A shocking example of how USA efficiency has plummeted

Commenting on the proposed plan for the Erie Canal, then-President Thomas Jefferson opined it was “little short of madness.”

Wrong. The Erie Canal was an engineering marvel: a 363-mile-long canal linking the Atlantic Seaboard and Great Lakes, with 18 aqueducts to cross rivers and 83 locks to raise and lower boats over the 682-foot vertical drop from one end to the other. Built between 1817 and 1825 without experienced surveyors, civil engineers, or skilled laborers, it slashed statewide shipping costs by 94% and created so much wealth that the term “millionaire” was coined shortly thereafter.

Cost? A mere $7 million—about $100 million in today's dollars. Now for something shocking: the canal was built primarily by hand supplemented with animal power. That is, no modern tractors, bulldozers, or other heavy equipment that can do more work in a day than a man—or even a man with a horse—can do in a year.

Since modern earthmoving equipment makes workers hundreds of times more productive and enormously more valuable even after factoring in equipment cost, why couldn't we replicate the Erie Canal for much less than the inflation-adjusted $100 million figure? Such a mammoth project would likely now cost over $100 billion and perhaps even more, thanks to predictable cost overruns and delays imposed by court orders halting construction so scientists could bemoan the project's impact on local mosquito populations and whatnot.

No one involved in building the Erie Canal system was an expert; instead, they improvised and learned as they went along. Even with almost 200 years of experience and heavy equipment that literally moves mountains, we can't begin to match the productivity per inflation-adjusted dollar of the original canal workers. Such a project would now cost 1000 times more—but why?

For as long as I can remember, economists have said that the productivity of American workers is steadily increasing. If we've really made such amazing leaps in output per worker, why are today's workers left in the dust by their early-19th century counterparts with shovels and pickaxes but no chainsaws or Caterpillars?

The Flynn effect (“the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores”) should mean that people are now significantly smarter than they were when the Erie Canal was made, yet its builders using primitive technology did things today's best engineers couldn't do with advanced equipment unless they spent vastly more money. So are we truly more intelligent, or do we just perform better on IQ tests? The true test of intelligence is performance in the real world.

Neanderthals have been disparaged so much the name itself is a synonym for primitive and stupid, yet they developed a “technique of pitch extraction through a complex process known as dry distillation” and complex, multi-step methods of making stone tools that likely could not be replicated by Ivy League engineering students. They also manufactured synthetic material with underground distillation.

So as we're busy patting ourselves on the back for amazing progress, and oohing and aahing the latest trivial innovation from Silicon Valley that does remarkably little for the real world, the thinkers among us cannot help but wonder how supposedly primitive people and technology can leave us in the dust. And we wonder why we cannot outcompete China?

“The smartphones that distract us from our surroundings also distract us from the fact that our surroundings are strangely old: only computers and communications have improved dramatically since midcentury.”
— Billionaire Peter Thiel in Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

UPDATE 4-17-2019: After fire ravaged the Notre-Dame de Paris, I heard various people on TV and radio say it could never be rebuilt, or rebuilt as beautiful as it was. That's odd. It took a century to build most of the structure, which was largely finished by 1260. Did they have power saws, computerized milling machines, and other tools we don't?

Given that we have them, and they didn't, it seems a stretch to asseverate that we cannot build what they did. If cost were the primary impediment, material cost could be reduced to zero by architects specifying each of the many pieces required to build it, posting that on the Internet, with people signing up to make that piece and donate it. For example, I could turn one of my trees into a massive timber, cut precisely with whatever holes it needed—or mortise and tenon joints, etc. All very doable, so I don't understand the “can't do” attitude that is increasingly prevalent, making people shy away from big jobs.

Or does Silicon Valley have a better idea? Or is it too busy hyperfocusing on the next messaging app?


  1. The U.S. Has Forgotten How to Do Infrastructure: The nation once built things fast and cheaply. Now experts are puzzled why costs are higher and projects take longer than in other countries.
  2. June 28, 2021: Why does it cost so much to build things in America? This is why the US can’t have nice things.
  3. Intolerance We Trust by Steve Faktor:
    Comment: This is one of the best articles ever written because research demonstrates that NOT filtering yourself is key to creativity, and creativity is ultimately the engine that catalyzes progress and economic growth. As the PC police enforced ever more draconian standards of intolerance for occasional human imperfections, creativity plummeted because the brain's filter, once engaged, isn't selective in what it screens out. The bottom line is that control is inimical to our success individually and collectively. Kudos to Steve Faktor for a brilliant article.
  4. Necessity is indeed mother of invention -- regardless of resources, study shows
  5. Moore’s law is not just for computers: Mathematical laws can predict industrial growth and productivity in many sectors
  6. As my Archie Bunker experiment proved, Americans can't solve problems even when the fix is simple, quick, easy, proven effective, and free. The USA once prospered because we excelled in solving problems, but now we're mired in them that politicians and partisans perpetuate to milk them for political gain.
  7. Prehistoric women had stronger arms than today's elite rowing crews
  8. Americans Are Rich but Not Very Competent
    Excerpt: “Americans are so far behind in their skills that it's hard to see how they can stay at the top for long. The figures are contained in a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development called OECD Skills Outlook 2013.”
  9. Think the Internet Leads to Growth? Think Again
  10. Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent
  11. That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back
  12. Academics identify 18 reasons why megaprojects often fail, as well as 54 preventative solutions
    Based on: What Are the Causes and Cures of Poor Megaproject Performance? A Systematic Literature Review and Research Agenda
  13. Why megaprojects often have megapitfalls
  14. Archaic Native Americans Built Massive Louisiana Mound in Less Than 90 Days
  15. “Investors are starting to wonder [if Amazon is not interested in building a profitable business after they] … announced second-quarter losses twice as large as Wall Street predicted and warned that the third quarter would be even worse – about six times worse.” (source)
    Comment: Amazon is one of the poster children of success in recent America.
  16. 13 utterly unnecessary 1980s movie remakes that are actually in development
    Comment: So many movie remakes are a sign of plummeting creativity.
  17. Thomas Frank: TED talks are lying to you: The creative class has never been more screwed. Books about creativity have never been more popular. What gives?
  18. Neanderthals Used Toothpicks to Alleviate the Pain of Diseases Related to Teeth, Such as Inflammation of the Gums
  19. Analysis of Neanderthal teeth grooves uncovers evidence of prehistoric dentistry
  20. Neanderthals used resin 'glue' to craft their stone tools
  21. New Evidence Suggests Neanderthals Organized Their Living Spaces
  22. Neanderthals were not inferior to modern humans, study finds
  23. Modern humans interbred with Denisovans twice in history
    Excerpt: “Modern humans co-existed and interbred not only with Neanderthals, but also with another species of archaic humans, the mysterious Denisovans.”
    Comment: Denisovan = “an extinct species or subspecies of human in the genus Homo.”
  24. The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel: “Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? What our list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress.”
  25. Insect diet helped early humans build bigger brains: Quest for elusive bugs spurred primate tool use, problem-solving skills
    Comment: This makes me wonder: now that the wonders of civilization significantly lessen the need for brainpower to survive, have we also removed much of the genetic advantages of brilliance that ultimately otherwise fuel advances in it? Might this explain why our brainpower is plateauing or even regressing? Perhaps, yet the changes are occurring too rapidly to plausibly be explained solely by genetics; instead, the cultural crutch catalyzes intellectual laziness that manifests as people dissipating most of their potential by going through life on cruise control, not in high gear.
  26. Male suicide on rise as result of austerity, report suggests
    Comment: Today's people enjoy advantages our ancestors could not imagine, so suicide should have been more common back in the days when life was much tougher and commonly lacked government safety nets such as welfare, unemployment insurance, and other benefits that feed, clothe, and shelter people even if they never work, along with free healthcare, energy, cell phones, and often cable TV in the United States.
  27. Dental plaque DNA shows Neanderthals used 'aspirin'
  28. Neanderthal healthcare practices crucial to survival: Research at the University of York has suggested that Neanderthals embraced healthcare practices, such as assisting in cases of serious injury and the challenges of childbirth.
  29. A decorated raven bone discovered in Crimea may provide insight into Neanderthal cognition
  30. How Neanderthals made the very first glue
  31. Neanderthal hunting spears could kill at a distance
  32. More traits associated with your Neanderthal DNA
    Comment: Neanderthals live on in our DNA, hence us: we are part Neanderthal.
  33. October 27, 2020: Time magazine: Much of What We Thought About Neanderthals Was Wrong. Here’s Why That Matters
  34. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens used identical Nubian technology
    Excerpt: “… Neanderthals used Nubian Levallois technology, previously thought to be restricted to Homo sapiens.”
  35. July 5, 2021: Ancient bone carving could change the way we think about Neanderthals
    Excerpt: [quoting Dr. Dirk Leder] “The idea was always that the great Homo sapiens was giving intelligent ideas to other species. In the past few years a handful of papers are pushing the idea that it could have been other way around.”
  36. June 17, 2023: Neanderthal adhesives were made through a complex synthesis process: Birch bark was heated in underground chambers to create a tougher adhesive.
  37. February 23, 2023: Consultants Gone Wild: The real reason it costs so damn much to build new subways in America.
The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

Comments (3)

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Comment #80 by Kevin Pezzi, MD • Website: www.ER-doctor.com
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December 19 2010 10:06:11 PM

@William: Mass production (which didn't exist back then) dramatically lowered the cost of production, so today's heavy equipment, while expensive, can't explain the thousand-fold cost differential. Additionally, the price per day of heavy equipment use isn't much considering how they multiply the effectiveness of men working.

While today's workers do enjoy a higher standard of living, it's not 100 or 1000 times greater than it was when the Erie Canal was built--ultimately, construction firms mechanize their workforce to enhance their productivity per dollar. Thus, I remain mystified by the interim dissipation in productivity.

Comment #79 by Ted Decker
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December 19 2010 10:03:38 PM

Today's Cost

It's frightening to think how much this canal would cost if constructed today—by this government.

Comment #78 by William Wheaton
December 19 2010 09:04:29 PM

Today's Technology

I like the article. It makes a lot of sense. The question is why today's productivity cost is higher than in the 19th century.

For one our cost of living is higher. Second it requires a lot of money to build equipment to meet technology that did not exist before. And the ways we produce goods are not the same any more.

So it is impossible to compare the productivity of any services in today's environment with the old days in terms of dollars.

Another example, today we depend heavily on computers for information to run businesses. The price to acquire this information is not cheap but very reliable, and this did not exist in the old days.

I am sure it is the same in the field of Medicine.

William Wheaton

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