American Elephants

Not “Shovel Ready”— Camera Ready. by The Elephant's Child

We have had some revealing admissions about “shovel ready” projects from President Obama. He admitted only a few days ago, that there were no “shovel ready” projects, which to many was a tacit admission that most stimulus funds were wasted. Then New York Times columnist David Brooks said that Obama told him a year ago that there were no shovel ready projects.

Nicole Gelinas, a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal clarified the situation even further:

“Shovel ready” was always a canard.  It was more like “camera-ready” — and it was a cynical strategy that has gravely harmed the prospects for investment in critical physical assets.

Take high-speed rail.  The president has used scarce stimulus funds not actually to complete a project, but to get the credit for starting a whole bunch of ’em.

The 2009 “recovery act” provided $8 billion for rail.  But the White House (with help from Congress) split it across thirteen regional projects.

There’s a link between Tampa –Orlando in Florida;  San Francisco– Los Angeles; Chicago–St. Louis–Kansas City; Madison–Milwaukee–Chicago; Charlotte–RaleighRichmond–Washington D.C.; Eugene–Portland–Seattle; Detroit–Chicago; Ohio; and the Northeast.  Very ambitious, but that $8 billion is being split across thirteen regional projects.

Any one high-speed rail link, Gelinas says, would cost $20 billion, probably more.  If  Obama wanted to showcase the technology of high-speed rail, he would have devoted all the funds to one demonstration project.

And then do it. Quietly build the darn thing and see if people use it and like it.  If they do, they’ll quickly forget about cost overruns, delays and whatever scandals inevitably accompanied it along the way — and other cities would demand their own links soon enough, too.

This was about maximizing photo-ops right before an election, not about the excellence of public-investment. Before such projects can even get off the ground, there is engineering, design, acquisition of right-of-way, environmental studies, and then the money is all used up, and the states which are struggling with their own budgets are not willing to pony up until the economy is better, and by then they would have to do a lot of the preliminary studies and engineering all over again. Big projects don’t take as many workers these days.  Machines are more sophisticated and there isn’t a lot of pick-and-shovel work.

This administration is continually cavalier about money, which at this point I find astounding.  From Rick Santelli’s  first on-air rant — “Stop spending! stop spending! stop spending! “— can he possibly be completely oblivious to what is going on in the country?  But he just keeps on.  Now he wants to buy some senior votes with $250 checks.  85 percent of new college graduates are going to have to move in with their parents because there are no jobs.

He is not interested in tackling the problems he has created.  “Fundamentally transforming America” was always about the list of amazing accomplishments that would make him a world historical figure.  And these days it takes a lot of dollars to get to that “world historical” state.  You have to buy a lot of accomplishment.  I had the odd idea that accomplishment was actually doing something, not just spending the peoples’ money and asking for more.

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