Michael Lind: America Needs More Powerful Bureaucrats






Michael Lind is Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and is the author of "The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution."

Following the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Barack Obama appointed a little-known civil servant to become its public face. Displaying a genius for publicity, including self-promotion, the American infrastructure czar became one of the most visible figures in American public life.

Working tirelessly to rebut claims that the stimulus was nothing but a boondoggle, he made the otherwise boring subject of public investment in roads, bridges, parks and harbors glamorous in a way it had not been since the days of the WPA. From the beginning the infrastructure chief generated as much controversy as praise.

Investigative reporters accused him of sweetheart deals and political cronyism, while congressional demagogues roasted him regularly in auto-da-fés on Capitol Hill. Stories circulated of his vanity, paranoia and ruthlessness. But the criticism only increased the devotion of many young Americans who admired him and his team. For the first time in living memory, a career in public service was attractive to the young, talented and ambitious....

You cannot have buildings without builders. And the age of progressive and liberal state-building and nation-building in America, from the early 1900s to the 1960s, was an age of great bureaucratic empire-builders, many of whom, like Hoover, spent their entire lives in government. There was Thomas Harris Macdonald, known as “the Chief,” who was chief or commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads from 1919 until 1953. To him as much as to anyone else we owe the interstate highway system. Another master builder was David Lilienthal, director or chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) from 1933 until 1946 and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1947 to 1950. And there was Adm. Hyman Rickover, the longest-serving naval officer in American history, who in his 63 years in public service developed the nuclear fleet and civilian atomic power. Because of the outsize importance of New York in the nation, Robert Moses, who dominated infrastructure planning in New York City and New York State from the 1920s to the 1960s, was another bureaucratic titan of the time. (Yes, in response to the hand in the back of the class, they were all white men, as this was before the civil rights and sexual revolutions.)...



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