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The Can't-Do Nation

Levee engineering may sound like a specialized issue, but what went wrong in New Orleans was a product of broad trends in our politics. In the postwar era, many of the nation's ambitious projects, such as the Marshall Plan and the Interstate Highway System, came to be seen as self-evidently beneficial. But as our infrastructure and economy matured, these projects gave way to new tasks that were increasingly complicated and disputed. Suddenly, the United States was pouring money and resources into protecting the environment, exploring space and curing disease, among other things. Some new programs worked well (Medicare) and others didn't (welfare, levees). Meanwhile, many older projects still had to be maintained and upgraded -- a difficult, politically unglamorous but vital task, as the Minnesota bridge disaster reminds us.

In a sense, big government has failed. The bitter disputes over the Great Society-era programs fractured the nation's rough political consensus, and the purpose of government itself became a battleground. The ongoing political knife fights cumulatively damaged the government agencies that depend on some insulation from the fray -- which is to say, most of them. In the case of the New Orleans levee system, for instance, pressures from state and local agencies and limited money from Congress pushed engineers to relax safety standards and err on the side of cheapness.

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. As Paul C. Light of New York University has shown, the "federal government" we all know -- the superstructure of agencies and federal employees -- has shrunk while its actual size, including contract and grant employees and projects, is larger than ever.

Here's the rub: Outsourcing eliminates incentives to perform well and shields contractors from accountability.

You don't hear a lot from the presidential candidates about how to fix some of these endemic problems. Democrats want to create new programs such as universal health care. But if the structure of government itself is fraying, can you erect major new programs on top of it? On the Republican side, Rudolph W. Giuliani recently suggested that we stop replacing retiring federal workers and see what happens. But this is no time to dismantle something that's already in a state of serious disrepair.

The 21st century's problems -- climate change, jihadist terrorism, the dislocations of globalization -- are complex. But they are manageable. Can-do America can come back if we can again assemble our national will, power, technical expertise and vision. It will take a while to do so. We should get started.

John McQuaid is the co-author of "Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms" and a Katrina Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute.

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