I have an op-ed in the Boston Globe today on infrastructure, addressing the issue of quality rather than quantity of investment. Rachel Lipson, a graduate student at Harvard, and I describe the fiasco that has emerged from what should have been a routine maintenance project on the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River next to my office in Cambridge. Though the bridge took only 11 months to build in 1912, it will take close to five years to repair today at a huge cost in dollars and mass delays.
Investigating the reasons behind the bridge blunders have helped to illuminate an aspect of American sclerosis — a gaggle of regulators and veto players, each with the power to block or to delay, and each with their own parochial concerns. All the actors — the historical commission, the contractor, the environmental agencies, the advocacy groups, the state transportation department — are reasonable in their own terms, but the final result is wildly unreasonable.
At one level this explains why, despite the overwhelming case for infrastructure investment, there is so much resistance from those who think it will be carried out ineptly. The right response is to advocate for reforms in procurement policies, regulatory policies and government procedures to make the investment process more efficient and effective. This is all clear enough.
At another level, though, our story may illustrate phenomena that go way beyond infrastructure. I'm a progressive, but it seems plausible to wonder if government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can't even fix a 232-foot bridge competently. Waiting in traffic over the Anderson Bridge, I've empathized with the two-thirds of Americans who distrust government.
Years ago, as president of Harvard, I did various events with the late Boston Mayor Tom Menino. I was always struck by his attention to the little things — while we waited at a playground, he would check the fence for holes, or when we visited a school, he would note the missing tiles. At the time, it seemed odd and micromanaging. Over time, though, I've come to appreciate what he intimately understood: Faith in government’s ability to do big things depends on its success in executing on routine responsibilities.
We do not want to learn what we can get used to. I'm sure once the historical commission had delayed the bridge for many months, there was an attitude of “What's another couple?” In a broader sense, the Anderson Memorial Bridge tale tees up a bigger question. Where is the outrage? Why didn't the governor or the mayors of Boston and Cambridge act? What about the great free press? We seem to be caught in a dismal cycle of low expectations, poor results and shared cynicism.
More than questions of personality or even those of high policy, the question of how to escape this trap should be a central issue in this election year.
Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard, is a former treasury secretary and director of the National Economic Council in the White House. He is writing occasional posts on Wonkblog about issues of national and international economics and policymaking.