Minesweeper: How To Get The US Back To Building Things
A recent piece in MIT Technology Review raises some very good points. The United States is getting really bad at building big things, and that’s going to make solving climate change nearly impossible if the US government and large contractors don’t get their acts together. The problem is that the agencies that should be building things are playing Minesweeper instead of building, and I’m not talking about the old Windows game.
The article starts off by raising California’s failure to build a bullet train as an example. The state has been working on getting this done since the 1990s, and had a plan together to fund it in 2008. Since then, it’s fallen behind schedule and over budget to the point where it was in doubt that the project would ever be completed. The state wants to blame Donald Trump for cutting funding to the project, but it was doomed before then by bureaucratic inefficiency and mismanagement. Pouring in more money without seeing a real plan to get it done wouldn’t have made any sense.
If this was only about building new things, it would be a big problem, but not the huge problem that it is today. On top of not being able to tackle new things, we are almost hopelessly behind on maintaining and/or rebuilding our existing infrastructure. Power lines, roads, bridges, water pipes, and communication lines are all aging, with many older than their design lives. Even government vehicles like the United States Postal Service’s Grumman LLVs are past design life and are endangering lives with dangerous fires.
If we can’t build big things without bureaucratic nightmares and budgets that grow like The Blob, consuming everything in their path until someone freezes the project and kills it, then we won’t be able to rebuild all of the infrastructure that needs rebuilt. If that goes on for long enough, expect the death and destruction from things like the California wildfires and Texas freeze to become the norm.
And big renewable energy projects we are in dire need of? Fugheddaboutit. Those things reduce property values, donchaknow?
How Did We Get Here?
On this point, I’m going to differ somewhat from the writer at MIT Technology Review.
Mr. Temple correctly sees that getting approval to build almost anything takes far too long. With all of the regulations and required public comment, there are myriad opportunities for people to step in and find ways to strangle the project to death, or delay it until it dies. He proposes later in the article to change the public input process to allow public input at the beginning when we give power to the agencies who will manage these projects, but not later at the beginning of every individual project.
Sure, there can be advantages to shutting the public out and letting the government have free reign with these projects. China builds things insanely fast, making it look like the United States is in slow motion. While we’ve been arguing amongst ourselves, they’ve been doing the things we should have done with infrastructure many times over.
But then again, we don’t want to be China. Its government, with its unlimited power and ability to simply ignore public input, has problems with human rights abuses and a near-complete disregard of civil rights. It runs concentration camps in the west and interrogates people for saying mean things on social media about the police in the east. Government is supposed to work for us and protect our rights, not become a danger to them.
Our real problem is that we’ve allowed the Karens who run HOAs to dictate public policy for too many decades. While the rest of us were at work trying to make a living, Karen had the spare time to go to legislative committees and be the squeaky wheel, and she got all of the grease. We have an insane web of laws meant to empower the NIMBYs, protect property values, and protect the environment, but they got so out of control and complex that we are endangering the very things Karen was trying to protect. Karen became the very thing she swore to destroy.
The busybody do-gooders of the world, despite their best intentions, have gone to the legislatures and congress so many times and got new bills passed that the federal government has lost track of the number of federal crimes there are. There are obscure crimes, like violating the Lacey act, where someone can go to prison for possessing a lobster, or having a wood product that isn’t properly labeled. Gibson Guitars was even raided by federal law enforcement because our government determined that Gibson’s wood was illegal, despite foreign government assurances to Gibson that logging operations that brought them the wood were legal.
There are so many obscure crimes that a law professor has a viral video recommending that people don’t speak with police under any circumstances, because even a lawyer doesn’t know whether they’re self-incriminating.
We Need Real Reform, Not Less Public Input
To reduce public comment and give government agencies even more power would be to put a band-aid on a bullethole. The patient still dies eventually. The real problem is that we have too many laws that aren’t working well with each other. Anyone willing to hire a lawyer to look for ways to make these laws work against each other or in ways the people who passed the laws never intended can weaponize them to destroy people or projects they disagree with.
To solve the infrastructure problem, we need to tear down and replace a plethora of laws before we can get to tearing down and replacing our aging infrastructure. We shouldn’t be afraid to repeal laws that aren’t working as intended and replace them with entirely new laws as needed. In some cases, a simple repeal will do without anything to replace them, while in others, we need to enact new laws that actually accomplish the important goals they were originally designed for.
There’s no reason we can’t keep the public in on big projects. What we need to do is make it so that government agencies can accept genuine public input without having to deal with disingenuous participation that places an impenetrable legal minefield in the way of building.
If we want our public agencies to be doing things instead of playing Minesweeper for years, then we need to clean up the mines.
Featured image by Kyle Field/CleanTechnica