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Losing Our Edge on Our Own Home Turf

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John McQuaid makes the case in an editorial, The Can’t-Do Nation, that America is losing its knack for getting big things done. It’s an interesting premise.
But the bridge disaster also reflects a broader and more troubling problem. The United States seems to have become the superpower that can't tie its own shoelaces. America is a nation of vast ingenuity and technological capabilities. Its bridges shouldn't fall down.

And it's not just bridges. Has there ever been a period in our history when so many American plans and projects have, literally or figuratively, collapsed? In both grand and humble endeavors, the United States can no longer be relied upon to succeed or even muddle through. We can't remake the Middle East. We can't protect one of our own cities from a natural disaster or, it seems, rebuild after one. We can't rescue our citizens when they're on TV begging for help. We can't even give our wounded veterans decent medical care.

I love that line about shoelaces. Personally, I think his piece points up the difference between what the American public wants and is willing to pay for and what our elected politicians are willing to give us.

The current controversy about bridge repair that the Minneapolis disaster brought to the fore is only one example. The national gasoline tax (about 15 cents/gallon toward highways) is for just such infrastructure repair, but politicians have used it to extend and widen, substituting asphalt for bridge safety. Extending and widening are things a guy gets re-elected for. Interestingly, the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed was in the process of getting resurfacing (over a structure that had been essentially condemned).
We're supposed to be an optimistic, problem-solving nation, the country that tamed a vast wilderness, won World War II and the Cold War, put men on the moon, built the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam. But somehow, can-do America has become a joke, an oxymoron. We've become the can't-do nation, slipping on every banana peel on the global stage. Of course, we've had our share of failure in the modern era -- the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam War, the Iranian hostage crisis, two space shuttle disasters -- but the sheer scale of our current predicament is something different.
You bet. The difference is that leaders, whether they were military, political, business or religious, used to constantly remind us of how talented we were. We were an exuberant society, fed on the advertising message of “Breakfast of Champions.”

For thirty years, essentially since Vietnam, we have been fed the opposite message; that we are militarily fit only for annihilating an enemy or submission, destined for persistent job loss, contracted to do less well than our fathers and victimized by drug-crazed criminals, unethical businessmen, grafting politicians, incompetent doctors and terrified teachers.
Periodically, politicians promise better and renege on that promise until our faith in them drops below that of used-car salesmen. But to confuse all that with inability to get things done is to confuse the messenger with the message.

We are absolutely able to take back control of our national life. The first thing that is required is to stop trusting it to the untrustworthy. We have not been driven into a state of paralysis, we walked there willingly, step by step.
What has gone wrong? Former House speaker Newt Gingrich calls it a "system-wide" government breakdown that includes health care, defense, intelligence and disaster response. He says the New Deal, Great Society structure of "big government" has, in effect, stopped working.
Newt is wrong. Government has not stopped working. Government on its core level works exceptionally well. Those who control government (Newt among them) have vowed to shrivel it to a size where it can be ‘drowned in the bathtub’ and, in so doing, have nearly wrecked it. But only nearly. It is not yet dead and buried.

Case in point, there are plenty of engineers to check over our infrastructure, from bridges to sewer-systems to power grids and they have been assiduously doing just that. The reasons that steam pipes blow up in Manhattan and bridges fall into the Mississippi is because politicians ignore those recommendations and opt to leave it for the next guy.

It’s an option, not an inability. Newt Gingrich opted to sell us on a contract with America and then (instead) sold us out to an exterminator from Texas with a plan. Tom Delay’s plan was to slip the intravenous needle of big-business money into the arm of politics. The fact that he was overwhelmingly successful says more for Tom Delay's creative thinking than it does for a national inability to create.

Somehow, we thought government would just run, without oversight.
"Incompetence" usually means bumbling, but the Bush White House's hostility toward the federal bureaucracy has been quite purposeful. The administration has undermined the normal workings of agencies from the CIA to the Environmental Protection Agency, in part because they generate facts and opinions that conflict with political goals. The White House has also seeded the government with appointees chosen for loyalty and ideological affinity, not competence. All of this has taken a toll on agencies' ability to process information, devise sound policies and communicate with the public.

It would be nice to think that a new president could simply undo this damage starting in 2009. But we can't turn back the clock to previous periods of reassuring technocratic competence, such as the Dwight D. Eisenhower or Bill Clinton eras.

Well, why the hell not? We may not have the will to turn things back a mere six years to when we balanced budgets, enjoyed a degree of international respect and were actually paying down Reagan’s deficit, but to claim we are systemically unable is absurd.
  • We can have health care, but not without realism
  • Primary education that actually prepares students, but not with everyone as administrator
  • Balanced budgets, but not without deciding what is and is not worthy
  • Full employment, but not within our present tax structure
  • An anti-terrorist stance, but not with fear based politics
The list of things within our reach that we have all but given up, include mass transportation, suburban sprawl, national parks, clean and economic energy, faith in our national purpose and (most important) faith in ourselves to achieve a national purpose.

McQuaid’s is a thoughtful and timely editorial, that he winds up by writing,
The 21st century's problems -- climate change, jihadist terrorism, the dislocations of globalization -- are complex. But they are manageable. Can-do America can come back if we can again assemble our national will, power, technical expertise and vision. It will take a while to do so. We should get started.
Whether or not ‘we’ will require anything more than we have of ‘they’ who spend our money and make decisions on our behalf (if not actually in our interests) remains to be seen. Certainly his thoughts comprise a wake-up call.

As a nation, we are increasingly hard to wake up.
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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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