Earlier, I wrote about Japan’s response to the SARS “epidemic” and how the country’s Health ministry seems woefully unprepared (witness the Dioxin interview). There also exists a huge propensity toward construction in Japan, as I can atest to by the fact that there seemed to be no stream or river I came across in two weeks that didn’t have concrete banks. Apparently, though, the US has its own construction subsidy in the Army Corps.
The Army Corps is one of the most bizarre bureaucracies in the federal government and one of the most effective at generating work to keep itself busy. From its roots as a tiny regiment in George Washington’s army, it has grown into a public works behemoth with 35,000 employees—more than the departments of Labor, Education, and Energy combined. A third of them work on military programs that are usually uncontroversial—the recent flap over the contract to Halliburton in Iraq was an exception—but the rest focus on civil works that reflect the agency’s addictions to concrete and the control of nature. The corps has dredged and deepened America’s ports and harbors, armored and manhandled America’s rivers, and pumped sand onto America’s beaches. It has built thousands of dams, dikes, locks, levees, seawalls, and floodgates, often justified by dubious economic benefits. And in the late 1990s, under leaders who behaved like dot-com executives seeking to increase market share—”Seek Growth Opportunities” was actually one of three planks of the agency’s “Corps Vision”—the corps mission expanded to include construction of schools and sewage plants, cleanup of hazardous and radioactive waste, and massive restoration projects designed to revive ecosystems it damaged in the past. It is now overseeing an $8 billion effort to resuscitate the Florida Everglades, the largest environmental project in world history.
In a rare instance of wholehearted agreement, I find myself happy that the Bush administration is actually attempting to reign in the Army Corps (thank you, Slate). Some of these projects that have been budgeted are huge, expensive, wasteful, and destructive, tailored to narrow special intersts at the expense of local communities. Not to mention that they have both created mess, such as the Everglades, but are now involved in undoing their original creations. It is unfortunate that it has taken so long for anyone to attempt to reign them in.