This week’s collapse of the Minneapolis bridge was an immense human tragedy. In grieving the loss of human life, it is essential that we not lose sight of that which compounds the tragedy of this moment: the collapse of the bridge was entirely avoidable, and the loss of human life was completely unnecessary. There simply is no good reason why a major bridge, used by thousands of people daily, should collapse in 21st century America. If we are to prevent its recurrence, we need to understand why it happened.
There is no question that part of the cause of this tragedy lies in flawed inspections. But it would be a serious mistake to conclude that the explanation ends there. Inspections of the bridge done years ago rated it “structurally deficienct,” at 50% of what it should be. Even if its imminent collapse was not properly forecast, there was ample warning that it was seriously in need of remedial repair. Why was that warning not heeded?
As today’s New York Times editorial and Minnesota commentator Nick Coleman noted, and as Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak stated on Friday’s PBS Newshour, the answer lies in the systematic disinvestment in public works that has been a feature of much of American government for the last quarter century. Democratic government has two primary ends — the guarantee of individual rights and the promotion of the common good. The second of these two ends has fallen victim to a mad rush to lower taxes and to dismantle and privatize the agencies of government which have as their purpose the welfare of us all, the public square. Our national infrastructure is crumbling around us because we have sacrificed the goods we hold in common, again and again, on the altar of private gain.
On occasion, this abandonment of the common good results directly in harm. That was the case in Minneapolis, as it was in New Orleans two years ago. It was not Katrina itself that destroyed much of New Orleans, but the failure of the levies — a man-made disaster that had long been predicted and long been ignored. Lives were lost in both cases as a direct consequence of policies that have abandoned the common good.
On an even more massive scale, lives have been harmed by such policies. When the time came to reconstruct New Orleans, the very same elected officials and bodies that had failed in their responsibility to protect the city have left barren and desolate the neighborhoods where poor African-Americans lived. Public services are virtually non-existent in those areas. Rather than rebuild the city’s public schools, they embarked on widespread privatization. The schools of last resort left under the jurisdiction of the state-run Recovery School District remain in poor repair and without such elementary tools as textbooks — two years after Katrina. The children in those schools are having their futures destroyed, as surely as those who died when the levies broke.
And the elected officials who have promoted these policies refuse all responsibility for their consequences. How long will Americans allow such a dereliction of duty to continue?