Outlook Rebuttal: America Still Can Do
Let us concede that John McQuaid's provocative (and, to judge from the reader reaction, very popular) commentary in Sunday's Outlook section, "The Can't Do Nation," might very well be true. We obviously have serious infrastructure problems. The situation in Iraq is a tragic fiasco. The Katrina aftermath has been a disgrace. The Minneapolis bridge collapse shocked us all. But are we really, as McQuaid declares so boldly, a country that "can't tie its own shoelaces"?
I won't tell you that his argument is flimsy, since if we started raising rhetorical standards around here to levels above flimsy I'd be out of a job by my next coffee break. But let's just say that if his article were a bridge, I wouldn't drive across it.
In keeping with the honorable tradition of Trend Journalism, McQuaid's article is a festival of anecdotes, assertions, and frenetic arm waving. The article is unburdened by hard data. The evidentiary database is a bunch of news clippings about various events scattered across time and space. I'm not so sure they deserve to be duct-taped together and used to support a dramatic thesis on the core competency of a nation of 300 million people. His central point -- that this country is going to hell in a handbasket -- seems as rigorously supported as Lou Dobbs's next off-the-cuff harrumph.
Here's my suspicion about our transformation into the Can't Do Nation: The opposite is true. I suspect that, broadly speaking, we remain not only a Can Do Nation, but a nation that does many things a lot better than it used to.
The real problem (and perhaps this is really what McQuaid is saying) is that we have become, in many instances, a Won't Do Nation. We want the benefits of a modern transportation infrastructure, for example, but we won't pay for it. Our leaders would rather cut taxes than make sure we've got enough money to repair bridges.
And the biggest problem of all is that in recent years, thanks to the hubris of some of our leaders, we became the Shouldn't Have Done Nation. There's a huge difference between being the Can't Do Nation and the Shouldna Done Nation.
Let's go through some of McQuaid's points:
1."It has been clear for a while that our aging national infrastructure network -- bridges, roads, dams, levees -- isn't standing up well to intensifying levels of stress." Question: Is our infrastructure actually worse than it used to be? Say, is it worse than it was in 1967 when the aging, decrepit Silver Bridge over the Ohio River at Gallipolis collapsed and killed 46 people? Maybe our infrastructure is standing up about as well as could be expected, given that we've failed to spend enough money to repair it and instead built anti-missile defense systems that cost tens of billions of dollars. Is this a case of a "Can't Do Nation," or just one that has its priorities mixed up?
2. "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." And most of our bridges don't fall down. In fact, the percentage of bridges rated structurally deficient has declined slightly in recent years. The American economy has tripled in size in the last two decades and, for all its problems (income inequality, hedge fund mania, fiscal foolishness, environmental calamities, job losses due to outsourcing, you name it) it is hardly feeble. The estimated annual GDP for 2007 is $13.2 trillion. That compares to $810 billion when the Minneapolis bridge was built in 1967. Someone out there must still know how to tie shoelaces.
3. "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." Maybe we can get an actual historian to post a comment and answer this very interesting question. But just off the top of my head, I'm guessing that the 1850s, the 1930s and the 1970s would give the current decade a run for its money. And I'll wager that you could have written a real barn-burner of a "Can't Do Nation" story in August of 1814 when the British marched into Washington and burned down the Capitol and the White House; or during the Panic of 1837; or in the summer of 1979, when the president himself declared that our nation was suffering a crisis of confidence.
4. "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."
Really? Vietnam was a smaller-scale problem? What about Watergate, when we discovered that criminals ran the country? What about those lovely days in the 1970s when people waited for hours in gas
lines and unemployment and inflation and interest rates were all through the roof?
5. "Consider our most important national project, the attempt to build a new Iraq. An audit earlier this year by the special inspector general for Iraq found that seven of the eight U.S. construction projects it surveyed -- including the generators at Baghdad's airport and a medical-waste incinerator and water-purification system in an Erbil maternity hospital -- were either broken down, not operating or otherwise substandard. A few months ago, the kitchen staff started cooking at a newly built base for guards watching the U.S. Embassy compound now being built. According to Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post: 'Some appliances did not work. Workers began to get electric shocks. Then a burning smell enveloped the kitchen as the wiring began to melt.' These sound like vaguely comic footnotes to the Iraq debacle. They're not. Our principal goals in Iraq -- building a new political system and defeating an insurgency -- are terribly hard jobs. But can't we even hook up stoves for our own guards without something blowing up?"
I wouldn't criticize anyone working in a war zone even if a kitchen stove went thermonuclear and did a China Syndrome number down through the crust of the earth. The serious incompetency can be found in this hemisphere, in the nation's capital.
6. "What 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."
Yes, Gingrich does say that, because he's almost certainly running for president as a self-styled Agent of Change. The "Can't Do Nation" concept is right out of his playbook, as he apparently thinks that many government functions should be privatized. Here's what he said earlier this week: "The fact is that there's a real parallel between the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis and the collapse of the levees in New Orleans: Bureaucratic government does not work. It is collapsing all around you."
Gingrich loves the bold, sweeping statement, and he knows that no one in his audience is going to speak up on behalf of "bureaucratic government." But is the bureaucracy really in some kind of competency free-fall? Should we really rush to hand all authority in this country to the people who run Exxon-Mobil and Archer Daniels Midland and so forth? Beware the overly glib politician, even if some of his riffs are pretty good. Here's more Gingrich: "UPS trucks 15 million packages a day. A UPS truck has more computing power than Apollo 13. FedEx tracks 8 million packages a day. That's the world that works. Here's the world that fails, the federal government. The United States government today cannot find between 12 million and 20 million illegal immigrants when they're sitting still. So just take those two comparisons. My answer, frankly, as a policy proposal is we spend a couple hundred million dollars, send a package to every illegal immigrant."
7. "Meanwhile, a much quieter revolution was brewing: The federal government outsourced more and more of its functions to private contractors, a shift driven partly by the free-market ideology of the Reagan era and partly by necessity. There were now too many tasks for agencies to do by themselves. ... Here's the rub: Outsourcing eliminates incentives to perform well and shields contractors from accountability." This is an important issue and McQuaid should be applauded for bringing it to people's attention, even if just for a few sentences. But it's not clear that outsourcing has anything to do with most of the main Can't Do examples in McQuaid's article (though I think it may have played a key role in the Walter Reed fiasco).
8. "Can-do America can come back if we can again assemble our national willpower, technical expertise and vision. It will take a while to do so. We should get started." Agreed! I like the positive ending. Assemble national willpower? Can do!
Let me close with a thought from my colleague Joel Garreau, from an article last year in Smithsonian magazine on the demographic destiny of America:
"Whenever you start thinking that this country is screwed up beyond redemption, it pays to travel beyond our borders. It's amazing how often the not-so-wonderful realities that we think of as terrible problems constitute other people's dreams."
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