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The Can't-Do Nation
Is America Losing Its Knack for Getting Big Things Done?

By John McQuaid
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Even as rescue workers searched for more victims of Wednesday's deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, inspectors were dispatched to eyeball thousands of bridges nationwide, looking for other potential disasters -- of which there are, apparently, many. In a 2005 report, the Federal Highway Administration rated more than 75,000 U.S. bridges, about an eighth of the total, as "structurally deficient."

While we'll learn more about the specific causes of the collapse in coming weeks, 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.

But 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 it's not just bridges. 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. We can't remake the Middle East. We can't protect one of our own cities from a natural disaster or, it seems, rebuild after one. We can't rescue our citizens when they're on TV begging for help. We can't even give our wounded veterans decent medical care.

We're supposed to be an optimistic, problem-solving nation, the country that tamed a vast wilderness, won World War II and the Cold War, put men on the moon, built the Panama Canal and the Hoover Dam. But somehow, can-do America has become a joke, an oxymoron. We've become the can't-do nation, slipping on every banana peel on the global stage. 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.

Even Americans' usually boundless self-confidence has taken a hit. In 2002, a Pew poll showed that 74 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: "As Americans, we can always find a way to solve our problems and get what we want." Five years later, the number has fallen 16 percentage points, to 58 percent. Annual polls taken by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion have found public confidence in the government's ability to respond to terrorist attacks, natural disasters and health crises such as avian flu dropping steadily over the same time frame.

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?

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. Meanwhile, Democrats (and a growing number of Republicans) take a narrower view, blaming the incompetence of the Bush administration. Both of these shorthand explanations capture a slice of what's going on without quite getting to the heart of it.

"Incompetence" usually means bumbling, but the Bush White House's hostility toward the federal bureaucracy has been quite purposeful. The administration has undermined the normal workings of agencies from the CIA to the Environmental Protection Agency, in part because they generate facts and opinions that conflict with political goals. The White House has also seeded the government with appointees chosen for loyalty and ideological affinity, not competence. All of this has taken a toll on agencies' ability to process information, devise sound policies and communicate with the public.

It would be nice to think that a new president could simply undo this damage starting in 2009. But we can't turn back the clock to previous periods of reassuring technocratic competence, such as the Dwight D. Eisenhower or Bill Clinton eras. Even before President Bush took office, the government's ability to undertake ambitious projects -- to build things, to put new programs in place, to innovate -- had begun to erode, and with it, the nation's ability to mobilize to meet emerging problems.

When Hurricane Katrina comes up, most people think first of the disastrous emergency-management response to the storm. But the biggest screw-up wasn't anything that then-FEMA Director Mike Brown did; it was the failure to protect New Orleans in the first place. In the decades before the storm, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a flood-control system for the city that was sloppily designed, haphazardly constructed and failed to consider the obvious fact that the land it was built on was rapidly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Worst of all, agency engineers approved flawed designs that caused canal floodwalls to collapse precipitously -- errors that, when the numbers were tallied, accounted for most of the flooding in 2005.

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.

jmcquaid1@gmail.com

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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