November 7, 2011

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.

By the way, I highly recommend Jonathan Rauch’s Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer Of American Government, where the term was coined. More discussion of the phenomenon can also be found in this post, where I also praise Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities.

UPDATE: Reader Kevin Long writes:

I’m a civil engineer with a little over ten years in transportation design, and I’ve witnessed first hand the chaos the industry has fallen into. I worked with a private consultant for state and local transportation agencies, and the whole shovel-ready mess wrecked our long term plans by using up most of the available funding in short-term projects. The process now takes four to six years for even a small project to go through, so when everyone moved projects up to qualify for funding through ARRA, it left a gap where no new projects are expected for a few years. Not to mention, most of the ARRA projects required very little or no engineering (repaving roads or adding sidewalks, for example). I was among the last group of engineers and surveyors laid off from my company in June and have only found one temporary job since then, with almost all the companies in my area (Nashville) treading water or downsizing since then. (In my job search, I’ve been told more than once that people are not planning on adding staff until after next year’s election.) I’m now wondering if I should change disciplines in order to hedge my bets. Environmental engineering looks promising. If you’ve been regulated out of a job, I guess apply for a job with the regulators.

Ouch.