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I was talking to a colleague of mine today, he is an urban planner professor, and he was telling me what a wonderful time it was for his area of study. Suddenly, he told his students, everyone is talking about strategy and making plans to fix things, repair long-standing problems, stimulate that, and direct this. Clearly, after nearly thirty years of suffering from those political and cultural elites who belittled any support of organized government intervention to mitigate the more savage aspects of a free market, he sounded like a man who suddenly woke up speaking in a language others understood.
Is it not so for libraries and librarians? For years we argued of the rightful place that our institutions serve to our communities. But we seemed to be out of touch with the political imagination of most of our elected officials (at all levels of government.) Traditional and new economic players (from national bookstore chains to Google)were beating us in our own arena of expertise — getting information to people. But economic dislocation creates chaos and opportunity. Might one argue that this kind of turmoil invites a new conversation on how we sustain our institutions in this environment for the long haul? As I pointed out several times during the last few weeks, many of our professional associations, along with the Government Printing Office, are seeking ways to pull together to discuss these changes. There are many opportunities to contribute, if not think, to these changes.
One of the better overviews of the coming economic/policy revolution was published in the New York Times Magazine yesterday, and here is a relevant section —
“ONE GOOD WAY TO UNDERSTAND the current growth slowdown is to think of the debt-fueled consumer-spending spree of the past 20 years as a symbol of an even larger problem. As a country we have been spending too much on the present and not enough on the future. We have been consuming rather than investing. We’re suffering from investment-deficit disorder.
You can find examples of this disorder in just about any realm of American life. Walk into a doctor’s office and you will be asked to fill out a long form with the most basic kinds of information that you have provided dozens of times before. Walk into a doctor’s office in many other rich countries and that information — as well as your medical history — will be stored in computers. These electronic records not only reduce hassle; they also reduce medical errors. Americans cannot avail themselves of this innovation despite the fact that the United States spends far more on health care, per person, than any other country. We are spending our money to consume medical treatments, many of which have only marginal health benefits, rather than to invest it in ways that would eventually have far broader benefits.
Along similar lines, Americans are indefatigable buyers of consumer electronics, yet a smaller share of households in the United States has broadband Internet service than in Canada, Japan, Britain, South Korea and about a dozen other countries. Then there’s education: this country once led the world in educational attainment by a wide margin. It no longer does. And transportation: a trip from Boston to Washington, on the fastest train in this country, takes six-and-a-half hours. A trip from Paris to Marseilles, roughly the same distance, takes three hours — a result of the French government’s commitment to infrastructure.
These are only a few examples. Tucked away in the many statistical tables at the Commerce Department are numbers on how much the government and the private sector spend on investment and research — on highways, software, medical research and other things likely to yield future benefits. Spending by the private sector hasn’t changed much over time. It was equal to 17 percent of G.D.P. 50 years ago, and it is about 17 percent now. But spending by the government — federal, state and local — has changed. It has dropped from about 7 percent of G.D.P. in the 1950s to about 4 percent now.
Governments have a unique role to play in making investments for two main reasons. Some activities, like mass transportation and pollution reduction, have societal benefits but not necessarily financial ones, and the private sector simply won’t undertake them. And while many other kinds of investments do bring big financial returns, only a fraction of those returns go to the original investor. This makes the private sector reluctant to jump in. As a result, economists say that the private sector tends to spend less on research and investment than is economically ideal.
Historically, the government has stepped into the void. It helped create new industries with its investments. Economic growth has many causes, including demographics and some forces that economists admit they don’t understand. But government investment seems to have one of the best track records of lifting growth. In the 1950s and ’60s, the G.I. Bill created a generation of college graduates, while the Interstate System of highways made the entire economy more productive. Later, the Defense Department developed the Internet, which spawned AOL, Google and the rest. The late ’90s Internet boom was the only sustained period in the last 35 years when the economy grew at 4 percent a year. It was also the only time in the past 35 years when the incomes of the poor and the middle class rose at a healthy pace. Growth doesn’t ensure rising living standards for everyone, but it sure helps.”
If Washington is going to be the center of our economic future, its outliers will be government information. An opportunity for government information librarians to get themselves back in the frame.
See you on Day 13.