Summers and Rachel Lipson have written a remarkable Op-Ed in the Boston Globe, and Larry a deeper follow-on piece on the Washington Post Wonkblog, detailing the 5 year struggle to repair a bridge that took 11 months to build in 1911.
The narrow story:
How, we ask, could our society have regressed to the point where a bridge that could be built in less than a year one century ago takes five times as long to repair today?
In order to adhere to strict historical requirements overseen by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation had to order special bricks, cast by a company in Maine, to meet special size and appearance specifications from the bridge’s inception in 1912.
...extensive permitting and redesigns haven’t helped.And the rest reads like a typical Wall Street Journal oped anecdote of regulatory incompetence, fodder for my next weekly summary.
Larry's Post follow on is deeper:
Investigating the reasons behind the bridge blunders have helped to illuminate an aspect of American sclerosis — a gaggle of regulators and veto players, each with the power to block or to delay, ...
At one level this explains why, despite the overwhelming case for infrastructure investment, there is so much resistance from those who think it will be carried out ineptly.Stop for a moment here. This sentence is a watershed moment. Larry is one of our foremost public-intellectual economists. He's been arguing for years for infrastructure spending, first as "shovel-ready" stimulus to fight the recession, lately as the remedy for "secular stagnation." So far, he's been arguing mostly for more money, and not highlighting regulatory roadblocks. The Democratic party (not Larry) line is that infrastructure is the fault of stingy Republicans who won't spend the money.
But here is Larry, listening, and urging his readers to listen. Savor the sentence: "This explains why.. there is so much resistance from those who think it will be carried out ineptly." How often, in American public life these days, do we see a prominent, party-aligned, public intellectual listen hard and understand what's bothering the other side? No, it's not that they are stingy, mean-hearted, evil, or whatever. It's that they don't trust the money to be spent on the right thing, in the right place, in finite time. They have a point.
(I had a conversation with Larry a while ago, that went something like this: Larry: We need more infrastructure, and borrowing money is really cheap right now! John: Yeah, but they'll just blow the money on a high-speed rail line from Tonopah to Winnemucca, and even that will be held up for 10 years of EPA reviews and lawsuits. Larry: Oh, John, there you go again exaggerating how bad regulations are... Maybe I can flatter myself that I nudged him a little here.)
The right response is to advocate for reforms in procurement policies, regulatory policies and government procedures to make the investment process more efficient and effective.This is a watershed. Here is the kind of reach out for middle ground that could unlock our political and economic sclerosis. Larry is likely to be in government again sooner or later, and I hope he will push hard for this -- and with more effect than the last hundred or so anti-red-tape and regulatory reform commissions.
Larry's change of heart, or at least change of emphasis, seems deeper:
I'm a progressive, but it seems plausible to wonder if government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can't even fix a 232-foot bridge competently. Waiting in traffic over the Anderson Bridge, I've empathized with the two-thirds of Americans who distrust government.It's not about who cares. It's about competence. We can work together to fix this. Wow. Thank you, Massachusetts Historical Commission.
More than questions of personality or even those of high policy, the question of how to escape this trap should be a central issue in this election yearThat is not likely to happen in our Presidential race, but it surely should be a focus of Congressional elections, and the realignments happening now in Congress to try to escape paralysis.
In that context, I heard recently of one lovely small proposal to help "escape this trap." If you're fixing a bridge that is already there, you are exempt:
Amendment 4065 Mr. SULLIVAN [Senator Dan Sullivan, Alaska] (for himself and Mr. King [Angus King, Maine] submitted an amendment ....to the bill H.R. 2577... as follows:
Any bridge eligible for assistance under title 23, United States Code, that is structurally deficient and requires construction, reconstruction, or maintenance--I kept the long list as a reminder of just how many laws and regulations are in the way of fixing a bridge. Alas, the Senators forgot about the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which seems to be mainly behind Larry's traffic jam.
(1) may be reconstructed in the same location with the same capacity and dimensions as in existence on the date of enactment of this Act; and
(2) if the environmental impacts of the construction, reconstruction, or maintenance are not substantially greater than the environmental impacts of the original structure, as determined by the applicable State environmental authority, shall be considered to be compliant with the environmental reviews, approvals, licensing, and permit requirements under--
(A) the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.);
(B) sections 402 and 404 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (33 U.S.C. 1342, 1344);
(C) division A of subtitle III of title 54, United States Code;
(D) the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 U.S.C. 703 et seq.);
(E) the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (16 U.S.C. 1271 et seq.);
(F) the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act (16 U.S.C. 661 et seq.);
(G) the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), except when the reconstruction occurs in designated critical habitat for threatened and endangered species;
(H) Executive Order 11990 (42 U.S.C. 4321 note; relating to the protection of wetland); and
(I) any Federal law (including regulations) requiring no net loss of wetland.
I gather this amendment provoked a specific veto threat. Well, maybe next time.