Phrasing Is Important

Once again Lawrence Summers ends an article with a pitch for refurbishing Kennedy Airport. Here’s the peroration of his review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

Look at Kennedy airport. It is an embarrassment as an entry point to the leading city in the leading country in the world. The wealthiest, by flying privately, largely escape its depredations. Fixing it would employ substantial numbers of people who work with their hands and provide a significant stimulus to employment and growth. As I’ve written previously, if a moment when the United States can borrow at lower than 3 percent in a currency we print ourselves, and when the unemployment rate for construction workers hovers above 10 percent, is not the right moment to do it, when will that moment come?

It does provide a good opportunity for illustrating the difference among different phrasings of a question. Let me suggest some alternatives:

  • Why doesn’t New York refurbish Kennedy Airport?
  • Why doesn’t the state of New York refurbish Kennedy Airport?
  • Why doesn’t a regional combine (presumably including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) refurbish Kennedy Airport?
  • Why doesn’t the New York Congressional delegation champion a federal program to refurbish Kennedy Airport?

I strongly suspect that all of these questions have a common answer: there are higher priorities. Asserting that we should refurbish Kennedy Airport would make sense if the airport were worth more to us than it is to the citizens of New York, New York state, New Jersey, or Connecticut. I think that would be an interesting argument to hear but I’m skeptical.

Kennedy is the busiest airport in the country when it comes to international passengership but not in terms of domestic passengers (Atlanta) or cargo (Memphis). My offhand guess is that Lawrence Summers flies through Kennedy more frequently than he flies through Atlanta or Memphis. He might want to check out Dallas-Fort Worth. I understand its airport is very nice, indeed.

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