Friday, July 20, 2012

A Bit Of Practical Mathematics

It's one of those turns of phrase that annoys me, so I think I'll make a point about it using this handy example provided by Rep. Peter DeFazio, (OR-04) in a campaign e-mail he sent a while back:

One of the most tried and true ways to get people back to work is building and improving infrastructure. Federal investment in infrastructure generates private sector jobs in construction, engineering and design, and manufacturing and supply. Every $1 billion we invest in infrastructure we create or sustain over 34,000 private sector jobs and produces $6.2 billion in economic activity.

Campaign E-mail from Rep. Peter Dazio

The part I emphasized is what bothers me, and not so much here as generally. Every $1 billion in infrastructure investment does not result in $6.2 billion of economic activity. There's usually a multiplicative factor to infrastructure investment, and there's probably a study out there somewhere suggesting that it's about 6.2 times the money invested in infrastructure, on average. That's the point, though - it's an average. Your billion dollar infrastructure investment might yield more than my infrastructure investment, or less.

Caption: A Union Pacific railroad bridge through the Willamette National Forest, in Oregon. Did that investment yield $6.2 per dollar invested for UP?

Image credit: Cujo359

The main reason I bring this up, of course, is infrastructure projects like the infamous bridge to nowhere, former Senator Ted Steven's (R-AK) pork project intended to build a bridge to an island in Alaska that only had a few hundred residents. Now, it's quite possible that this bridge would have been a big spur to economic activity in that area, but that seems unlikely in the extreme. At least, it's unlikely given the cost involved.

I'm sure that Rep. DeFazio just used that phrase to put things in a way we can all understand. Even phrases like "on average" seem to confuse some people. And I'm all for more infrastructure investment. As DeFazio went on to write in that e-mail:

We can put millions of people to work if Congress invested adequately in a 21st century transportation system. Insisting on strong "Made in America" requirements would ensure the benefits of these federal projects reached a broad spectrum of the American economy. Our economic competitors are investing billions in state of the art infrastructure. We must do the same.

It's a win-win, if we'd just get over the idea that we can't afford it right now. Heck, the people telling us that are the same people who refused to do the investment when we could afford it. For them, it's never a good time to spend money.

Still, that statement about what $1 billion in infrastructure investment gets you is not strictly true, and I wish people would quit talking that way.

Fat chance, right?

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