President Kennedy made one of his greatest speeches in Berlin. Some debate whether his German intonation was perfect -- "Ich bin ein Berliner" -- but the speech's venue certainly was perfect. Kennedy wanted a side-by-side comparison of limited government versus authoritarian government, and there was no better place to do that than in the artificially divided German city. The speech also employed powerful repetition: "Let them come to Berlin!"
Today, there are those who say that America has become more like the dysfunctional, oppressed East Berlin of 1963 than its efficient, free contemporary to the West. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman complained recently that America no longer seems to be able to get anything done. He's not sure why, but he suspects it's because Americans eat too many hamburgers. Let him come to California. There is no physical wall in California -- not even on the Mexican border -- but there is a virtual wall. It is a wall of time that separates the state into two eras: before Jerry Brown and after Jerry Brown. Perhaps the best place to straddle that stark, trans-temporal barrier is on Yerba Buena Island, in the San Francisco Bay. It is the midpoint of the five-mile-long San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the ideological equivalent of the Berlin Wall. To the west is the magnificent double suspension bridge that was completed in 1936, just ten years after the California legislature created the Toll Bridge Authority to span the bay. When it was completed, it was the longest high-level steel bridge in the world and cost $77M, equivalent to $1.2B today. To the east is the other half of the Bay Bridge, also built with part of that $77M. And next to the existing eastern span is a great illustration of what's gone wrong with America. No, it's not a McDonald's; it's an uncompleted structure that someday will replace the eastern part of the Bay Bridge that failed in a 1989 earthquake.
After the quake damage was repaired, California lawmakers and bureaucrats studied and debated the situation until they eventually recommended replacing the entire east span of the bridge in late 1996. At that time, the state government agency Caltrans estimated the cost to be less than a billion dollars. A few months later, the California legislature funded the project at $1.28B.
Then the professional control freaks intervened. Busybody eco-fascists demanded that the bridge carry public transit trains, even though that would have added billions to the cost, and BART already follows that same route under the bay below. Red tape burgeoned: At least twenty "key" federal, state, and local government agencies got involved, and countless more were consulted. Senators Feinstein and Boxer meddled, along with the Clinton White House. After the new bridge design was deemed sufficiently sensitive to the needs of the gay, lesbian, feminist, African-American, Native American, illegal alien, homeless, stoner, and all other activist groups, the project was put out for bids. Cost estimates continued to balloon, from $1.56B in 1998 to $6.3B by 2007. Today, more than two decades after the earthquake, the project still is over three years from completion. And cynics warn of another big cost jump after the 2010 elections.
The American Dream
California once was the finest example of the American dream. Siberian immigrants pursuing game and furs were the first to arrive. Later, settlers came from Spain to farm and graze the land. In 1849, prospectors flooded into northern California in search of gold. A century ago, drillers came for the oil and filmmakers came for the abundant sunshine and natural outdoor movie sets. California defense contractors helped America win World War II by building ships and airplanes better and faster than ever before. High-tech companies flourished. And, as Thomas Wolfe described in The Right Stuff, many of America's early accomplishments in the space age happened in California. There are few things that governments can do better than private enterprises. One of them is infrastructure development -- built by private contractors and funded by taxpayers. For the first six decades of the 20th century, Republicans controlled the California legislature and developed the infrastructure needed to accommodate the state's spectacular growth. The state was renowned for its excellent roads, water supplies, schools, and universities. The growth accelerated during the 1960s, as a Democrat legislature saw infrastructure funding as a means to greater power -- just as the Republicans probably had in prior decades.
The Anti-American Dream
But the accomplishments stopped in the 1970s with the election of Governor Jerry Brown. Mr. Brown expropriated the budget money that had been allocated for infrastructure -- much of it raised by motor fuel taxes -- and diverted it to his own leftist causes. Aqueducts and freeways were canceled, including some that already were under construction. Brown also blocked private construction of power plants. His anti-American Dream was this: If you don't build it; they won't come. But they came anyway, and now Californians waste millions of gallons of fuel in traffic jams. Forbes named California the nation's worst state for drivers. During the time since Mr. Brown canceled most of the state's freeway construction, Californians travel more than twice as many miles, but the lane mileage has increased by less than ten percent. Despite insane spending, education quality worsens. Water rates continue to rise, yet irresponsible eco-fascists demand that taxpayers spend billions of dollars to demolish existing reservoirs. This year, chief executives voted California the worst state in the nation for doing business. As governor in the 1970s, Mr. Brown signed legislation that gave state employee unions the collective bargaining power that now is driving the state toward bankruptcy. (Incidentally, he is running for governor again this year.) Brown was the first in a series of leftist Democrat and moderate Republican governors that raised taxes while lowering the productivity of the state's employees by more than half. America's productivity during that period in the private sector grew by 43 percent (one percent average, compounded annually), a benchmark that makes the relative performance of the state's unionized employees even more dismal.
All told, it will take post-Brown California about 25 years to debate, design, and reconstruct the east half of the Bay Bridge. In 1926, it took pre-Brown California only ten years to debate, design, and construct both halves of the bridge, along with its approaches, a toll plaza, a transit terminal, and the world's largest diameter bore through Yerba Buena Island to connect the two spans. And they completed the project six months ahead of schedule, for a quarter of the cost of today's replacement span.
Yes, the new span is supposed to have about twice the useful life of the original -- 150 years versus 80 years -- and it probably will be safer, too. Therefore, some might argue that the replacement should cost more. On the other hand, today's design tools and construction equipment are many times better than they were eighty years ago, so others could argue even more persuasively that it really should cost less.
Tear Down This Wall!
The Berlin Wall of the past century physically divided a metropolis of efficiency and freedom from one of dysfunction and oppression. Similarly, in the 1970s, Governor Brown erected an ideological barrier that transported Californians from a land of efficiency and freedom, confining them to a land of dysfunction and authoritarianism.
Similar destructive policies have spread throughout America. Somewhere, the late President Kennedy must be warning us from the free side of that ideological wall, "There are some who can't understand why America no longer can get anything done...Let them come to Yerba Buena!"