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A Bridge Too Slow

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"Is this a shovel-ready project?" Mr. Biden asked Scott Christie, the state transportation official charged with deploying economic stimulus money.

 

"It's ready to go," Mr. Christie answered. "I literally have the plans in the car right now."

It turns out, though, that shovel-readiness is in the eye of the beholder. Soon after his visit, Mr. Biden found out that his model stimulus project wouldn't see a shovel for almost four more months, possibly longer, knowing how such timetables slip. In North Middleton, [Pennsylvania] a White House eager for action had run up against locals eager to avoid disruption. The locals won.

So begins a piece by The Wall Street Journal's Michael Phillips on a flubbed photo op at a decaying bridge in Pennsylvania. While the Obama administration was eager to put a quick muscular public relations shine on the stimulus bill, the mundane reality of filling potholes means a much slower and much more pedestrian approach. Although Obama was depending on the public works aspect to provide a burst of cash coursing through the economy, the reality is that these projects will take more time, and will therefore have less economic impact. The town featured in the article wanted to put off the bridge project because the construction would disrupt a school bus route. So they did. The reality on the ground trumped the airy Washington propaganda needs.

In fact, the stimulus itself is a bit of a fraud. Most of the $787 billion goes to the states to prop up increasingly onerous state entitlement programs. When this amount of cash runs dry in two years, then what will the states do? Oh rats, I forgot the Obama groupthink line. It goes like this: In two years the economy will be better and state coffers will overflow with plentiful tax receipts. Never mind that some, like Obama supporter and Depression era Investor Seth Glickenhaus (he's 94), believes this economic swoon will last five years. Of course, if the imagined recovery doesn't take place, yet another stimulus bill will be required. Billions more will be thrown around. To what effect, we can't be certain. This is looks to be another spot for sunny rhetoric to fall to the hard ground of reality.

Near me, the stimulus money is repaving a stretch of road. While there are many such spots around here, the obvious need is two ancient massive bridges nearby. While tossing a few thousand on a road to make the local news works for some transitory positive spin, the greater needs are unmet. Building two huge bridges would take years. By the time they're built, Obama might not even be in office. No short term propaganda gain to be made there.

And this is the real problem with much of what is attempted by Barack Obama. Talking and PR to create groupthink can work wonderfully on the campaign trail. By creating an illusion of experience, voters can be fooled into pulling that lever. When it comes to governing , it's different. Talk can facilitate action, but it can't substitute for it. Governing requires more than just spin. Spin only affects those within the groupthink orbit. Sometimes, those in that orbit cannot tell the limits of groupthink. This can lead to tragic consequences.

Take the book referred to here, A Bridge Too Far. This airborne operation by the Allies during WWII was supposed to end the war in four months, but the Germans were not subscribers to this sunny groupthink mindset. All doubts harbored by the soldiers involved were shunted aside in pursuit of a goal that in reality was the operational equivalent of a deadly lottery ticket. Dissenters were quickly dispatched. A young intelligence officer, who spotted two SS tank divisions in the landing zones near the Arnhem bridge was quickly forced onto sick leave. To their credit, the Allied soldiers fought with incredible vigor, but the plan was flawed from the start. The last bridge over the lower Rhine could not be taken, no matter what spin was applied. Allied casualties were more than double those of D-Day, including the almost total annihilation of a British airborne division. Such are the bitter rewards when groupthink meets reality.

Today, we are in an economic debacle. At some point, people want actions which lead to improvement in their economic lives. Obama can spin all he wants, but the tangible fruits of jobs, healthy companies and increased cash are the only things that matter. The groupthink mindset can still dominate if the experience and expectations are in sync. However, as the experience replaces the expectations, the chance of stumbling increases, especially if these two states become unlinked. Obama can rectify this, but he must embrace reality. In a word, he must change. For someone who has been quite adept at fashioning reality to his own needs, this may be all but impossible. Barack Obama may end up one bridge short of his goal. Not because he couldn't change the reality, but because he couldn't change himself in that reality.

Such are the perils of those who live in the bubble of groupthink.

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About Mr Dock Ellis

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Mr. Ellis,

    You do seem to be making right kind of distinctions. What I fail to see is any concrete suggestion how to get away from this “groupthink” mentality. And in the absence of that, your whole piece ends up to be nothing but a critique, and not even a constructive one.

    I am certain now that this is not what you desire.

  • Cannonshop

    I think the suggestion is running under the radar (and possibly under the radar of the readers…)

    It’s this: if you’re going to apply Keynesian solutions, your solutions have to produce something Tangible and possibly even durable, or it’s flushing money down a loo for propoganda’s sake.

    It’s also got to be something the locality thinks it needs, rather than some top-down biannually elected out-of-stater or temporary occupant of the White House thinks you need- the small town at the start of the article has a bad bridge, but it’s good enough for the school year. The locality mentioned at the end of the piece has newly blacktopped roads (a condition that’s as temporary as any you can name), but rotting bridges that need replacement-and aren’t going to be, because the construction (if done right) will take longer than the current occupant of the White House has in office.

    Handing out money in Unemployment bennies only works if those unemployed people can get jobs before it runs out-otherwise, it’s washing the cash down the loo, and now they’re in a real fix, ’cause the longer you don’t have a job, the harder it is to find one that can feed you.

    Most of the “Stimulus” is going to unfunded mandates to shuffle paper around and hand out cheques for not getting a job-that might stimulate the local McDonalds franchise, but it’s not going to provide family-wage jobs even temporarily like a major construction project that takes a decade to finish, one that requires skilled labour, will.

    NOR does funding “Community Activism” give unemployed or underemployed people family wage jobs-even temporarily. Employers tend to shy AWAY from setting up in places that punish businesses, which when you look at our centres of urban poverty, well, they’re the same damn places.

  • Cannonshop

    Just to put an example on my last point…

    I wouldn’t go to Detroit to look for work, and there’s a reason for that. Same for San Francisco, Chicago, or New York.

    Likewise, I wouldn’t go to those places if I were setting up a business that pays employees a living wage. I am not an idiot, nor are most businesspeople.

    I might, however, go there if I wanted to run a liquor store, sell drugs, be a pimp, or run a fast-food enterprise, and definitely if I’m running a Payday Loan place-even the security hazards don’t line up with the ability to make money off of people’s misery, and cashing Welfare cheques for a hefty fee leads to hefty profits.

    Note that I consider most of the above to be parasitic, vile, disgusting, evil, etc. etc., But it’s also knowing the marketplace in those areas-exploiting the poor is easy, and the Party in Power’s been doing it for years.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    These are very good points, Cannon; it fleshes out the article. There’s got to be a coordination with the local communities which have to participate in the decision-making process; and allocating them money is also problematic, because so much of it will be eaten up by corruption and graft. Now, it you can assume integrity all around, at all levels of government, the latter strategy might work; but that’s a tall assumption in this day and age.

    Perhaps it would be instructive here to look to the FDR administration for examples – what worked, what did not, and under what circumstances. There’s got to be some viable models.

  • bliffle

    The whole idea of “shovel ready” projects is a bit of a fraud that demonstrates nothing more than how out-of-touch politicians are with the real working world.

    The amount of actual shovel-wielding on a modern project is minuscule. Just as there are few actual hammer swingers on a modern construction project.

    Most projects are pre-fabbed in factories by skilled technicians and machines, which are often controlled by computers. A modern bridge consists of an assembly of pre-fabbed components and sub-assemblies. We no longer send out teams of welders and riveters with a pile of girders and some rough blueprints to make a bridge.

    It takes lead-time and capital investment to manufacture and position the sub-assemblies for such a project.

    The problem we have now is not so much “group think” as it is “lazy think”, where we believe that we can neglect ‘infrastructure’ and then fix things up with an emergency invasion of an army of unskilled workers.

    It won’t work.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, there must some viable ways, bliffle, of making the stimulus package work. If the old models from the FDR era are obsolete, what do you suggest?

  • Cannonshop

    #5 Funny enough, I know a few guys who can do just that, Bliffle…

    U.S. Army Combat Engineers. Not the “Corps of Engineers”, I’m talking about troops whose training revolves around what you’re calling impossible. Then, there’s U.S. Navy “SeaBees” or “Construction Battalions”-they do it too. Routinely.

    Unfortunately, like scientists who actually practice SCIENCE instead of politics, and engineers who can actually engineer something to be useful, they’re a vanishing breed and drowned out in a culture of instant gratification and un-deserved, un-earned, “Self Esteem” and “Sensitivity”.

  • Cannonshop

    The real problem being that the people who could make some of these projects work…largely aren’t Americans anymore.

    I just have to think about what I see every-day…

    The Asian kids from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and the Mexican kids bust their asses and do their damnedest to get it right, the white, upper-middle-class worms with their tattoos, sensitive dispositions, and soft hands DON’T.

  • Mr. Dock Ellis

    Rog,
    You almost got it before you slipped back into the reflexive big government pose. The locals should be the eyes and ears. In essence, pointing to what is done and not done.

    In the book above, the Germans reinforced the area slated for attack, but warnings from the Dutch Underground and British Intelligence were deliberately ignored. The higher ups wanted the goal so much that reality was ignored.

    I would offer a solution for Obama, if there appeared to be one. I feel he’s stictly a big picture guy with little desire to engage the “little” people of this world on any other level than propaganda. His “town hall” in Strasbourg was laughable not only for the lack of local engagement, (zero French got to ask a question)but for the multitude of trivial questions.

    On the higher up level, though he does quite well. His bowing and scraping before the Saudi ruler was convincing as was his power hand shake with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. He seems to be quite at home acommodating ruling tyrants. Perhaps, this was another avenue of “change” he felt was necessary: a democratically elected leader smoozing foreign tyrants. If so, he’s doing a swell job.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I don’t worry that much, Mr. Ellis, by Obama’s foreign relations stance; the so-called “bowing” I view as courtesy, and apparently we’re about to repair relations with Cuba – a good thing IMO because this is the age of globalism.

    You may be right about Obama being a “big picture” guy (especially now since he’s in the Oval Office, and how can you avoid being one under the circumstances); it conflicts somewhat with his organizing years in Chicago; so he knows from practical experience about localities and communities.

    But aside from that, the problem at hand is how to make the Stimulus package work, and I agree with you: it’s got to work locally.

    Cannonshop made some valid points, but I still have problems envisaging how the right kind of co-ordination between the local and federal government can be implemented. And if FDR’s old models are no longer applicable, it’d seem we must devise new ways of doing things. And it’s in that area that I’m drawing a blank.

  • Cannonshop

    That kind of coordination is good in theory, Roger, the problem being that the worst hit areas are hit worst because of the local political culture.

    Re-reading Joanne Huspek’s piece on Michigan, comparing it to my own state (Washington) and looking at the recent newcomers to the “Over 10% Club” (unemployment figures), I find a common thread, and it’s not one the President or his Congress are likely willing to look too closely at.

    Here in Washington, for instance, they passed (over ten years ago) a thing called the “RTA”-now this is a massive public-works project intended to provide Mass-Transit.
    During the first ten years of the project (after passing), mind you-this was sold to the voters as “ready to go”, they spent several times the allotted budget (for the entire project, to be clear here) on Studies related TO the project. It wasn’t until after the first decade that the first, small, section of it was even begun. Since then, it’s been a multibillion-dollar hole into which money has annually poured, very little of this project is actually customer-ready, what portions ARE in operation are far, far different from what was sold, and it has yet to provide the traffic-relief, or other efficiencies promised.

    This is typical of a certain kind of politics, and that politics currently occupies the White House and has spent twice the sum total of the previous national debt in roughly sixty days.

    for a total projected “Stimulus” of 5%…assuming that five percent isn’t gobbled up with administrative overhead, extra neat little studies, or other forms of slush-funding graft.

    It saturates from the National level down to the Local in many cases-especially in big cities, but counties have their share as well.

    This is a different nation than it was in 1934, the dominant culture is not one of building, it’s one of…couch potatoes and Entitlement.

    THAT mentality doesn’t BUILD anything, Roger, but it DOES (unfortunately) vote, and those votes are cheap and easy to harvest-just cut a bigger unenjoyment cheque, or offer more benefits at taxpayer expense, continue to allow usury in the form of “Payday Loans”, and keep the liquor and porn coming.

    I’ve pretty much given up on my “Fellow Americans”-the fix for the current fix we’re in requires something they’ve grown up learning to despise thanks to the dominant culture-it requires WORK. Hard Work. That’s two dirty words in the country now. “Hard Work”.

    We’re Screwed.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Excellent, you bringing it down to basics.

  • Mr. Dock Ellis

    Rog,
    Interesting how you can endorse the idea of courtesy and yet want to have relations with a country (Cuba) that would shoot you for attempting to leave it.

    Your treasured “globalism” is fools gold in terms of world peace. Somebody named McLuhan said “The global village is full of spite, more so than any nationalism.”

    Your pal, Oblahblah is being measured, much like a boxer sizes up his opponent before striking. The bad guys are measuring him and he’s got nothing but a glass jaw. They know it now.

    The man makes Bush look like Harry Truman. Oh, but if you take Oblahblah’s line Truman is evil for dropping the bomb. So I guess anybody and everybody can be sandbagged in the name of political expediency for an audience with little knowledge and even less attention span.