The New Luddites

February 14, 2018

If any further evidence is needed to substantiate widespread voter frustration with Washington gridlock, consider the current reaction to the administration’s infrastructure initiative.  “Infrastructure” improvement is as close as we’ll get to a bipartisan call to action. So what’s to complain about — except who will pay and how much?

Now we know. Almost immediately “permit reform”– necessary to get on with the job of rebuilding worn out infrastructure – is a dog whistle to the green lobby. For them, “efficiency” is problematic: good in theory, bad in practice. It poses a mortal threat to their franchise, which is manipulating the machinery of regulation and bureaucracy to slow or stop projects.

The proposal to streamline the NEPA process “is nothing more than another scam that would destroy the environment, privatize our public works, increase taxes on the middle class and bulldoze communities’ ability to have a say in the projects happening in their own backyard,” shouts the League of Conservation Voters.

This is the hysteria that greets a proposal to streamline a process that today requires more time to permit a new mine than it did to build the Panama Canal. If the French were saddled with our permit process, Gustave Eiffel would still be waiting for the “oui” to build his iconic tower.

We don’t mean to single out the LCV – many other like-minded obstructionists are equally worthy of the “the New Luddites” moniker.

On their reading, the only infrastructure “value” they acknowledge is the natural environment they fear would be lost in the process of building things. The things that are built – a new rail line, an expanded harbor, a bridge over troubled waters – obviously offer value to most of us but not to the greens. They prefer the status quo, with our “emerging nations” permit process. The inefficiencies and frustrations that vex most people work just fine for them.

What’s really behind all this obstruction? Two centuries ago, the first Luddites rose up in anger to destroy the textile machines of industrial England that threatened their livelihood. Today the New Luddites rise up to block a similar threat to theirs. The imminently sensible “one agency, one permit” concept proposed by the administration – to replace our current hydra-headed, multiple-agency process – alarms the New Luddites for whom every permitting agency is a chance for a thumbs-down rejection, an opportunity to slow or kill a project.

The Wall Street Journal observed that of the $787 billion allocated to stimulate the flatlined economy in 2008, only $60 billion was spent on putting steel in the ground and people back to work. Surely one reason so few projects were “shovel ready” was because projects weren’t permit ready.

Candidates for office this fall may have to explain to working men and women why commonsense solutions – a statute of limitations on permitting decisions, the elimination of duplicative reviews – failed to pass.  Why green activists were once again allowed to stifle good jobs – and the better roads needed to reach them.