Politics & Policy

Shovel-Ready White Elephants

When it comes to infrastructure, Uncle Sam’s arteries are hardened.

It took 410 days to build the Empire State Building, four years to erect the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pentagon took a year and a half, the Alaska Highway just nine months. These days it takes longer to build an overpass.

For instance, planning for Boston’s “Big Dig” officially began in the early 1980s with a budget of $2.6 billion, but ground wasn’t broken until 1991 and the last ramp wasn’t opened until 2006. The final estimated cost: $22 billion. According to the Boston Globe, it won’t be paid off until 2038.

Meanwhile, the “race” to rebuild the World Trade Center as some kind of remorse theme park approaches its second decade.

And across the harbor from Ground Zero, in New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie has earned scorn for thinking that a proposed underwater rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey might be too pricey. Under discussion for decades, it was originally projected to cost $5 billion. Estimates are now $9 billion and rising.

Christie still might reverse course if he can cut a better deal for his state. But the underlying fact remains the same: This country can’t build stuff the way it used to. It’s taken President Obama nearly two years and billions of dollars in misspent stimulus money to discover that there really is “no such thing as shovel-ready jobs” when it comes to public works.

In fairness, Uncle Sam’s sloth and bloat is not all bad news. Americans used to tolerate a much higher level of workplace mortality for such projects.

And to be sure, not all environmental regulations are overkill. One reason we couldn’t build a Hoover Dam today is that such projects do incredible violence to the natural environment. (I’m always amused by the stylish environmentalism of many Southern Californians who don’t realize that Mother Nature intended for SoCal to be a desert where snakes outnumber hybrid cars.)

The simple reality is that Uncle Sam’s arteries are hardened. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush’s allegedly tardy response was seen as proof that conservatism itself was inadequate to the demands of responsible government. But it wasn’t conservatism that kept some volunteer firefighters out of commission because they were in Atlanta for sexual-harassment training and video tutorials about how great FEMA is. Nor does conservatism demand blind obedience to the Davis-Bacon Act, the union-friendly rule originally intended to keep blacks out of the public workforce that is now used to pump up wages on every project.

NIMBYism is surely a bipartisan phenomenon. It is not conservative opposition that has delayed the construction of windmills that would diminish the view from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. Nor was it primarily the Right that boosted entitlements until they crowded out public works.

And let’s not forget Yucca Mountain in Nevada — a project under way for decades that has already cost untold billions and is being shuttered in no small part because environmentalists say that it won’t be safe enough 10,000 years from now.

Much of the liberal intelligentsia is awash with nostalgia for the days when government got big things done. Economist Paul Krugman, who subscribes to the Keynesian fantasy that spending just a bit more money than is ever fiscally or politically possible is the answer to all of our woes, is beside himself that Christie won’t pay whatever it costs to make Krugman’s commute easier. His fellow New York Times columnist, Tom Friedman, dedicates dozens of columns a year to his envy of China, and more recently he praised Singapore for its willingness to spend huge sums on a string of Manhattan projects and Hoover Dams.

Failure to indulge these building sprees is routinely blamed on the Right’s anti-government ideological dogmatism. The irony is that there’s not that much ideological opposition to worthwhile public-works projects. There’s some, but most objections are much more consistent with the old-fashioned, country-club-style fiscal conservatism everyone claims to miss. The white elephants are just too expensive to build, and they often seem to be aimed at disguising wealth distribution, either to favored unions or to favored donors.

Taxpayers recognize this, which is why earmarks are a much bigger symbolic issue than they are an economic one.

Obama says there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects. But he has it wrong. There are projects perfectly ready for the shovels. It’s the bureaucrats, activists, and politicians who aren’t ready to hand them out.

 Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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