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January 27, 2014
Viewpoints: Bay Bridge mess is a lesson in the high cost of 'bargains'

Bay_Bridge.JPG(Jan. 27 - By Bruce Maiman, Special to The Bee)

There's 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 comfortable.

The lesson: Be careful what you wish for. In degrees large and small, we've asked for this. We've 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 China's official Xinhua news agency. We've endured China's lead-filled toys, sulfurous drywall and poisonous pet food. We wouldn't tolerate such products produced on our own soil, but from China? Cheap prices! Yowza!

California's 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 world's 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 nine.

The real question is whether we're 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, let's face it, anything involving Caltrans.

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 we're not retaliating against whistle-blowers, why increase protections for them? If we're 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 isn't 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 reconciliation.

And if SEIU, the public workers union, hopes to earn points with taxpayers who long ago abandoned them, don't circle the wagons and defend incompetence. Instead, vigorously support the handing out of pink slips.

Maybe then we'll be inclined to champion the American worker we thought couldn't do a job that, it turned out, the Chinese didn't do. And who knows, we might even be willing, finally, to pay for it.

I'm not hopeful. For the first time since its completion in 1964, plates on the upper deck of New York's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge are being replaced. That American steel lasted 50 years. The Bay Bridge hasn't even been open six months. With whom did New York authorities contract? China.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.