Commentary Magazine


Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, Meet Henry Graham

Both Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert last week bemoaned the decision by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to put the kibosh on a multi-billion-dollar project to build a second railroad tunnel under the Hudson River. The project, which was originally budgeted at $8.7 billion had crept up — in the time-honored way of government projects — to over $11 billion, and many thought it would reach $14 billion before all was said and done. New Jersey would have been responsible for much of the cost overruns, and Governor Christie thought the state, deeply mired in debt already, could not afford it. And so he killed the project.

The tunnel, to be sure, is no bridge to nowhere. The century-old tunnel now in place is very inadequate to handle the rapidly growing traffic between the country’s most densely populated state and its largest city. Krugman and Herbert both called the cancellation the end of the can-do American spirit, a failure of imagination, a disgrace. Krugman wrote:

It was a destructive and incredibly foolish decision on multiple levels. But it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.

Herbert wrote:

This is a railroad tunnel we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go to the Moon. This is not the Manhattan Project. It’s a railroad tunnel that’s needed to take people back and forth to work and to ease the pressure on the existing tunnel, a wilting two-track facility that’s about 100 years old. What is the matter with us? The Chinese could build it. The Turks could build it. We can’t build it.

Krugman and Herbert remind me of the Walter Matthau character in a delightful if now long-forgotten movie called A New Leaf, written, directed, and co-starring Elaine May. Matthau’s character, Henry Graham, has been private-jet-and-yacht rich all his life but has, unknowingly, run through all his money. When he tries to cash a check at his bank and is told that there are insufficient funds to cover it, he is simply unable to process the information. Whenever he had wanted money before, he had simply written a check and taken the money. Now, suddenly, he can’t do that, and he is utterly befuddled.

When we began the Interstate Highway System, the national debt was about 60 percent of GDP and falling. We had run budget surpluses in seven of the previous 10 years. When we went to the moon, the national debt was 39 percent of GDP and falling. It is now over 90 percent and rising rapidly. And the move from 40 percent of GDP to 90 percent was not because of moon shots or Manhattan Projects. It was so no one in Washington (and many state capitals) ever had to say no to anyone, especially public-service unions. In effect, we spent the money on the political equivalent of wine, women, and song, just as Henry Graham had spent his.

And like Henry Graham, Krugman, Herbert, and the business-as-usual political establishment they speak for are unable to process the information that there is a limit to the debt burden even so fabulously rich a country as the United States can bear without disastrous consequences, and that we are getting perilously close to that limit.

The people of New Jersey had processed that information, and that’s why they elected Governor Christie. I suspect that people in the rest of the country have also processed it, and that’s why the political establishment is going to get clobbered in three weeks.

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