In A bridge falling into the water and a vision for the future gone missing, Laura Clawson points out that the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge on Interstate 5 is symptomatic of a deeper, systematic problem in America today. Public construction spending as a share of GDP is the lowest it's been in decades. And as The Huffington Post reports, more than 700 bridges in Washington State alone are in worse shape than the one that collapsed.
This is a symptom of the slow-motion collapse of American civilization. What is happening to our society is much like watching a rotting log gradually crumbling into dust.
In his epic Middle Eastern history novel The Source, James Michener had a chapter near the end called "Twilight of an Empire," about the decline of the Ottoman Empire because of corrupt and ineffectual government. Political officials had given up hope for positive change, and an elaborate system of bribery prevented most legislation or public works from moving forward. As one government leader said to his protege:
"What we must do is permit no change and hope that things work out for the best." At that moment his desk was heavy with petitions covering matters of health, schools... and an ingenious plan for clearing the harbor of silt, but during his remaining tenure none would be moved forward.
Could there be a more accurate description of our political situation today?
History moves in cycles, and I think most early 21st century Americans can feel in their gut that this country is on the downslope of its historical trajectory. The question is, can we turn it around, or is it too late? Will American civilization as we know it cease to exist, much like the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago?
One thing is for sure: Our government is fundamentally broken. An honest description of the current normative functioning (or lack thereof) of the U.S. Congress would go something like this:
Every year, one party demands and succeeds in cutting government spending and preventing spending on new projects through two mechanisms:
1. Threats to refuse to raise the "debt ceiling," which would cause America to default on its debt and crash the world economy.
2. The "silent filibuster" in the Senate, in which a 60% supermajority is always required to pass any bill or even to debate it.
The filibuster also prevents many appointees to courts and government agencies from being confirmed, leading to an ongoing, increasing vacancy rate and inability for executive and judicial institutions to function.
Legislation that does pass the Congress is usually drafted by lobbyists for corporations and the wealthy, ensuring that their private interests rather than the public interest is protected. Lobbyists have this power because they provide most of the funds for the reelection campaigns of elected officials. In return for their cooperation in this system, politicians are typically hired by lobbying firms and given generous compensation packages upon leaving elected office.
Under this system of government in which we are now living -- a system of institutionalized inaction and bribery in all but name -- spending the necessary funds to repair America's crumbling roads and bridges is considered an extravagant luxury that our country cannot afford. Bridges, plural. Remember this from a few years ago:
Iconic of the state of American civilization in general? "Too expensive... let it rot." "Too difficult to have a functioning government... let it do nothing."
I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2007
Infrastructure and institutions of a once proud nation, dwindling away into embarrassment and farce. Our leaders no longer care about providing the American people with even basic public goods that can be relied upon. So we -- supposedly the greatest country in the world -- let roads and bridges in major American cities collapse
Schools, libraries, parks, advanced weather forecasting, and other features of great modern civilizations? Forget about it! All being cut to the bone.
So few jobs being created that labor force participation is the lowest since 1979 and food stamp eligibility is the highest ever? Who cares! It sure isn't the government's responsibility to do anything about unemployment, right? -- the reaction from America's politicians on this score is as deafening as John Cage's infamous symphony of silence.
Even spending money on disaster relief for American cities destroyed by a hurricane or a tornado is no longer an automatic thing, but instead a political football. Our politicians are so tight, the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge would be proud.
It used to be that America put men on the moon.
We have become a society deeply in decline. And for anyone who is proud to be an American, it is sickening to watch it unfold.
The only question that remains is this: Will the American people rise up, with renewed pride in what their country once was and could be again, and demand better of its leaders?
UPDATE: Community Spotlight and top of the Rec List. Thank you, DKos community. I'm honored!