We continue to be bombarded with endless reporting and non-stop commentary that casts the public debt in a very negative light. This echo chamber of doomsday warnings, and policy recommendations for austerity threaten our American economic future and the quality of life we can ultimately achieve.
Mike here and others have often pointed out that outstanding U.S. Treasury securities and other state and local Government securities represent only the value of the "liability" side of the public balance sheet, and for perspective, objective observers should compare those liabilities to any public "assets".
One of the most visible public asset classes is our U.S. system of roads, highways and interstates. On this Labor Day weekend, let us look at these tremendous public assets that stand as an operational monument to the U.S. worker. What could be the value of these assets? How does that value compare to our public liabilities? Here's a shot:
The construction cost models I found differentiate between Rural and Urban costs and call out a "LOW" and "HIGH" cost to establish a range for estimators. My LOW value you can see is $8.7T and the HIGH is $29.9T. The Fed's latest Z-1 is clipped below and indicates that total Federal borrowings are $6.36T and State & Local borrowings are $2.23T , for a total of $8.59T of public borrowings.
So if one was concerned about our public debt to asset ratio, you can see from this (albeit quick) analysis that total public debt outstanding may not even be "financing" the current replacement value of our country's highways and roads. The remainder of all public assets could be considered more than paid for (think: water, electric transmission, health, defense, public safety, I could go on and on). My question then becomes: ARE WE UNDER LEVERAGED? I think we are; and I think we are tremendously over-taxed "to pay for it".
Notes: I got the total for U.S. lane-miles here. The data for the HIGH/LOW, Urban/Rural construction costs for the Interstates and Other Arterials came from here. I've made an assumption that Collectors would cost 50% of the actual highway, and that Local roads/streets would cost 10% of the Collectors (this may be quite a lowball if you include the underground utilities and hookups as part of the Local street construction costs).