Magestic boondoggles used to be possible

end is nearExcellent bit of history about the Hoover Dam from Kevin Williamson in his new book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure.

Sorta punctures the romantic and inaccurate notion of the dam as a symbol of government excellence.  Especially fond of the last point:  even if one wants to cling to that symbolic inaccuracy, realize that it could never happen again thanks to the way government functions in this era.

Conventional political theory holds that only the state can provide public goods such as parks, sidewalks, roads, and the like. Television commentator Rachel Maddow offered a typically exaggerated expression of this view when she visited the Hoover Dam and remarked, “When you are this close to Hoover Dam, it makes you realize how small a human is in relation to this as a human project. You can’t be the guy who builds this. You can’t even be the state that builds this. You have to be the country that builds this.” (Never mind that Hoover Dam was in fact built by a consortium of private firms headed by Bechtel-Kaiser, under precisely the sort of outsourcing/private contractor arrangement that Maddow has no time for in most other contexts — in fact, she includes a chapter in one of her books denouncing this practice.) In a sense, Maddow is correct — the Hoover Dam is an economically nonviable project from the time of its conception, and the mighty installation, visually impressive as it is, produces significantly less electricity than does a typical small nuclear power plant. Which is to say, it is a majestic boondoggle. Only politics can do that — and stay in business. And, needless to say, a “guy” attempting a project with the environmental impact of Hoover Dam would never get permission from environmental regulators, given that its construction entailed wiping out an entire local ecosystem.

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