Posts tagged ‘Empire State Building’

The New Pharaohs: Confusing Triumphalism and State Coercion With Progress

My new Forbes column is up, and it discusses an article by Michael Malone that said in part:

The recent quick fade of the Deficit Commission was the latest reminder that America no longer seems to have the stomach for big challenges.  There was a time "“ was it just a generation ago? "“ when Americans were legendary for doing vast, seemingly superhuman, projects:  the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Missions, Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy invasion, the Empire State Building, Social Security.

What happened?  Today we look at these achievements, much as Dark Age peasants looked on the mighty works of the Roman Era, feeling like some golden age has passed when giants walked the Earth.

My response includes the following:

The list he offers is a telling one "” all except the Empire State Building were government programs, just as were the "mighty works" of the ancient Romans.  And just like the Romans, these and other government projects have more to do with triumphalism than they do with adding real value.

It is interesting he should mention the Romans.  There were few grand buildings during the centuries when Rome was a republic.  Only in the later Imperial period, when Rome became an autarky, did rulers begin to build the monumental structures that Malone admires.  Emperors taxed their subjects and marshaled millions of slaves to build temples and great columns and triumphal arches and colosseums to celebrate"¦ themselves.  Twentieth Century politicians have done the same, putting their names on dams and bridges and airports and highways and buildings.  They still build coleseums too, though today they cost over a billion dollars and have retractable roofs.  Are these, as Malone suggests, monuments to the audacity of the greatest generation, or just to the ego of politicians?...

This is the same concern that drives Thomas Friedman to extol the virtues of the Chinese government, where a few men there can point their fingers and make billions of dollars flow from their citizens to the projects of their choice.  This is a nostalgia for coercion and government power, for Lincoln imposing martial law, for FDR threatening to pack the Supreme Court, for the Pharaohs getting those pyramids built.  It is a call for dis-empowerment of the masses, for re-concentrating power in a few smart visionary folks, presumably including Mr.  Malone.

Why Is the Media So Much Smarter About Legislation After it is Passed

I have decided there is something that is very predictable about the media:  they usually are very sympathetic to legislation expanding government powers or spending when the legislation is being discussed in Congress.  Then, after the legislation is passed, and there is nothing that can be done to get rid of it, the media gets really insightful all of a sudden, running thoughtful pieces about the hidden problems and unintended consequences of the legislation.  I remember that they did this with the ethanol mandates, when I summarized:

All this stuff was known long before Congress voted for the most recent ethanol mandates.  Why is it that the media, who cheerled such mandates for years, is able to apply any institutional skepticism only after the mandates have become law?

And now we are seeing it with the stimulus bill:

A federal spending surge of more than $20 billion for roads and bridges in President Barack Obama's first stimulus has had no effect on local unemployment rates, raising questions about his argument for billions more to address an "urgent need to accelerate job growth."An Associated Press analysis of stimulus spending found that it didn't matter if a lot of money was spent on highways or none at all: Local unemployment rates rose and fell regardless. And the stimulus spending only barely helped the beleaguered construction industry, the analysis showed.

With the nation's unemployment rate at 10 percent and expected to rise, Obama wants a second stimulus bill from Congress including billions of additional dollars for roads and bridges "” projects the president says are "at the heart of our effort to accelerate job growth."...

Even within the construction industry, which stood to benefit most from transportation money, the AP's analysis found there was nearly no connection between stimulus money and the number of construction workers hired or fired since Congress passed the recovery program. The effect was so small, one economist compared it to trying to move the Empire State Building by pushing against it.

Well, better late than never.  And actually moderately timely in this case because we are considering a second stimulus bill.  It even includes this insight which is almost NEVER raised in stimulus-related discussions:

"As a policy tool for creating jobs, this doesn't seem to have much bite," said Emory University economist Thomas Smith, who supported the stimulus and reviewed AP's analysis. "In terms of creating jobs, it doesn't seem like it's created very many. It may well be employing lots of people but those two things are very different."

Exactly.  Stealing $10 million from Peter so Paul can hire three more people doesn't net increase jobs until you understand what Peter would have done with the money.  One has to argue that the market did a poor job in allocating capital to Peter and that the government will employ this capital more productively (hah!)

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended the administration's recovery program Monday, writing on his blog that "DOT-administered stimulus spending is the only thing propping up the transportation construction industry."

Well, as the article goes on to say, this turns out not to be the case.  But even if it were true, what industries were gutted by having their capital taken away so that one government-favored industry could be stimulated.

By the way, never underestimate the power of politicians to use every tool up to and including malfeasance to get more money and power for themselves (because that is exactly what the stimulus bills are -- a substitution of the markets with Congress in the capital allocation process).

It is also becoming more difficult to obtain an accurate count of stimulus jobs. Those who receive stimulus money can now credit jobs to the program even if they were never in jeopardy of being lost, according to new rules outlined by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

The new rules, reported Monday by the Internet site ProPublica, allow any job paid for with stimulus money to count as a position saved or created.