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Minneapolis and Melodrama (Part II)

In light of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, how can the United States regain its inner strength?

August 10, 2007

In light of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, how can the United States regain its inner strength?

Outside the United States, people shake their heads in collective disbelief at last week’s tragedy in Minneapolis. Their view of what the United States stands for had already been shaken after the invasion of Iraq.

And while that maneuver was widely viewed as a bad mistake, the at best half-hearted effort to rescue New Orleans — after its near-biblical catastrophe — has really shaken foreigners' views of the United States.

And now, in the waters of the Mississippi, lie the remnants of the world's belief in American resolve, pragmatism and inner strength.

What it sees instead is a nation hooked on a relentless cycle of media-driven political melodrama — which ultimately leads to inaction.

And thus, the world comes to realize the duality of Ronald Reagan's legacy. Yes, he was a breath of fresh air in rethinking an over-reliance on government and the public sector. Europeans actually swallowed that lesson grudgingly — and eventually took it to heart in redressing an overwrought welfare state.

As for the United States, Reagan's legacy is a different matter. As much as he despised the welfare state, the United States didn't have much of one to begin with.

What he railed against were easy handouts from government — a call to reform that Bill Clinton undertook when he moved against destitution and co-dependency in much of black America.

But on a broader canvas, Reagan's denigration of government bureaucrats — and the way in which he cast them as the moral equivalent of latter-day communists — created a cancer on American society.

To make a long story short, government's planning function — key for tasks such as maintaining a reliable infrastructure — went into complete disrepute because it was the domain of "bureaucrats." And soon after, the government lacked the funds to get the job done — creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of incompetent government bureaucrats (who can't even keep bridges from falling).

Instead, the planning function nowadays is often left to the U.S. Congress itself, not a government body generally thought to be equipped to handle such mundane yet necessary tasks.

But wasting public funds on unnecessary new highways, byways and bridges to nowhere named after oneself is considered "sexier" (read: more valuable and legitimate) than some green-eyeshade-wearing bureaucrat in a government cubicle focusing on the elementary task of maintaining existing infrastructure.

The bridge away from where the United States finds itself — the land of melodrama, short attention spans and incompetent mismanagement — to rediscovering, and rebuilding, America's inner strengths is a long and arduous one.

Putting the Democrats back in charge of the country — as is becoming the rallying cry for those wanting an easy way out — is no panacea for repairing our infrastructure either.

After all, in the early 1990s, a theme of Bill Clinton's campaign was the need to address the country's infrastructure deficit to make America more competitive. Instead, he eventually caved — and instead tackled welfare reform.

Maybe a healthy dose of anti-communist instincts can help sharpen the nation's determination. As a summer special, the major networks and cable programs could do a new reality TV show.

It would feature drivers riding along endless highways, stopping at bridges and overpasses to use their cell-phone cameras to do close-ups of the infrastructure.

And the viewing nation, equipped with push-button devices, would be polled each time as to whether they just saw a bridge in developing, Communist China — or one in marvelous, rich, efficient, capitalist America.

Let's see whether enough people are surprised, or even ashamed, when the results are in.

Unless things change markedly, Americans will wake up soon enough and realize that, despite today's economic boom and that of the golden 1990s, they have little to show for in terms of modernized infrastructure.

Will they then wish they lived in China?

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.