Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. - Milton Friedman

The new year begins with no shortage of crises. Economic. Geopolitical. Confidence. Then there's the need for rebuilding the things communities rely on to operate - roads, bridges, airports, water, sewer, electricity and the Internet.

Milton Friedman, the Chicago School free-market economist, wouldn't think so, but Keynesian-style public works is an old idea that's gaining currency because building roads, bridges, grids and networks create jobs and help renew confidence - with more direct, measurable impacts than economic rescue plans and stimulus packages.

Here are five smaller ideas to consider as we go forward:

Be Like Ike: President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in his official diary, "My first day at the president's desk. Plenty of worries and difficult problems." His postwar, post-Depression presidency introduced the greatest public works project in history - the interstate highway, defense and communications systems. Together they became the backbone of a resurgent economy, supported national defense and united Americans more than any other 20th-century law. The 47,000-mile system cost about a half trillion inflation-adjusted dollars. Trillions have become the denominator of choice in estimating the levels of investment needed for national renewal, competitiveness and sustainability.

Smart Is Second to Nothing: Nonpartisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Robert Atkinson argues that "digital progress" investments are vital to: improved productivity, competitiveness and quality of life; collaboration among public, private and nonprofit organizations; and solving intractable problems.

Likewise, IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano said that more intelligent and efficient systems for modernizing utility grids, traffic management, food distribution, water conservation and health care are central to economic recovery, as is the need for huge public and private investment.

Action is at the Edges: For Palmisano, being smart is synonymous with the rise of "the globally integrated enterprise" - perhaps one with three initials in its name. This unison may put us at risk of missing the Internet's great lesson: that innovation, growth and community always happen at a federation's edges rather than an enterprise's center.

Value Is in What Public Works Make Possible: Engineers and policymakers tend to discuss investments in terms of the thing itself rather than the value the thing creates. Politically, a bridge is much less an engineering marvel than a cost-effective way to reduce congestion, improve safety and increase opportunities for residents and businesses. The same is true for investments in digital renewal - engineering and wizardry in the ether mean far less to elected officials and taxpayers than how they improves quality of life and opportunities.

Watch Our Language: This column will doubtlessly be metatagged as being about infrastructure, but I've tried not to use that word here. It's useful shorthand among technologists but - infrastructure is an awful word.

A fellow economist reminds us that there's something to learn here from Friedman, who was an effective "popularizer" with even his most polemical work. "It's beautifully and cunningly written. There is no jargon; the points are made with cleverly chosen real-world examples," wrote Paul Krugman in The New York Review of Books regarding Friedman's pamphlet, Roofs or Ceilings: The Current Housing Problem.

Perhaps that's our charge for making the case for things that matter: be clever, beautiful and cunning.

 

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer