Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Policy Debate 2012 Infrastructure Topic - key definitions

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.

While topicality files typically breakdown every single word of the resolution and provide alternative definitions, for the purpose of this analysis at this time, it is not necessary.  Instead I would like to provide a working definition of the key terms in the resolution, "transportation", "infrastructure" and "investment".  Merriam-Webster defines infrastructure as an underlying structure or basic framework.  Each of the definitions suggests the framework supports a system of some type. 'Infra' is the Latin word for below or under, structure is the arrangement of parts or elements and typically describe the arrangement of elements comprising a complex system. Thus infrastructure is the underlying structure of a system, in this case, a system for transportation.  Transportation is defined as a means of conveying people or goods from one place to another. Investment is defined as the "outlay" of money given for income or profit.  It is the upfront money given in order to realize a return in income or profit.  It can also be defined as an outlay of capital which may be any money or goods used to generate income.  So it does not have to be money but that is something we can explore later.  Based on these definitions we can thus claim, generally speaking, that a transportation infrastructure investment is the money given for the underlying systems used to provide for the movement of people and/or goods.

I personally think the use of the term "investment" can be very significant.  Simply put, an investment is giving money to a thing with the expectation of a profit. An investment requires assurance the upfront money will not be lost or wasted.  When people claim to invest in the stock market unless they have done a thorough risk analysis and have some type of security to protect their initial outlay of money, they are speculating rather than investing.  Therefore, this resolution states the USFG funding must be secured by some means, otherwise one could argue it is not a proper investment.  When buying a house, the mortgage is secured by the market value of the property (as well as other means).  So, if the homeowner defaults the lender can recover the investment by taking possession of the property.

Another potential conflict exists with respect to the usage of the term investment. It can be argued that money spent to maintain an investment is not in and of itself an investment unless the expenditure increases the value of the investment.  It should not be difficult to understand money spent to maintain an investment at present value is an expense.  In order to be considered an investment, the money spent for maintenance must sufficiently increase the value so as to protect the additional money as well as the initial outlay.  If a homeowner spends $10,000 to replace the roof, though it protects the initial investment it is an expense because it does not increase the value.  If the homeowner spends $10,000 to add a room, it may be considered an investment because the value of the property is increased.  Given this understanding, the Affirmative team will need to make the distinction between maintenance and investment and ensure their plans secure return for the initial principle as well as additional funds.  Without this assurance, the Negative team can potentially claim a topicality violation.

Investment Security
Having established that an investment requires some kind of assurance of positive return it is necessary to understand some ways in which the government secures itself against loss when giving money for infrastructure.  I have stated in the first part of this analysis that the transportation infrastructure has contributed to the growth of the nation.  Investment generates a cited "spillover" effect which stimulates growth beyond the scope of the initial project and these effects are more difficult to quantify.  In general, companies deliver products and services via transportation.  Companies which sell products generate income and hire employees, companies and employees pay taxes, taxes are income for the government.  Therefore, one of the principle ways the government recovers its investment is through corporate and employment taxes.  Another significant tax revenue is realized in energy taxes, in particular, the tax on gasoline.  The more transportation, the more gasoline is consumed generating income for the government.  Additionally federal funds, released to the states are returned to the Federal government (or supposed to be) through various revenue streams.  To be sure, there are other ways the USFG recovers its investment and these can be discovered by researching "rate of return" + "transportation infrastructure".  In a somewhat dated study by the Congressional Budget Office, they reported:

"Carefully chosen federal investments in physical infrastructure such as highway and aviation projects would yield economic rates of return higher than the average return on private capital."

The Treasury Department's 2012 study stated:

"Many studies have found evidence of large private sector productivity gains from public infrastructure investments, in many cases with higher returns than private capital investment.  Research has shown that well-designed infrastructure investments can raise economic growth, productivity, and land values, while also providing significant positive spillovers to areas such as economic development, energy efficiency, public health, and manufacturing."

(src: http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/economic-policy/Documents/20120323InfrastructureReport.pdf)

A 2011 report by the Carnegie Endowment:
"Public investment in transportation infrastructure remains appropriate. It is estimated that for every 0.1 percent increase in the rate of GDP growth, the deficit could be reduced by $288 billion over ten years. The federal government now spends about $70 billion annually on all modes of surface, marine, and air transportation, about $52 billion of which is devoted to roads, rails, mass transit, buses, and connecting infrastructure (stations, transfer hubs, access improvements, and so on). The arguments for additional investment to support America’s competitive position in a growing global economy are well documented and compelling.  However, the massive sums committed to public capital investments in transportation infrastructure need to be strategic, ef¤Éicient, and backed up by cost-benefit analyses that target the total benefits to society as the core purpose of investment."
(src: http://carnegieendowment.org/files/road_to_recovery.pdf)

Also see:

Investment Performance Failure
A study of the the current state of transportation infrastructure investment will show there has been good historical performance, meaning the rates of return have been good.  However some reports will show that rates of return on highway projects have decreased.  This may be a reflection of the fact that continued investment in certain kinds of infrastructure may be unsustainable.  The GAO study linked above, reveals that in the last seven years, the more federal money for certain kinds of infrastructure projects has been given to state than is returning.  Investments are not supposed to lose money and over the long term, such kinds of investments are downgraded and potentially reclassified.

For clarity, just because an investment fails to generate a return does not automatically indicate the financial outlay was not an investment in the first place.  Sometimes despite the best analysis and projected valuations, investments fail for a variety of reasons.  Evidence of investment failure should not trigger a topicality violation for this resolution as long as the initial criteria for definition as an investment was met.

Many of the studies will tell you that not all infrastructure investments are created equal.  Some will be considered good investments with high rates of return over a longer period of time.  Others will have short term, low rates of return.  For the topicality of this resolution, this has implications when the Negative team challenges the "significantly increase" terminology of the resolution with respect to the Affirmative plan.  For sure, one thing that may need clarified with regard to "significantly increase ... investment" is what exactly does it mean to increase an investment?  Does it mean to simply pour in more money or does it mean to increase the rate of return?  I would not be surprised if some clever Negative team finds evidence to support the latter.

Limitation of Definitions
Now we can define transportation and we can define infrastructure but when we combine the terms do we truly know what a transportation infrastructure is or more properly, what it is not?  We read of several key types of infrastructures in the United States such as energy infrastructure, water system infrastructure, etc.  So can a system of conveyance such as an oil pipeline be considered part of the transportation infrastructure? Clearly, tanker trucks, trains, and ships utilize the transportation infrastructure to convey oil, what about pipes?  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce when undertaking the task of establishing guidelines and methodology for measuring infrastructure investment performance, gave the following definition:
"Clearly define “transportation infrastructure” as the underlying structures that support the
delivery of inputs to places of production, goods and services to customers, and customers to
marketplaces. The structures are:
* Transit
* Highways
* Airports
* Railways
* Waterways (Ports)
* Intermodal Links"

(src: http://www.uschamber.com/sites/default/files/issues/infrastructure/files/2009TPI_Update_Economics_White_Paper_110712.pdf)

In another report, they offered the following, more specific definition:
"It is important to establish a definition of transportation infrastructure in order to establish the scope of the index.General Definition: Moving people and goods by air, water, road, and rail. Technical Definition: The fixed facilities―roadway segments, railway tracks, public transportation terminals, harbors, and airports―flow entities―people, vehicles, container units, railroad cars―and control systems that permit people and goods to traverse geographical space in a timely, efficient manner for an intended purpose. Transportation modes include highway, public transportation, aviation, freight rail, marine, and intermodal.  Note that pipeline infrastructure is not included in this definition. For purposes of the Infrastructure Performance Index it is considered an element of energy infrastructure."
(emphasis mine, src: http://www.uschamber.com/sites/default/files/lra/files/LRA_TPI%20_Summary_Report%20Final%20092110.pdf)

In 2011 a policy statement issued by the City of Denver, Manager of Public Works gave the following definition:
"Transportation infrastructure is defined as any facility designed for transporting people and goods including, but not limited to, sidewalks, trails, bike lanes, highways, streets, bridges, tunnels, railroads, mass transportation and parking systems."
(src: http://www.completestreets.org/webdocs/policy/cs-co-denver-policy.pdf)
The Denver definition, though interesting, would be inadequate since it is local in scope and does not include other forms of transportation such as air and water. Any definition which includes a phrase like "not limited to" is an open door to contention in policy debate.

The difficulty in establishing a universal definition is reflected in many of the sources I have examined and so makes it very difficult, if not impossible to establish an agreeable limitation to what exactly constitutes the "transportation infrastructure".  Yes, we can broadly conceptualize it, but how narrowly can we define it before it no longer meets an acceptable interpretation is any one's guess.  This is critical to the topicality debate and figuring out if the transportation of commodities through pipelines, and wires is "fair game" in this debate.

I suppose one way to deal with the problem is confirm that pipelines and power lines are explicitly defined as part of the energy infrastructure, as in this 2001, Department of Energy Report:
"Our energy infrastructure is comprised of many components, such as the physical network of pipes for oil and natural gas, electricity transmission lines and other means for transporting energy to consumers. This infrastructure also includes facilities that turn raw natural resources into useful energy products..."

Unfortunately, there is no exclusivity to the definition because the same report overlaps the energy and transportation infrastructures.  Note the conclusion to the above quotation:
"...The rail network, truck lines, and marine transportation are also key components of America’s energy infrastructure..."
"The infrastructure used to transport energy products includes ocean tankers; inland barges; specialized trucks for oil and refined products, such as gasoline and heating oil; railroad tank cars and coal cars; and the waterways, highways, and railroads upon which they travel. There is also a substantial inventory of river and oceanside port facilities that are used for moving energy materials." 

(src: http://www.netl.doe.gov/publications/press/2001/nep/chapter7.pdf)

Overlapping definitions such as this blow open the "T" debate and potentially broaden the current resolution into other possible affirmatives, that some debaters may not have previously considered.  The overlap and cross-definitions of the types of infrastructures may in fact be necessary in order to face the realities of 21st century interdependency of our systems, particularly when looking at security issues and how to protect the infrastructure investment.


  1. very helpful. thank you

  2. This helps a lot thanks for putting it up. :)

  3. This is awesome :DD

  4. can we copy and paste this please

    1. yes you can. just cite the information...best of luck

    2. Feel free to cite the sources and wrap them in your own words. That's what I did.


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