On the morning of my first ever trip to Rome, I was wandering through the city when, by accident, I came across the Pantheon. It shook me deeply. Most ancient buildings are ruins, or near enough. Here was a vast, beautiful structure presenting itself almost without flaw. Two millennia melted away on sight, and the glory of imperial Rome made itself immediately known to me. I had never experienced such a profound connection with the distant past.
At a conference later that day, an economist asked me what I thought of Rome. I mentioned my unexpected sighting of the Pantheon. He replied: "We should run a cost-benefit analysis of ancient Rome's public building works. What is the benefit of your experience this morning? Did they factor that in when they built the Pantheon?"
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Perhaps they did, in a sense. All nations, states and civilisations aspire to some form of immortality, Rome more than any other. Nowadays, to be so shamelessly ambitious is seen as tasteless, probably immoral and certainly out of date. But what if we were to rebrand Rome's hubris in our own terms? What if we were to call it an 'industrial strategy'?
Theresa May's government has embarked on what it calls a "proper industrial strategy". As with Brexit, we don't yet know what that means, but it seems to involve promising favourable terms to foreign car manufacturers (Nissan), offering some welcome if limited increase in research and development spending (£2bn), and maybe something to do with apprenticeships. So far, so predictable. Why can't we be more ambitious?
For public investment to gain the support it needs, it has to capture the public imagination. It has to make people's spirits soar
If early imperial Rome can be said to have had an industrial strategy, public buildings were a central part of it. And they have inspired every generation of inhabitants and visitors ever since. Of course, a cost-benefit analysis is impossible – but who would dare argue that the immediate financial costs of building imperial Rome outweighed the long-term benefits? Should the Pantheon not have been built? Even on the narrowest, short-term economic measure, it was almost certainly worth it. Roman bricks are routinely found in north Africa, suggesting that the steady long-term demand offered by vast public building projects in Rome allowed brickmakers to mass-produce for the global market, rather than simply to order. The sheer scale of Rome's ambition stimulated its economy. Boldness begat growth.
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Direct state involvement in industry only really works if it is inspiring, joyful, even a bit romantic. For a public investment programme to gain the political support it needs to sustain itself, it has to capture the public imagination. It has to make people's spirits soar. Without that magic, it will just come across as another drain on the taxpayer – and no cost-benefit analysis will persuade people otherwise.
Here's another inspiring industrial strategy: space exploration. In its glory years the US space programme was an expensive but ultimately successful way to fill people's hearts with pride. The costs may have been vast, but the benefits were incalculable. How many children of the late 1960s grew up with an ingrained respect for America after its publicly funded venture into the Beyond captured their imagination in one glorious summer? And that's not to mention the vast direct economic benefits gleaned from a programme on the scale of NASA. It is both a job creator (at its peak in the late 1960s NASA employed nearly 400,000 directly or indirectly), and a source of technological innovation from which thousands of US businesses have benefited.
The importance of these huge public investment programmes cannot be overstated. And yet they have their origins in a kind of frivolity. Many of Rome's public building works were eminently sensible – sewers, aqueducts, and other precursors to the infrastructure projects routinely discussed in the UK today (HS2, nuclear power plants and so on). But some of it, the Pantheon included, was pure spectacle. Yes, the use of spectacle to dazzle the people was a key political weapon in ancient Rome. But it was also employed in the service of beauty, wonder and high culture. It was about doing amazing things for the sheer hell of it.
The use of spectacle was a key political weapon in ancient Rome. But it was also employed in the service of beauty, wonder and high culture
Similarly, in the 1960s there were plenty more pressing concerns than sending people to the moon. But that didn't stop the USA. At times of uncertainty and darkness (for Romans, 20 years of monstrous civil war; for Americans, the threat of nuclear holocaust), a good industrial strategy boosts the economy by lifting people's spirits first. For all the merits or otherwise of HS2 or Hinkley Point, neither can hope to add to our sense of what it means to be alive.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the Garden Bridge. The arguments against building it are no doubt very sound: yes, there are more urgent uses of public money; yes, London needs a crossing in the east far more than a folly in the centre; and so on. But that misses the point of the Garden Bridge, which is that it will make people feel good. And how do you do a cost-benefit analysis of that?
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To do industrial strategy well, you have to inspire people to believe that the state can do great deeds. But as economist Mariana Mazzucato says, "The state has not had a good marketing/communications department." Can Theresa May really persuade a Conservative party encrusted with suspicion of state intervention that this is the way to go? It seems doubtful, and yet the Labour party is now so relentlessly focused on the past that visionary industrial leadership seems unlikely to emerge from that source either.
We need to hear exciting stories from the front line of technology, with the state's role made apparent. The Romans did that by building temples. Where are our 21st-century temples? We should be proud of what we are good at – digital tech, engineering, computers, medicine – and we should show it by investing conspicuously in it. Instead of watching in awe, the British state should be giving Elon Musk – with his electric cars, futuristic transport systems and commercial space travel – a run for his money.
At this time of national uncertainty, we should not be ashamed of spending public funds on grand, romantic projects. Instead, we should embrace the folly of it and reap the economic and spiritual rewards. In our search for inspiration, we should look – once again – to Rome.