It’s always nice to welcome a new conservative to the fold. And, although this column has frequently criticized Tom Friedman of The New York Times, it seems he may finally be coming around -- whether he realizes it or not.
Friedman’s column on March 2 opened with an observation.
Passing through Los Angeles International Airport, he noticed that it’s showing its age. “We are the United States of Deferred Maintenance,” Friedman wrote. “China is the People’s Republic of Deferred Gratification. They save, invest and build. We spend, borrow and patch.”
Fair enough. So why aren’t Americans building big things such as new airports and infrastructure? A big part of the answer is that laws and regulations block the way.
It’s much easier to expand and update an existing structure such as LAX than to build a new facility. After all, imagine what would happen if the city fathers decided to build an airport from scratch. It would require a dizzying number of environmental impact statements. Residents would form NIMBY groups. A decade’s worth of lawsuits would be filed.
Then, assuming the airport authority managed to slice through all the red tape, it would still be far from finished. Federal law would require high pay for all laborers. Cost overruns and time delays would be unavoidable. Remember Boston’s “Big Dig?” It was originally pitched to lawmakers as a $4 billion project. It ended up costing $14.6 billion (both figures are in 2003 dollars).
As for airports, the most recent major one to open was Denver’s. It was supposed to cost $1.7 billion, but ended up costing $4.8 billion. Over-lawyering is a big reason we aren’t getting things done.
Meanwhile, China’s government pretty much does what it wants, when it wants.
When Chinese leaders decided to build the Three Gorges Dam, they simply went ahead and did so. Hundreds of villages were destroyed. If the folks who lived there wanted to yell, “not in my backyard” they were free to do so. But in fact their backyards simply ended up underwater.
As Friedman wrote in September, in one of his many worshipful pieces about China, “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” yet in China “one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.” Indeed.