Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
It’s not the Big Dig or the Second Avenue Subway. America’s biggest infrastructure quagmires are much, much larger than that.
This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.
“A complete trainwreck.”
“A crumbling disappointment.”
“An extremely tedious movie.”
Critics are sounding an unambiguous note about the new movie The Great Wall: Don’t waste your money. China’s first major blockbuster aimed at a Western audience, a white-washing monster flick starring Matt Damon and legions of CGI warriors, appears destined to be a $150 million flop. Bummer. The Great Wall deserves better—or at least more.
After all, the Great Wall was the greatest infrastructure undertaking in the history of civilization. It’s 13,171 miles long, or five cross-country all-American road trips, and was built in stages stretching from the 7th century B.C. to the 17th century A.D. (that’s two-and-a-half millennia). The familiar 4,000-mile segment of the wall built from brick and stone—what the words “Great Wall of China” summon to mind (you know, other than Matt Damon)—might have cost the modern equivalent of hundreds of billions of dollars to build.
A government program this large can’t have been worth it. It’s hard to know whether First Emperor Qin Shi Huang might have found his elixir of immortality had he not invested so much building the original precursor to the Great Wall. (For the money, the Terracotta Army was a better buy.) A couple dozen centuries later, the thousands of watchtowers built by the Ming Dynasty couldn’t keep the Qing Dynasty from rising.
Today, however, the Wall’s a proven tourism driver, though, so maybe call it a wash.
In truth, many of the most ambitious and spectacular projects in human history tend to be some of the most wasteful. If there’s one thing that unites people across time and civilizations, it’s a penchant for throwing good money after bad. Here are some of the more egregious ways we like to set our money on fire.
Being able to host the Olympic Games is a great marker of success for a nation. It takes lots of resources, from transportation to hospitality to facilities, to pull off an event this logistically complex. Any city should strive for the honor of hosting the Games.
What cities don’t want to do is actually host the Olympics. In a paper just published in Urban Studies, researchers Volker Nitsch and Nicolai Wendland look at urban population growth stretching back more than 150 years. They find that, since the first modern games in Athens in 1896, hosting the Summer Olympics does nothing to increase the population size of host cities relative to their peer cities (an arguable metric for a city’s success). In fact, host cities fall behind in terms of population growth after hosting the Games relative to non-host cities.
Candidate cities, meanwhile—the ones that apply to host but don’t get the nod from the International Olympic Committee—enjoy a surge in population growth relative to host cities. One of the enduring legacies of Olympic-size hangovers, like the one that Rio de Janeiro is feeling right now, is a significant lag on growth. (Brazil, actually, may be experiencing something more like a descent into chaos.) The U.S. has been spared the worst of this, but could very well host a Summer Olympics before the end of the Trump administration. Historically speaking, that means bad news for Los Angeles.
“After having been awarded the Games, the population size of successful bidders relative to unsuccessful bidders decreases by about .18% per decade,” the report reads. “A legacy of debt from staging the mega-event may be one of various reasonable explanations for this finding.”
The National Football League
Super Bowl LI was just what the NFL needed. The game pitted an upstart team from a predominantly black Southern city against a dynasty from one of the oldest redoubts of wealth and privilege in the Northeast. And it was a good game! Even if the Falcons couldn’t stick the ending.
The Overtime Bowl notwithstanding, American pro football may be in big trouble. The number of people playing organized football between ages 6 and 18 has fallen by 5.4 percent since 2008, according to a 2014 report from The Wall Street Journal. Enrollment in Pop Warner, the largest youth football league in the nation, dropped by 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012, per ESPN. The sport’s ongoing concussion crisis has provoked moral alarm and persistent doubt in parents and fans alike. Also, lots of people have stopped watching the game: NFL TV ratings dropped 8 percent this season.
Meanwhile, the costs for building NFL stadiums has skyrocketed.
“The three newest pro football stadiums have cost $720 million (Lucas Oil Stadium, 2008), $1.15 billion (Cowboys Stadium, 2009) and $1.6 billion (MetLife Stadium, 2010),” Athletic Business reported in 2012. That was before the receipts were in for the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi Stadium ($1.3 billion) and the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium ($1.13 billion).
According to football historian Andrew McKillop, cities have built some 142 different stadiums for various professional football league teams. (And only one that matters.) If, within a generation or two, football is as relevant to American sports enthusiasts as boxing is today, the stadiums that are left standing are bound to look like temples to an ancient religion. They won’t be the ones we have today: Washington, D.C.’s franchise wants to ditch its current stadium, FedEx Field, after a scant 20 years.
At a billion a pop, the costs for the NFL’s stadium fixation are enormous (and they are often borne by the taxpayer). Basketball arenas and MLB ballparks cost the public lots of money, too, but those games don’t kill their heroes. As the barbarism of football turns off more and more fans, those costs will come to look even more wasteful than they do already.
The Penal System
Want to ruin your day? Spend an afternoon with the Economic and Social Research Council’s Gulag mapping project. It shows the spread of the notorious Soviet penal archipelago between 1929 and 1960. The maps document a geography of utter despair. It’s only thanks to projects like Memorial that anything is known of some of these camps today.
Want to ruin your whole damn week? Consider that there is no similar project for reaching understanding and reconciliation in the U.S. because we are very much still in the grips of our mass incarceration crisis. The costs of the U.S. penal system—in terms of lost life and productivity, beyond the expense of physically incarcerating some 2.3 million Americans in correctional facilities—are staggering. One in five Americans in lockup is there on a nonviolent drug offense, a victimless category that many Americans do not consider to be criminal at all.
Even mapping incarcerated prisoners is a mess. The U.S. Census Bureau (which provides the data for the map below) counts people in prisons toward the resident count of the towns and cities where they are incarcerated. “It leads to a dramatic distortion of representation at local and state levels, and creates an inaccurate picture of community populations for research and planning purposes,” reads a position paper from the Prison Gerrymandering Project.
The Interstate Highway System
President Dwight Eisenhower’s contribution to national infrastructure helped to create enormous wealth in the U.S.—but it also paved the way for massive public subsidies for automobile drivers.
If Americans turn to public transit and smarter alternatives to single-user automobile traffic, then the highway system will continue to serve the country well. But if Republican-controlled federal and state governments expand highways for greater driver convenience in the name of building infrastructure, then it will be a drag on cities and their taxpayers—especially in the form of negative externalities such as longer commutes and climate change.
“Driving is a choice, and provided that drivers pay all the costs associated with making that choice, there’s little reason to object to that,” writes Joe Cortright. “After all, very few people think that a zero-car world is one that makes a lot of sense. Low-car makes much more sense that non-car as a policy talking point.”