Kevin Drum at Mother Jones asks a version of a question Via Meadia has been asking lately: “Why does it take so damn long to build stuff these days?” It’s a question that many frustrated Democrats have been asking as they look at the failure of the Obama stimulus to generate the economic growth that would have made his re-election a shoo-in. From a Democratic, Keynesian perspective the answer has two parts: that the stimulus wasn’t big enough, and that for various reasons it didn’t hit fast enough.The ‘why isn’t anything shovel ready anymore’ is an attempt to understand the second part of that answer.Drum offers several reasons for the delays, from environmental and other permits to NIMBY lawsuits. He’s right. These time-consuming obstacles mean that it takes six more years on average to get a big highway project approved by an environmental commission than it did in 1970.Drum’s solution is “simple”: Spend more money. He thinks “delays aren’t inherent in the process, they’re merely a product of how much money we’re willing to spend”, and cites the ultra-quick reconstruction of the Mississippi River Bridge in Minnesota that collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people. Because this bridge was so vital to thousands of drivers, permits were granted and hoops jumped through much faster than the average big infrastructure project.Fair enough, but how realistic is it to fast track everything? One suspects many other less urgent projects were put on hold while the bureaucrats put the bridge through on a crash basis, and in any case, it is much easier to get the approvals to fix something old rather than to build something new.Unfortunately, Drum’s simple solution is anything but. As Via Meadia has pointed out, there’s no guarantee that spending more money will increase efficiency; in fact, agency budgets and personnel have grown substantially in most states since 1970, and all those PCs and internet connections should, theoretically, speed things up even more. Yet during this time of expansion, delays have continued to rise.Even if money could speed things up, there’s a tradeoff. Unless Drum has access to a money spigot somewhere, the more one spends on bureaucratic processes, the less one has to spend on actual projects. And government, especially at the state and local level, isn’t exactly rolling in money these days.NIMBYism and other outside forces are also at work and these have little to do with whether a particular project is on a fast track inside the bureaucracy. It’s not just the permit bureaucracies that suck time and human resources and money away from highway repairs or windmill construction. External lawsuits can drag on for years, especially when, as is often the case, the plaintiffs are deliberately doing everything they can to drag out the legal process. Appeals, reviews, demands for new studies: the NIMBY industry is very good at orchestrating legal, political and bureaucratic moves to make infrastructure as difficult and as expensive as possible to build.Drum’s post points toward, but doesn’t really analyze one of the contradictions at the heart of modern liberal policy. Relying on the government to do more and more, while also making the government more and more accountable to oversight and review by civil society is a recipe for stagnation and failure. With one hand the left gives government greater and greater mandates, making its smooth, swift and efficient operation ever more necessary to social health. With the other, it hobbles and strangles the processes of government in progressively (pun intended) greater amounts of red tape.There is just no way that this mix can produce anything but frustration.
Why Nothing Is Shovel Ready Anymore: Part Two
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