No, I’m not accusing Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, Harvard president and economic adviser to President Obama of plagiarism; not at all. I am only saying that he has noticed, in his quotidian life, some of the same things I’ve noticed in mine, and has the same reaction. Which is that American government, and American companies acting as subcontractors to government, aren’t performing as well as they used to. They can’t seem to accomplish simple tasks which their counterparts in our youths excelled at. Or, as I put it in a Washington Examiner column earlier this year, gummint don’t work good.
Summers' article in the Washington Post cited the months-long repair work on an escalator in the US Airways shuttle terminal in LaGuardia, which Summers undoubtedly encounters on his undoubtedly frequent trips from Boston to New York; I can imagine him picking up his carry-on bag and schlepping it down the escalator and staircase rather than have it effortlessly travel behind him as it would on a working escalator. His other complaint is about the seemingly endless repair of the Larz Anderson Bridge crossing the Charles River where it is, as he notes, 100 yards wide, between Harvard’s main campus in Cambridge and the Business School and other university buildings in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. Summers notes that Gen. George S. Patton took a day to construct a bridge capable of carrying tanks across the much broader Rhine in 1945 and that it is scheduled to take almost half as long to repair the LaGuardia escalator as it took to construct the Empire State Building in 1930.
Far be it from me to suggest that Summers' concern, event rooted as they are in irritating everyday experiences, are trivial. Au contraire, as the francophone John Kerry or Mitt Romney might say. In a 2010 Examiner column, I noted that it was taking 42 months to rebuild the Humpback Bridge, a span 30 feet above an inlet on the Potomac on the George Washington Parkway. It’s a route I take often to get to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and I found that lanes were frequently closed to facilitate bridge reconstruction. Often, as I fretted about whether I would miss my plane, I looked to the right and saw the Pentagon.
The Pentagon, as Steve Vogel noted in his excellent 2007 book The Pentagon: A History, was built in 18 months, from Sept. 11, 1941 to March 1943. It was then, and is now, the largest office building in the world in square footage. Rebuilding the Humpback Bridge was scheduled to take more than twice as long. As I wrote, “Big government has become a big, waddling, sluggish beast, ever ready to boss you around, but not able to perform useful functions at anything but a plodding pace. It need to be slimmed down and streamlined, so it can get useful things done.”
I’m delighted to see that Summers' thoughts are moving in the same direction and that he has some intelligent things to say how things could be done better. But the administration he served between 2009 and 2011 has not always performed up to his standards. Consider this item from a commenter on the Ace of Spades blog , quoted by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.
During the 3-1/2 years of World War 2 that started with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and ended with the Surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945, “We the People of the U.S.A.” produced the following:
22 aircraft carriers,
420 destroyer escorts,
34 million tons of merchant ships,
100,000 fighter aircraft,
24,000 transport aircraft,
58,000 training aircraft,
257,000 artillery pieces,
3,000,000 machine guns, and
2,500,000 military trucks.
We put 16.1 million men in uniform in the various armed services, invaded Africa, invaded Sicily and Italy, won the battle for the Atlantic, planned and executed D-Day, marched across the Pacific and Europe, developed the atomic bomb, and ultimately conquered Japan and Germany.
It’s worth noting, that during the almost exact amount of time, the Obama Administration couldn’t even build a web site that worked.