Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Makes No Effort to Control Costs

At long last, President Biden has unveiled an infrastructure bill: a proposal containing $2 trillion in infrastructure spending, including $85 billion on mass transit and another $80 billion on Amtrak and freight rail. Despite popular perception, however, U.S. transportation spending—though on the low side of the range for developed nations—is hardly anomalously low. The poor state of American infrastructure owes mainly to failed cost control—a problem Biden’s proposal won’t solve.

American infrastructure is expensive. Systematic investigations have found that recent rail projects in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Boston cost several times the typical price tag of projects elsewhere in the world on a per-mile basis. Many urban regions have squandered billions of dollars on expensive mass-transit lines through sparsely populated exurbs. Transit authorities in Dallas–Fort Worth, for instance, have built or are building suburban rail lines costing several hundred thousand dollars per weekday rider. The region is scarcely alone in this regard.

The cost excesses are ultimately the responsibility of state and local leaders, especially managers. In Connecticut, to take just one example, a fierce debate in 2019 over whether to reimpose tolls on some freeways to fund road and rail improvements largely neglected the improvements’ extravagant costs. The state Department of Transportation estimated that a two-mile freeway viaduct replacement would cost $4 billion—a sum far exceeding the price of other, more complex freeway projects in the U.S. and elsewhere (in Europe, it would buy 100 or so miles of high-speed railway). When I pointed this out in an op-ed, Connecticut’s state DOT commissioner issued a virtually contentless response—the only substantive point being a quibble about inflation adjustments that explained only a sliver of the cost excesses—assuring the public that “the employees of the DOT are experienced professionals that work to stretch every dollar as far as possible.” Another example: two highly paid managers in charge of Connecticut rail investments demonstrated at a public meeting in 2019 that they had no knowledge of best industry practices.

The federal government enables this cost bloat by heavily subsidizing new mass infrastructure. It may be in local politicians’ interests to build worthless transit projects if it means providing local jobs with what, as far as they are concerned, is free money. Meantime, the existence of external funding frees transportation managers from having to worry about efficient construction. This problem is hardly exclusive to mass transit: the federal government’s subsidy of about 40 percent of state and local freeway spending has also made for plenty of boondoggles.

To be fair, Biden’s plan does have a paragraph discussing cost issues that suggests at least a vague understanding of American cost difficulties, but it speaks mostly in platitudes, and what details it provides are not promising. The paragraph begins by noting that “America lags its peers—including Canada, the U.K., and Australia—in the on-time and on-budget delivery of infrastructure.” This is a misdiagnosis on two scores: the problem with American infrastructure budgeting is less overrunning budgets than the excess of the budgets in the first place, and the selection of three English-speaking nations as comparisons is misjudged—after the United States, the rest of the Anglosphere has the world’s highest construction costs, in part because its countries copy bad American ideas. The page also assures us, “When President Biden managed the implementation of the Recovery Act, he insisted on the strongest possible accountability and transparency measures to ensure public dollars were invested efficiently and effectively.” That is far from encouraging, given that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act filled America’s low-density cities with low-ridership light rail systems.

The more concrete details that have emerged about Biden’s plan, meanwhile, show a lack of interest in cost control. For instance, the infrastructure plan promises that all materials used in federal infrastructure projects will have to come from American manufacturers, a provision that has massively inflated costs on previous projects (with most of the surplus going to consultants and corporate managers, not workers). And much of the money seems likely to go to the nation’s leader in cost bloat: New York, where Senator Chuck Schumer has said that a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and an extension of the city’s Second Avenue Subway, both among the most overpriced projects in the world, are likely to get funding.

The best way for the federal government to control costs? Turn off the spigots. Most transportation infrastructure—including virtually all mass transit—serves local rather than national interests; there is little justification for federal support. Greater local responsibility for transit may force local managers finally to take a serious look at reducing costs. Cut off from a hose of free money, officials might adopt innovative approaches to reducing the risk that new infrastructure poses to public finances, such as public-private partnerships for building new roads that can be financed entirely out of vehicle tolls.

Whatever the solution to improving American infrastructure, rewarding rampant wastefulness with more no-strings-attached federal money is certainly not it.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Do We Need Mask Mandates?

Joe Biden has counted on face masks to control the Covid-19 pandemic. On his first day in office, the president issued an executive order requiring masks on federal property and called for their widespread use for 100 days. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control has mandated masks on airplanes and mass transit, though most airlines and transit systems already require them.

These recommendations mark the latest step in a thorough reversal of the pre-pandemic public-health consensus that masks are useless or counterproductive. Yet the evidence underlying this reversal turns out to be quite weak. Widespread use of masks throughout the United States and Europe has failed to stop massive pandemic waves in the fall and winter. Preliminary signs also suggest that mask mandates may be causing considerable harm. Several state governments have recently rescinded their mask mandates, and a look at the science suggests that more should consider following.

Researchers have investigated masks for disease protection since the discovery, in the late nineteenth century, that many respiratory pathogens spread in droplets of exhaled moisture that follow ballistic paths extending a few yards. It seemed logical that a device to block relatively large droplets could also block smaller pathogens, both protecting wearers and serving as “source control,” stopping them from infecting others.

Later research has shown, however, that respiratory droplets obey a more complicated set of physical laws. In particular, once exhaled, they shrink rapidly through evaporation. One widely cited model estimates that droplets with diameters smaller than about 100 microns (a micron is a thousandth of a millimeter) evaporate before reaching the ground, leaving their contents as long-lasting aerosols; particles smaller than about five microns can stay aloft indefinitely and travel beyond droplet range. Individual coronaviruses are about 0.1 microns across, smaller than the pores of surgical masks (0.3 microns to 10 microns) and minuscule compared to those of cloth masks (80 microns to 500 microns).

In practice, other factors can inhibit complete droplet evaporation. But evaporation still reduces relatively large droplets to sizes small enough to stay airborne. And numerous case studies, such as a choir practice in which one singer infected dozens of members beyond droplet range, show that airborne Covid-19 transmission takes place—as does rare outdoor transmission, as outdoor air currents rapidly clear away aerosols but have little effect on droplets. So while masks may stop short-range, face-to-face spread from large droplets, they are likely less effective—and perhaps completely ineffective—at stopping airborne spread from aerosols.

It’s instructive to compare the first two epidemics involving wide usage of masks. To combat the Manchurian Plague, a bacterial epidemic in northern China in the winter of 1910-11, the doctor Wu Lien-Teh devised a cloth mask that tightly covered the nose and mouth. A report found that “the careful use of the mask appeared to confer absolute protection.” But masks proved far less useful in the subsequent 1918 Spanish flu, a viral disease spread by pathogens smaller than bacteria. California’s Department of Health, for instance, reported that the cities of Stockton, which required masks, and Boston, which did not, had scarcely different death rates, and so advised against mask mandates except for a few high-risk professions such as barbers. The Surgeon General of the United States Navy warned that masks were “designed only to afford protection against a direct spray from the mouth” and could even spread disease if used improperly. The epidemiologist Warren Vaughan used even blunter terms: “Certainly the face mask as extensively used during the 1918 epidemic was of little benefit and in many cases was, without doubt, a decided detriment.”

Nevertheless, doctors have continued to study the use of masks to protect against viral diseases. The studies vary widely, starting with the populations they consider—many studies use hospital workers as subjects, and their results may not generalize perfectly to nonhospital environments with different balances of aerosol and droplet transmission. Studies also differ in the type of masks they consider: some consider surgical masks, others makeshift cloth masks, still others N95 masks, which seal tightly around the mouth and nose. The latter protect the wearer well if worn correctly, but they are more expensive and limited in supply, are uncomfortable and difficult to wear correctly, and generally do not filter exhalations, thus providing no source-control benefit. Most discussions about mask mandates for the public have thus focused on cloth or surgical masks. Cloth masks, for their part, have proved far inferior to surgical masks in tests of filtration efficacy. One large randomized trial found that hospital workers who wore cloth masks were 6.6 times as likely to contract flu-like illnesses as those who wore surgical masks—a difference that the study authors speculated may be because cloth masks confer greater infection risk than no mask at all.

Some studies directly test whether masks filter air particles, either on volunteers connected to breath analyzers or on mannequin heads with breathing simulators. These studies show widely varying effectiveness. Other limitations on their real-world applicability exist, too: the fit of a mask in a supervised study or on a mannequin is likely better than in real-world use; experiments often last only a few minutes; and simulated breath likely degrades mask performance more slowly than real, humid breath. (One influential 2006 paper on influenza control claims that masks quickly become ineffective as “the pores in the mask become blocked by moisture from breathing.”)

Furthermore, few studies look specifically at the particles with diameters five microns or smaller that are responsible for airborne transmission. The studies that do examine those particles give equivocal results. One small study found that surgical masks filter exhaled particles smaller than five microns for volunteers sick with mild coronaviruses (based on a sample of only 17 patients), but not flu viruses or rhinoviruses. Another 2009 study tested filtration rates for five FDA-approved surgical masks fitted to mannequin heads with exhalation simulators. They provided widely varying and generally highly imperfect filtration, with the worst mask letting through more than 90 percent of particles in the 0.1–0.4-micron range in one test, even though masks were sealed to the mannequin’s face with silicone, providing far better filtration than real-world use. The authors concluded that “surgical masks should not be used for respiratory protection.”

Real-world studies, mostly focusing on protection rather than source control, are also equivocal. Some observational studies seem positive: for instance, one study of SARS in Beijing found that 94 SARS survivors were far less likely to have worn masks outside the home than 281 residents in their areas who had not contracted SARS. A study of Covid-19 among 124 families in Beijing found that wearing masks before the first household member showed symptoms was associated with a 79 percent lower transmission rate.

Observational studies such as these, however, have severe limitations. Mask-wearers are more likely to be conscientious and take other precautions whose effects can be confounded with those of masks. (One finding of the Beijing Covid-19 study suggests that something like this occurred: frequent surface disinfection supposedly reduced household transmission by 77 percent—almost as much as masks—though surface transmission of Covid-19 is now known to be insubstantial.) Observational studies also suffer from “recall bias”: inconsistent mask-wearers may report themselves as not wearing masks if they fell sick, or as wearing masks if they did not.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on mask use, generally more reliable than observational studies, though not infallible, typically show that cloth and surgical masks offer little protection. A few RCTs suggest that perfect adherence to an exacting mask protocol may guard against influenza, but meta-analyses find little on the whole to suggest that masks offer meaningful protection. WHO guidelines from 2019 on influenza say that despite “mechanistic plausibility for the potential effectiveness” of masks, studies showed a benefit too small to be established with any certainty. Another literature review by researchers from the University of Hong Kong agrees. Its best estimate for the protective effect of surgical masks against influenza, based on ten RCTs published through 2018, was just 22 percent, and it could not rule out zero effect.

More recent studies back up these results. A November 2020 report by Cochrane, a nonprofit organization that produces authoritative reviews of medical research, notes: “There is low certainty evidence from nine trials (3507 participants) that wearing a mask may make little or no difference to the outcome of influenza-like illness . . . compared to not wearing a mask . . . . There is moderate certainty evidence that wearing a mask probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of laboratory-confirmed influenza compared to not wearing a mask.” The only complete RCT for Covid-19 was also disappointing: a spring 2020 trial in Denmark showed a protective effect statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Public-health authorities justified mask mandates not for personal protection, however, but as a means of stopping wearers from spreading Covid-19—a pressing matter once case studies showed that spreaders may not show symptoms. Since exhaled droplets are larger than inhaled droplets shrunk by evaporation, masks might be better at source control than at personal protection. Indeed, some trials support a source-control effect at least for brief direct exposures: one study shows that surgical masks cut bacterial spread from coughing cystic fibrosis patients by 94 percent.

Other studies have been less promising. First, many studies (summarized by a researcher for the National Institutes of Health) find that exhaled droplets can be small enough to become airborne and slip through mask pores: “most particles in exhaled breath are smaller than 4 [microns], with a median between 0.7 and 1.0 [microns].” These small particles are indeed infectious: one study on influenza viruses in exhaled droplets found that “the fine particles [smaller than 5 microns] contained 8.8 times more viral copies than did the coarse ones.” Another study found that most infectious particles were smaller than one micron.

Studies in hospitals, likewise, have repeatedly shown that surgical masks worn by surgeons do not reduce bacterial wound infections, even though masks might be expected to work best against short-distance transmission of bacteria rather than smaller viruses. One study even found that when surgeons in one British hospital got rid of face masks, the rate of wound infections fell by half. Surgical masks, another study showed, did not reduce bacterial contamination of surfaces in an operating theater. There are several case studies, furthermore, of Covid-19 outbreaks in confined spaces despite good mask adherence, such as one outbreak in a Marine Corps barracks whose residents wore cloth masks almost constantly.

The most powerful evidence, though, comes from comparing Covid-19 in different regions: do areas with mask mandates or widespread mask use see fewer cases? Last spring, the answer seemed to be yes. Many Asian nations, prominently Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan, had adopted public mask use during SARS in 2003 and readopted it for Covid-19. They saw outbreaks in February that quickly subsided. Japan’s success seemed particularly hard to attribute to anything but masks: the nation saw only weak government interventions, principally a brief, likely ineffective school closure. Some Western nations followed suit, with apparent success. The Czech Republic was the first, thanks to Petr Ludwig, an influential science popularizer, who posted a YouTube video on March 14 urging Czechs to use improvised cloth masks. Poland quickly followed; a social media campaign in late March exhorted Poles to kryj ryj, or “cover your snout.” Both nations escaped the spring wave nearly unscathed.

The subsequent record, though, is less encouraging. Ian Miller, a writer for the lockdown-skeptical website Rational Ground, has compiled dozens of examples of massive outbreaks in U.S. states and other nations with strict mask mandates. His most convincing examples are natural experiments: comparisons of similar jurisdictions, only one of which mandated masks. For instance, North Dakota and South Dakota both largely escaped Covid-19 in spring 2020 but saw large waves of infections in the fall. North Dakota introduced a mask mandate and business closures on November 17, but South Dakota never did. Nevertheless, both states saw nearly identical epidemic curves, with a peak in new cases in mid-November and quick falls thereafter. North and South Dakota now have low rates of new cases and nearly identical total cases and deaths: 133 cases and 1.96 deaths per 1,000 residents in North Dakota, versus 130 and 2.17 in South Dakota, according to data collated by the New York Times as of March 18. Similarly, in the summer and fall, Alabama, which imposed a mask mandate on July 16, had an epidemic curve nearly indistinguishable from its neighbors Georgia and Mississippi, which never did.

The fall coronavirus wave hit several of the mask success stories especially hard. Poland and the Czech Republic had uncontrolled outbreaks (the Czech wave was Europe’s worst for a time); Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, saw more muted surges.

So what accounts for some nations’ initial good fortune? The best explanation may just be luck. Much early Covid-19 spread was caused by a few superspreader events; nations without a superspreader event may simply have managed to avoid an outbreak until better weather reduced transmission. Denmark and Norway, for instance, had tiny first waves, despite loose lockdowns and little mask use.

Another possibility: SARS-CoV-2 is related to several widespread mild coronaviruses, and immune responses to one virus frequently confer some resistance to others. In some studies, more than half of people in Western nations show preexisting immune responses to SARS-CoV-2. Viruses that confer cross-immunity may circulate more strongly in Asia than elsewhere, explaining why not just East Asia but also Indochina—including some nations, such as Cambodia, with weak initial responses—had tiny outbreaks. Similar patterns, with lower death rates near the origin than elsewhere, have occurred in flu pandemics from Asia as well as the misnamed Spanish flu, which started in the United States but had higher mortality in Europe.

The remaining evidence that masks work for source control amounts largely to case studies that could simply be coincidence (Covid-19 patients vary greatly in their infectiousness) and questionable regional comparisons with poor controls for one important fact: the farther an epidemic has progressed, the slower it grows in percent per day, as each newly infected person encounters fewer susceptible others. One widely cited study finds that states that enacted mask mandates in the spring saw lower growth rates in the following weeks—but those states were mostly early hotspots already closer to herd immunity, where one would naturally expect to see decelerating transmission. The same problem affects an influential CDC study finding that, during the summer, Kansas counties with mask mandates had slower growth of Covid-19 cases than those without: mask-mandate counties had seen a large spike in cases just before the mandate went into effect and had consistently higher absolute infection rates.

But even if masks probably don’t help, one might reasonably ask, what’s the harm in requiring them if they might help a bit?

These harms, it turns out, are severely understudied. The Cochrane review of mask RCTs notes, “Harms were rarely measured and poorly reported”—but some are uncontroversial. The Washington Post reported in May, for instance, that masks could cause persistent face rashes. They can also cause headaches: a small Japanese study testing whether surgical masks could stop the spread of colds among health care workers found that mask wearers were almost four times as likely as controls to report headaches. In a self-selected survey of German schoolchildren, more than half of the participants reported headaches.

Unhygienically used masks can also trap moisture and thus promote bacterial and yeast growth. It’s natural to suspect that this promotes other infections: an article in the New York Post, for example, reported that many dentists had observed an increase in problems such as cavities and gingivitis that they attributed to mask wearing. Finally, there is the unknown health effect of fiber inhalation (not to mention environmental plastic pollution). One paper noted that most surgical masks have loose fibers.

Potential harms to children deserve special mention. Two Italian professors of plastic surgery, for instance, have hypothesized that the pressure of elastic ear straps may give children permanently protruding ears. Some child development researchers also worry that widespread mask-wearing may hamper children’s linguistic and emotional development.

There may even be ways by which masks might worsen Covid-19 itself. The basic reason is simple: germs caught by a mask do not simply disappear. The evidence for these is spotty or speculative but concerning enough to merit attention. In any case, the evidence justifying mask mandates is often equally speculative.

First, as Kevin McKernan, a microbiologist who worked on the Human Genome Project, has pointed out, forcing liquid through a porous membrane is a standard “nebulization” technique for producing emulsions of small droplets. McKernan hypothesizes that masks may likewise split large respiratory droplets into more dangerous airborne particles rather than trapping them. This hypothesis has some weak empirical support: multiple studies have found that some low-quality cloth masks increase emission of micron-scale particles, through nebulization or through detaching of particles from cloth threads. These studies, furthermore, last only for minutes, and the risk of pathogen dispersal from masks likely increases with prolonged use. One study of masks in surgery found that exhaled bacteria accumulate on the exterior of masks worn longer than about two hours.

Second, when droplets trapped in a mask dry out—according to speculation by the German doctor Zacharias Fögen—viruses might be re-inhaled as individual particles, penetrating deep into the lungs as well as infecting the olfactory nerve and, thence, possibly the brain, worsening existing Covid-19 cases. Fögen has analyzed Kansas epidemiological data to conclude that counties with mask mandates have a Covid-19 case fatality rate, or ratio of deaths to confirmed infections, 85 percent higher than those without. Fögen’s study is far from dispositive. My own attempt to apply his method to two other states has yielded different conclusions, and other evidence suggests a countervailing hypothesis that even imperfect masks may reduce Covid-19 severity by reducing the number of initially inhaled viruses. But Fögen’s argument is at least plausible enough to justify more attention and attempts at replication.

It would be an overstatement to say that cloth and surgical masks are unambiguously ineffective or harmful. But neither is there a firm case that they provide any meaningful benefit. Limited mask mandates may be justified in circumstances with unavoidable face-to-face contact within the range of droplet spread, such as public transport, and private businesses should be free to require masks if they like. Citizens at high risk should be free to wear effective N95 masks for their own protection, and federal regulators should clear away barriers to domestic production.

But mandates of cloth and surgical masks impose major inconveniences and potentially serious health risks on citizens, for no clear benefit either to themselves or to others. Leaders who pride themselves on following the science should consider ending them and letting citizens protect their health as they see fit.

Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images

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Is Texas’s Affordable Housing Endangered?

Though Texas most recently made headlines because of its epic energy debacle, the state has been seeing a flood of newcomers attracted by many factors, above all the state’s low housing prices. Those low housing prices, however, may not last long. Affordable homes have already almost vanished in many Texas counties. According to data from the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, of all the houses sold in Collin County, a suburban region of Dallas, in 2019, only 4 percent cost less than $200,000—down from 51 percent as recently as 2011. In the Austin metropolitan area, the average house now costs almost $397,000, up from $200,000 in 2011, according to data collected by Zillow.

The main culprit for the rising prices is legal restrictions on housing. In Texas’s urban areas, zoning codes are much like those of other U.S. cities. Large areas in the most in-demand, central areas of cities like Austin and Dallas restrict development through single-family zones, high mandatory setbacks, and parking minimums. Even in Houston, often claimed to have “no zoning”—that is, the city does not directly designate areas for exclusive residential or commercial use—other provisions of the municipal code contain most of the restrictions found in typical zoning codes.

Exurban housing construction in undeveloped areas of Texas is less restricted, but still not quite free. A report by Nolan Gray and Salim Furth for the Mercatus Center looks at four rapidly growing suburbs in Texas—two near Austin, and one each near Dallas and Houston. They found that lot sizes in these suburbs’ new subdivisions cluster close to the legal minimum, indicating that government regulations are forcing new suburban developments in Texas to be more sparsely developed than market demand.

Texas cities’ sizable constituencies for housing-development reform have repeatedly run into obstacles—especially in Austin, which has the least affordable housing in Texas. The Austin city government has spent years developing a new land-use code called CodeNEXT, but the reform’s future looks uncertain. Last March, a court ruled that a state law requiring zoning changes to pass with a three-fourths supermajority if residents near a rezoned parcel object also applies to complete code rewrites. More recently, an Austin city council member in favor of code reform was voted out of office.

Bad housing policy threatens Texas’s future in more ways than one. First, inflated house prices are bad for the working class and for newcomers, who are vital to the state’s tech boom. But there are other less obvious drawbacks. When central areas of cities become unaffordable, jobs move to the richest suburbs—typically less accessible for working-class residents.

One other unrecognized danger: high real-estate prices create political pressures for a worse tax system. Texas has very high property taxes but maintains low business taxes and no state income tax. Economists generally regard property taxes as one of the most efficient forms of tax, because they do not penalize productive activity: the value of land depends much more on the land’s location and other inherent characteristics than on improvements by the landowner. Residents can tolerate high property taxes until property values start rising; momentum then builds to cap property taxes and shift to other forms of taxation, such as income taxes, which directly harm the economy by making productive work less remunerative.

Texans would be well advised to look at the history of California since the 1970s, when the state’s largest urban areas adopted ostensibly environmentalist slow-growth plans that inflated housing prices. In 1978, fed-up homeowners organized to pass Proposition 13, which imposed a 1 percent cap on property taxes and indexed property-tax valuations to the property’s value when its current owner bought it, not its current valuation. The result: some older homeowners in expensive areas pay less than one-tenth the property taxes of their recently arrived neighbors. California makes up for this massive break on property taxes by levying extremely high taxes on productive activity, including a highest-in-the-nation income tax.

Fortunately, Texas still has time to reform. Houston has demonstrated that pro-growth policies are politically viable. Voters have repeatedly rejected referendums to introduce a zoning code, and the city even reduced minimum lot-size requirements in 1998, enabling cheap townhouse development.

Lawmakers at the city and state levels can take additional steps. The state legislature, for instance, could pass a law capping minimum lot sizes in undeveloped areas, or it could pass a law similar to a recent one in California requiring all cities to allow small “auxiliary dwelling units” in single-family residential areas. There is nothing stopping cities from passing such measures, of course. Housing prices may threaten Texas’s economic future, but if local and state leaders act swiftly, they can preserve the state’s economic opportunity for years to come.

Photo: RoschetzkyIstockPhoto/iStock

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