There are certain droning noises in the soundtrack of Ireland's economic policy debate that just never seem to go away. One of the most persistent is the assertion that Ireland labours under a serious deficit in public infrastructure, the solution to which is more spending on civil engineering projects. More capital spending would stimulate the economy too, it is asserted.
There are three objections to this line of argument. The first is that infrastructure provision has improved greatly, while demands on facilities have declined.
The second is that big capital-investment projects do not create any permanent jobs and far fewer temporary ones than you might imagine.
The third, of course, is that the country happens to be bust and in no position to finance a public-investment splurge, even if one could be justified on its merits.
Back in mid-bubble, when the National Development Plan was prepared, the expectation was that the economy would grow at 4.25 per cent per annum forever. But Ireland's GDP peaked in 2007 and remains well below the level of six years ago.
If growth in the years since had been 4.25 per cent, as per the plan, the GDP figure for 2013 would be 28 per cent above the 2007 level. It will actually be about 7 per cent lower. In round figures, the economy is about three-quarters the size that had been assumed by the planners.
The National Development Plan has, not surprisingly, been abandoned. There is no money to finance the more grandiose projects (underground railways in Dublin, for example) and the Government has accepted that there is no need for heavy investment, since pressure on available infrastructures has diminished dramatically.
Capital spending has been scaled back – and rightly so. The country doesn't have the money and doesn't need extra infrastructure anyway.
Traffic on the road network has flatlined on many sections or seen actual declines for the first time in decades. Traffic through airports and seaports has also plummeted. Electricity demand has been weak and the country now has a plentiful availability of generating capacity.
CIE has ample capacity, too, is struggling financially and has had to be rescued by the State through an emergency cash allocation. Both bus and rail passenger numbers have been disappointing.
None of this is surprising. When the economy bombs out to the extent that it has, the pressure comes off infrastructure requirements. Many of the facilities which have been built and paid for would not have been constructed had the planners been able to foretell the extent of the decline. During the bubble, both the exchequer-funded capital programme and the investment programmes of State commercial companies reached unprecedented levels. The result, with the benefit of the hindsight denied to the planners, is excess infrastructure under numerous headings. This cannot be un-built and the money recovered. But it is a national priority to trim back capital spending, not just because the country is bust but because existing provision is adequate for our foreseeable needs.
Cue an organisation called Engineers Ireland, which released a report on infrastructure needs during the week. The document argues that Ireland continues to face an infrastructure problem but it contains not even a cursory attempt at an economic analysis of infrastructure adequacy.
It consists mainly of a cri de coeur on behalf of the civil engineering profession, many of whose members are doubtless experiencing troubled times. The report rates the quality of Irish infrastructure from A = excellent to E = terrible across various sectors, using no visible technique other than introspection.
It concludes that not a single category merits an A rating. Increased spending is required under every heading, in an economy with excess capacity coming out its ears.
Two examples are airports and railways. There is a visible excess of terminal space at the main airports.
At Cork, for example, the number of daily departures is less than the number of check-in desks at the new terminal. The old terminal would have been big enough to handle the current low traffic volumes.
At Dublin the new terminal has almost doubled the airport's capacity to handle passengers. Unfortunately, passenger numbers are still well below the peak. Shannon is doing about half the business it enjoyed some years back, Cork is down a quarter and Dublin about one-fifth.
Regional airports in Galway and Sligo no longer offer any scheduled services at all and Waterford is facing the same outcome. The other regional airports survive on direct and indirect subsidies.
Any realistic assessment would conclude that Ireland is over-provided with airports and airport capacity and that this will remain the case for a decade, if not longer. An A+ for airport infrastructure then? Not according to the engineers, who offer a grudging B.
Iarnrod Eireann has spent prodigious sums over the last decade on upgrading rail track and stations, and replacing rolling stock. It has even built new lines. But passenger numbers have weakened and there is clear excess capacity.
The losses on the railway are substantial and nobody seems to have noticed that the new national motorway network (the recipient of a mere B from Engineers Ireland) would depress the demand for rail travel.
Remarkably, the engineers conclude that Ireland is ripe for another bonanza in rail investment, rating this under-utilised and excess-capacity system no more than a D.
The job-creation potential of big infrastructure projects is consistently overstated by their proponents. A succession of studies from the Economic and Social Research Institute has demonstrated that these projects typically deliver few jobs relative to their substantial costs. House-building is more job-intensive, but there is hardly much need for more houses either for quite a while.
The Engineers Ireland report contains the following sentence, which can reasonably be labelled a dead giveaway: "Crucially, vital skills are being lost to the Irish economy and the Irish construction industry through the absence of major infrastructural projects."
The logic of this revealing statement is that the retention of capacity in an industry whose products are no longer facing strong demand is to be an objective in itself. This is to preserve skills in producing things for which demand has crumbled.
None of this is to argue that the public capital programme should be scrapped altogether. There is a need to spend on maintenance, of the road network, for example, and there are some leftover projects from the National Development Plan that are worth completing.
The Government has kept up the level of spending on school buildings, the high-voltage electricity grid is weak in spots and there remain deficiencies in water supply. But the case for a large public investment programme has evaporated.
Even if the economy recovers over the next few years, there will have been a decade of zero growth. The cutbacks in planned capital spending already announced are a realistic response to these developments, explained in some detail in documents published by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Advocates of increased public capital spending seek to dodge the elephant in the room – the fact that the Government has no financial capacity – by appealing to the device of public-private partnerships, a method of keeping capital spending costs off the books.
Where private funds are mobilised under these schemes, the State regularly ends up with a future liability to make annual payments to the providers of capital, often at costs which exceed normal government borrowing rates.
The resort to private capital can be costly in these circumstances and can descend into an exercise in creative accounting. In the United Kingdom, parliamentary committees have been scathing in their assessment of the value-for-money aspect of private financing of state infrastructure and have urged a curtailment of these off-balance-sheet manoeuvres.
Building things that are not needed on tick is what got the country into the current mess. The economy will not recover until the exporting sectors become competitive again. Building infrastructure in excess of requirements creates debts, not jobs, and would make things worse.
It is true that the economy faces seriously deficient demand and that the Government lacks the capacity to do anything about it. However, the solution is hardly to expand supply, incurring additional financial costs. Engineers are in the infrastructure supply business. If all you possess is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.