Pop quiz: What do Larry Summers and John Oliver have in common? Are they both British? No…Are they both funny? Not intentionally…Do they both make awkward statements about women? Actually, I’m not sure, but I hope not…Are they both actively advocating for infrastructure spending? Ding ding ding!
Larry Summers recently said something startling: “At this moment . . . the share of public investment in GDP, adjusting for depreciation, so that’s net share, is zero. Zero. We’re not net investing at all, nor is Western Europe,” he told a Princeton University audience.
In other words, total federal, state, and local government investment is enough to cover only the amount of wear and tear on bridges, roads, airports, rails, and pipes. “Can that possibly make sense?” asked the former Treasury secretary, who has been campaigning for more government spending on infrastructure.
Well, technically it could make sense- if spending were such that everything was being maintained properly but new infrastructure wasn’t being built, then at least it would be true that things aren’t getting worse. What we see instead, however, is that there are structures that are actively in disrepair and without the funding to return them to their former (lack of) glory. Summers’ argument is that increased debt burdens are bad for future generations, but so is crappy infrastructure, and he asserts that low-interest-rate environments (like we currently have) are a relatively good time to borrow to undertake such projects.
Overall, I agree- as long as we’re not talking about “that weird old bridge that no one uses anyway” or something like that, then infrastructure at the very least needs to be maintained properly. In terms of leaving burdens for future generations, maintaining now is particularly important in cases where letting structures depreciate makes them disproportionately more expensive to fix later. (You know, in the same way that paying for healthy food now is cheaper than paying for diabetes later.) That said, I’m a little frustrated that people just now seem to be getting on the infrastructure bandwagon, since you know when’s an even better time to undertake infrastructure projects? When you have a bunch of unemployed people sitting on the couch- it’s more efficient to pull people off the couch to repair bridges than it is to pull them from other productive work. (This isn’t even a Keynesian stimulus argument, just an opportunity cost one.)
I get it, infrastructure is easy to take for granted- it’s just always there and passive, like that old boyfr…er, pair of slippers. We don’t pay for it directly or use it exclusively, so thinking about its upkeep is far more abstract than contemplating condo renovations or whatnot. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we have the luxury of taking infrastructure for granted only because past generations made it a priority to put it there, so it’snot really feasible to take it for granted forever. And believe me, you notice when it’s not there, whether it be potholes in roads, construction projects that get in the way and take way too much time, poorly functioning public transport (can you tell I live in Boston?)…or, you know, this:
If that didn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will…except perhaps this, featuring Ed Norton:
I would like to think that we’re not children and therefore don’t need things to be sexy in order to pay attention, but one glance at my site’s name would suggest that I’m more cynical than that.
In related news, I got a care package from John Oliver’s show that included a magic 8-ball that knows more about me than I think I am comfortable with:
There was also a USB drive include in the package, and of course the drive had a video on it…in the video, Oliver puts Meryl Streep and Thomas Piketty in the outer “neither” space of the “has an active social media presence” and “watches Last Week Tonight”- while the empirical evidence regarding Piketty is in Oliver’s favor on the social media front, I really want to think that Piketty sits on the couch with his…well, French Cheetos (Les Cheez Doodles?) and Ben & Jerry’s (Francois & Pierre’s?) and watches all of the parody news shows to see how often they mention him. (for the record, that is not a judgment on you, Tommy boy, but I will judge your book’s social media team for giving up after four tweets…FOUR. I think my cat has tweeted more than that by walking on the keyboard.)