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Ed Driscoll

The Cargo Cult of the New Deal Versus America’s Sclerotic Arteries

November 7th, 2011 - 10:55 am

Last year, Jonah Goldberg noted the environmentalist Catch-22 that has boxed-in the left. “Liberalism has become a cargo cult to the New Deal, but many of the achievements of the New Deal would be impossible now. Just try to get a Hoover Dam built today.”

You can see this push-pull dynamic at work at MSNBC, where Rachel Maddow oddly champions building new Hoover Dams, even as her network’s Website champion’s the radical environmental left’s destruction of dams from that era. Or to see it at work in a fictional venue (well, even more fictional than MSNBC), check out Mark Tapson’s review at the PJ Lifestyle blog of the new AMC series Hell on Wheels, on the building of America’s transcontinental railroad:

Hell on Wheels is dragging the urban blight in the industry of the East across the West, and changing it forever. It’s kind of the beginning of the end of the West as they knew it.” Another executive producer, David von Ancken, indicates the landscape behind him and describes the show as “the battle of man, scarring nature, versus this, the beauty of nature.” It’s “the story of the train cutting through nineteenth-century America and bringing ‘civilization.’” He actually gestures the air quotes around “civilization,” to make sure you know he takes the politically correct and fashionably ironic view of the concept.

So even as the president champions high-speed “intercontinental” rail, his supporters view the original version as being just another case of Black Armband History and America being born in Original Sin — even as they take its benefits for granted to supply them with the equipment and services necessary to maintain a national television network and Hollywood studio.

But getting back to the Hoover Dam, Arthur Herman has a quick and well-written history of the project, and most importantly, who built it at National Review. As Herman writes, “Big projects are best built by big business, not Washington:”

Hoover Dam has become something of a liberal icon these days. President Obama points to it as an example of the sort of federally funded projects that once “unleashed all the potential in this country” — potential that his next round of stimulus will unleash again. MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow has pointed to the 726-foot-high, 660-foot-wide dam as proof that some projects are just too big for private enterprise. “You can’t be the guy that built this,” she tells the TV screen. Only government can, is the implication.

Well, that would come as a surprise to the guy who did build it – or, rather, the guys who did, with their private companies. In the five-year process they discovered, even back then, that the biggest obstacle they faced in Black Canyon wasn’t nature or the Great Depression, but New Deal Washington.

The truth was, construction on the scale of Hoover Dam lay far beyond the powers of the federal government — in 1931 or even later. Four and a half million cubic yards of concrete — enough to build a two-lane highway from San Francisco to New York — and 19 million pounds of reinforcing steel somehow had to be moved into the middle of the Nevada wilderness to construct both the dam and a 1.2-million-horsepower electric plant. Thousands of tons of loose rock then had to be scraped by hand from the surface of Black Canyon, before massive tunnels could be dug to divert the Colorado River to power the plant and then fill a reservoir 115 miles long with a 550-mile shoreline.

Herman’s essay appeared last week, and it dovetails nicely into new posts at Instapundit.com and Power Line: 

GOVT. FAIL: PIPELINES, TREES, AND DEMOSCLEROSIS. “In the old days, when the U.S. built things relatively quickly like Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge, someone actually got to make decisions. Today, I suspect the slightly authoritarian figures like Robert Moses or Frederick Law Olmstead would be arrested for their manner of public administration, or have their designs so slowed down and corrupted by ‘public input’ and review processes that we wouldn’t have Central Park. More likely we’d have 50 Zuccotti Parks scattered around New York City.”

What’s funny is that these innovations in legal process were championed by the same folks who — see, e.g., Rachel Maddow’s odd Hoover Dam bit — champion the idea of the government doing big things. Yet the end result of a government that focuses on process instead of product is a government that can’t do big things, and one in which the public has less faith. To pick an example from my neck of the woods, the TVA had its first dam filled within 18 months of the TVA Act’s passage. That could never happen today. Now arguably TVA built too many dams, but at least taxpayers who wondered where their money was going could see dams springing up all over. Now it goes into the pockets of lawyers and consultants and Environmental Impact Statement reviewers. Not surprisingly, that’s less impressive.

Which brings us to Tina Korbe’s latest item at Hot Air: “Priorities: State Department might delay decision on Keystone XL until after 2012 election:”

For a president who professes jobs as his No. 1 priority, his willingness to delay this decision is perplexing. The president has said he’s sure those who would benefit from Keystone XL employment wouldn’t want a job to come at the expense of healthy drinking water. That might be. Dispute also exists as to the number of jobs the project will actually create. But, at the very least, if the president considers jobs to be so urgent a matter as his relentless championing of the American Jobs Act suggests, his administration would surely attach a hard deadline to its request to sponsors for risk reduction.

Why sign off on new projects when you can Occupy time in the White House, in-between quick visits to the golf course at Andrews Air Force Base?

Recovery Summer — coming…someday.

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