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