A 40-year-old bridge collapses into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Levees give way in New Orleans at the foot of the Mississippi. An 83-year-old steam pipe produces an eruption that terrorizes Manhattan. As our infrastructure literally crumbles beneath our feet, America is building the largest embassy compound in the world in Iraq -- an area larger than the Pentagon -- to manage a war now estimated to cost $1 trillion.
What happened at both ends of the Mississippi and is happening in cities across the country are tragedies, but they aren't random accidents. They are the direct price of the right wing in power. Scornful of government, intent on cutting taxes and slashing spending, they systematically have shorted public investment in our basic infrastructure -- in bridges and roads, in rail lines and air systems, in parks and schools.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America a D for its infrastructure in their most recent report in 2005. Ironically, bridges did better -- a grade C -- than sewers, water treatment and a range of other areas. In the report, more than one out of every four bridges in America were rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Don't think about that when you drive over your next bridge.
For over 25 years, we've cheated on public investment. ''Government,'' Ronald Reagan preached, ''is not the solution. Government is the problem.'' Activists like Grover Norquist took this to the extreme, saying, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can . . . drown it in the bathtub.''
Norquist and his allies have bullied Republicans into signing a pledge never to raise taxes. In Minnesota, the conservative governor, Tim Pawlenty, campaigned against taxes and vetoed an appropriation bill that would have provided increased funds for highway and bridge repairs. Interstate 35's Bridge 9340, rated structurally deficit by the U.S. Department of Transportation, had repairs on it postponed for a year.
One trillion dollars squandered in the debacle in Iraq. A clamp on vital investments here at home. Those are the stated priorities of modern-day conservatives -- a far remove from those of President Dwight Eisenhower, who built the interstate highway system while putting a lid on military spending and balancing the budget. Ike knew that infrastructure was important; military adventurism was dangerous and fiscal balance was common sense. Modern-day conservatives have abandoned every part of his lessons.
Of course, conservatives will deny that they are responsible for the crumbling of America. In the Republican debate in Iowa, every leading Republican presidential contender called for staying in Iraq and opposed increasing taxes on the wealthy even as they admitted the need to invest in our infrastructure. They are peddling fantasies to a people in desperate need of the truth.
As Minneapolis showed, disdain for public investment can be deadly. It also snuffs out hope. Our schools are old and crowded. There simply isn't the space to provide rising enrollments with the smaller classes that are so necessary for the early years. We should be making schools modern sanctuaries for children, demonstrating how important we take their education to be. Instead, we send them into drafty and dank buildings, with broken windows, outmoded heating systems and crowded classrooms. That is the first lesson they learn.
No one should be fooled. Those who choose to spend $11 billion a month in Iraq while shorting vital investments here at home aren't securing America; they are weakening it.
© 2007 The Chicago Sun Times