Green, Shovel-Ready Stimulus -- 100 Years Ago

By Victor Davis Hanson - July 21, 2011

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How did our ancestors -- poor and with limited technology -- so quickly create such a vast project, which today probably would pose insurmountable challenges to their far richer high-tech descendants?

They were far more in need and far more self-confident than we are today -- acting when they were 80 percent sure of success rather than endlessly talking and delaying in expectation of an always-elusive 100 percent certainty. In 1911 there was a desire for the new wonders of electricity, but no prior generation to have supplied it. Today, we take the power for our iPads and video games for granted, and are more likely to nitpick the environmental and social sensibilities of past generations who gave us what we so nonchalantly use in the present.

Quite simply, Big Creek could not be built today in the United States. Environmentalists would claim that the pristine nature of the San Joaquin River would be unnecessarily altered, citing a newly discovered colony of spotted newts or dappled dragonflies in the way of the proposed penstocks. Unions would demand blanket representation without elections -- and every imaginable compensation for such hazardous duty. Workers would apply for stress-related disability benefits given the dizzying heights and the dank subterranean mining. Government regulators and inspectors would outnumber project engineers. Private entrepreneurs world never risk such a chancy investment without ironclad government guarantees of profits despite enormous cost overruns. And the public would be as skeptical of the risk as they would be eager to enjoy its dividends when completed.

The Big Creek project, like the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridges, and the interstate highway project were the work of confident but less wealthy bygone generations. They understood man's ceaseless elemental struggle against nature to survive one more day, and did not have the luxury to second- and third-guess the work of others before them.

We should remember the lesson of Henry Huntington's Big Creek Project, started 100 years ago this year, as we let rich irrigated farm acreage lay idle and pass on exploiting new oil and gas fields -- preferring to argue endlessly over how to redistribute our inherited but ever-shrinking national pie.

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Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals from BloomsburyBooks. You can reach him by e-mailing

Copyright 2011, Tribune Media Services Inc.

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