For 20th century Americans, the road trip was an essential right of passage. In the priceless years before cell phones, the road trip meant spending unreachable hours out on the open highway, pointing your headlights west and chasing a sunset at 60 mph. It allowed young Americans to learn about themselves and the country they were destined to inherit. Nothing quite summoned the spirit of the pioneers like getting behind the wheel of a Buick Electra and tracing their footsteps through the golden cornfields of Nebraska and on into the embrace of the Rocky Mountains.
It was a legacy—the Noblesse Oblige of American youth. This year that journey has changed. Today, all along the once-inspiring American highway are signs that read: “Project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
On such drives, after the requisite “You’ve got to be kidding me” moment, you’re left with the sense that we’re living in the Dust Bowl and our elected leaders have turned our once-enviable interstate highway system into a Kmart blue-light special, hawking their political ambitions upon billboards funded by taxpayer dollars. Given some rather crucial facts concerning the Recovery Act, which just marked its one-year anniversary, this is astonishingly similar to a burglar leaving his name and home address in anticipation of receiving a thank-you note.
The Recovery Act required that any project using stimulus funds be “shovel ready” by Feb. 17, 2009, the day the president signed it. Shovel ready is a poor term that deceives the American people. Talk to an engineer, contractor or the mayor of your town, regardless of party affiliation. Any project that met the criteria of the Recovery Act was already funded by state or local government and ready to go before Congress allocated these funds. Water, sewer, bridge and road projects are not planned and funded overnight. They involve long periods of study, public hearings, engineering and governmental approvals. Thus, these projects, if shovel-ready, had long-since been planned and funded by Feb. 17, 2009. The taxpayers were already paying for these infrastructure projects, albeit to a different layer of government. This neither created nor plausibly saved a single job.
If Congress wanted to stimulate the economy, they would have made the funding available for new, unplanned projects beginning in 2011 or later. This would have given states and municipalities the opportunity to plan projects they were deferring in the recessionary economy. Meanwhile, the forward thinking private sector, perceiving an opportunity to make money, would have ramped up their organizations by hiring new employees and purchasing new equipment. If struggling contractors and engineers had been able to see that money was coming, far enough out, they would have figured out a way to keep their shops open for another year. Of course, real solutions rarely live upon two-year election cycles.
Congress billed this as infrastructure improvement, but the money trail leads elsewhere. The stimulus didn’t provide one new nickel of water lines or highways that weren’t already paid for by localities. The one trillion dollars in funding, a loan cosigned by the unborn, was diverted by a Congress who catered to the demands of state and local politicians to cover budget short falls for Medicaid and general revenue programs. Along with the extension of unemployment benefits, Congress gave the lion’s share of the money to the states, thereby propping up an unsustainable public employment system. This politically convenient solution was short-sighted. It allowed states to perpetuate waste, and those states are confronted this year with the same budgetary short falls. We are left right where we were, with $1 trillion worth of road signs that stand as mile-markers of incompetence to guide those young road warriors, now out looking for the country that will soon be theirs.
In as much as Congress aspires to the consequential, these “life lessons” carry an unprecedented expense. They should know better. Washington is not a career development program and America cannot afford further on-the-job training for its elected officials.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.