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Minneapolis and Melodrama (Part I)

What does the reaction to the tragedy in Minneapolis reveal about America’s purpose and resolve?

August 9, 2007

What does the reaction to the tragedy in Minneapolis reveal about America's purpose and resolve?

A while ago, George David, the Chairman and CEO of United Technologies, stated that these days the U.S. Federal Reserve operates on a six-week horizon — while the White House operates on a six-hour cycle.

He might have added that the U.S. Congress has an attention span of six minutes — and the media one of six days (or is it the other way around?).

Why does his remark seem so prophetic? An engineer by training, and one of the most successful yet humble CEOs of the past two decades, one can only imagine how he must feel about the bridge over the Mississippi that suddenly crumbled under rush-hour drivers.

To a man riveted by notions of Six Sigma engineering perfection, a catastrophic event like this must seem like the end of American pragmatism, diligence and the American Dream, all in one.

For much of its history, the United States was driven forward by imaginative and hard-working engineers, visionaries and risk-taking entrepreneurs. It was a nation built on grit, drive and hard work.

Not any longer. To see where the United States finds itself today, one just needs to take a snapshot of reactions to the calamity.

TV channels, for starters, were breathless. Cable TV, in particular — post-Paris Hilton and post-Anna Nicole, suffering from the lull in mini soap operas — was delirious about a substantive breaking news event.

But the way in which the television anchors tackled the story was as predictable as it was shallow. At the top of the hour, they would announce that the nation needed to delve into investigating a series of major questions "to get to the bottom of it all."

The staccato of probing questions included items like these: "With 70,000 bridges structurally deficient across the United States, what can be done — here and now — so that not another single one collapses?”

"And what can you do as an individual to protect yourself? What about the amazing heroes in this nightmare who undertook amazing acts of rescue?”

"And what about the blessings of those who, facing tragedy, escaped what seemed certain death?”

"As to the facts, what can we find out about what happened — and why? More generally, is our homeland safe? What chaos can terrorists wreak in a nation thus weakened?”

"And moving on to Washington, how much will it all cost? Who will pay for it all?”

"To all of these questions," television anchors breathlessly concluded their introductory statements, "we will provide you the answers over the next 60 minutes."

The purpose of it all? To inform? To solve? To entertain?

The news cavalcade was simply happy to have been thrown a fresh piece of red meat that it could chew on in public for a while — until the public would tire of it and move on to the next emerging mini-crisis, whatever it might be.

Other media played their predictable roles, too. Surely enough, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page had a grand solution for all Americans afraid of having to pay up at long last for crumbling infrastructure.

No need to worry about doing something as stupid as raising taxes for this purpose. As the experience of plenty of other countries has shown, the way out — wouldn't you know it — is to privatize the nation's transportation infrastructure.

Private investors stand at the ready to take this mess off the hands of the government and, as if by the hand of God, fix it all, virtually overnight — and in exchange for just a few bucks in toll charges.

Imagine the lunacy. With 70,000 bridges in disrepair, do Americans have to envision 70,000 toll booths, one for every time they drive under a reconstructed, privately financed bridge?

Europe's middle ages, which featured a wild patchwork of road charges every time one traveled a short distance from one territory to another, would almost seem rational by comparison.

On to the politicians. Of course, they will intonate with pompous voices the need for emergency funds to resolve the crisis in Minnesota ASAP. Nothing but the best will suffice — and preferably by the day after tomorrow.

But then, incredibly quickly, all the activity, compassion, drive and sense of action will suddenly die down.

Politicians will say that fixing the nation's infrastructure simply isn't a "sexy" issue on which they can later campaign. Plus, they add with good reason, politicians only become remembered for the bridges they build (or those they fund and then have named after themselves).

In sharp contrast, nobody remembers a politician for having made it his passion to fix crumbling bridges and infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is that, exactly 50 years after Eisenhower's infrastructure boom, his penchant to build for the long haul would be decried in Washington by most Republicans and way too many Democrats as some sort of irresponsible Eurosocialist pipedream.

Or as a twisted Japanese way of wasting scarce capital better left to the private sector to utilize. Or better yet, some kind of grandstanding Maoist scheme built on the back of slave labor.

In short, any argument will do — as long as the American people do not have to get serious about the underlying problem.

Editor’s Note: Part II of this is here.