Washington austerity at its most self-defeating

We're broke, so let's let our cities fall apart. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

We’re broke, so let’s let our cities fall apart. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

This morning, the Post has a nice report about methane leaks. A team of researchers toured DC and documented nearly 6,000 natural gas leaks in the city’s decrepit pipe system, including 12 spots where concentrations had built to potentially explosive levels.

What does this have to do with the current obsession with austerity in Washington? Quite a lot, it turns out.

You see, Republicans have been arguing that America needs savage fiscal austerity because we can’t afford to do otherwise. “Let’s be honest…we’re broke,” says John Boehner. This was and is preposterous then and now markets continue to snap up American debt, which is still at historically low interest rates. But this methane study shows the Republican budget-cutting fever at its worst and most self-contradictory. Not granting the money to repair this aging pipe system isn’t just dangerous, it costs us more money. Let me explain why.

The case is obvious when you think about it: shelling out for maintenance now is dramatically cheaper that it is to wait until after the system breaks (and blows the street apart, as the case may be). Put in beloved Republican household accounting terms: suppose a central support beam in your home has cracked, threatening the collapse of the roof. Does it make more sense to nip down to the bank for a quick loan to replace the beam now, or procrastinate and have to build a new house?

It’s even worse when we take the slack economy into account. Borrowing rates are super-low. Construction and raw material costs are cheaper than they will be later if and when the economy picks up. Every wasted day not investing in repairs and upgrades just means more expensive, catastrophic failures.

Make no mistake, this is a terrible problem. Aside from leaky methane in DC, there’s the fact that the average water pipe in this city was installed in 1935, leading to an average of about 450 water main breaks yearly. Here are sinkholes caused by blown water mains in Philly and New York City. Nationwide, for water systems alone there’s an unmet repair bill totaling in the hundreds of billions that is going up steadily, year after year, as our capital stock continues to decay.

What we should be doing is increasing federal infrastructure investments and increasing aid to states and cities, which would allow the country as a whole to start tackling its massive backlog of deferred maintenance needs. If we did this, we’d avoid the expensive emergency repairs that are now the norm for keeping American cities functioning.

That doesn’t even begin to address the need for new investments, like hugely expanded broadband networks, or new higher-speed rail lines, by the way.

In a way, this negligence on infrastructure is just dodgy accounting that would get you thrown out of any halfway decently-run business. A budget process that allows you to claim you’re “saving money” while your critical infrastructure is falling to pieces is just allowing you to lie to yourself.

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