Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Expert Problem

I was listening to NPR the other day and heard some pundit complain about something I've heard in many venues: namely, that so little of the stimulus money has been spent. This article lays out some of the details, as do many others if you care to look. Why, you might ask, is it so hard to actually spend this money and get some stuff built? After all, there are no shortages of rundown or overcrowded highways, or congested rail corridors, or outdated airports. Let's get to work!

Not so fast. The reason you don't see new bridges and tunnels being built, as happened frequently in the Great Depression, is in large part because we now have experts to clutter up these projects. Nothing gets done by the people who make things without the people who think about things having their say first. In many ways, the white collar worker is the enemy of his blue collar brother, as the reports, analyses and meetings of the former slow up the building, creating and manufacturing of the latter.

Just take a look at this page updating on progress for the Second Avenue Subway line here in NYC: you see study after study, recommendation after recommendation, but words like, "dig" are barely to be found. A century ago, this city was criss-crossed with subway lines, built largely by private industry. But now it seems it takes decades just to study the possibility of a project. I work a half block away from where the proposed line will run, and strongly doubt I will ever ride it.

Obviously, there is merit in looking before you leap, and considering the best way to execute a project as well as its possible impact before starting. But projects like the Big Dig are beset by cost overruns and engineering failures even after the best minds study the problem endlessly, so how much value do all these reports really provide? The country aches for renewal, and improving our infrastructure is part of that. So lets stop the debating and get to work.

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