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We Don’t Get A Bilbao?

David Brooks has an elegant and complicated vision of suburban planning. But gosh, President-elect Obama – in his rush to push a public works stimulus plan through Congress – seems immune to the finer points of “any larger social vision.” Brooks laments:

In fact, there is a real danger that the plan will retard innovation and entrench the past.

In a stimulus plan, the first job is to get money out the door quickly. That means you avoid anything that might require planning and creativity. You avoid anything that might require careful implementation or novel approaches. The quickest thing to do is simply throw money at things that already exist.

Sure enough, the Obama stimulus plan, at least as it has been sketched out so far, is notable for its lack of creativity. Obama wants to put more computers in classrooms, an old idea with dubious educational merit. He also proposes a series of ideas that are good but not exactly transformational: refurbishing the existing power grid; fixing the oldest roads and bridges; repairing schools; and renovating existing government buildings to make them more energy efficient.

But it’s worse than that, Brooks concludes:

And this is before the stimulus money gets diverted, as it inevitably will, to refurbish old companies. The auto bailout could eventually swallow $125 billion. After that, it could be the airlines and so on.

It’s also before the spending drought that is bound to follow the spending binge. Because we’re going to be spending $1 trillion now on existing structures and fading industries, there will be less or nothing in 2010 or 2011 for innovative transport systems, innovative social programs or anything else.

Well, yes, that’s the unfortunate reality of huge, politically driven, ill-conceived bailouts and public works programs that must be done fast to “create jobs.” You waste billions on firms that are going out of business anyway. And you  get lots of ugly, government-designed buildings and roads where the Congressmen want them. Forget “pork barrel” – this is a whole warehouse of pork, stacked up as far as the eye can see. There is nothing elegant or innovative about it. This is the federal government.

Even with a philosophically inclined President in the White House, there is not much finesse in public works projects, especially a program as massive as the one we’ll see. There simply is no way for politicians to smartly spend a trillion dollars or more, very fast. It’s hard enough to do it well with the luxury of time and consideration.

But it’s going to be done one way or another. Then we’ll see if the Walter Reed and Katrina scandals are replaced by scandals of waste, graft, and corruption. So it won’t be art; let’s just hope it’s not a scandal-plagued mess that delivers a quarter of the promised projects in twice the time.

And if you have any doubt about the efficiency and architectural merits of government projects remember that the Congressional Visitors Center took eight years to finish, clocked in at a mere $621M (well it was supposed to cost $71M, but what’s a few cost overruns when you’re keeping smelly tourists away from Harry Reid?) and garnered atrocious reviews. Imagine when they’re building things Congressmen don’t see every day.


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