Losing Our Edge on Our Own Home Turf

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

Somehow, we thought government would just run, without oversight.

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,

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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