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21st century problems

Summary:
I recently came across an amusing story out of San Francisco, which nicely illustrates the fact that the 20th century is over.  The San Francisco school board is considering painting over a set of murals depicting the life of Washington: More than 100 people crammed shoulder to shoulder in a high school entryway, gazing up at the scenes of George Washington’s life. Here was the first president in Mount Vernon, flanked by the slaves he owned. There he was again, directing a battalion of soldiers westward. At the end of his outstretched finger, white frontiersmen with guns marched past the corpse of a Native American man, lying face down. Seems like a simple case of left wing political correctness run amok, doesn’t it?  But the real story is more complicated:

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I recently came across an amusing story out of San Francisco, which nicely illustrates the fact that the 20th century is over.  The San Francisco school board is considering painting over a set of murals depicting the life of Washington:

More than 100 people crammed shoulder to shoulder in a high school entryway, gazing up at the scenes of George Washington’s life. Here was the first president in Mount Vernon, flanked by the slaves he owned. There he was again, directing a battalion of soldiers westward. At the end of his outstretched finger, white frontiersmen with guns marched past the corpse of a Native American man, lying face down.

Seems like a simple case of left wing political correctness run amok, doesn’t it?  But the real story is more complicated:

Arnautoff, a Russian immigrant and ardent Communist, painted the scenes to denounce America’s history of racism, many critics and historians say, and to hold viewers to remembering it. New York Times critic Roberta Smith recently called the murals “among the most honest and possibly the most subversive of the W.P.A. era.” With this work, which had to slip past an approval committee, the artist managed to “discreetly—even gently—insert slavery and the Indian genocide into his murals without sensationalizing them,” Smith wrote.

So the murals themselves were an act of political correctness.  A communist artist was critiquing the sanitized version of history taught to our school children.  In the 1930s, it would have been conservatives who would have opposed the murals.  Now it is left wingers, for whom a 1930s-era communist is not left wing enough.

I suggest covering the mural with fabric, in case later generations come to their senses.  But we still haven’t gotten to the most important story, what this episode tells us about the 21st century.  First a brief digression.  I started working at age 14, and did a wide variety of jobs.  One of these was painting.  I recall once painting an apartment building for one of my high school teachers.  I charged him $150, too little even at the price level of the early 1970s.  If San Francisco actually intends to paint over these murals, then why not use high schools students that have been placed on detention?  Painting over murals is easy for even unskilled labor, easier than the stuff I did as a teenager (which involved careful work on window trim.) And it would save them some money.

San Francisco seems to be going a different route:

In July, the board voted unanimously to paint over the mural, a task that is estimated to cost $600,000. That figure accounts for the legal fees the board expects to accrue. (Lope Yap Jr., the vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association, has already threatened to sue.)

Here’s a job that should cost less than $1000, and it will end up costing $600,000.  And this is the real scandal, not the Taliban-style politics of defacing public art.  It tells us that Americans of the 21st century have forgotten how to build things cheaply, which is why our infrastructure is falling ever further behind that of more dynamic nations.

You often see people recommending that the US build more infrastructure, as a sort of fiscal stimulus.  But those recommendations presuppose that we still know how to do so.  Congress and the states need to deregulate the construction of infrastructure, so that the costs can fall to an affordable level.  When that’s been done, then we can discuss what sort of infrastructure makes sense.  But in a world where it costs $600,000 to paint over a mural, there’s no sense in talking about the construction of subways and high-speed rail.

You might argue that much of the $600,000 figure is related to legal issues.  But isn’t that equally true of almost any big infrastructure project?  There are delays from environmental litigation, the legal requirements to build the project in a non-cost efficient manor (i.e. “prevailing wages”), the legal restrictions on using foreign labor, lawsuits forcing design alterations, etc.  The legal system throws up all sorts of barriers.  If we want to get serious about building infrastructure, we need to take the legal system out of the process.

21st century problemsLet me guess as to why my idea won’t work:

1.  Today, it’s viewed as too “punitive” to make students on detention do work.

2.  It’s too dangerous; they’d have to use ladders.

3.  It deprives professional painters of a lucrative job.

I suppose my worldview will always be stuck in the 20th century.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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