I'm a great believer in the idea that the United States needs to spend more money on our aging infrastructure, which makes me one of those conservatives who are at least faintly hopeful that the Obama Administration will use the short-term atmosphere of crisis as an opportunity to push through some smart long-term investments. But I'm also someone who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, whose downtown is in many respects a monument to the failures of a particular era of urban planning, and then spent four years at college in Boston in the midst of the Big Dig era. Which means that I don't find these cautionary passages that Tyler Cowen culls from a 2002 book on Japan all that surprising:
Few have questioned why Japan's supposed "cities of the future" are unable to do something as basic as burying telephone wires; why gigantic construction boondoggles scar the countryside (roads leading nowhere in the mountains, rivers encased in U-shaped chutes); why wetlands are cemented over for no reason...or why Kyoto and Nara were turned into concrete jungles...
Led by bureaucrats on automatic pilot, the nation has carried certain policies -- namely construction -- to extremes that would be comical were they not also at times terrifying...
Dozens of government agencies owe their existence solely to thinking up new ways of sculpting the earth. Planned spending on public works for the decade 1995-2005 will come to an astronomical...$6.2 trillion, three to four times more than what the United States, with twenty times the land area and more than double the population, will spend on public construction in the same period.
...from an economic point of view the majority of the civil-engineering works do not address real needs. All those dams and bridges are built by the bureaucracy, for the bureaucracy, at public expense.
...The construction industry here is so powerful that Japanese commentators often describe their country as doken kokka, a "construction state."...the millions of jobs supported by construction are not jobs created by real growth but "make work," paid for by government handouts. These are filled by people who could have been employed in services, software, and other advanced industries.
The good news is that the next generation of urban planners in the United States are unlikely to make precisely these kinds of mistakes - based on their likely reading lists, at least. The bad news is there's undoubtedly a whole new set of mistakes out there, just waiting to be made.