Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Bridge Too Slow

"Is this a shovel-ready project?" Mr. Biden asked Scott Christie, the state transportation official charged with deploying economic-stimulus money.

"It's ready to go," Mr. Christie answered. "I literally have the plans in the car right now."

It turns out, though, that shovel-readiness is in the eye of the beholder. Soon after his visit, Mr. Biden found out that his model stimulus project wouldn't see a shovel for almost four more months, possibly longer, knowing how such timetables slip. In North Middleton, [Pennsylvania] a White House eager for action had run up against locals eager to avoid disruption. The locals won."

So begins a piece by the Wall Street Journals' Michael Phillips on a flubbed photo op at a decaying bridge in Pennsylvania. While the Obama administration was eager to put a quick muscular public relations shine on the stimulus bill, the mundane reality of filling potholes means a much slower and much more pedestrian approach. While Obama was depending on the public works aspect to provide a burst of cash coursing through the economy, the reality is that these projects will take more time, therefore, have less economic impact. The town featured in the article wanted to put off the bridge project because the construction would disrupt a school bus route. So they did. The reality on the ground trumped the airy Washington propaganda needs.

In fact, the stimulus itself is a bit of a fraud. Most of the $787 billion goes to the states to prop up increasingly onerous state entitlement programs. When this amount of cash runs dry in two years, then what will the states do? Oh rats, I forgot the Obama group think line. It goes like this: In two years the economy will be better and state coffers will runneth over with plentiful tax receipts. Never mind, that some like Obama supporter and Depression-Era Investor, Seth Glickenhaus (he's 94) believes this economic swoon will last five years. Of course, if the imagined recovery doesn't take place, yet another stimulus bill will be required. Billions more will be thrown around. For what effect, we can't be certain. This is looks to be another spot for sunny rhetoric to fall to the hard ground of reality.

Near me, the stimulus money is repaving a stretch of road. While there are many such spots around here, the obvious need is two ancient massive nearby bridges nearby. While tossing a few thousand on a road to make the local news, works for some transitory positive spin, the greater needs are unmet. Building two huge bridges would take years. By the time, they're built Obama might not even be in office. No short term propaganda gain to be made there.

And this is the real problem with much of what is attempted by Barrack Obama. Talking and PR to create group think can work wonderfully on the campaign. By creating an illusion of experience, one can fool others into pulling that vote lever. When it comes to governing , it's different. Talk can facilitate action, but it can't substitute for it. Governing requires more than just spin. Spin only affects those within the group think orbit. Sometimes, those in that orbit cannot tell the limits of group think. This can lead to tragic consequences.

Take the book referenced here, A Bridge Too Far . This airborne operation by the Allies during WWII was supposed to end the war in four months, but the Germans were not subscribers to this sunny group think mindset. All doubts harbored by the soldiers involved were shunted aside in pursuit of a goal that in reality was the operational equivalent of a deadly lottery ticket. Dissenters were quickly dispatched. A young intelligence officer, who spotted two SS tank divisions in the landing zones near the Arnhem bridge was quickly forced onto sick leave. To their credit, the Allied soldiers fought with incredible vigor, but the plan was flawed from the start. The last bridge over the lower Rhine could not be taken, no matter what spin was applied. Allied casualties were more than double D-Day, including the almost total annihilation of a British airborne division. Such are the bitter rewards when group think meets reality.

In the present day, we are in an economic debacle. At some point, though, people want actions that lead to improvement in their economic lives. Obama can spin all he wants, but the tangible fruits of jobs, healthy companies and increased cash are the only things that matter. The group think mindset can still dominate if the experience and expectations are in sync. However, as the experience replaces the expectations, the chance of stumbling increases, especially if these two states become unlinked. Obama can rectify this, but he must embrace reality. In a word, he must change. As someone who has been quite adept at fashioning reality to his own needs, this may be all but impossible. Barrack Obama may end up one bridge short of his goal. Not because he couldn't change the reality, but that he couldn't change himself in that reality. Such are the perils of those who live in the bubble of group think.

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