By Bruce Maiman
Special to The Bee
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 - 9:15 am
Theres a potential upside to the Bay Bridge fiasco if we view it as
both an object lesson and an opportunity, though many will find neither
The lesson: Be careful what you wish for. In degrees large and small,
weve asked for this. Weve spent the last 40 years either chasing
bargains or raising Cain about prices we decided were too high. We
dismantled labor unions, largely because we thought their workers
overpaid, or their products too expensive. We moved manufacturing
offshore because corporatists preferred paying labor $24 a week rather
than $24 an hour. We demanded Made in America but shopped at Walmart,
whose shelves are mostly stocked with junk made in China.
The Bay Bridge, I believe, is more a manifestation of that mentality
than the usual boondoggltry we associate with government. They said a
Chinese contract would save us $400 million. We jumped on that, never
considering the cost of Made in China:
Since July 2011, six bridges have collapsed across China due to
shoddy construction and inferior building materials, according to
Chinas official Xinhua news agency. Weve endured Chinas lead-filled
toys, sulfurous drywall and poisonous pet food. We wouldnt tolerate
such products produced on our own soil, but from China? Cheap prices!
Californias Milken Institute estimates that every
computer-manufacturing job in California creates 15 jobs beyond the
factory across the supply chain. The Economic Policy Institute, a
left-leaning think tank, found that between 2001 and 2010, America lost
2.8 million jobs to China, nearly half a million of them in California
alone, nearly 70 percent of them in manufacturing.
The environment. China now even exports its smog to us, a recent study
found, and is the worlds leading polluter.
Add up those ancillary costs and your $400 million savings quickly
evaporates and, in fact, ends up costing us more. Our failure to
consider every cost presents the same problems every time we choose a
Chinese-made product on price alone.
In a 2011 op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, Assemblyman Luis Alejo,
D-Watsonville, argued that if the entire Bay Bridge project had stayed
in California, it would have cost just 5.3 percent more. One might be
skeptical of that figure, but whatever the increase, at least those
dollars would have stayed here and put Americans to work.
We face this question: If we have the option of doing something here in
the United States, is it better to save taxpayer dollars on the total
cost by outsourcing to China, or would it be better to pay more but put
Americans to work?
The Dutch have an answer: Goedkoop is Duurkoop, or Cheap is expensive.
Up front, the cheaper argument plays well with politicians,
bureaucrats and consumers, but it rarely works out that way on the back
The real question is whether were willing to learn from this because
the long view is that these circumstances can jeopardize any major
infrastructure project we hope to build, be it high-speed rail, those
fallopian tubes by the Delta or, lets face it, anything involving
Therein lies the opportunity for government to set this right. Which
Caltrans hard hats are lying and will they suffer the consequences?
Bridge managers Tony Anziano and Peter Siegenthaler deny any attempted
cover-up. They deny scolding, demoting and replacing bridge engineers,
consultants and auditors who cited countless examples of shoddy Chinese
construction. They deny telling anyone not to put concerns in writing,
which conveniently eliminates any paper trail.
But if those denials are true, why has Caltrans Director Malcolm
Dougherty promised to consider improving transparency and
accountability? If were not retaliating against whistle-blowers, why
increase protections for them? If were being honest, why institute
policies to keep us honest?
Or did politicians pressure supervisors to meet a deadline for political
purposes? Ya suppose anyone put that in writing?
Lawmakers need to hold responsible whoever is negligent. If jail time
isnt possible, termination and a stripping of pensions with no chance
of future hiring in government would suit me fine. To restore any
measure of public trust, this will require a reckoning, not another
And if SEIU, the public workers union, hopes to earn points with
taxpayers who long ago abandoned them, dont circle the wagons and
defend incompetence. Instead, vigorously support the handing out of pink
Maybe then well be inclined to champion the American worker we thought
couldnt do a job that, it turned out, the Chinese didnt do. And who
knows, we might even be willing, finally, to pay for it.
Im not hopeful. For the first time since its completion in 1964, plates
on the upper deck of New Yorks Verrazano-Narrows Bridge are being
replaced. That American steel lasted 50 years. The Bay Bridge hasnt
even been open six months. With whom did New York authorities contract?