You didn’t build that: Five big things we did then but couldn’t do now

One of the biggest drawbacks to brilliance – as noted super genius Wile E. Coyote could attest – is seeing the hours of intricate planning and subtle nuance ignored when an endeavor goes awry.  So it is with erstwhile super genius Barack Obama as he struggles to explain away last week’s haught heard ’round the world, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”

Context.  If you listen his entire remarks you’ll see that while the President inelegantly mixed his objects – using “that” instead of “those” in referring to the bridges and roads he mentioned in the previous sentence and not in reference to the the business he previously referred to in the same sentence – you can see he clearly supports small businesses.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for President — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

Notwithstanding the sneering contempt in his voice as he belittled the folks who successfully took to heart the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper and believed that if they built a better mousetrap then the world would beat a path to their door, Obama has a point.  No one man goes out and builds a Golden Gate Bridge or a Burj Khalifa or a space program.

Present company excluded

Looking past the obvious fact there are no public dollars without a robust economy from which to extract them under threat of jail or worse large scale infrastructure projects generally require some public funding and support for zoning changes, eminent domain takings, etc.  Which is more indicative of the barriers that have been constructed by public officials to ensure large projects are run and maintained by bureaucrats.  So in that vein let’s consider five big projects of yesteryear that we couldn’t do now.

5.  The Golden Gate Bridge (1933-1937) – $35,000,000 ($519,000,000 in today’s dollars)

Most Americans can picture the Golden Gate Bridge in their mind even if they’ve never been to San Francisco.  The very definition of iconic.  Every other suspension bridge on Earth is just copying the design.  It’s no wonder Obama included this beauty on his laundry list of collective greatness.

It could only be cooler if Dirty Harry was shooting a punk off of the bridge and onto the deck of that freighter

Construction on the bridge was started in January 1933 and it was opened May 27, 1937.  Eleven workers died during construction – ten in a single incident when a safety net failed and twelve men plummeted into the water below.  The last of the construction bonds for the project were retired in 1971 ($35 million in principal and $39 million in interest), the money paid entirely with bridge tolls.  Wait, what?  Tolls?  This thing’s been paid for since 1971 and they still charge tolls?  If you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to your business today do you get extra credit for building that?

Oh, and like most infrastructure projects the Golden Gate Bridge was conceived, approved, and financed at the local, county, and state level.  The Department of War (which is what the Department of Defense was then and still goddamned should be called) agreed to cede land for the project if it happened, but it was primarily a local effort.  For what the US Government pisses away on talking robot attendants in the Solyndra restrooms today depression-era Californians created a timeless monument.

Why we couldn’t do it now

California is absolutely and totally broke.  Despite being an essential and expensive daily commuting choke point for 120,000 vehicles a day the Golden Gate Bridge itself loses money.  Could they really afford to build that which they can’t even afford to maintain now?  Oh, not that being broke would stop them from trying.  The state legislature did just approve additional funding for a bullet train to nowhere.

Even in 1933 getting the bridge built was a struggle.

The Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, authorized by an act of the California Legislature, was incorporated in 1928 as the official entity to design, construct, and finance the Golden Gate Bridge. However, after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the District was unable to raise the construction funds, so it lobbied for a $30 million bond measure. The bonds were approved in November 1930, by votes in the counties affected by the bridge. The construction budget at the time of approval was $27 million. However, the District was unable to sell the bonds until 1932, when Amadeo Giannini, the founder of San Francisco–based Bank of America, agreed on behalf of his bank to buy the entire issue in order to help the local economy.

Imagine!  A fat-cat banker investing in such a way that it returns a profit to his depositors and benefits the local community.  Who does this guy think he is?  Investing money with no possible expectation of future return or benefit is the mark of a true visionary.

Is 100% my fair share? And you promise it will never be a toll bridge, right?

Even if California could afford to build it today there’s not a chance in hell the state’s environmental lobby would sit idly by and watch it happen.  Or federal environmental regulators.  If 10 workers died on a job site today it would get shut down by OSHA indefinitely and the project’s leadership discoveried, investigated, and likely indicted.

Funny that the first big public works project Obama mentions was funded entirely with private money.  Business success breeds public works, not vice versa.  California is in such a tenuous state of fiscal affairs today a fella would have to be nuts to invest half a billion dollars in a white elephant infrastructure project like a bridge.  We’re stuck with government running roads and bridges.  Until they go broke and have to sell them off.


4.  Hoover Dam (1930 – 1936) – $49,000,000 ($752,738,000 in today’s dollars)

Hoover Dam doesn’t bring to mind the same stunning visual imagery as the Golden Gate Bridge but it is another feat of American engineering synonymous with our can-do spirit.  Enough concrete to pave a two lane road from New York to San Francisco impounding 220 mile long Lake Mead.  Water and electricity from the dam serve over 8,000,000 people and irrigate over 1,000,000 acres.  It was authorized by Calvin Coolidge and completed under Franklin Roosevelt yet somehow bears the name of Herbert Hoover.

I still call it Boulder Dam

Hoover Dam was a federal project unlike the Golden Gate as it affected seven states.  Requiring a $2 million bid bond just to submit a bid and $5 million performance bond upon award of the contract limited participation to three bids – the winning bid submitted by a consortium of six companies.  Each one pursuing their own interests by partnering with their competitors.

Cities literally sprung from the desert during construction.  Building the dam was hard, brutal work in some of the worst conditions America has to offer.  And by worst conditions we’re not talking made uncomfortable by the cartoon of turtle humping an army helmet in my cubicle we’re talking 12 hour days in 130 degree heat and death by carbon monoxide poisoning.  One hundred fifty four men died working on the dam.  Officially.  Of course, what’s a few workers’ lives when the government’s holding $7 million of your cash and imposing stiff penalties if the project is late?

Why we couldn’t do it now

There are a lot of reasons why we couldn’t, but deputy assistant secretary of the Interior Deanna Archuleta summed it up best when she told a group of environmentalists, “You will never see another federal dam.”  Despite America’s need for more electric generation capacity and fresh water there is no enthusiasm for antiquated concepts like dams to provide that.  Rooting around in the mud damming a river like a bunch of damned beavers?  Primitive.  Windmills are the wave of the future!  Get on the trolley.

You didn’t build that. You did? Then you’re welcome.

Past generations were able to conceive and build a notable structure with public funds – ahead of schedule and under budget, no less – that is still a marvel today.  The conversion factor for today’s dollars merely tells us what the equivalent dollar value of $49 million today.  Does anyone believe a Hoover Dam could be built for $750 million dollars today?  Three Gorges Dam cost $26 billion and Chinese dam builders, as noted pundit Thomas Friedman often notes, don’t have an onerous Department of Interior, EPA, OSHA, EEOC, and OFCCP or eminent domain concerns.  Well they do but it’s an onerous you can’t refuse.

A problem buried beneath a 300 foot deep lake isn’t really a problem at all, is it?

Davis-Bacon.  That name ring a bell?  It is a federal law that requires federal contractors to pay a “prevailing local wage”.  It has an interesting history:

 Representative Bacon initially introduced the bill after a contractor employed African-American workers from Alabama to build a Veterans’ Bureau hospital in his New York district. Complaints about “negro” or “colored” labor taking federal construction jobs appear sporadically through the legislation history of both prior bills that anticipated Davis-Bacon,and Davis-Bacon itself. Beyond that, the legislative history of Davis-Bacon reflects a clear desire by Congress to reserve jobs on federal projects for local workers. Not only did local workers complain about non-locals taking these jobs, but Congressmen were frustrated that their efforts to bring “pork barrel” projects home to their districts did not result in jobs (and therefore political support) from their constituents.

A triple play of awesome.  Legislation spawned by opposition to southern negroes taking jobs on federal contracts in New York because that interferes with pork barrel spending reaching its intended beneficiaries signed by Herbert Hoover.  How fitting the dam that bears his name appears in Obama’s rhetorical gambit.  Men traveled from across the country to slave in the sun for less than a dollar a day and built the Hoover Dam.  Now they don’t even get that chance.


3.  Central Artery/Tunnel Project (1982-2003) – $2,800,000,000 est. in 1982 ($22,000,000,000 est. actual)

More commonly known as the Big Dig, Boston launched the Central Artery/Tunnel Project to reduce congestion through the city.  One pesky aspect of demanding your due for providing roads and bridges to businesses is that the roads and bridges can’t become actual impediments to businesses and their customers.  We all benefit from these public projects.  That’s one reason we expect our elected officials to be responsible stewards of our tax dollars.  The Big Dig isn’t in Obama’s stump speech for a reason.

Where Golden Gate is synonymous with elegance Big Dig is associated with punchline.  Now I will concede that a large scale project in the middle of a major city presents logistical challenges a dam in the middle of nowhere doesn’t.  Wiring a new house is a lot easier, more predictable, and cheaper than rewiring a seventy year-old house.  Projects very rarely get less expensive as you go along.  When there’s layer upon layer of  competing local, county, state, and federal oversight you end up with a total cost ten times the original estimate.  If an electrician handed you a bill ten times the estimate you’d call the Better Business Bureau.  When a politician does that who do you call?

You knew this was coming

Now that all the kinks are apparently worked out the Big Dig has improved traffic flow around Boston.  Roads projects tend to be more local/county and state run unless there’s an Interstate freeway involved.  There are a lot more local and state roads than federal.  At least in a spread out place like Texas.  We’re spread out and traffic still sucks and road projects take too damn long and are obsolete as soon as they’re done.

I think we all agree such projects are necessary, which is why it’s so frustrating they always seem to be delayed.  Dallas is growing so we have to expand the roads.  That’s the key flaw in Obama’s argument.  Businesses aren’t opening here because of the roads, roads are being built because of the businesses.  Yeah, we’ve got roads that the taxpayers already paid for but so do a thousand other potential locations.  We’ve created an environment around Dallas that attracts people and businesses to serve them and jobs and more people.

Why we couldn’t do it now

Couldn’t isn’t technically true.  There are major road projects going on across the U.S. every day.  Wouldn’t?  Knowing what the people of Boston know now would the Big Dig happen if they had a do-over?

Would you like a do-over, Boston?

I guess we’ll find out the next time a large public works project is proposed in Boston.  Voters tend to make violent course corrections in the aftermath of folly.  Regardless of  necessity, worthiness, and usefulness other projects will be squashed by invoking the Big Dig.

Obama doesn’t talk about the Big Dig for the same reason he doesn’t talk about the Democrat-passed Stimulus or Obamacare.  While they debatably achieve their planned outcome, once you tell the average person you’re the guy who made that happen he’s more likely to give you a fat lip and an earful than a laurel and hearty handshake.

I push for less federal spending not because I’m anti-road but because I don’t trust politicians with tax dollars.  The closer the decisions about how money is spent are to my front door the better chance I have to influence that.  It took nine years from Silent Cal’s signature on the bill authorizing it to complete the Hoover Dam.  Environmental surveys on the Big Dig began in 1983 and received final approval ten years later.  Is that really what we want overcoming impossible odds to succeed to mean in America today?


2.  Erie Canal (1817-1825) – $7,000,000 (roughly half the Louisiana Purchase in today’s dollars)

It’s difficult to imagine today how much of an impact the Erie Canal had.  A direct link between the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean at a time when the other option was pretty much horse drawn carts or limited train service.  How different would the rust belt look today without a waterway that moved people and goods cheaply from New York City to Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit?

Like all great public works projects the Erie Canal was spawned by a couple of fellas with a lot of land that would be worth a whole lot more money if there was a canal running through it.  Fresh off the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million a few years earlier, Thomas Jefferson looked at the $7 million price tag and told them to bugger off.  They got the governor behind the idea and he got that passed over serious protest.  Construction on the 363 mile waterway began in 1817 as men with the aforementioned carts and draft animals began moving moving earth.  Over one thousand men died in a season from malaria near Cayuga Lake.

Aque means water and duct means duct

When completed in 1825 a celebration was held “culminating in successive cannon shots along the length of the canal and the Hudson, a 90-minute cannonade from Buffalo to New York City.”  If stimulus theory has taught us anything it’s that 90-minute cannonades o’er every completed public works project is gonna create a lot of jobs.

The original canal has been bypassed in many stretches today but the Erie Canal system lives on.  A couple of huckster partnering with a few visionary state and local politicians to build that which did indeed make it possible for businesses to thrive where they could not have otherwise.  Obama 1, rest of history 1,000,000.

Why we couldn’t do it now

One thousand men dropped dead from malaria in a swamp. Unimaginable today.  We’ve eradicated malaria in the U.S.  Everyone knows you can’t build in a wetland.  Any waterway that intersects the open ocean falls under authority of the Coast Guard.  There are laws in place to protect workers from unsafe conditions and free market wages.  The EPA, Department of the Interior, and Army Corps of Engineers would be there denying permits each step of the way.

Everything I learned about business and government I learned watching Ghostbusters

Looking back at the Erie Canal it’s amazing how much wealthier we are today.  A day will come when people in China are no longer willing to sacrifice worker safety and the environment and property rights for rapid growth.  Until then we’re just going to have to accept the fact we have chosen to voluntarily limit our economic growth through government intervention.  There are clearly benefits to laws protecting workers and the environment and both sides are guilty of ignoring the cost/benefit analysis when it comes to their pet issues.

Environmentalists in California are working to have hydroelectric dams in their state torn down.  It’s not like California is running short of water and electricity or anything.  What they need is more electric trains.  Powered by windmills.  That aren’t going in my backyard.

Americans are building great things every day in spite of the government, not because of it.  Government erect barriers to entry, acts as gatekeeper to opportunity, extracts punitive taxes from those who manage to succeed, directs scarce resources to their political supporters, and saddles the next generations with unsustainable financial commitments.  Why couldn’t we do that today?  We really can’t afford that anymore.


1. The Manhattan Project (1939 – 1946) – $2,000,000,000 ($30,000,000,000 in today’s dollars)

Truly the shot heard round the world.  The Manhattan Project was a top secret government program in a race with the Germans (and Soviets) to develop atomic weapons.  It employed 130,000 people across the country.  They ultimately produced Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that ended war in the Pacific.

And helped provide a memorable back story for Quint

The top scientific minds in the country toiled day and night through their ethical dilemmas to beat the Nazis across the finish line.  Only 10% of the $2 billion cost went to weapon development, the rest to facilities, materials, and labor to extract enough materials with which to experiment with bomb making.  That’s a huge investment for a purely theoretical payoff.

We’ve at last found an example of government investment that in and of itself spawned economic benefit we still enjoy today.  The nuclear industry might not exist today had governments’ not sought the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch so that their enemies might snuff it.

Why it couldn’t happen today

We can’t keep stories revealing obscure details of our cyber-warfare activities off the front page of the New York Times and we’re gonna keep a $30 billion dollar program employing 130,000 people secret?  Ol’ Slow Joe himself would probably name half  the top officers in a fundraising speech at the Schenectady Rotary Club – off the record, of course.  Ignoring that embarrassing fact, a nuclear weapon program has two key factors that would make it impossible today.  It has nuclear right in the name and it is a defense program.

Nuclear is not popular.  Obama unilaterally agreed to reduce our nuclear weapons capability.  Peaceful, green nuclear energy isn’t even popular.  Is it the best solution to our energy needs?  Who knows.  What the government once gave us it’s pretty much taken away.  Oh, they like the theory of nuclear energy.  Harry Reid was more than happy to accept tax dollars to build a nuclear storage facility in the Nevada desert.  But store nuclear waste in that now that that’s done?  Surely you can’t be serious?

Many people remember me best as the young, virile Commander J.J. Adams in Forbidden Planet

With our looming entitlement crisis, defense is a big juicy target for cuts.  I’m not opposed to defense cuts and would like to see an honest discussion about America’s place in the world moving forward.  That’s fine.

By an odd twist of fate, though, defense spending is the one area of the budget that can have immediate economic effects and yield a high probability of creating future value to consumers.  The Internet, GPS, and wireless technology advanced through military programs into something everyone uses every day.

Well functioning government should produce useful things.  But at what cost?  Not just the actual tax dollars “invested” but the opportunity cost of those dollars not being used freely in the market.  The cost of politicians, fallible humans one and all, manipulating the marketplace to advance their pet causes and constituents.  And the cost of all the people who thought about starting a business but sat down to write a budget and figured after all the legal fees and permits and red tape their entire savings would be consumed and that just isn’t worth it.

Americans still do big things.  We’re still the wealthiest, most productive nation on Earth.  Whatever the flaws in our system it works amazingly well.  Americans obviously all benefit from being born in America.  Not dying from diarrhea before our fifth birthdays like 1,000,000 kids around the world do every year is testament to that.  For that we are thankful.

America could build another Hoover Dam or Golden Gate Bridge if it wanted.  Whether or not that is what Americans want that isn’t what a trillion dollars  a year in new debt is buying us.  Wasn’t that why you passed the stimulus package?  Are you telling me you didn’t built that?

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