Failing infrastructure

John Podhoretz is right: The most fundamental job of government is to maintain our shared infrastructure. When that infrastructure fails us — when steam pipes explode, bridges collapse, and cities are paralyzed by nothing more than rain (as today in New York), government has failed us. Podhoretz wrote this before New York fell apart from minor flooding:

To maintain public safety, we have armies (to defend us from external threats), police forces (to protect us from criminals) and firefighters. That’s part of the reason we pay taxes to government in the first place.

The other part is to keep up publicly shared spaces and utilities – parks, streets, reservoirs, water tunnels, sewage tunnels and the like.

Government properly requires all citizens to share in defraying the cost of these expenses because it supplies them to everyone without question.

The social compact here is simple: We give the money to government, and all we ask in return is that these publicly shared responsibilities and resources are properly maintained.

Maintenance is necessary but boring, and since government is made up of human beings who abhor boredom, few elected officials or high-level managers are all that interested in this mundane task. Instead, they want to do big, exciting, bold new things – things they can claim for their own.

Now, not surprisingly, Podhoretz goes on to begin a two-paragraph treatise on the size and scope of government. We can debate that all day long. But no one should debate the fundamental job of government in maintaining our infrastructure — and the failure of that.

New York and New Jersey today were brought to a halt because of some rain. Yes, it was a lot of rain in a short time. But every damned time we get a lot of rain, the same damned things happen. And we just let them happen. Streets and subways flood. Why hasn’t government built drains? Why haven’t we insisted?

It took me four hours to get into New York City today — that was New Jersey’s fault — but when I got there, the subways were closed and the riders were kept uninformed and the transit system did nothing to help them (except abuse people who wanted to get onto buses). Government failed. It failed at the fallen bridge. It failed a few weeks earlier when a New York street exploded. It fails every day there is an air-traffic-control mess. It failed today.

We need to demand that government get to the boring job of government.

  • http://greg.abstrakt,ch Gregor J. Rothfuss

    They spend all their money on the unions at the MTA.

  • http://www.oliverwillis.com/ Oliver Willis

    You’d almost think that Podhoretz didn’t belong to a political movement that thought the best way forward was to drown government in a bathtub.

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society robertdfeinman

    If you want to know where the money goes look at this pie chart:

    http://www.warresisters.org/piechart.htm

  • Eric Jaffa

    “In this case, a bridge collapsed during rush hour for no external reason other than it just gave out.” -Podhoretz

    Actually, tons of construction material were on the bridge at the time of the collapse.

    “Maybe that’s why the attack on government faded so quickly after the tragedy last week – because this isn’t just a failure of government. It’s a failure of the citizenry – of all of us.” -Podhoretz

    As far as I’ve seen, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) didn’t retract her statement that spending on the Iraq War instead of infrastructure caused the collapes, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) didn’t retract his statement that Congressional pork guiding transportation spending caused the collapse.

    Their words may have “faded” to John Podhoretz in the sense that he shrugs their words off, but not by a more objective measure.

  • http://roborant.info Rob

    >It failed at the fallen bridge.

    A lot of people are going to feel pretty silly if this turns out not to be true. The fact is, we just don’t know yet. It may turn out that maintennance was faulty, but it could have been a design flaw, a materials flaw or some other unforseen problem.

    The only reason we have to blame government at this point is that it’s the conventional narrative deployed by the news media. They require each event to have a neat, tidy cause. Since no cause was apparent for this event, they invented the most plausible one they could think of. Generally speaking, they get it wrong (Katrina comes to mind here).

    When the real answer comes, probably a year or more from now, it will likely turn out that several factors came together to cause the accident. Some of those factors may relate to government and others may not.

    My guess is that we’ll see that the design was adequate, but lacking in some unforeseen way. Those extra tons of building materials on the bridge probably didn’t help. Maybe the inspection process wasn’t adequate and maybe the inspectors weren’t listened to enough. There could even be exotic reasons, such as peculiar vibrations from the resurfacing equipment that was being used.

    Never, never let journalists inform you about engineering matters. Engineering is hard, journalists are simple.

  • http://deleted Tansley – addendum

    RobertdFeinman’s pie chart is a perfect example of where the current government’s priorities lie: with the military/industrial complex, in whom likely most politicos are heavily invested in their stock portfolios as well.

    That is not to say that the infrastructure problem at the Minneapolis/St. Paul bridge was a direct result of negligence…but it WAS reported that an opportunity for passing financing on maintaining/upgrading same bridge was presented in the recent past and the governor was quoted, after vetoing said legislation, as either asking if or saying that the legislature was ‘crazy’ to be proposing such a thing. Said governor now doing a 180 on his former stance on the issue (surprise, surprise…) I’ve no idea on which side of the aisle his political allegience lies, but I DO wonder where the money that might have saved that bridge, actually ended up going. In this instance, news reporting did its job properly and has given us past information in a very useful current context.

    Fixing the infrastructure of this country, Jeff, is merely the tip of the iceberg, as you can probably guess. We have a healthcare system that is dysfunctional, a government that has gone from being a victim of terrorists to having rogue nation status abroad, a widening gulf between the rich and the poor, a middle class being squeezed into oblivion, deregulated industries running roughshod over the consumer, emergency relief bureaus that have trouble scraping up sufficient supplies of anything to effect adequate repairs even years after natural disasters have occurred, regulatory agencies that look the other way on enforcement when the right people slip them the requisite payola…

    Almost makes me wonder if the Mexican authorities are going to have to start enforcing the border with greater vigilance when AMERICANS start sneaking across to get down there…

  • http://www.projectredstripe.com Mike Seery

    Hey – at least there’s something good in Jeff’s story for us Brits. When London comes to a halt because of (choose one) {rain|a flurry of snow|the heat} the whole media is up in arms about how our infrastructure can’t handle minor weather events, even when predicted. nWe now realise that we’re not alone!

    The fact is that there is a cost for preparing for extraordinary events and sometimes (I’m not making a judgement on the NY issue) it doesn’t make economic sense to spend money to alleviate the effects of something that doesn’t happen that often.

    Similar calculations are used when designing in safety features on transport systems. On the assumption that it would cost an infinite amount to prevent all fatalities, a cost has to be placed on a human life and a judgement made on wheter a level of expenditure is justified in preventing what may be a very rare occurrence.

    However, incompetence is another matter….

  • Kathleen Pavelko

    When a political party with contempt for government is in power, it is to that party’s benefit when government fails…the failure can then be ascribed to “government” and not to the party in power.

    The Founders believed that their greatest creation was the system of government they bequeathed to us–because of that system’s unique power to serve and protect its citizens.

    The Founders would be appalled to know that their proudest legacy is viewed with contempt by the Republican Party.