Monday, June 27, 2011

Two Bridges to Nowhere

Opportunity.

In a nutshell, it's what beckoned pioneers to America's great frontier.

In particular, Alaska and California have each come to enjoy a fabled niche in western lore. Yet as they cap our country's romance with the unexplored and untamed - the wild, unpretentious Pacific Coast a bookend to the starchy, colonial Atlantic Coast - they also share a tale far more timely.

It's a tale of how two different bridges can illustrate the fallacies of political subterfuge and economic shortsightedness; two problems increasingly plaguing our nation, and dimming hopes for future opportunity in the United States.

A Bridge to Nowhere, Literally, Plus More Pork

I'm not a big fan of risk. But neither am I a big fan of Sarah Palin. So maybe it's worth the risk of contributing to her notoriety on one of the few days her name isn't splashed across the tabloids.

Well, in bold face, anyway.

Unfortunately, these days it's become difficult to talk about Alaska without mentioning Palin. Which in a way may be fitting, since they're both the stuff of myth and legend. Take Palin's unabashed love of her adopted state, and the quality of life that makes Alaska so easy for her to enjoy.  A quality of life propped up by the very thing Tea Partiers revile most.

Ahh, yes... subsidies.

How shall we count the many subsidies Alaskans have been paid on the backs of taxpayers in the Lower 48? We could start by counting to one, since Alaska happens to be America's most heavily-subsidized state, by far. And has been for about 30 years.

Commenting today on what he perceives as a state of denial by many Americans regarding our economic predicament, Justin Webb of the BBC claims that since the rugged individualism of Alaskans comes at a steep price to the country's taxpayers, "Alaska is an organised hypocrisy."

Examples of the waste have become legendary, such as the "Bridge to Nowhere" replacing a small ferry between Ketchikan and the Island of Gravina.

You'll probably remember the "Bridge to Nowhere," Alaska's $320 million national embarrassment intended to connect Ketchikan's 8,900 inhabitants to an airport on the Island of Gravina, where 50 people live. Although the Gravina Island Bridge has not yet been built, incredibly, money remains appropriated for the project in this year's federal budget.  It could still happen.

When she was governor, Palin went ahead and authorized a $25 million road to be constructed on the island in anticipation of the bridge's eventual existence, which has become the world's most expensive cul-de-sac.  Governor Palin also ended up flip-flopping on whether a bridge was necessary and who should pay for it.  Tired of not getting straight answers from her on the subject, the media has pretty much let the issue die.

It would be unfair of me to attribute the sordid Gravina Island Bridge story to Palin alone. Actually, compared to her state's senior senator, hers was a bit part. Indeed, according to a 2008 article by Jacob Sullum for Reason.com, the notorious Senator Ted Stevens has been credited with dragging $3.2 billion in 891 earmarks from the US Treasury to Alaska between 2004 to 2008, during part of Palin's tenure as governor.

"That works out to about $4,800 per Alaskan, 18 times the national average. And earmarks represent just a fraction of federal spending in Alaska, which totaled $9 billion in 2006 alone," sputters Sullum. Earmarks which helped people like Palin enjoy an artificially high quality of life in their remote corner of the globe.

This despite the state's refusal to levy sales taxes or state income taxes to help cover their bills. In other words, taxes paid by folks in the Lower 48 were OK if directed towards Alaska, but Alaskans shouldn't be responsible for their own needs.

With this porkbarrel legacy for Alaska, you'd think people like Palin wouldn't be able to hold their head up in public, let alone pontificate on how entitlements and subsidies are wreaking havoc on our country. But apparently, Palin's good looks charm the logic out of Tea Partiers, so she gets away with it.

Meanwhile, if you think lavishing billions of dollars in entitlements on an ungrateful state like Alaska is bad, you haven't heard what's going on in San Francisco Bay.

A Bridge to Nowhere, Figuratively

Today's New York Times has a troubling account of the brand-new, $7.2 billion Bay Bridge linking San Francisco to Oakland, California. This replacement for the current Bay Bridge features what engineers say will be an iconic design, but it isn't actually being constructed in California. Or even the United States.

No, California's newest super-bridge is being built piecemeal in China by a steelworks owned by the Chinese government. Completed sections are shipped from Shanghai to San Francisco Bay, where they're being assembled by employees of Fluor Corporation, in partnership with American Bridge Corporation as the contractor of record for this project.

And how much money is American Bridge/Fluor (ABF) saving California by outsourcing the 2.2-mile span to a non-OSHA shop over 6,000 miles and one ocean away?

$400 million, or roughly 6% of the total cost.

ABF executives and California bureaucrats claim the savings will come from the experience Chinese contractors have building super-bridges, even though, um, the specific manufacturer on this project, Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company, has no bridge-building experience.

More money will be saved in labor, since Zhenhua is paying 3,000 steelworkers roughly $1 an hour.

I'm not kidding.

Something tells me that while ABF may be saving the state of California $400,000 on this multi-billion-dollar project, some people are making a pretty penny with exorbitant profits earned on the backs of skilled laborers working 12 hours a day for $12. Not that I'm against anybody earning an honest profit; however, this case, albeit described by the liberal Times, screams unmitigated greed.

I'm no union sympathizer, but ABF's corporate officials and shareholders have literally sold American labor up the river on this contract. I'm not sure ABF even entertained a bidding war with American steel unions, but there's no way any American contractor could compete with $1 hourly wages in China.

Does a $1-an-hour steelworker in China produce the same quality work as a $40-an-hour union steelworker under OSHA regulations? I guess the people who'll drive the new span in earthquake country will find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, ABF's corporate spindoctors claimed to the Times that no American company has the expertise to construct 2.2 miles of steel bridge, that the financial resources of the Chinese government overrode baser capitalistic and democratic considerations, and that increasing the participation of union labor stateside would have been more trouble than it's worth. After all, ABF already has to pay union concrete workers to pour the decking once the steel pieces get conjoined on the San Francisco job site. One American official even chuckled that the sprawling manufacturing plant in China sits on what used to be a lush orange grove. Isn't that special?

At least California didn't bother seeking federal funds for their new Bay Bridge, so you and I aren't directly paying for this travesty. The reason no federal funds were used is because they were trying to avoid the Made in America clauses restricting where they could get their material, and the state, along with ABF, already knew they were going to outsource their prefabricated bridge pieces from China.

Of course, if you own shares in either American Bridge or Fluor, then you probably don't care what I think. If you're a capitalist purist, then you probably have no problem farming projects like this offshore to countries famous for their human rights abuses and shoddy labor standards. It's all about making money, money, and more money. It's about seizing on opportunities to cut costs, exploiting people with less power and influence, and letting any negative consequences be incurred by people to whom you assume you owe nothing.

To say that our political and business leaders in America are rapidly selling away our future to China has become a trite assumption, something we can trace intellectually, but not adequately visualize. Yet San Francisco's new Bay Bridge is becoming, piece by imported piece, the literal proof of that previously invisible reality.

Pairing the two ludicrous examples of greed, shortsightedness, and civic carelessness from Alaska and California doesn't simply represent an exercise is boiling one's blood. Why can't we Americans use history to our advantage, learn from past mistakes, and make better choices to keep opportunities for the future from being squandered today?

We can neither dither away half-a-billion-dollar chunks of taxpayer-funded subsidies or float our future across the Pacific Ocean from China. For Tea Partiers, this will mean developing a realistic assessment of the integrity of our political candidates. And for corporate America, it will mean weening themselves from shareholder-centric practices and investing in strategies which sustain America's viability in the long run.

Not that America needs to develop a severely isolationist posture when it comes to globalization. We all know that wouldn't be feasible. But shouldn't we guard our assets with greater integrity, spend our tax dollars prudently, and create wealth from our own human capital?

After all, bridges are usually meant to go over something.

Not take us to the edge of a cliff and leave us there.
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