I’ve talked before on the subject of infrastructure as stimulus, arguing that it’s ideally used for projects with one-time costs and ongoing benefits. Tonight I want to discuss a specific aspect of this: jobs. American infrastructure projects always talk about how many jobs they will create as a benefit rather than as a cost, and even in Europe, the purpose of the Green Deal investment package is to create jobs. In contrast with this view, I believe it is more correct to view infrastructure stimulus as an unusually bad way of creating jobs to deal with unemployment. The ideal infrastructure package really has to be about the benefits of the projects to users, and not about temporary or permanent employment.
The key question when designing stimulus is, unemployment for whomst?. Unemployment is predominantly a problem of unskilled workers. The OECD has a chart of unemployment by education level, and the rates for people with tertiary education are very low: in 2019, the US and Germany were at 2%, France at 5%, and even Spain only at 8%, all standing around half the overall national unemployment rates.
In theory, this makes infrastructure a good solution, because it employs people in the building trades, who are not university graduates and who have swings in employment rates based on private residential construction. In practice, it is not the case, for two reasons.
First, infrastructure projects have a long lead time, and therefore by the time physical construction happens, the recession has ended: the Green Line Extension in Boston, funded by the Obama-era stimulus, has mostly been under construction at the peak of the current business cycle, with such a shortage of labor that the contractors had to offer workers a full day’s pay with overtime for just five hours of nighttime work to get people to come in.
And second, while the building trades have large swings in employment, they are not good targets for absorbing the mass of laid off workers in recession. It takes years to get certified. This is not the 1930s, when construction was more labor-intensive and less skilled, so that armies of unemployed workers could be put to work building bridges and hydroelectric dams. Construction today is more capital-intensive (how capital-intensive, I can’t tell, since the full capital-labor ratios for the projects we’ve delved into are buried beneath layers of subcontracting), and the workers, while not university-educated, are much higher-skill.
Swings in employment are the most common among unskilled workers who do not have a special qualification. Those are workers in retail, restaurants, sundry small non-essential businesses that depend on the state of the economy for sales. The public sector is rather bad at absorbing them, because the stuff the public sector is or should be doing – the military, police, health care, education, social work, transportation, infrastructure – employs workers who are not so interchangeable. Health care, education, and social work involve massive numbers of people in intermediate professions; the military requires long training and a long commitment and countries that use soldiers as cheap labor for civil infrastructure projects end up weak in both infrastructure and defense; infrastructure uses workers in trades that usually involve years of apprenticeship. The main employers of the workers most at risk of unemployment are private, doing things the state would not be able to provide well.
So if the point is to limit unemployment, it’s best to stimulate private-sector spending through direct cash aid, and not through large state-directed development programs. Those have their place, but in the economic conditions of the 2020s rather than the unfairly romanticized middle of the 20th century, they are not good tools for reducing the impact of business cycle on workers.
And if the point is to build infrastructure, then an infrastructure package is a great tool for this, but it must be built based on maximum value and long-term savings. The number of jobs created should under no circumstances appear in any public communications, to deter groups from extracting surplus by claiming that they provide jobs, and to deter false advertising when in reality the jobs created by public-sector construction tend to be created when the recession is over among groups that do not need stimulus by the. Instead, infrastructure should center the benefits to the public, to be provided at the lowest reasonable price; labor, like concrete and lumber, is in that case a cost, and not a benefit.