Comparing apples and oranges — federal projects old and new

Rumor has it that the President is going to use the State of the Union address to call for more government spending.  Much more government spending:

President Barack Obama will call for new government spending on infrastructure, education and research in his State of the Union address Tuesday, sharpening his response to Republicans in Congress who are demanding deep budget cuts, people familiar with the speech said.

Mr. Obama will argue that the U.S., even while trying to reduce its budget deficit, must make targeted investments to foster job growth and boost U.S. competitiveness in the world economy. The new spending could include initiatives aimed at building the renewable-energy sector—which received billions of dollars in stimulus funding—and rebuilding roads to improve transportation, people familiar with the matter said. Money to restructure the No Child Left Behind law’s testing mandates and institute more competitive grants also could be included.

When one questions the wisdom of a government spending binge during a recession, many Democrats and Progressives will point to the wonders of government spending during the 1930s and the 1950s.  Those spending binges got people off the streets, and left America with dams, post offices, a national highway system and other true infrastructure benefits.  They see Obama inaugurating the third American golden age of infrastructure building, something that will leave us with the solar plan equivalent of the Hoover Dam or an interstate highway.

Putting aside the fact that dams and roads were proven necessities that genuinely served the interests of citizens, as opposed to unproven technologies that mostly benefit select special interests (solar and wind farms, for example), there’s something very important that all the Lefties are forgetting:  government now doesn’t function as government did then.

Back in the good old Roosevelt and Eisenhower days, government actually was a surprisingly efficient engine of change.  Hoover Dam, for example, took only four and half years to build.  The government came, the government saw, and the government conquered.  The staggering bureaucratic nightmare that haunts any government project nowadays simply didn’t exist then.  Safety oversight was minimal.  (It was seen as unexceptional that 100 men died building the dam.)  Special interest groups were nonexistent.  Indeed, the Code of Federal Regulations that we all know and fear now didn’t even get it’s start until the Roosevelt administration.  It was in its infancy during Hoover Dam’s construction — too small yet to impair efficiency.

The 1950s infrastructure boom was also less hampered by the CFR.  It existed in pretty much the same state in the 1950s as it did in the 1930s.  It only got its second wind in the 1960s.  The 1950s projects were aided by the fact that America was one of the few viable economies in the world after WWII, and by the massive availability of post-War labor.

It would be foolish of me to deny that there are virtues to having some regulations.  The thought of 100 people dying to build a federal project nowadays is horrifying to modern sensibilities.  One also wants structures that meet certain standards.  Otherwise, God forbid there’s an earthquake under a federal project, it will flatten as quickly as buildings do in Iran or China or Mexico, or other countries in which cheap, safety-free building is normative.

There is a happy medium, though, and our government has traveled too far in the direction of over-regulation.  If you’ve ever had the exquisite pain of reading the CFR, you realize that federal regulations are so detailed and overwhelming, so stultifying and initiative killing, so inflexible and deadening, that they’ve gone far beyond protecting workers and providing some semblance of standardization for federal projects.  Instead, they are the quintessential example of the “perfect being the enemy of the good.”  With their relentless drive for perfection, they destroy cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and speed.  All federal projects are now federally mandated boondoggles, ensuring only that federal employees will have jobs in perpetuity.

And just so that you can appreciate that I’m not exaggerating about the paralyzing detail of the CFRs, here are the rules for safe wooden ladders on a job site.  (And you can be assured that any construction requires wooden ladders.)  I have no opposition, of course, to safe ladders — indeed, I encourage them — but this type of obsessive specificity is costly and gives federal inspectors a ridiculous amount of power over any job site, even as it turns the people on site into thoughtless automatons:

[Code of Federal Regulations]
[Title 29, Volume 5]
[Revised as of July 1, 2010]
From the U.S. Government Printing Office via GPO Access
[CITE: 29CFR1910.25]

[Page 122-124]




Subpart D_Walking-Working Surfaces

Sec. 1910.25 Portable wood ladders.

(a) Application of requirements. This section is intended to prescribe rules and establish minimum requirements for the construction, care, and use of the common types of portable wood ladders, in order to insure safety under normal conditions of usage. Other types of special ladders, fruitpicker’s ladders, combination step and extension ladders, stockroom step ladders, aisle-way step ladders, shelf ladders, and library ladders are not specifically covered by this section.
(b) Materials–(1) Requirements applicable to all wood parts. (i) All wood parts shall be free from sharp edges and splinters; sound and free from accepted visual inspection from shake, wane, compression failures, decay, or other irregularities. Low density wood shall not be used.
(ii) [Reserved]
(2) [Reserved]
(c) Construction requirements. (1) [Reserved]
(2) Portable stepladders. Stepladders longer than 20 feet shall not be supplied. Stepladders as hereinafter specified shall be of three types:

Type I–Industrial stepladder, 3 to 20 feet for heavy duty, such as utilities, contractors, and industrial use.
Type II–Commercial stepladder, 3 to 12 feet for medium duty, such as painters, offices, and light industrial use.
Type III–Household stepladder, 3 to 6 feet for light duty, such as light household use.

(i) General requirements.
(a) [Reserved]
(b) A uniform step spacing shall be employed which shall be not more than 12 inches. Steps shall be parallel and level when the ladder is in position for use.
(c) The minimum width between side rails at the top, inside to inside, shall be not less than 11\1/2\ inches. From top to bottom, the side rails shall spread at least 1 inch for each foot of length of stepladder.
(d)-(e) [Reserved]
(f) A metal spreader or locking device of sufficient size and strength to securely hold the front and back sections in open positions shall be a component of each stepladder. The spreader shall have all sharp points covered or removed to protect the user. For Type III ladder, the pail shelf and spreader may be combined in one unit (the so-called shelf-lock ladder).
(3) Portable rung ladders.
(i) [Reserved]
(ii) Single ladder. (a) Single ladders longer than 30 feet shall not be supplied.
(b) [Reserved]
(iii) Two-section ladder. (a) Two-section extension ladders longer than 60 feet shall not be supplied. All ladders of this type shall consist of two sections, one to fit within the side rails of the other, and arranged in such a manner that the upper section can be raised and lowered.
(b) [Reserved]
(iv) Sectional ladder. (a) Assembled combinations of sectional ladders longer than lengths specified in this subdivision shall not be used.
(b) [Reserved]
(v) Trestle and extension trestle ladder. (a) Trestle ladders, or extension sections or base sections of extension trestle ladders longer than 20 feet shall not be supplied.
(b) [Reserved]
(4) Special-purpose ladders.
(i) [Reserved]
(ii) Painter’s stepladder. (a) Painter’s stepladders longer than 12 feet shall not be supplied.
(b) [Reserved]
(iii) Mason’s ladder. A mason’s ladder is a special type of single ladder intended for use in heavy construction work.
(a) Mason’s ladders longer than 40 feet shall not be supplied.
(b) [Reserved]
(5) Trolley and side-rolling ladders–(i) Length. Trolley ladders and side-rolling ladders longer than 20 feet should not be supplied.
(ii) [Reserved]
(d) Care and use of ladders–(1) Care. To insure safety and serviceability the following precautions on the care of ladders shall be observed:
(i) Ladders shall be maintained in good condition at all times, the joint between the steps and side rails shall be tight, all hardware and fittings securely attached, and the movable parts shall operate freely without binding or undue play.
(ii) Metal bearings of locks, wheels, pulleys, etc., shall be frequently lubricated.
(iii) Frayed or badly worn rope shall be replaced.
(iv) Safety feet and other auxiliary equipment shall be kept in good condition to insure proper performance.
(v)-(ix) [Reserved]
(x) Ladders shall be inspected frequently and those which have developed defects shall be withdrawn from service for repair or destruction and tagged or marked as “Dangerous, Do Not Use.”
(xi) Rungs should be kept free of grease and oil.
(2) Use. The following safety precautions shall be observed in connection with the use of ladders:
(i) Portable rung and cleat ladders shall, where possible, be used at such a pitch that the horizontal distance from the top support to the foot of the ladder is one-quarter of the working length of the ladder (the length along the ladder between the foot and the top support). The ladder shall be so placed as to prevent slipping, or it shall be lashed, or held in position. Ladders shall not be used in a horizontal position as platforms, runways, or scaffolds;
(ii) Ladders for which dimensions are specified should not be used by more than one man at a time nor with ladder jacks and scaffold planks where use by more than one man is anticipated. In such cases, specially designed ladders with larger dimensions of the parts should be procured;
(iii) Portable ladders shall be so placed that the side rails have a secure footing. The top rest for portable rung and cleat ladders shall be reasonably rigid and shall have ample strength to support the applied load;
(iv) Ladders shall not be placed in front of doors opening toward the ladder unless the door is blocked upon, locked, or guarded;
(v) Ladders shall not be placed on boxes, barrels, or other unstable bases to obtain additional height;
(vi)-(vii) [Reserved]
(viii) Ladders with broken or missing steps, rungs, or cleats, broken side rails, or other faulty equipment shall not be used; improvised repairs shall not be made;
(ix) Short ladders shall not be spliced together to provide long sections;
(x) Ladders made by fastening cleats across a single rail shall not be used;
(xi) Ladders shall not be used as guys, braces, or skids, or for other than their intended purposes;
(xii) Tops of the ordinary types of stepladders shall not be used as steps;
(xiii) On two-section extension ladders the minimum overlap for the two sections in use shall be as follows:

Size of ladder (feet) (feet)
Up to and including 36……………………………….. 3
Over 36 up to and including 48………………………… 4
Over 48 up to and including 60………………………… 5

(xiv) Portable rung ladders with reinforced rails (see paragraphs (c)(3) (ii)(c) and (iii)(d) this section) shall be used only with the metal reinforcement on the under side;
(xv) No ladder should be used to gain access to a roof unless the top of the ladder shall extend at least 3 feet above the point of support, at eave, gutter, or roofline;
(xvi) [Reserved]
(xvii) Middle and top sections of sectional or window cleaner’s ladders should not be used for bottom section unless the user equips them with safety shoes;
(xviii) [Reserved]
(xix) The user should equip all portable rung ladders with nonslip bases when there is a hazard of slipping. Nonslip bases are not intended as a substitute for care in safely placing, lashing, or holding a ladder that is being used upon oily, metal, concrete, or slippery surfaces;
(xx) The bracing on the back legs of step ladders is designed solely for increasing stability and not for climbing.

[39 FR 23502, June 27, 1974, as amended at 43 FR 49744, Oct. 24, 1978;
49 FR 5321, Feb. 10, 1984]

This is no way to run a business, and it’s even worse when you think about the fact that the above regulation covers only one type of ladder.  Multiply this level of regulation out to include the design process, the bidding process, the hiring process, and the myriad details of actual job construction, and you can bet your bottom dollar that it means that no new infrastructure that the feds pay for will be built with the speed of the Hoover Dam or our national transportation system.  The golden age of federally built infrastructure is dead and gone.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

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  • Gringo

    A good intuitive way for someone who is not an attorney  to get an idea of the mind-numbing number of laws and regulations we have is to visit a university law library. As you well know, there you see foot upon foot, thousands of pages upon thousands of pages, of mind-numbing laws and regulations.

  • JKB

    I’m of two mind on the CFR.  On the one hand, many of the regulations are written in blood, i.e., they are the consequence of someone dying from faulty equipment.  On the other hand, they are not kept up to date so that old measures inhibit innovation.  Such as, the presence of a firefighting tool in use by most terrestrial fire departments will result in a fine in discovered onboard a ship simply because it has not been written into the CFRs governing shipboard firefighting equipment.  Or that due to international agreements, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System requires radio equipment and technology that has not even been implemented or monitored by the US since it is outdated, which any technology would be when it takes 10 years to ratify once specified in Conventions.
    I am proud that I have in one of my performance evaluations and admonishment to stop worrying so much about the CFRs.  See I was concerned about certain safety violations.  Bureaucrats ignore the standards set for the private sector since they don’t expect to be prosecuted as a citizen would be for violations.  It doesn’t always work out that way but mostly federal agency compliance with safety standards they criminally prosecute private sector citizens over is minimal due to, wait for it, the costs it imposes on budgets.  BTW, that performance evaluation regarding following the CFRs was the start of the end of my career.

  • David Foster

    The problem of **how long it takes to get anything done** is a very serious one, which I discuss in my post like swimming in glue.
    Regarding rule-driven micromanagement…in 1797, Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana wrote a very interesting analysis of why his country tended to lose naval battles to the British. Excerpt:
    “An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight; and while he thus clears his mind of all subsidiary distractions, he rests in confidence on the certainty that his comrades, actuated by the same principles as himself, will be bound by the sacred and priceless principle of mutual support.
    Accordingly, both he and his fellows fix their minds on acting with zeal and judgement upon the spur of the moment, and with the certainty that they will not be deserted. Experience shows, on the contrary, that a Frenchman or a Spaniard, working under a system which leans to formality and strict order being maintained in battle, has no feeling for mutual support, and goes into battle with hesitation, preoccupied with the anxiety of seeing or hearing the commander-in-chief’s signals for such and such maneuvers.”
    That focus on “formality and strict order” increasingly dominates American society, and will work no better for us than it did for the Spanish navy.

  • Oldflyer

    Much of FDR’s spending on “make work” projects was accepted because economic distress was an order of magnitude worse than now.  FDR sold the idea that he had the answers for truly desperate people.  As it was most of the projects put people directly to work on jobs that in the vernacular of the illegal immigration apologists , “Americans today wouldn’t do”.  So, I suppose that Obama will put Latinos to work on the new government make-work.   Of course, many of the men–and it was the men who were targeted for work if FDR’s day–were ready and capable of doing hard manual work.  My older cousins were in the CCC before the war. As I recall, they spent most of their time building their camp, which soon enough became an Army camp.  I never learned  what their mission was supposed to be; but as farm boys they were capable of many physically demanding, semi-complex tasks.  Are we really to believe that Obama can take a man off the street, put a shovel, pick, or hammer in his hand, and produce “infrastructure” today?  What kind of infrastructure producing jobs will Obama create for out-of-work money managers or real-estate agents?  How many people can we really use standing on the side of the road leaning on a shovel, or holding a  sign that says “slow” on one side and “stop” on the other?
    Eisenhower commissioned the Interstate Highway system for a number of reasons.  The stated reason was for National Defense.  But, I suppose that with millions of men returning to civilian life, and the industrial base needing time to convert from war production, creating jobs was also a factor.
    But, if we are really thinking about another “stimulus”, we must remember that Obama has already squandered hundreds of billions of dollars on his initial stimulus and “bailouts”.  The national cupboard is worse than empty.  There is no money; and there is little confidence that if there were, it would be spent to our advantage.
    In under-reported stories just this week, some of us learned that “Government Motors” is going to build a new plant in Mexico to build “green” cars,  which will hire a significant number of  folks. How nice for Mexico.  We learned that GE, a formerly great and innovative producer of consumer and high tech items, and a major employer, was allowed to pretend that it was a bank; and thus received a larger portion of the TARP funds than any other company.  GE, with government acquiescence, downplayed its productive side and moved many jobs off-shore, while it  concentrated on the profitable money manipulation business. They have recently earned the unflattering sobriquet “Government Electric”.    We also learned that GE  now intends to provide turbine technology to the Chinese, free, for some unfathomable reason.  Routine Kowtowing I suppose.

  • Ymarsakar

    Obama has a plan. And that plan requires some people to starve. It’s what they elected him for.

  • Ymarsakar

    When the world burns, look to Obama’s supporters and those who dared call him a “centrist” moderate, for the blood on their hands. For it will be many.

  • Zachriel

    Ymarsakar: When the world burns, look to Obama’s supporters and those who dared call him a “centrist” moderate, for the blood on their hands. For it will be many.

  • Zardox

    OLDFLYER “Americans today wouldn’t do”   Most Americans will not do these jobs in my experience.  I certainly won’t, because I can earn much more doing much easier work.  They are jobs that we will do only if there is nothing better and we have to do something to survive. It is natural to choose and do the best you can.  I am wondering if we need to allow things to reach such dire level before we can create jobs.  Also,  I have been working in infrastructure building–building the highway system; I haul concrete beams for overpasses and bridges– and most of the Mexican guys working there are not using shovels and pics these days, but backhoes and front end loaders, etc.  I don’t think that creating work creates jobs only at the lowest level.  If you build a water treatment plant or interstate highway or anything else, it will employ a proportionate number of managers , engineers, and workers at all levels as one not created my the government.

  • Zardox

    Oh, yes, Just want to say hello.  I just got on here this morning and so I will take a while to get up to speed and into the flow of ideas, but I wanted to make a comment to get involved.  I hope I will have time to read enough here to be able to participate constructively in conversations.

  • suek

    Another Z.
    And here I was – hoping for an X.
    Oh well…we’ll learn soon enough if Z is a member of a particular Jovial group, or someone who can actually discuss.
    Maybe Hal decided he needed human participation after all…

  • Danny Lemieux

    I’ve noticed that Leftists are very adept at causing problems with their left hand while offering solutions to self-same problems with their right. And people buy it, every time.
    Example 1: Hoover’s and FDR’s policies what should have been an economic downturn into a full-blown depression while coming to the American people with government “solutions” that required spending more money. Sure, it was good that the Hoover Dam was built. However, that doesn’t mitigate the tremendous cost imposed on the American people by those policies. Sure, there was a crisis in incomes for the elderly, however Social Security was largely a response to the conditions created by FDR in the first place.
    It’s this type of thinking that underlies the Cloward-Piven thesis of using government to drive the country into economic collapse as an justification for establishing a fascist dictatorship.


    Good catch. Did you notice in post #7, the repetitive comment (to insure that all comments are tracked).  If any new comments are not linked to URL’s, I’ll cautiously assume, it’s okay. And NO, Hal is not looking for human participation – only contradiction. I have no intention of interacting with an object.

  • suek

    >>Did you notice in post #7, the repetitive comment (to insure that all comments are tracked). >>
    I noticed it, but thought it was a blip.  I think I don’t understand what you mean…clarify, please?

  • Charles Martel

    Like Sadie, I suspect that we have been under attack by the Pivenator IV, a clever device invented by the Red Chinese to turn interesting conservative salons into frantic places where wheels spin eternally as highly intelligent people get caught up in “debating” an endlessly evasive, totally unoriginal, leftist-talking-points software program.

    (Z’s tactic reminds me of an old publisher boss I had at a trade magazine. The editorial staffers were young women from UC Berkeley or Stanford. While highly intelligent, they were also highly emotional and easy to set off, this being the era of nascent feminism. Occasionally I would hear through my office door the muffled sound of the publisher saying something to the editors. If high-pitched responses came back, all speaking at once, I knew that he was deliberately fomenting trouble. Invariably, after the commotion died down, he would fling open my office door, fix me with an impish grin, and make a broad stirring motion. It was his way of keeping himself entertained. Somehow the Zach program reminds me of him.)

  • Ymarsakar

    Suek, he’s at the point where he can only bold my one liners. He can’t even quote up a “citation” to back his stuff up. He’s speechless. Like I said. This is the real battle now. Before, it was just a test of his abilities.
    Now he’s not even trying, cause he’ll know he’ll fail.


    suek #13
    Once you post (even a cut and paste) you’ll get a track back in your email, to alert you to a new or in this case, a reused comment. Get enough comments, and ‘game boy’ and the band of merry idiots whip out their URL’s and set about to amuse themselves. When you get to big for the sandbox and the other little kids in the neighborhood don’t what you to play with them, they run home and try annoy the adults at home.
    Rather  like dog doo on the sidewalk, you can’t clean it up, so…just walk around it and ignore it.


    If regulations and environmental activists had center stage, Hoover Dam would still be in committee.
    The Big Dig in Boston took 15 years to complete, jumping the estimated cost of the project from $2.8 billion to more than $15 billion. I am not even sure if it’s ‘really’ completed. It had numerous leaks, one death to a driver from falling concrete, due to shoddy materials and workmanship – so much for regulations.

  • Mike Devx

    Nah, Zardok is a real person.  I’ve mentioned him in a few posts in the past.  Be gentle.  At least for a few hours.  😉

  • Ymarsakar

    The Leftist metaphysicist would ask, Mike, “are any of us real at all?”

  • suek

    Sadie,  I think I understand.  I don’t use the RSS function.  I still do it the old-fashioned way – visit the blog.
    My son would probably organize my email box so that RSS  comments for various blogs – or even various threads – would go into separate files.  I’m not that expert…I’d just end up with them being all mixed up and lose track.  Besides, initially, my email box didn’t have that much retention space.  They increased the space available, but I guess I’m just a creature of habit.

  • suek

    To Zardok…
    Timing is everything!

  • Charles Martel

    Incompetence reigns at the state and local level, too. It has been almost 22 years since the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the eastern approach to the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, severely enough to make the state of California decide to replace it.

    Once that decision was made, it was followed by years of petty wrangling among local mayors, including Oakland’s Jerry Brown, over aesthetics, and minority set asides, and petty provincial rivalries (Brown said Oakland “deserved” a bridge that would rival the Golden Gate and the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge in beauty). End result, new construction did not begin until 2002—almost 13 years after the quake—and is not scheduled to finish until 2013—24 years after the first thought was given to building a new approach.

    There are more nightmares: the steel for the signature solitary tower that will function as the great-looking icon Junior Brown wanted was made in China. There were problems with the workmanship of the tower components, including crucial welds, but the public was later assured that the problem had been taken care of. (The proper authorities reached a consensus that the Chinese steel was not inferior. People who continued expressing doubts were “outliers.”)

    The 525-foot tower will be a disaster waiting to happen. It is “self-anchored,” meaning that the single cable that holds the suspender rods that hold up the roadway below loops around both ends of the tower section and is not anchored to any external supports. In other words, engineers are hoping that a nasty earthquake or a terrorist explosion will not damage the tower enough to make it quit supporting its own cables.

    Additionally, the tower isn’t necessary. A simple viaduct-type roadway could have been completed for now at a savings of $2 billion, but Jerry had that wet dream.

    This is how out-of-control politicians and environmentalists screw up life for the rest of us. It’s an effin’ bridge, not a monument. When I hear clueless wonders like Obama write about infrastructure, I realize that what they have in mind are projects like the Big Dig and Jerry’s Bridge.

  • Ymarsakar

    Download a RSS program, Suek. Easier to manage than using email.
    Hey Martel. I think it is logical. If they can extend the project and keep creating complications, it keeps unionized work force at… work, right? That’s going to be a big favor to Big Union. Which means a correspondent increase in political funding. Which means more political power for trading favors once elected.
    It’s like a self sustaining cancer.

  • Ymarsakar

    Welcome to the table, Zardox. Take your choice of targets.


    Wet dreams are expensive. Now that Jerry is governor (it is the same Jerry?) he can delight and bask in the sunshine ‘if’ the 2013 date comes to fruition – a silver anniversary of incompetence, to match the graying on the heads of the visionaries, who by now have cataracts. Maybe Mr. Hu will cut the ribbon with another finely made product from China. Florida, Alabama, La. and Miss. had to gut homes made with defected imported dry wall from China. But, hey, it was only 3,000 homes that were bothered with a little thing like sulfur. I mean, if you don’t mind heavy breathing, a chronic cough and a bloody nose …

  • Charles Martel

    Sadie, yes, the same Jerry. The man who in his first manifestation as governor (1974-82) signed the legislation that allowed public employees to form unions.


    No doubt, inherited defective progressive genes with a short and/or selective memory. What can one possibly add, other than your basic ‘Oy’ or in the understatement of Roy Schneider….
    Chief Martin Brody: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”
    cue: music ;

  • suek

    >>it is the same Jerry?>>
    Also known (during his previous administration) as “Governor Moonbeam”…


    Wasn’t his love interest Linda Ronstadt

    You’re no good
    You’re no good
    You’re no good
    Baby you’re no good

  • Ymarsakar

    A moon cannon

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