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Ed Driscoll

Voyage of the Dammed

May 18th, 2013 - 8:55 am

Back in 2011 we had lots of fun with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC cheerfully using one of the biggest pariahs of today’s “Progressive” environmentally-correct — the Hoover Dam — to promote the environmentally-correct “Progressive” channel that employs her. Here’s an amusing following up, found at Jim Geraghty’s Campaign Spot daily email:

Why Kevin Williamson Rocks, Vol. LMXVIII

You probably don’t need any more reasons to purchase Kevin Williamson’s The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure,but I just had to share this section yesterday, dismantling Rachel Maddow’s “Lean Forward” ad featuring the Hoover Dam as a symbol of future national infrastructure projects that absolutely must be funded.

Conventional political theory holds that only the state can provide public goods such as parks, sidewalks, roads, and the like. Television commentator Rachel Maddow offered a typically exaggerated expression of this view when she visited the Hoover Dam and remarked, “When you are this close to Hoover Dam, it makes you realize how small a human is in relation to this as a human project. You can’t be the guy who builds this. You can’t even be the state that builds this. You have to be the country that builds this.” (Never mind that Hoover Dam was in fact built by a consortium of private firms headed by Bechtel-Kaiser, under precisely the sort of outsourcing/private contractor arrangement that Maddow has no time for in most other contexts — in fact, she includes a chapter in one of her books denouncing this practice.) In a sense, Maddow is correct — the Hoover Dam is an economically nonviable project from the time of its conception, and the mighty installation, visually impressive as it is, produces significantly less electricity than does a typical small nuclear power plant. Which is to say, it is a majestic boondoggle. Only politics can do that — and stay in business. And, needless to say, a “guy” attempting a project with the environmental impact of Hoover Dam would never get permission from environmental regulators, given that its construction entailed wiping out an entire local ecosystem.

So the only parts Maddow got right were the points she didn’t intend to make.

The concept that Hoover Dam was not actually built by the federal government, but was ultimately built by private companies, seemed so contrary to our usual narratives that I went and looked it up:

The Hoover Dam project was too big for any one company. So W. A. Bechtel helped form a consortium calling itself Six Companies, Inc. W. A. knew the heads of the consortium companies as friends and business associates, having been in partnerships with most of them. There was tall, lean Harry Morrison, head of Morrison-Knudsen of Boise, Idaho, and the man most directly responsible for bringing the group together; and the white-haired Wattis brothers of Utah Construction Co., the region’s foremost railroad builders. They were joined by the wry Felix Kahn of MacDonald & Kahn, a premier builder of office buildings, industrial plants, and hotels, including the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco. Phil Hart ran Pacific Bridge Co., one of the oldest construction firms on the West Coast, and was justly famous for his underwater work — a critical component in dam construction. Charlie Shea, the pugnacious, acid-tongued boss of J. F. Shea Co., was the best tunnel and sewer man west of the Rockies. And finally there was the legendary Henry Kaiser, whom W. A. had long valued for his enthusiasm and vision. W. A. Bechtel served as the second president of Six Companies; his son Steve was a member of the executive committee; and sons Warren and Ken served on the board.

Kevin is also taking no prisoners a critic, helping his local theater enforce their no cell phone rules — in appropriately dramatic style.

For my recent interview with him, click here to listen.

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I like Kevin Williamson, but his criticism of Hoover Dam is disappointing.
Comparing it to a nuclear plant is a bit silly, given that nuclear power did not arrive for another 25 years. In any event, the project had a dual purpose, with supplying water as important as the electricity produced.
As for calling it a boondoggle, I fail to see it. The dam cost $49 million, or maybe $900 million in today's dollars. Meanwhile it is producing 4.2Twh/year. Assuming a wholesale price for the electricity of 3 cents a kwh, it is producing about $120 million of electricity/year. And it has been doing that reliably for 77 years. Not a bad return on investment.
48 weeks ago
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