Rethinking America

Minneapolis 2007 and 2020

In the wake of the George Floyd murder, what does the reaction to a 2007 tragedy that also occurred in Minneapolis tell us about America’s purpose and resolve?

Credit: Joseph Sohm Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • For much of its history, the US was driven forward by imaginative and hard-working engineers, visionaries and risk-taking entrepreneurs. Not any longer.
  • US politicians will say that fixing the nation's infrastructure simply isn't a "sexy" issue on which they can campaign.
  • What the rest of the world sees when looking at the US is a nation hooked on a relentless cycle of media-driven political melodrama.
  • The bridge back from where the US currently finds itself will be a long and arduous one.

Editor’s note: The text below is adapted from a feature that first appeared on The Globalist on August 9/10, 2007. We felt it would cast an interesting and challenging light on how the United States deals with its fundamental challenges, of which structural racism — sadly — is just 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 the reactions to the calamity that occurred when a bridge over the Mississippi (The I-35W Mississippi River bridge — officially known as Bridge 9340) suddenly crumbled in Minneapolis, condemning rush-hour drivers to their death.

American tragedy and shallowness

TV channels, for starters, were breathless. But the way in which the television anchors tackled the story was as predictable as it was shallow. They solemnly announced that the nation needed to delve into a major investigation 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?”

Faux principledness

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

The news cavalcade was simply happy to have been thrown a fresh “breaking news” piece — red meat that it could chew on in public for a while. Until, of course, 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 silly 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.

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

Imagine the lunacy

Imagine the lunacy. With 70,000 bridges in disrepair, do Americans have to envision 70,000 toll booths, one for every time they drive over 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, no sooner had the disaster happened, than they intonated with resolute-sounding voices the need for emergency funds to resolve the crisis in Minnesota ASAP. You know the drill: Nothing but the best will suffice — and preferably by the day after tomorrow.

Next step: Fading into oblivion

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 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) — not the ones they repaired in time.

And indeed, nobody remembers a politician for having made it his passion to fix crumbling bridges and infrastructure.

No more Eisenhowers

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 today’s Washington by most Republicans 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.

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

The reaction abroad

Outside the United States, people shake their heads in collective disbelief at the tragedy in Minneapolis.

There, in the waters of the Mississippi, lie the remnants of the world's belief in American resolve, pragmatism and inner strength.The at best half-hearted effort to rescue New Orleans — after its near-biblical catastrophe during Hurricane Katrina — had already badly shaken foreigners' views of the United States.

What the rest of the world sees 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 downside of Ronald Reagan's legacy, and his long-term disastrous impact on Republican leaders and governors throughout the United States.

To make a long story short, first government's planning function — key for tasks such as maintaining a reliable infrastructure — went into complete disrepute because it was deemed the domain of "bureaucrats."

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. That is not a body generally thought to be equipped to handle such mundane yet necessary tasks.

A different purpose

But for members of Congress, wasting public funds on unnecessary new highways, byways and bridges to nowhere, and preferably 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 back from where the United States currently finds itself — the land of melodrama, short attention spans and incompetent mismanagement — back to rediscovering, and rebuilding, America's inner strengths will be a long and arduous one.

The Democrats?

Putting the Democrats back in charge of the country — as is becoming the rallying cry for those who want change— is no panacea for repairing the infrastructure either.

After all, they have been trying since the early 1990s. A core theme of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign was the need to address the country's infrastructure deficit. He wanted to make America more competitive. Instead, he eventually caved to Republican opposition — and instead tackled welfare reform (which Republicans very much liked).

Conclusion

Unless things change markedly, Americans will wake up soon enough and realize that, despite several decades of economic boom, they have little to show for in terms of modernized infrastructure.

Will they then wish they lived in China?

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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