While most people spend their Thanksgiving Holiday driving to one of the major anchor cities in America to visit family (New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. etc.) mine decided to do something a little different this year. We all convened in Las Vegas for the holidays with various sundry cousins, nephews and in-laws in tow. And while I’m not much of a gambler, the area provided me with the opportunity to see all sorts of other sites, namely the Grand Canyon, and more importantly the Hoover Dam.
Now I’m going to say upfront that seeing the Hoover Dam is one of those places that you only go to if your family outvotes you (they did) and you didn’t have your own rental car (I didn’t). I will also add that my knowledge of one of the largest American public works projects of the 20th century more or less boiled down to an episode of Transformers from when I was a kid, the only funny scene out of the utterly forgettable National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation and of course Rachel Maddow.
Maddow’s heartfelt monologue in front of the Hoover Dam slyly advocating Obama’s infrastructure proposals as part of MSNBC’s Lean Forward slogan was a better pitch than the one Obama came up with in his jobs speech. Maddow points out that a job this big can’t be credited to one guy or one company – credit goes to a nation.
The question we face now is: are we still the kind of nation that can do projects this big and this well? Having finally had the chance to see the Hoover Dam up close my answer is a resounding NO.
The Hoover Dam was built in only 5 years (1931-1936) during the peak of the great depression and is considered one of the most amazing and effective man-made structures since the Great Wall of China. The construction put over 5,000 people to work directly and indirectly between constructing worker’s housing, cooks, surveyors and uh…the world’s oldest profession. And it provided jobs for thousands more. Almost 70 years later the dam is still running strong and provides almost 25% of the power for Nevada, Arizona and parts of L.A.
So why can’t we do what Rachel Maddow says and create more projects like this?
Why can’t Obama marshal the forces of our do-nothing-congress to construct efficient national light-rail, or tear out the decrepit sewer systems in our oldest major cities?
It’s not because of the Republicans – that’s the easy answer. This nation can’t build huge nation-altering projects like the Hoover Dam anymore because as a nation we have too many rights, too many laws and people aren’t desperate enough.
Do you know that the construction companies that made the Hoover Dam broke two labor strikes with the full backing of the federal government? Did you know that most dam workers were put into temporary company housing that was so shabby that over 42 people died of pneumonia and carbon monoxide poisoning? Heck over 120 people died building the dam between mistakes, weather, disease and shoddy equipment. Yet, construction never slowed for one day.
There was no OSHA back then, no real environmental regulations and no EEOC either. There’s no way that any massive public works project in today’s America could get finished in 5 years with a 100 person death toll. We stopped the space shuttle program for almost 3 years after the Challenger explosion even though everyone knew that was a freak accident. The great public works projects that got us out of the depression were due to a labor force that was desperate, poorly educated and without the worker’s rights we have today. Federal laws about work hours, safety and management practices make it almost impossible to subject workers to the kind of Pharaoh-to-Moses demands that it takes to get massive projects like the Hoover Dam done so quickly.
I have by no means given up on America, or the belief that we need to do something about the horrible state of American roads, bridges and sewer systems. However, standing there in the majesty of the Hoover Dam, I didn’t have a Rachel Maddow moment. I wasn’t struck with how great our nation is and how we could be that nation again. I was struck with just how hard it is for this country to do anything on a grand scale anymore. I was struck with the thought that to do the kind of big globe changing projects of the past it takes blood, sweat, tears and probably skirting the rules in a way that we just don’t have the guts for anymore. And I’m not sure that’s something that Obama, or any president, can change.
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.