article by the historian Victor David Hanson (VDH) asked the question:
Does anyone believe that contemporary Americans could build another transcontinental railroad in six years?Oh I'm sure someone, somewhere believes that it could be done again, but it seems beyond implausible to me. You'd think that with all of the technology we've developed, we could just snap our fingers and voila!, new railroads and regular roads and bridges and ... would appear in no time. But no, not even close.
VDH notes other typical nearly absurdly slow projects:
Californians tried to build a high-speed rail line. But after more than a decade of government incompetence, lawsuits, cost overruns and constant bureaucratic squabbling, they have all but given up. The result is a half-built overpass over the skyline of Fresno — and not yet a foot of track laid.VDH wonders if a new mythology will be born based on our forebearers being able to construct wonders far beyond our modern day capabilities:
California’s roads now are mostly the same as we inherited them, although the state population has tripled. We have added little to our freeway network, either because we forgot how to build good roads or would prefer to spend the money on redistributive entitlements.
When California had to replace a quarter section of the earthquake-damaged San Francisco Bay Bridge, it turned into a near-disaster, with 11 years of acrimony, fighting, cost overruns — and a commentary on our decline into Dark Ages primitivism. Yet 82 years ago, our ancestors built four times the length of our singe replacement span in less than four years. It took them just two years to design the entire Bay Bridge and award the contracts.
Our generation required five years just to plan to replace a single section. In inflation-adjusted dollars, we spent six times the money on one-quarter of the length of the bridge and required 13 agencies to grant approval. In 1936, just one agency oversaw the entire bridge project.
California has not built a major dam in 40 years. Instead, officials squabble over the water stored and distributed by our ancestors, who designed the California State Water Project and Central Valley Project.
Contemporary Californians would have little food or water without these massive transfers, and yet they often ignore or damn the generation that built the very system that saves us.
America went to the moon in 1969 with supposedly primitive computers and backward engineering. Does anyone believe we could launch a similar moonshot today? No American has set foot on the moon in the last 47 years, and it may not happen in the next 50 years.
Many of the stories about the gods and heroes of Greek mythology were compiled during Greek Dark Ages. Impoverished tribes passed down oral traditions that originated after the fall of the lost palatial civilizations of the Mycenaean Greeks.
Dark Age Greeks tried to make sense of the massive ruins of their forgotten forbearers’ monumental palaces that were still standing around. As illiterates, they were curious about occasional clay tablets they plowed up in their fields with incomprehensible ancient Linear B inscriptions.
We of the 21st century are beginning to look back at our own lost epic times and wonder about these now-nameless giants who left behind monuments [such as the transcontinental railroad] that we cannot replicate, but instead merely use or even mock.I do see his point. Who isn't frustrated with traffic being badly slowed for years while crews patch a few holes at a snail's pace?
However, VDH did leave out a few details that I think are important. First, the working conditions were really, really bad for most of those epic projects. Around 1,200 people died building the Transcontinental Railroad. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was noted for how "safe" it was - only 11 people died. Things are much, much more comfortable now. Almost nobody would be willing to work in those conditions and take those risks (especially for what they were paid) and even fewer in power are willing to let them take those risks.
Yet before we blame those running the projects for the death toll, we need to keep in mind that those horrible working conditions were often a step up from what the workers were previously experiencing. For example,
Many more workers were imported from the Guangdong Province of China, which at the time, beside great poverty, suffered from the violence of the Taiping Rebellion. Most Chinese workers were planning on returning with their new found "wealth" when the work was completed. Most of the men received between one and three dollars per day, the same as unskilled white workers ... A diligent worker could save over $20 per month after paying for food and lodging—a "fortune" by Chinese standards.Second, though he does grudgingly admit it, VDH glosses over the fact that working with modern technology very often creates more value than building yet another road. Instead of concrete, we build most of our roads with glass fiber and electrons and both the market and the taxpayer think that's more valuable.
So to me, it's not so much that we were once competent at building immense material things and now we're not. Instead, it's that once upon a time we were very poor and the best we could do was work high-risk construction jobs for the "fortune" of net $20 per month whereas now we can do oh-so-much better doing other things. And those that still work construction jobs (reasonably) demand orders-of-magnitude higher pay, far better working conditions, and far better safety.
VDH ends his article with:
Our ancestors were builders and pioneers and mostly fearless. We are regulators, auditors, bureaucrats, adjudicators, censors, critics, plaintiffs, defendants, social media junkies and thin-skinned scolds. A distant generation created; we mostly delay, idle and gripe.Perhaps we do "mostly delay, idle and gripe." But we can afford to, our ancestors could not. To me, our ancestors seem far less like gods and far more like people desperately impoverished compared to us trying to do the best they could. I thank them for taking the risks and building our comfort, I really do, but gods? Not so much.
As we walk amid the refuse, needles and excrement of the sidewalks of our fetid cities; as we sit motionless on our jammed ancient freeways; and as we pout on Twitter and electronically whine in the porticos of our Ivy League campuses, will we ask: “Who were these people who left these strange monuments that we use but can neither emulate nor understand?”
In comparison to us, they now seem like gods.