Many politicians throughout the world,
not just on the centre and left, are arguing for increased spending on infrastructure. This was one of the key proposals of Donald Trump during his election campaign. In his election manifesto he pledged to “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains”.
Increased spending on inffrastructure has both demand- and supply-side effects.
Unless matched by cuts elsewhere, such spending will increase aggregate demand and could have a high multiplier effect if most of the inputs are domestic. Also there could be accelerator effects as the projects may stimulate private investment.
On the supply side, well-targeted infrastructure spending can directly increase productivity and cut costs of logistics and communications.
The combination of the demand- and supply-side effects could increase both potential and actual output and reduce unemployment.
So, if infrastructure projects can have such beneficial effects, why are politicians often so reluctant to give them the go-ahead?
Part of the problem is one of timing. The costs occur in the short run. These include demolition, construction and disruption. The direct benefits occur in the longer term, once the project is complete. And for complex projects this may be many years hence. It is true that demand-side benefits start to occur once construction has begun, but these benefits are widely dispersed and not easy to identify directly with the project.
Then there is the problem of externalities. The external costs of projects may include environmental costs and costs to local residents. This can lead to protests, public hearings and the need for detailed cost–benefit analysis. This can delay or even prevent projects from occurring.
The external benefits are to non-users of the project, such as a new bridge or bypass reducing congestion for users of existing routes. These make the private construction of many projects unprofitable, except with public subsidies or with public–private partnerships. So there does need to be a macroeconomic policy that favours publicly-funded infrastructure projects.
One type of investment that is less disruptive and can have shorter-term benefits is maintenance investment. Maintenance expenditure can avoid much more costly rebuilding expenditure later on. But this is often the first type of expenditure to be cut when public-sector budgets as squeezed, whether at the local or national level.
The problem of lack of infrastructure investment is very much a political problem. The politicians who give the go-ahead to such projects, such as high-speed rail, come in for criticisms from those bearing the short-run costs but they are gone from office once the benefits start to occur. They get the criticism but not the praise.
Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere? The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (16/1/17)
Trump’s plans to rebuild America are misguided and harmful. This is how we should do it. The Washington Post, Lawrence H. Summers (17/1/17)
- Identify the types of externality from (a) a new high-speed rail line, (b) new hospitals.
- How is discounting relevant to decisions about public-sector projects?
- Why are governments often unwilling to undertake (a) new infrastructure projects, (b) maintenance projects?
- Is a programme of infrastructure investment necessarily a Keynesian policy?
- What accelerator effects would you expect from infrastructure investment?
- Explain the difference between the ‘spill-out’ and ‘pull-in’ effects of different types of public investments in a specific location. Is it possible for a project to have both effects?
- What answer would you give to the teacher who asked the following question of US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers? “The paint is chipping off the walls of this school, not off the walls at McDonald’s or the movie theatre. So why should the kids believe this society thinks their education is the most important thing?”
- What is the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem? Why does it occur and what are the solutions to it?
- Why is the ‘castles in the air’ element of private projects during a boom an example of the fallacy of composition?
In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)
There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.
Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.
Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?
On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:
Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.
But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.
Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:
Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “
One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.
Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.
Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:
It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.
The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.
Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)
Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature
- How would you define natural capital?
- What are ecosystem services?
- Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
- How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
- How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
- What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?