Aug 12, 2007

Superpower that can't tie its shoes

There is an excellent article today in the Denver Post. It is written by John McQuiad and was in the Washington Post awhile ago. I like his writing because it seemed to be pretty middle of the road, laying blame not at one party or the other, but spreading it around.

Here it is:

Even as rescue workers searched for more victims of the deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis last week, inspectors were dispatched to eyeball thousands of bridges nationwide, looking for other potential disasters - of which there are, apparently, many.

In a 2005 report, the Federal Highway Administration rated 77,000 U.S. bridges, about an eighth of the total, as "structurally deficient." While we'll learn more about the specific causes of the collapse in coming weeks, it has been clear for a while that our aging national infrastructure network - bridges, roads, dams, levees - isn't standing up well to intensifying levels of stress.

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.

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.

Even Americans' usually boundless self-confidence has taken a hit.

In 2002, a Pew poll showed that 74 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: "As Americans, we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want." Five years later, the number has fallen 16 percentage points, to 58 percent. Annual polls taken by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion have found public confidence in the government's ability to respond to terrorist attacks, natural disasters and health crises such as avian flu dropping steadily over the same time frame.

Consider our most important national project, the attempt to build a new Iraq. An audit earlier this year by the special inspector general for Iraq found that seven of the eight U.S. construction projects it surveyed - including the generators at Baghdad's airport and a medical-waste incinerator and water-purification system in an Erbil maternity hospital - were either broken down, not operating or otherwise substandard. A few months ago, the kitchen staff started cooking at a newly built base for guards watching the U.S. Embassy compound now being built. According to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post: "Some appliances did not work. Workers began to get electric shocks. Then a burning smell enveloped the kitchen as the wiring began to melt."

Our principal goals in Iraq - building a new political system and defeating an insurgency - are terribly hard jobs. But can't we even hook up stoves for our own guards without something blowing up? 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. Meanwhile, Democrats (and a growing number of Republicans) take a narrower view, blaming the incompetence of the Bush administration.

"Incompetence" usually means bumbling, but the Bush White House's hostility to 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.

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. Even before President Bush took office, the government's ability to undertake ambitious projects - to build things, to put new programs in place, to innovate - had begun to erode.

When Hurricane Katrina comes up, most people think first of the disastrous emergency-management response to the storm. But the biggest screw-up wasn't anything that then-FEMA Director Mike Brown did; it was the failure to protect New Orleans in the first place. In the decades before the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a flood-control system for the city that was sloppily designed, haphazardly constructed and failed to consider the obvious fact that the land it was built on was rapidly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

Worst of all, agency engineers approved flawed designs that caused canal floodwalls to collapse precipitously - errors that, when the numbers were tallied, accounted for most of the flooding in 2005.

In a sense, big government has failed. The bitter disputes over the Great Society-era programs fractured the nation's rough political consensus, and the purpose of government itself became a battleground.

You don't hear a lot from the presidential candidates about how to fix some of these endemic problems. Democrats want to create new programs such as universal health care. But if the structure of government itself is fraying, can you erect major new programs on top of it?

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.

John McQuaid is a Katrina Media Fellow from the Open Society Institute.

See the article here.


  1. that was amazing and so true.

    you can't build new ideas on old, bad ones. You have to clean the house before you start a new project.

    I think it's gonna take a long time to clean this country up. Longer than a two term, new President has time for.

  2. Anonymous1:00 PM

    Yes, sad, isn't it? Not like Kennedy saying we're going to put a man on the moon, and then fucking doing it.

  3. Teri: I think that all of the politicians are mostly the same anymore, just looking out for themselves and the special interests.

    I really wonder if we can recover.

    Kirby: I always wonder what might have been with both of the Kennedy brothers.

  4. Sunday's Denver Post online had an article on saline waste water from the prodigious natural gas drilling and production in Wyoming causing downstream problems. The agency in charge of investigating the problems didn't have the manpower to investigate because they were too busy drafting drilling permits!

  5. SV: Reminds me of the expression, "why stop for gas now, we are already late!"

  6. Just think if all the time and money we've spent on Iraq was spent making our own home safer instead.

  7. Anonymous8:03 PM

    on a much smaller note: the cable guy came out last week but coulnd't put the cable in 'cuz a line needed to be drilled under the driveway. A great big-ass machine did that late last week.

    Today, it took the cable guy over FIVE HOURS to hook up the cable to a house that is less than 6 years old and he had to go into the attic, outside and all around. Finally, in near desperation he asked if we could just install the cable line (that runs the internet and the digital phone line) into my wife's sewing room. we said yes and we'll get a wireless router later. He then came back at about 8 PM to dig up the grass to bury the cable.

    Meanwhile, a year or so ago I was on the phone to Pakistan for over TWO HOURS trying to get a simple problem with my PC modem fixed.

    The carpet steam cleaner suddenly went ::POP! GRRRAAAANNNGGGGXXXX!!:: last week and will probably take 6-8+ weeks to fix.

    this is 2007. I can understand the difficulty in trying to make IRAQ work-- that's half a world away and a VASTLY different culture, language, mindset etc. Why can we in america just get SIMPLE MACHINES to work?? I mean, hell, we were supposed to have FLYING CARS by now, according to engineers in the 50's....