunting.

But our infrastructure — the underpinning of our economy — won't maintain or upgrade itself.

And preserving or beefing up infrastructure is about more than just unclogging lines of commerce or building the transit lines we'll need to conserve natural resources and cut pollution.

In fact, such public works projects would go a long way toward growing our economy and putting unemployed workers who've been hurting for too long back to work.

Problem is, the champions of austerity — some call them the "Austerians" — who call for ever more slashes in government spending, have been unfortunately dominating the discussion.

However, a simple math error in an influential academic paper, used to support austerity policies, severely undercut the Austerians. Stephen Colbert has bruisingly accurate fun with it here: http://bit.ly/ZkfYWB.

What's more, empirical evidence shows the folly of austerity in several countries, including Great Britain and Greece, where recessions rule the day. Meanwhile, there's still plenty of slack in the economy of the U.S., where the federal deficit was only 4.5 percent of gross domestic product in the first quarter of this year.

And, in recent testimony to Congress, top economists who've served both Democratic and Republican administrations urged more public-works spending as part of a plan to reduce long-term unemployment.

Economic demand remains weak. Interest rates are very low. There's room for more federal government stimulus. And let's absolutely entertain private-sector led ideas and public-private partnerships, too.

To be sure, we'll need to grapple with our long-term health care and military expenses. But not right now. Despite the loud talk, there is no imminent debt disaster. The immediate catastrophe is the 12 million Americans who are out of work, including thousands of us in Clark County.

And we'll fall further behind the longer we follow the Austerians' path and the longer we ignore our built environment.

If we do it right, we can make our roads, rails, and water and energy systems safer and more effective — all the while creating jobs and filling lives with meaningful work.

Aaron Corvin is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4518, Twitter: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://twitter.com/col_energy; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or aaron.corvin@columbian.com