Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Reveals Nation's Skewed Priorities
The bridge collapse in Minneapolis was a human tragedy and an engineering calamity. But it shouldn't surprise anybody. It is a case study of what happens when a nation gets its priorities wrong.Over the past six years, the US has spent trillions of dollars funneling tax breaks to the rich, paying interest on the national debt, and invading other nations in wars of choice. Empirically, those have been our national priorities.
Meanwhile, we have neglected the physical platform - the roads, bridges, dams, rail systems, etc. - on which the entire economy operates. If we continue this way, the larger collapse will be of the economy itself. As with the Minneapolis bridge, it will not be a matter "whether," but of "when."
In 2001, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a "Report Card on the Nation's Infrastructure." The study examined the state of the nation's public improvements. Its conclusions were alarming.
Overall, the report gave the nation's infrastructure a grade of "D plus." Twenty seven percent of our bridges were rated "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete." Our energy systems were graded "D". Drinking water and waste water systems rated "D minus," more worthy of a third world country than the richest nation in the world.
These are the systems that the private economy rests on, runs on, relies on to carry out all of the nation's business. As they decay, everything in the economy is dragged down with them.
According to the ASCE, the cost to repair these public assets, to bring the entire nation's infrastructure up to first-world status, was $1.6 trillion over five years.
But nothing was done. Maintenance expenditures on the nation's electricity distribution grid have decreased by 1% a year. Billions of gallons of untreated sewerage are released into the public waterways each year, yet Congress cut spending on water systems in 2005 for the first time in eight years.
The list goes on and on so that the 2005 report downgraded the system further, to an overall "D." We're going the wrong way.
Meanwhile, what did we do with the nation's wealth? First, we gave almost a trillion dollars to those who were already the richest people in the world.
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, 38% of George Bush's $1.9 trillion in tax cuts have gone to the top 1% of income earners - those making at least $1.65 million per year. A full 48%, almost half, went to the top 5% of income earners with annual incomes of a least $277,000 per year.
Maybe the trouble with our nation really is that the super-rich don't have enough and that everybody else has too much. With bridges falling down during rush hour in major American cities and with more to come, it's a question we ought to be asking.
Second, we've spent more than $2 trillion in the past six years just paying interest on the national debt. More than two thirds of that total debt came from Republican tax cuts for the super-rich. And the vast majority of the interest payments on that self-same debt go to - you guessed it - the same super-rich.
In other words, in addition to showering the wealthiest citizens with $1 trillion in tax cuts over the past six years, we've also graced them with $2 trillion in interest payments for the money they've loaned us to cover the deficits caused by those tax cuts. It's nice work if you can get it.
What else have we done with the nation's wealth?
We will soon have spent $1 trillion on the war in Iraq and $2 trillion before it is over, according to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. We now know that the justifications for the war - that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, that it was involved in 9/11, that it had ties to Al Qaeda - were all false.
Maybe the trouble with our nation really is that we aren't spending money enough invading other countries under false pretenses. That's what our actual spending suggests. It's a question we need to ask.
Infrastructure is absolutely essential to the entire economy. It's like oil in the engine of your car: you can postpone maintenance for a while but eventually it catches up with you. And it always costs more to fix it after the fact. Our problem is that we've chosen other priorities.
We've chosen to pillage the nation's infrastructure so we could transfer trillions of dollars of the nation's wealth to a handful of glutted Republican campaign contributors. We've elected to invade a country that posed no threat while sloughing off the foundation on which the entire economy operates.
Stating these truths is not "class warfare" as Republicans are so anxious to allege. These are empirical statements, the "money where your mouth is" reality of taxes, budgets, and spending under a Republican administration.
The Minneapolis bridge collapse is a canary in our economic mine shaft, a wake up call to re-examine these priorities before it is too late. If not, the next collapse - not "whether" but "when" - will be far more damaging.
Robert Freeman writes about economics, history, and education. He can be reached at email@example.com.