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Building Things
Photo by Ryan Thorpe / Unsplash

Building Things

The United States’ inability to build things has big ramifications for its international position, writes Francis Fukuyama in his latest blog post.

Francis Fukuyama

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself increasingly preoccupied with people who build things, and with building things myself.

When I was younger, it never occurred to be to be an engineer. There were many other pathways I thought much more attractive: a writer (of fiction or nonfiction), a political theorist, a classical philologist (that’s how Nietzsche started out), or at best some kind of scientist. Engineering seemed to me a grubby and small-minded profession. When I was in high school in State College, Pennsylvania, most of the engineers on campus seemed to be in favor of the Vietnam War, which I thought at the time was a hopeless retrograde viewpoint.

I must say that today I have much more respect for engineers than I did back then.  Engineers solve problems of incredible difficulty. They may not be big problems with broad applicability, but they are real world concerns that matter a lot to people, and that are incredibly difficult to solve. Every time I get on an airplane I think about the amount of effort that went into making my air travel as safe, efficient, and low cost as it is. I recently returned to San Francisco from Frankfurt on one of Lufthansa’s remaining Boeing 747s, and still can’t get over the fact that a piece of metal that large can move routinely as it does from one side of the world to the other. I felt an incredible sense of pride when Perseverance Rover successfully touched down on the Martian surface back in 2020. Both of my sons have gotten engineering degrees; seeing the problems they have had to tackle in their jobs has made the calling of engineering very concrete to me.

That’s concrete, literally. Over the past several years I have been studying the problem of building infrastructure. For the past generation, development economists have been writing about the importance of institutions, and the agenda of places like the World Bank has focused on what is called good governance. Governance is roughly speaking what governments do (though there is a large literature that speaks of governance as government-like activities undertaken by anything other than a government). But what is good governance?  It is seen as many people in the development business as an abstraction.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

As I’ve come to recognize, governance in the real world is often about the ability to build things. Governments are responsible for creating infrastructure—that is, roads, bridges, electrical grids, airports, and buildings that are the preconditions for economic activity. Infrastructure constitutes what economists call public goods: goods that cannot easily be appropriated by individuals, and therefore will not be produced by private market participants.

But the building of infrastructure inevitably hurts certain narrower interests: the project organizer has to obtain right-of-way permits or take someone’s land; digging a subway will disrupt traffic and businesses; a dam will create a floodplain that will displace the people living there; placing a wind farm offshore will interrupt some homeowner or golfer’s view of the ocean. Balancing the need for the collective good against these individual interests is fundamentally a political problem that needs to be solved through political institutions. It is therefore first and foremost a governance problem.

Western democracies, and particularly our American democracy, have gotten much less good at building infrastructure. Early in the 20thcentury, big, ambitious projects like the Golden Gate Bridge or Hoover Dam were put up in just a few years; today, a project of any size takes years of permitting before ground is broken, and the scale of our ambitions has narrowed immensely. It has been decades since the United States has built a large hydroelectric project.

The reasons for this have to do with the layers of permitting that are required now to build anything. I am giving the Patten lecture series at Indiana University this March to talk about the ways in which the American political system has become a “vetocracy,” and how that is preventing us from dealing with big challenges like the climate crisis. This is an issue I’ve written about before in these pages.

The inability to build things has big ramifications for America’s international position. China launched the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 and has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure projects around the world. The United States and other countries in the Western democratic world have struggled to compete in this realm. Every democracy has gotten worse at building things for similar reasons: they all face self-imposed requirements for minimizing environmental impact, disruption to local and indigenous communities, worker safety, anti-corruption measures, and the like. Almost 100 workers died, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in the building of Hoover Dam; we would never accept that human cost today but the consequence is that building infrastructure is much slower and more costly. China worries much less about these kinds of issues, and therefore can outbid Western consortia in terms of price and construction time.

Ezra Klein has been writing about this a lot lately. He notes that liberals in the United States used to be good at building things (think FDR), but they get in their own way by encasing everything they do in layers of procedure. Klein argues they would be much more popular politically if they could get things built quickly and effectively. The Biden administration has pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into a large infrastructure package and into the Inflation Reduction Act that will for the first time serious address carbon emissions, but appropriating money is very different from actually breaking ground on promised projects.

In any event, I not only study the politics of building things, but like to build things myself. I have already written about my longtime hobby of building furniture, which has produced beds for my children, tables and chairs for the kitchen, and some fancy Federal-style pieces for the living room.

After my last project of building a set of six Thomas Moser-designed Windsor chairs, I got exhausted and decided to hang up my woodworking tools for the time being. I tried to build a rocker bogie rover like Perseverance. I started flying drones again, which was a challenge but also a great joy. But then I decided at the end of last year to start my own YouTube channel. Many of my existing skills have come from watching YouTube videos, and it seemed to me that building the Frankly Fukuyama channel would be a great way to communicate with people.

One of the reasons I get involved in projects like this is that they are a great excuse to acquire new equipment. I’ve posted a video about some of the beautiful hand tools I purchased for my woodworking.

I’ve been collecting video and sound recording equipment for many years, but the YouTube channel has been a great excuse to move things to a different level. I’ve converted my second office into a video studio complete with a green screen and professional lighting.

My latest project has been to build a motorized camera slider. Sliders are rails along which a video camera moves; it allows the videographer to add motion and interest to his or her shots. The better sliders are rather expensive, like this one from Rhino cameras.

It seemed to me that I could design and build my own slider for a lot less money. It’s just a linear actuator and a panning mechanism. So I set about acquiring the parts. Doing a project like this involves scanning the internet for very specialized parts (like a 6 to 8mm shaft coupler for a stepper motor), or a small but thick piece of acrylic that will accept a female ¼-20 threaded insert. When you’re not working from a kit or someone else’s plans, you have to solve a sequential set of problems like how to attach the t-rail to a tripod, or how to cut a rectangular hole in the project box. Writing the software for the Arduino that controls the unit was probably the biggest challenge; I haven’t written Arduino code in a long time and there were very few examples of my specific product out there on the internet.

In the end, I ended up spending quite a lot of money to make the slider work, and it works less well than the commercial products. I haven’t solved all the design problems, either; I can’t slow the panning motor down sufficiently to synchronize with the rail mechanism. But it works well enough, and that’s the point. As I said in my earliest blog post, it’s important to know enough about technology to achieve a certain degree of autonomy, so that your possibilities aren’t simply limited by the big companies that increasingly run our lives.

I will be posting a video about building the slider on my Frankly Fukuyama YouTube channel soon. Please watch it and, as every channel owner says, like and subscribe to the channel.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

TechnologyUnited StatesEconomicsDemocracyFrankly Fukuyama