Obama's Shaggy Dog Story About the Golden Gate Bridge


In President Barack Obama's fairly maligned "If you've got a business, you didn't build that" comments the other day, he also said this:

When we invested in the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Internet, sending a man to the moon—all those things benefited everybody. And so that's the vision that I want to carry forward.

To which the engineer W.J.J. Hoge replied:

The federal government did build Hoover Dam. However, the Golden Gate Bridge was funded by a $35 million dollar bond issue by the six counties in the Golden Gate Bridge District. It was a state-authorized project built by a partnership of local governments.

What's more, the conservative commentator Thomas Purcell asserted last November (Obama having been playing the Golden Gate card for a while now), "it was the 'One Percenters', as is the term coined of the rich and powerful these days, that built the Golden Gate, not government. More importantly, it was government that posed more obstacles for the building of the bridge than any other entity and if the Department of Defense had their way it never would have been built at all." More Purcell:

The Department of Defense (then called the Department of War) kicked and screamed saying that the bridge would be dangerous and block the channel from ships going in an out of the Presidio base.

Since the DOD owned the land on either side of the channel, there was no way to build it without Federal approval, and they refused to grant it.

After another year of wrangling, and some heavy support from the fledgling automotive industry lobbying (yes, they had lobbyists back then too), the DOD finally relents and allows construction of the bridge, but only sells the land back to the state commission and does not participate in its construction.

Construction did not go as smoothly as planned. It takes another FIVE years for the government and the architects to come to agreement on the design. Furthermore, Federal contractor unions wanted the contracts to build the bridge and stalled the government on the issue, demanding they take action to halt construction unless they got the contract. Fortunately, local authorities insisted that as part of the contract only local labor would be used instead of Federal union contracts, insuring the area had work during Depression era unemployment.

A second problem in 1929 when the US Stock Market collapsed made for more problems. The Golden Gate committee now has trouble issuing the bond needed for the construction of the bridge, even though the citizens of the surrounding area had put up their own personal lands and farms as collateral. It takes 3 more years and the wealthy President and founder of Bank of America, A.P. Giannini, to personally buy the 35 million dollar bond which he then finances through the bank. Without the bank and the intervention of private industry fueled by personal wealth, again the bridge would not have been built. By 1937 the bridge is completed—and [architect Joseph] Strauss delivers the bridge 1.7 million UNDER budget, using local non-union labor and private contractors.

My biggest problem with the Golden Gate metaphor isn't necessarily the federal vs. state/private distinction, it's that government spending at any level is being confused for the construction of gorgeous, useful bridges. That $35 million during the Depression is worth around $530 million today, or far less than 1 percent of Obama's stimulus package. So, where the hell are our new Golden Gates? What, exactly, has been the return on all this added "investment"?

Government, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol, has gotten exponentially more expensive while delivering a fraction of the results. Every dollar that governments spend on every level gets inflated by contracting rules, social engineering, environmental aspirations, and sops to public sector unions. That's the vision that Obama–like so many other politicians–is, through his deeds, carrying forward.