France is wiping its public face. Maybe you don’t think it needed it but the French do, and they have committed a chunk of their economic stimulus package to refreshing public buildings and historical treasures. The royal palaces of Fontainebleau and Versailles near Paris, and the many chateaus down the Loire River will benefit.
To the casual eye, these monuments, these aspects of the public face of France, looked in pretty good shape. But when this latest effort is finished, they should be as great as they were hundreds of years ago.
By contrast, the economic slump has forced U.S. jurisdictions to cut back on their expenditures for the public face of America. Those who had hoped that the stimulus package would revive the New Deal-era Works Projects Administration are disappointed. Federal and state governments are slashing funding for public works projects and letting public places decay.
Virginia is even closing some of the rest areas on its Interstates. These are not especially plentiful, but they are a godsend for truckers and people traveling with children and pets. They offer no food but they do offer clean toilets and, thoughtfully, an area for dogs to do what dogs do. No luxuries, just necessities.
France is not alone in thinking it must keep its public face clean and smiling. Allegedly, staid Britain works hard on its public face. For example the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has promised that the double-decker London buses will not be phased out as his predecessor, Socialist Ken Livingstone, had tried to do.
Livingstone wanted all the city’s familiar red buses replaced with so-called bendy buses (articulated buses). On the face of it, the old buses are uneconomic; they take a crew of two, whereas the bendy buses only have a driver. Yet that first economic calculation does not tell the whole story: Johnson sees the double-decker buses as being an integral part of the public face of London.
Likewise, the black taxis of London. They are unique to London and they cost more than regular cars because they are purpose-built, and new designs are introduced every few years. Often modified, new design-taxis are built by different companies: Some are built by companies that are not otherwise in the automobile business. This procurement pattern keeps the innovations coming.
While it costs Londoners more for their buses and their taxis, it comforts them in a way; it makes them feel special. But the real dividends are in tourism: London is the most visited city in Europe.
Paris and Rome each have a high sense of their public face and a regard for the aesthetic sensibilities of the population. Also, they have a certain knowledge that that a smiling public face will bring the smiling tourist faces, clutching their dollars, yen and yuan.
At bottom, it may be more of a philosophical issue than an economic one. Half a century ago, Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about the “private affluence” and “public squalor” in the United States.
Not that there are no great public places in the United States: New York’s Central Park holds its own against London’s Hyde Park or Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Nonetheless, it would have been nice if there were stimulus money to spruce them up and maybe create a great new public toy, like London’s giant Ferris wheel, The Eye. Churchill said that we shape buildings and then they shape us. Quite so. –For Hearst-New York Times Syndicate