In a recent New York Times Magazine article, David Leonhardt points out that, across the United States, all sorts of trips, from transcontinental flights to the daily commute, take LONGER today than they did 50 years ago. The primary culprit, he argues is declining public investment in the future. Leonhardt illustrates the pattern using time series data on federal research and development funding, which shows a clear decline from about 2% of GDP in the late 1960s to less than 1% today. The 1950s and 60s were the era of mid-century modern architecture, Isaac Asimov, Tomorrowland, “The Graduate,” the Space Race, and the Interstate Highway system. Today, not so much, and the consequences are all around us.
Leonhardt’s analysis makes clear that renewed public investment in the future would be a good thing to do. But another of reading these data is that investments in transportation infrastructure in the 1950s provided benefits for US citizens for many decades after those construction projects were completed. This idea, that the economic benefits of infrastructural investment show themselves over much longer periods as the population orients to it, is one that seems to be supported by at least one archaeological study I have been involved with. A group of collaborators and I recently published a study of changing pottery distributions over time in the Roman province of Britannia, present-day England and Wales for the most part. We were curious to see whether the Romans’ investment in building a road system following its incorporation into the Empire made it easier for potters to distribute their wares more broadly.
We learned something very interesting, namely that the road system generated economic benefits for more than a century after it was completed. Initially, the main pottery-making industries were located in major towns that were connected by roads, and as transport became easier and faster, the products of these factories became more widely distributed. But over time, people increasingly oriented their settlement to the road system, and new and larger pottery industries developed in strategic locations between the major towns. The long-term result was larger pottery industries that distributed higher quality wares even more widely than before. Pottery was only one small part of the Roman economy, but it is one that archaeologists can see clearly. And it is clear from our study of this pottery that Roman investment in infrastructure generated positive returns for the average person for a long time. As it was for the Romans, so it was for Americans in the mid-20th century, and so it would be for future Americans too.