The Big Dig

With Boston’s Big Dig highway project in the news, a brief review is in order:

As the project was getting started in 1985, government officials claimed that it would cost $2.6 billion and be completed by 1998. The cost ultimately ballooned to $14.6 billion and new problems continue to arise as the project finally nears completion. (The federal share of the project’s cost was $8.5 billion.) In 2004, hundreds of leaks were found in the project, which added millions of dollars in taxpayer costs. And in recent weeks, parts of new road tunnel ceilings have collapsed. 

Raphael Lewis and Sean Murphy wrote an excellent Boston Globe series a couple of years ago revealing how the Big Dig had been grossly mismanaged. A key problem was that Massachusetts repeatedly bailed out bungling Big Dig contractors instead of demanding accountability. Contractors were essentially rewarded for delays and overruns with added cash and guaranteed profits.

When federal money is involved, state and local profligacy and corruption are usually the result. For background on the general problem of cost overruns on federally funded projects, see my compilation of evidence here.

Boldly Buying Votes

Yesterday, at a news conference featuring New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) unveiled “a bold new plan” for American higher education. The American Dream Initiative would “award states $150 billion over 10 years to reduce tuition and increase graduation rates”; consolidate several federal tax breaks into “a single, refundable $3,000 college tuition tax credit”; and bolster “accountability” by instituting federal price controls.

What terrific, bold ideas these are! First, plow even more government money into a system that has grown obese on taxpayer funds, then throw government “accountability” on top of it, creating a groundbreaking socialist blend of wealth redistribution and government control!

Of course, in reality there’s nothing bold or new about anything in the DLC’s proposal; politicians have been dumping huge loads of money into higher education for decades, and proposing price controls for years. No, far from being “bold,” the American Dream Initiative is just another disgusting attempt to buy American votes by politicians who believe that a big enough dollar sign, wrapped in just enough lofty rhetoric, is the key to political power.

If We Bomb Them, They’ll Like Us?

One hesitates to make it all Bill Kristol, all the time around here, but if he keeps offering up fodder of this quality, our hand is going to be forced.

Click here to watch Kristol defend his idea to start a war with Iran by deploying the logic that

the Iranian people dislike their regime. I think they would be — the right use of targeted military force — but especially if political pressure before we use military force — could cause them to reconsider whether they really want to have this regime in power. There are even moderates — they are not wonderful people — but people in the government itself who are probably nervous about Ahmadinejad’s recklessness.

Right, so once the bombs start dropping on Iran’s nuclear facilities — some of which are buried deep beneath civilian population centers — the people of Iran will — under bombardment — overthrow the regime for us!

This notwithstanding the fact that even Iranian liberal intellectuals like Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi have warned that Iranians “will defend our country till the last drop of blood.”

This notwithstanding the fact that a recent poll [.pdf] indicates that more than 27 percent of Iranians say that “developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons for defense” should be “the most important long-term goal for the Iranian government.”

And this notwithstanding the whole history of the “rally ‘round the flag effect,” whereby governments facing military crises gain the support of previously conflicted factions in the name of national preservation. Slobodan Milosevic’s popularity ticked markedly upward after NATO bombs started dropping on Serbs, to use just one example.

The American public was told before the Iraq war how easy it would be. Kristol’s fellow neoconservatives provided endless, just-so explanations for a sort of Rube Goldberg-style regime change where all we needed to do was set the process in motion (remember “shock and awe”?) and the miracle of democratic revolution would take off on its own. We can see where that’s gotten us in Iraq.

For Kristol to proffer the notion — with a straight face — that bombing a foreign country is the way for us to get its citizens to overthrow their government is nothing short of astonishing. The neocons have reached a new, dark low in terms of intellectual integrity.

Thanks to Eric Martin for the link.

Reality Sets In on Capitol Hill … Finally

A number of Republicans on Capitol Hill have come forward in recent days with a new “spin” on events in Iraq, reports the Washington Post:

Faced with almost daily reports of sectarian carnage in Iraq, congressional Republicans are shifting their message on the war from speaking optimistically of progress to acknowledging the difficulty of the mission and pointing up mistakes in planning and execution.

Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) is using his House Government Reform subcommittee on national security to vent criticism of the White House’s war strategy and new estimates of the monetary cost of the war. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), once a strong supporter of the war, returned from Iraq this week declaring that conditions in Baghdad were far worse “than we’d been led to believe” and urging that troop withdrawals begin immediately.

The Post’s Jonathan Weisman and Anushka Asthana write, “Republican lawmakers acknowledge that it is no longer tenable to say the news media are ignoring the good news in Iraq and painting an unfair picture of the war.”

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.) likened the situation in Iraq to the Bush adminstration’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina. In both instances, the White House/GOP spin was, and is, so at odds with what Americans see on television every day that the party’s credibility on a host of issues is called into question. “I still hear about that,” McHenry told the Post. “We can’t look like we won’t face reality.”

Gutknecht revised his version of reality after his most recent trip to Iraq. He was a leading opponent of a timeline for withdrawal in congressional debate last month, at one point urging, nay chastising, his colleagues, “Members, now is not the time to go wobbly.”

He appears to have come full-circle. “I guess I didn’t understand the situation,” he conceded, and he has concluded: “Essentially what the White House is saying is ‘Stay the course, stay the course.’ I don’t think that course is politically sustainable.” He therefore now supports a partial troop withdrawal on the grounds that it would “send a clear message to the Iraqis that the next step is up to you.”

“If we don’t take the training wheels off,” he went on to say, ”we will be in the same place in six months that we’re in today.”

Amen.

(Gutknecht’s new position is similar to that articulated by Cato scholars for some time. To see the full extent of Cato’s work on the subject, visit our Iraq page.)

The six House Republicans who voted against the authorization to use force against Iraq in October 2002 — Ron Paul (Tex.), Jim Leach (Iowa), John Hostettler (Ind.), Connie Morella (Md.), Amo Houghton (N.Y.), and John Duncan (Tenn.) — should wear their wisdom and foresight as a badge of honor. All other Republicans, and the remaining Democrats who voted for the war and have not yet admitted their error, can recover a shred of respectability by making an intellectual and personal journey similar to that of Shays, Gutknecht, McHenry, Jim Gerlach (Pa.), and others.

Americans can grouse, “What took you so long?”, but the more constructive response is “Thank you for coming to your senses.”

Healthy Interstate Commerce

The judge who threw out Maryland’s Wal-Mart law (which would have required large employers to dedicate at least 8 percent of its Maryland employee compensation to health care benefits) apparently did so on interstate commerce grounds:

In yesterday’s decision, Judge J. Frederick Motz of Federal District Court ruled that the Maryland law, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Democrat-controlled state legislature in January, was pre-empted by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or Erisa.

The act sets out a national standard for company benefit plans, replacing what would otherwise be a patchwork of state regulations.

The law “violates Erisa’s fundamental purpose of permitting multistate employers to maintain nationwide health and welfare plans, providing uniform nationwide benefits and permitting uniform national administration,” he wrote in the decision.

Maybe that same judge should throw out state health insurance mandates. They have the effect of making it impossible for private health insurance companies to engage in interstate commerce. Once upon a time, the right to engage in interstate commerce free of state regulation was something in the Constitution — it did not merely depend on Erisa.

Wal-Mart Wins

Yesterday, a federal district court threw out a Maryland law requiring Wal-Mart to dedicate at least 8 percent of its employee compensation in that state to health care for its Maryland workers. The law was backed chiefly by the AFL-CIO, which has been attempting to get similar laws passed in 33 other states. Those efforts are now likely dead.

This will, no doubt, come as a disappointment to the National Education Association (NEA), which has had an anti-Wal-Mart campaign since last summer. “Huh,” you say? “What does Wal-Mart have to do with public education?” Well, all those NEA officials have to occupy themselves somehow during slow nights at the casino, or while riding around Hawaii in limousines.