In a recent television ad for her network, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow stands below the Hoover Dam and asks whether we are still a country that can “think this big” — Hoover Dam big. The commercial is built on the assumption that American greatness is advanced by federal spending on major infrastructure projects.
If I had my own television commercial, I’d stand in front of the wreckage of Idaho’s Teton Dam,which, like the Hoover Dam, was built by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The Teton Dam was based on shoddy engineering and a flawed economic analysis. It collapsed catastrophically in 1976, just a year after it was built.
New Gingrich, Herman Cain and Eric Cantor on Occupy Wall Street.
Increased infrastructure spending has significant support in Washington these days. President Obama wants a new federal infrastructure bank, and some members of both parties want to pass big highway and air-traffic-control funding bills. The politicians think these bills will create desperately needed jobs, but the cost of that perceived benefit is too high: Federal infrastructure spending has a long and painful history of pork-barrel politics and bureaucratic bungling, with money often going to wasteful and environmentally damaging projects.
For plenty of examples of the downside of federal infrastructure, look at the two oldest infrastructure agencies — the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. Their histories show that the federal government shouldn’t be in the infrastructure business. Rather, state governments and the private sector are best equipped to provide it.
The Corps of Engineers has been building levees, canals and other civilian water infrastructure for more than 200 years — and it has made missteps the entire time. In the post-Civil War era, for example, there were widespread complaints about the Corps’ wastefulness and mismanagement. A 1971 book by Arthur Morgan, a distinguished engineer and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, concluded: “There have been over the past 100 years consistent and disastrous failures by the Corps in public works areas . . . resulting in enormous and unnecessary costs to ecology [and] the taxpayer.”
Some of the highest-profile failures include the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. That disaster dramatically proved the shortcomings of the Corps’ approach to flood control, which it had stubbornly defended despite outside criticism. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was like a dreadful repeat. The flooding was in large part a man-made disaster stemming from poor engineering by the Corps and misdirected funding by Congress.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Reclamation has been building economically dubious and environmentally harmful dams since 1902. Right from the start, “every Senator . . . wanted a project in his state; every Congressman wanted one in his district; they didn’t care whether they made economic sense or not,” concluded Marc Reisner in his classic history of the agency, “Cadillac Desert.” The dam-building pork barrel went on for decades, until the agency ran out of rivers into which it could pour concrete.