Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sprucing Up the Infrastructure

A post on Patio Boat (here) made me wonder about the nation’s infrastructure—one possibly large investment in the collective that might require jobs to maintain—indeed to spruce it up. To give such a job a tangible dimension—and to compare the task that the private sector might also need to do—we need reliable statistics. Fortunately the Bureau of Economic Analysis, keeper of the nation’s books, provides data on assets. Better yet, it subdivides assets into useful categories. The source for what follows is a BEA facility (link), specifically Table 1.1 under Fixed Assets and Consumer Durables—but consumer durables don’t interest us here.

From among private- and government-owned fixed assets, I’ve selected nonresidential structures as the category to compare. In the private sector this category includes all kinds of nonresidential buildings, electrical power, railroads, pipelines, farms, mines, refineries, local transit, and other. In the public sector it also includes buildings (office, schools, hospitals, etc.) and highways, streets, conservation and development (that one includes parks, dams, flood control, and the like), sewer systems, water systems, and “other.” The other category, in the public sector, consists of electric and gas facilities, transit systems, and airfields—thus parts of the public infrastructure.

The interesting upshot of this is that the private and the public assets in this category are almost the same size. Here is a pie chart for 2010:

The totals here are $11 trillion in private fixed assets (55%) and $9.2 trillion in publicly-owned fixed assets (45%). The close relationship of one to the other is shown over some period of time in the following graphic:

What portion of these trillions might be called infrastructure, more narrowly conceived? 1996 data (the most recent published by the BEA in the necessary detail) suggests that of the total of $4.68 trillion in nonresidential structures in place that year, $2.48 trillion, or 62 percent, were other than buildings, thus highways/streets (the largest category) and the categories that follow it a couple of paragraphs above. If we apply that ratio to the 2010 numbers, infrastructure in place now, owned by government—and therefore not waiting for Market Forces to repair and to maintain it—is valued at $5.7 trillion dollars. That presents a fairly large task on which job-creating initiatives could be expended.

As the New Orleans disaster demonstrated a while back, our dams are not in good shape. Nor can we boast of the splendid upkeep of our highways, bridges, ports, sewers, parks—or indeed public schools. We have genuine work we could offer all those unemployed. It only takes the will.


  1. Having just come back from Traverse City and on the way home reading the many signs along the highways urging us to ADOPT A HIGHWAY, I am wondering if doing this would provide a job for some of our currently unemployed. What Adoption Agency sould I call? How does it work? Can anybody help me? I feel patriotic today!

  2. You are so thoughtful, Brigitte. I'll help you do the upkeep on"your" road if you do adopt one. As I understand, adopting a highway is much about trash pick up along the edges and the opportunity to have your name on a sign... Self promotion is at least part of the appeal for many.