Anyone who has lived through a home remodeling project knows it’s much easier to plan for improvements than to complete them. Similarly, anyone who has had to pack up and move from one office space to another knows that — try as one might to maintain output levels and re-establish the habits that seemed to work so well — you cannot continue to perform with so many changes in your established routines.
But, if you are honest, you’ll also learn by these experiences how hard it is to carry out a change and/or improvement relying solely on yourself. In the remodeling project, you need your contractor or materials supplier, or building inspector, to do their parts reliably. In your office relocation, you need the movers or IT technician to follow your instructions and respond to requests.
Never mind that I have relearned these lessons in the past few months. What prompts this observation really is the end of another calendar year, and my effort to write with suitable insight to recent developments. I’m not the sort of optimist who at all times can muster enthusiasm about the great changes underway in the world and the bright prospects they portend. I look for longer trends and inquire how human nature is improving under such influences, and generally I find that to be a hopeful effort.
But it seems that in the past several months my writing has been focusing more on what is going wrong, and I realize now that this is not such a recent trend. I will date the start of this to 2007, and the economic crisis that started late that year. There were indications things were on a bad course, but it was a full year later that things collapsed entirely, or so it seemed.
At that point, and for months afterward, many hopes for economic recovery were pinned on financial stimulus efforts, and particularly on infrastructure spending. The stimulus that was enacted apparently did little to guide recovery, which instead emerged slowly in the way it almost always does — through hard work, sacrifice, and good judgment by responsible individuals. The spending that happened had almost no effect on America’s so-called infrastructure problems (poor roads, failing bridges, etc.), which continues to be a serious problem coast to coast. The money went instead to all manner of forgotten causes, primarily to supplement states’ payrolls and pension obligations.
My objection to infrastructure spending in 2008-09 was based on a belief it would not drive economic growth, because the projects to be carried out were mainly upkeep — remodeling, if you will. There would be payrolls and materials invoices, but those would uphold the then-current standard. They would not define new objectives, establish new equity, nor provide new opportunities for expansion.
Actual new infrastructure projects (e.g., a pipeline to carry oil and natural gas) frequently are opposed for narrower interests, or other-than-economic reasons, making the work of development that much more difficult. It requires clarity by the proponents, including leadership that grasps what is essential and what can be compromised, to persuade the public that the objective of such efforts is opportunity, not reward. Typically, such efforts devolve into cronyism, rewarding a few well-connected backers so well that there is little or nothing to show for the overall effort.
It’s apparent that the progress we’ve made since 2007 has been sporadic, isolated, satisfying only in the way you might feel when you finish painting one room, though more refinishing, rewiring, and insulation projects remain in a never-ending home remodeling.
And if there is any blame to be made for this lack of achievement, it’s not simply for those who have failed to define our projects or direct our efforts. It belongs also to anyone who would define progress so narrowly as to displace general prosperity for individual advantage.