SLOAN | Infrastructures cluttered with paperwork | Columns
George Will, with his singular eloquence and Solomonic wisdom, wrote a column in the Washington Post a few weeks ago asking a question that should be set in stone and presented to anyone who was jumping exuberantly at the prospect of the multi- Trillion Dollar Infrastructure Plan: Is America Still Capable of Undertaking Such Large-Scale Enterprises?
This is a strangely isolated question, but no less indispensable for her. Two highlights from Will’s first paragraph are illustrative: First, construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge took four years in the 1930s, but replacing a third after the 1989 earthquake took more than two. decades; second, that “economists found that the inflation-adjusted cost of building a mile of the interstate highway system had tripled between the 1960s and 1980s.”
Will also makes several references to Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge’s 2018 book “Capitalism in America: A History” in which the authors cite several examples to make the same point, and others abound. The Hoover Dam, for example, was completed in five years, two years ahead of schedule. The Erie Canal was completed in seven years, in the 1820s. Today, projects of a fraction of this scale would take decades, if they even exceeded the environmental impact assessment.
It’s a bit confusing, to say the least, considering that technological improvements alone should make such efforts relatively rapid compared to 50, 100 or 200 years ago. The required engineering calculations can be done on a wallet-sized device in a short time to enter the relevant numbers. The machines available today make even the most advanced equipment used on the Hoover Dam seem woefully archaic.
It is not technological or physical limitations, or a skill deficit, or even a lack of willpower that stops our national capacity to build. This is because every project today is subject to increasing volumes of government rules, regulations, mandates, requirements and guidelines related to just about anything a politician or bureaucrat can think of – work, safety, environment, etc. The first one to five years of any federal project are related to determining whether an aspect of the project could move a weed or interfere with the movements of a particular earthworm. And now, the regulatory network is expanding into trendy classifications such as equity, inclusion, and social justice.
Lest we fall asleep thinking this is just a symptom of federal bureaucratic inertia, we are constantly reminded of how local building codes, zoning regulations and the like stack up on costs, delays. and other obstacles to local projects. We see how the new building codes passed in Denver, for example, require that new apartment buildings not only have more EV chargers, but ensure that they are located in the places closest to the doors. And that’s before taking into account the new energy efficiency mandates.
The question of whether or not America is even capable of tackling these big corporations, no matter how much money is poured into them, raises an even more worrying one: Are we still able to meet defense expectations? ? The evolving threats to which the US military posture must pivot – to deter Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia, Iranian aggression in the Middle East, and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe – will force the United States to reorient their defense planning towards a model that anticipates more traditional engagements than those in which we have been involved in recent decades. This means large-scale combined arms operations, naval dominance, and the rapid establishment of air superiority where this military blessing is lacking.
Sadly, the current Commander-in-Chief has never, in his 40-plus years in Washington, been particularly willing to adequately fund the nation’s defense. He’s willing to explode billions of dollars on infrastructure – variably defined as pretty much anything non-defense – but is much more parsimonious with the Pentagon; its proposed defense budget is essentially flat, not even enough to cope with inflation. Meanwhile, China’s military spending is increasing by more than 6% per year, their navy is now arguably larger than that of the United States, and they have made a habit of sending swarms of fighter jets regularly. in Taiwan airspace.
This is the absurdity we are faced with; the current struggle in Washington is over billions of dollars spent on infrastructure by a government which itself limits its ability to carry out projects; while ignoring what is perhaps the most important infrastructural question: are we depleting our military at a dangerous rate?
Kelly Sloan is a Denver-based political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist.