Big Dig, Big Corruption

Originally appearing in a 2004 issue of the Boston Metro this kind of criticism is always current. Google big dig corruption on any given Sunday and youll see what I mean.

The bad news about the Big Dig keeps getting worse. While most of the news media are accurately reporting the horrific figures – nearly 700 leaks in the main tunnel, bungling contractors bailed out over 3,200 times, and 500% in cost overruns – public outrage usually doesnt sustain itself for very long. People have gotten used to the Big Fat Obnoxious Dig. They shrug their shoulders and blithely move on with their daily doings, offering at most a toss-off comment like Those pesky bureaucrats!

Though we have little reason to be thankful so far for this boondogle of a public works project, we are thankful for one thing – that the feds are paying for most of it.

Ever since the projects inception in 1985, the funding ratio has been pegged at around 80% federal to 20% state tax dollars. That makes the it the most obscene pork barrel fleecing of the other 49 states in the history of public works. For this we can thank Reagan-era Cabinet Secretaries George Schultz and Casper Weinberger, both former Bechtel executives, who might have helped steer federal funding to Massachusetts, and consequently to their friends at Bechtel. Such rotten connections should be enough to induce an accute case of deja vu in anyone whos heard juxtaposed the words Haliburton and Dick Cheney.

With the most recent revelations of corruption and ineptitude, talk has begun in Washington of finally shutting off the Federal spigot. At that point, for Massachusetts taxpayers, the panic will set in. And for good reason – when its someone elses money youre spending, who cares how badly its spent?

This prompts a larger question: can publicly funded projects of any kind avoid corruption, inefficiency, and rape of the taxpayer? The Big Dig is routinely labeled The largest and most mismanaged public project in US history, as though these two aspects are coincidental. The facts speak loudly that most initial estimates for government projects are lowballed, later spiralling out of control, and funds are always allocated not to contractors who are the most innovative market entrepreneurs, but to the most persistent political entrepreneurs – that is, those with the greasiest lobbyists. So, the larger the project, the larger the corruption. As economist Lew Rockwell, President of the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute, puts it – When the slops in the trough, we cant be surprised when the pigs come out to eat.

What we now hear from politicians is righteous indignation and steely determination. We can conquer the corruption, save the project, protect the taxpayer form further abuse, make the scoundrels at Bechtel pay.

This is absurd, and no one should believe it. Trying to root out government patronage and corruption is like playing whack-a-mole – whack it down here and it pops up there. Human nature, supremely adaptable and greedy to the core, always finds a way to be corrupted.

But greed can also be a definite good. In fact, self-interest in the free market has been the engine of social progress for two hundred years. The key to any successful project is private, not public, ownership. So in the future, we should look to privately financed and managed highway systems.

Its hard to imagine what a privately owned and managed Big Dig would look like only because government has long held a monopoly on civil construction. Whatever the funding mechanism would be for such an arrangement – tolls, an auto-use tax – is unimportant. Human ingenuity would invent a solution to that. But what cant be invented is a government that knows how to spend The Peoples money better than The People themselves.