It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Mundane Problems Festering

The news from Minneapolis sheds a disturbing light on the chances of a positive contribution from America to our unprecedented new problems.

Minneapolis suffered a perfect storm of nightmares Wednesday evening, as anyone who couldn't sleep last night can tell you. Including the parents who clench their jaws and tighten their hands on the wheel every time they drive a carload of strapped-in kids across a steep chasm or a rushing river. Don't panic, you tell yourself. The people in charge of this know what they are doing. They make sure that the bridges stay standing. And if there were a problem, they would tell us. Wouldn't they?

What if they didn't?

The death bridge was "structurally deficient," we now learn, and had a rating of just 50 percent, the threshold for replacement. But no one appears to have erred on the side of public safety. The errors were all the other way.

Would you drive your kids or let your spouse drive over a bridge that had a sign saying, "CAUTION: Fifty-Percent Bridge Ahead"?

Apparently between tax cuts, subsidies to people who don't need subsidies, and random military interventions, we apparently aren't able to keep up with perfectly ordinary problems.

The type of problem that is easiest to treat negligently is the type of problem where very bad things happen at some time in the future but nobody complains until then. Falling bridges, collapsing levees, failing ice sheets.

My fellow Texans, left and right, are so unimpressed by politics that they all trust in individual action. Such ideas are misplaced.

A dramatic increase in the competence of the public sector is urgently needed.

No matter how well-intentioned you personally are you can't replace a dam, a bridge or a levee on your own, never mind the West Antarctic freaking Ice Sheet, which, in case you didn't know, is about six times the size of Texas.


EliRabett said...

The surprise is that this did not happen often earlier. The situation with bridges and underpasses has been clear for fifteen to twenty years.

Dano said...

Well, AASHTO didn't frame their message properly. NPR tonite made a point about most folks not knowing our infrastructure is in cr*ppy shape.

Seriously, it's far, far easier to build a new arterial along the shopping center and out to the new, shiny McSuburb than it is to raise taxes to repair the bridge you cross on the way to work.

What's the wager that taxes won't get raised to get close to AASHTO recommendations until 3-4 more bridges collapse/levees fail/steam pipes explode/NG pipeline burns for days?



David Duff said...

Not for the first time, I don't quite follow your logic. Here we have a structure paid and maintained by government and it falls down. You are suggesting that therefor you need *more* government-run projects!

Michael Tobis said...

David, um, yeah...

Roofers put the roof on my house, and now it is leaking, so I want to have more roofers to keep it in good repair. Is that so odd?

Apparently your position is that since roofs eventually fail we should never have roofs. Frankly I have trouble seeing any sense in that position.

Anyway I didn't say "more" government I said "more competent" government. This question of more vs. less is typical market-fetish sleight-of-hand.

Neither "more" or "less" precludes "better", and all indications I know, almost without exception, indicate that we in the US need much, much better government than any established political party has been able to provide.

David, your "to hell with all roofers" attitude is increasingly common, of course. It's very unfortunate. The prevalence of that attitude is exactly the root cause of the failure of the I-35-W bridge in Minnesota, of the collapse of New Orleans, and of many similar foreseeable problems in the future.

David Duff said...

Ah yes, more competent government, the heartfelt cry through the ages. Alas and alack for it, it ain't gonna' happen - at least, not soon! Why? Because in government no-one's job depends on the outcome and even in the most extreme of cases when an official is forced to take early retirement he or she does so with a handsome pay-off and a full pension. It is amazing, and a credit to many government employees that the equivalent of more bridges falling down doesn't occur.