September 15, 2015

Analyzing infrastructure procurement difficulties is more important than opening another public vs. private debate

Sir, it is hard to follow Keith Burnett’s, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield’s logic, as expressed in his “Free markets are a flawed way to plan and fund infrastructure” September 15.

On one hand he mentions free markets cannot deliver essential infrastructure, but on the other he explains this with “lobby groups have the power to halt essential schemes. The result is a tendency to delay procurement of desperately needed infrastructure projects.” If lobby groups have such powers, are we really talking about free markets? “No!” must be the answer. And by the way, who allow themselves most to be influenced by lobbying groups?

And Burnett adds to the confusion by stating “Long-range planning has been replaced by the short-termism that typifies the markets”. I have no idea were he gets to state as a fact that short-termism typifies markets but, if its only to argue that governments are better at taking the long view, he needs to be reminded of the fact that very short term political interests unfortunately drives too much of most governments actions.

There might indeed be many needs for governments having to intervene in infrastructure projects… but if these projects are urgent and not getting due attention or being extremely inefficiently developed, the causes might very well reside in other factors that affect governments and private sector alike.

For instance when I see the slow pace of so many infrastructure projects in the US I always scratch my head and ask myself… is this the same country that in 1940-45 was able to create almost from scratch an incredible war machinery?

Arthur Herman, the author of “Freedom's forge” of 2012, a book that describes how that war machine was built, was asked by Mark Thompson during a discussion of the book: “What’s the most important lesson from World War II for today’s military-industrial complex?”

Herman’s answer: “More military and industry, and less complexity!

Today we have a military-acquisition system that’s way too expensive, way too slow, too bureaucratic, and highly unproductive. There’s a lot today’s Pentagon could learn from their 1940-1945 predecessors.”

In the same way I believe Professor Burnett, though he began doing so, should delve much deeper into the whole problematic of infrastructure procurement. That should prove more useful for all of us, than just opening another private vs. public debate.