In a new op-ed in The Financial Times, Harvard professor Larry Summers writes:
Take a walk from the US Air Shuttle in New York’s LaGuardia airport to ground transportation. For months you will have encountered a sign saying “New escalator coming in Spring 2015” … It will take almost half as long to fix the escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State building 85 years ago.
Is it any wonder that the American people have lost faith in the future and in institutions of all kinds? If rudimentary tasks such as keeping escalators going and bridges repaired are too much to handle, it is little surprise that disillusionment and cynicism flourish.
In his essay, Summers — who was considered to replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve Chairman last year — bemoans the state of infrastructure investment in the US, arguing that three steps must be taken in order to improve not just the infrastructure itself, but the discourse that surrounds our institutions responsible for this kind of investment.
Summers argues that first, the discussion on which infrastructure projects to pursue must shift from projects that occasion a celebration upon completion to those that are less sexy: maintenance and upkeep.
“[B]efore anyone contemplates spiffy new high-speed railway systems, careful consideration should be given to repairing existing rail lines and stations,” Summers writes.
Summers also calls for accounting methods that show the public what deferred maintenance really is, which for Summers is “borrowing from the future.”
Lastly, Summers says the public and the media need to be less accepting of institutional failure.
“A vicious cycle in which governments perform poorly and so are starved of resources and so perform worse is serious threat to healthy democracy,” Summers writes.
“Fixing escalators and building bridges may seem like small stuff at a time of economic crisis and geopolitical instability. But it is time we recognise the importance of what may seem small to what is ultimately important — the faith of citizens in their collective future.”
And so overall, just about a year removed from his famous “secular stagnation” speech, Summers calls not just for spending on infrastructure, but a new way to talk and think about what infrastructure means to the US economy.