What the Bridge Collapse Really Means


8-18-07, 10:57 am

The recent collapse of the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota should awaken many Americans to a reality few of us are prepared to face: It's not just the transportation infrastructure of the United States that is crumbling; it's the infrastructure of America that is crumbling, and with it, the middle class.

Public works in this country stand little chance of operating in the best interest of the majority, especially if our economic, transportation and environmental infrastructures are left to the limited devices of a so-called 'free market' in which the most powerful actors favor profit over functionality, safety, and justice. Unprecedented tax cuts to the wealthy and dramatic decreases in public spending cripple the basic infrastructures – notice the plural – of this country, causing them to fall far behind much of the rest of the industrialized world.

With the rise of the 'credit card Republicans,' a term coined by Minneapolis radio host Mark Heaney, we have seen government investment in the public sector take a steady dive, relative to population growth. There is a negative relationship here: As taxes on the wealthiest Americans go down, up go the costs to other Americans of maintaining the public structures upon which the country depends. Those 'other' Americans are the ever-shrinking middle class and the working poor who pay disproportionately higher taxes as a percentage of income. We have all heard about the various infrastructure 'report cards' issued from watchdog organizations- none of which have issued anything higher than a C+ since 2001. (Note that the C+ was for solid waste). According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, our 'total investment needs' equal $1.6 trillion. Keep in mind; this does not include the much needed investment in sustainable energy systems, arguably the most efficient method of achieving independence from foreign oil and true national security.

The 35W Bridge should also remind us of another time in history; the Great Depression. The 1930s will always stand as a reminder of what happens when we allow the market to run wild without curbing its natural tendency to create a monopoly of capital in the hands of the few while stripping wealth from most. The cause of the stock market crash on March 29, 1929 – known as 'Black Tuesday' – will forever be disputed, depending upon one's opinion of the role of government in economics. Regardless, one thing is proved true: the quickest way out of an economic disaster is investment in the public sector or the creation of jobs.

The Mayor of New York in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression was Fiorello H. LaGuardia. He instituted one of the largest public works programs in the history of the country in order to create tens of thousands of jobs and pull New York City up by its proverbial bootstraps. Although he was a Republican, LaGuardia was not afraid to utilize what many have called the 'social-democratic compromise.'

When will we finally learn that treating our infrastructure(s) as nothing more than a widget, to be sold to the highest bidder, is inefficient? If America was continuously engaging public works all along bridges would not be collapsing, pipes would not be bursting, roads would not be caving, and we would not be the world's worst polluting country.

Well-respected social theorist Michael Harrington once pointed out, 'It is instructive to look at the five countries least affected by the crisis that began in the seventies. Sweden, Norway, Austria, Japan, and Switzerland had relatively low rates of unemployment and inflation.' Simply put, their basic infrastructures – including education and health care – were not dependent upon market performance, making it tremendously easier to absorb the impact of the oil crisis and other economic downturns associated with the seventies. Furthermore, it is also instructive to point out that an OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) study in 1985 examining the performance of the world's advanced capitalist societies, found that there is 'no relationship between the size of the public sector and economic performance.'

Minnesota has long been a state that proudly displays a high standard of living, one of the best public education systems in the nation, and a very diverse culture. It has produced such internationally recognized influential leaders as Paul Wellstone, Hubert Humphrey, and Walter Mondale. It is also the home of – love them or hate them – sixteen Fortune 500 companies like 3M, Target, and Best Buy. However, in recent years the altruistic nature of the prairie seems to have been co-opted by the corporate elites, much like the rest of the country.

The collapse of the 35W Bridge is a rude awakening to a simple fact: we must change the way we look at America and how we fund its basic infrastructures. Let's stop making the same mistake we made throughout history, and invest our way out of the various holes we have dug for ourselves. Let the rebuilding of this bridge symbolize the rebuilding of an America that does not suffer from the tyrannical rule of the bottom line. --Christopher Robin Cox is a professional grassroots organizer and jazz trombonist, playing with the Saint Paul-based political hip hop group Junkyard Empire. He has a degree in Political Science from Sonoma State University, where he was a key researcher, writer, and public speaker for the internationally recognized media watchdog group Project Censored.

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