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Is the America of today even capable of performing great building feats?

WASHINGTON — Construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge took four years in the 1930s, but after a 1989 earthquake, when one-third of the Bay Bridge had to be replaced, this took two decades. A nation planning to quickly spend hundreds of billions on infrastructure should wonder why the repair proceeded so sluggishly — and why the inflation-adjusted cost of building a mile of the interstate highway system tripled between the 1960s and 1980s.

The Claremont Institute’s William Voegeli considers this evidence of “activist government’s dysfunction” –government’s inability, or unwillingness, to do one thing at a time. Government cannot simply repair a bridge; it must do so while complying with an ever-thickening, sometimes immobilizing web of ever-multiplying environmental, labor, safety and other mandates. They also now include, as part of what Voegeli calls the Biden administration’s “shock-and-awe statism,” Washington’s obsession with “equity” — racial distributions of government goods and services.

Remember Barack Obama’s 2010 epiphany about the nonexistence of his promised “shovel-ready” projects? According to Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge in “Capitalism in America: A History” (2018), “Today bigger highway projects take a decade just to clear the various bureaucratic hurdles before workers can actually get to work.”

They note that nature, heedless of government, provided the nation’s first and most consequential infrastructure: The United States has more miles of navigable rivers than the rest of the world combined. Five rivers — the Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee, Colorado — “flow diagonally rather than perpendicularly, drawing the country together into a natural geographical unit.”

In the 1820s, the nation’s first ambitious manmade infrastructure project, the 363-mile Erie Canal, established that New York, not New Orleans or Boston, would be the premier U.S. port, with enormous political and cultural consequences. Government disbursement of land powered the development of the 19th century’s greatest non-natural infrastructure, railroads, which knitted the nation’s regions into the world’s largest single market. By 1905, write Greenspan and Wooldridge, 14% of the world’s railway mileage was connected to Chicago. “By river,” write Greenspan and Wooldridge, “the distance from Pittsburgh to St. Louis was 1,164 miles. By rail it was 612 miles.”

“The railroads,” they write, “were the first great crony capitalists. They bought politicians, bribed judges, and, in Henry Adams’s phrase, turned themselves into ‘local despotisms’ in one state after another.” In the 1860s, when railroads helped the North subdue the South, “Congress repeatedly gave away parcels of land the size of northeastern states.” Gifts to the Union Pacific were, cumulatively, equivalent to New Hampshire and New Jersey combined. By one scholar’s estimate, if all the land given to railroads in that decade were cobbled into one state, it would be the third largest, smaller than Alaska and Texas but larger than California.

n 1861, when Western Union connected the coasts at Fort Laramie, Wyo., the telegraph quickly became a communications infrastructure as important as broadband is today. It instantly distributed financial information, enabling Chicago to open its commodities exchange in 1848.

The 20th century’s principal infrastructure involved pouring an ocean of concrete. Greenspan and Wooldridge: “All America’s hard-surfaced roads in 1900, laid end to end, would not have stretched from New York to Boston, or 215 miles.” In 1986, workers completed I-80, the first transcontinental interstate, from New York’s George Washington Bridge to the Bay Bridge. Can today’s nation — divided by the politics of envy and race-mongering; with “leaders” too timid to ask 98.2% of Americans (those earning less than $400,000) to pay for the gusher of new government benefactions — perform great feats?

Last month was the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech summoning the nation to send astronauts to the moon in the 1960s. Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, says of the speech: “It seems like it comes not just from a different time but from a different country.” Kennedy’s challenge required accomplishing 2 million tasks, a million of which involved then-uninvented technologies. He did not stoke racial or class divisions; he spoke of a national identity receptive to great and uncertain exertions. He did not pander to particular constituencies, promising union jobs and racial “equity” throughout the space program. Instead, he asked the nation to take gigantic risks for the nation’s, and humanity’s, benefit.

Whereas “Kennedy called the nation to dare,” today, Domenech writes, America is where “schools can’t fail kids for giving the wrong answers, where teachers refuse to teach even with precautions and vaccinations, and where local authorities won’t put down riots.” A different country.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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