George Will, with his singular eloquence and Solomonic wisdom, penned a column in the Washington Post a couple weeks back asking a question that ought to be etched in marble and presented to all of those hopping about with exuberance at the prospect of President Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan: is America today even capable of such large-scale endeavors?
It is a question strangely isolated, but no less indispensable for it. Two salient points in Will’s first paragraph are illustrative: first, that the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge took four years to build in the 1930s, but replacement of one-third of it after the 1989 earthquake took more than two decades; second, that “economists have found that the inflation-adjusted cost of building a mile of the interstate highway system tripled between the 1960s and 1980s.”
Will also makes several references to Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge’s 2018 book “Capitalism in America: A History” in which the authors cite several examples to make the same point, and others abound. The Hoover Dam for instance, was completed in five years, two years ahead of schedule. The Erie Canal was completed in seven years — in the 1820s. Today, projects a fraction of that scope would take decades, if they even got past the Environmental Impact Study.
This is a little baffling, to say the least, when one considers that improvements in technology alone ought to make such endeavors a relative snap compared to 50, 100, or 200 years ago. The requisite engineering calculations can be made on a devise the size of a wallet in about the time it takes to input the relevant figures. The machinery available today makes even the most advanced equipment used on the Hoover Dam look painfully antiquarian.
It is not technological or physical limitations, or a deficit of skill, or even a lack of will that arrest our national ability to build. It is that every project is today subject to gestating volumes of government rules, regulations, mandates, requirements, and guidelines related to just about everything some politician or bureaucrat can think of — labor, safety, environment, and so on. The first one-to-five years of any federal project is tied up in determining if any aspect of the project might displace a weed or interfere with the movements of a particular earthworm. And now the regulatory web is expanding into such trendy classifications as equity, inclusion, and social justice.
Lest we lull ourselves into thinking that this is only a symptom of federal bureaucratic inertia, we are reminded constantly of how local building codes, zoning regulations and the like pile on costs, delays, and other impediments onto local projects. We see how new building codes being adopted in Denver, for instance, call for new apartment buildings to not only have more EV chargers, but to ensure they are located in the spots nearest to the doors. And that’s before factoring in new energy efficiency mandates.
The question of whether or not America is even capable of tackling these major enterprises, no matter how much money is thrown at them, raises an even more disturbing one: do we remain capable of meeting defense expectations? The evolving threats towards which American military posture must pivot — deterring Chinese aggression in southeast Asia, Iranian aggression in the middle east, and Russian aggression in eastern Europe — will require the U.S. to reorient its defense planning to a model that anticipates more traditional engagements than those in which we were involved in in the past few decades. That means large-scale combined arms operations, naval dominance, and rapid establishment of air superiority where that military blessing is not a given.
Lamentably, the current commander in chief has never, in his 40-plus years in Washington, been particularly amenable to adequately funding the nation’s defense. He is willing to blow trillions on infrastructure — variably defined as just about anything that is not defense — but is far more parsimonious with the Pentagon; his proposed defense budget is essentially flat, not even enough to keep up with inflation. Meanwhile, China’s military spending is going up by more than 6% per year, their navy is now arguably superior to America’s, and they have made a regular habit of sending swarms of combat planes into Taiwan’s airspace.
This is the absurdity we face; the current fight in Washington is over trillions of dollars being spent on infrastructure by a government that self-limits its ability to complete the projects; while ignoring what is perhaps the more important infrastructural question: are we impoverishing our military at a dangerous rate?