'Useless expenditure' of a bankrupt country

Scarcely a week goes by without a call from President Obama for more "investment" in transportation infrastructure. CNN summarizes this year's State of the Union address:

President Obama renewed his call to improve the nation's "crumbling" infrastructure during his State of the Union address Tuesday, saying it will create jobs and help the nation compete in the global economy.

Singling out roads, bridges and railways, Obama said the U.S. "infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped."

"Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do," the president said. "China is building faster trains and newer airports."

He's a bit like the guy who sees his neighbor's new Cadillac Escalade and tries to convince his wife that if they traded in the 1999 Explorer, they wouldn't have to worry about breaking down, they'd be safer and never be late for work, they'd get promotions for their timeliness and they'd end up with more money in their pockets. If you can afford a new car, the argument is not without merit. If you're going into debt that you can never repay to buy a new car, it's not necessarily a wise move.

I recently came across an astute passage by a writer traveling in Italy, who addressed this topic of a bankrupt country building lavish transportation infrastructure:

There are a good many things about this Italy which I do not understand -- and more especially I can not understand how a bankrupt Government can have such palatial railroad depots and such marvels of turnpikes. Why, these latter are as hard as adamant, as straight as a line, as smooth as a floor, and as white as snow. When it is too dark to see any other object, one can still see the white turnpikes of France and Italy; and they are clean enough to eat from, without a table-cloth. And yet no tolls are charged.

As for the railways -- we have none like them. The cars slide as smoothly along as if they were on runners. The depots are vast palaces of cut marble, with stately colonnades of the same royal stone traversing them from end to end, and with ample walls and ceilings richly decorated with frescoes. The lofty gateways are graced with statues, and the broad floors are all laid in polished flags of marble.

This country is 
bankrupt. There is no real foundation for these great works. The prosperity they would seem to indicate is a pretence. There is no money in the treasury, and so they enfeeble her instead of strengthening. Italy has achieved the dearest wish of her heart and become an independent State -- and in so doing she has drawn an elephant in the political lottery. She has nothing to feed it on. Inexperienced in government, she plunged into all manner of useless expenditure, and swamped her treasury almost in a day.

Apart from the "no tolls are charged," the above could easily describe Obama's America circa 2011. The passage however is from Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad (1869).