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The Tragic Consequences Of Abandoning The Common Good

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?



  • 1 jd2718
    · Aug 7, 2007 at 8:09 pm

    While I don’t disagree, and while bridges may be more dramatic, I would like to use what happened to also talk about mass transportation and public schools.

    Think of 32 years ago in this City: the Beame shuffle and systematic disinvestment from mass transportation, schools (and bridges and roadways).

    This is not new. But where New Orleans and buses and urban schools don’t necessarily hold America’s attention, this bridge might.


  • 2 phyllis c. murray
    · Aug 8, 2007 at 6:40 am

    Are our nation’s public schools also “structurally deficient”?

    “The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige their work justifies. We squander funds on highways and the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the over abundance of overkill armaments, but we pauperized education.” From Martin Luther King’s Speech UFT Spring Conference 1964

    But, how is education pauperized ,today?

    January 30, 2007- “Just last week, 300 New Orleans school children were shut out of schools and denied an education they badly need because the city says it doesn’t have enough space or teachers. So, instead of studying in classrooms, 300 students are sitting at home waiting for space to open up in schools.” James Parks AFL-CIO Weblog

    February 2007- “The first district is New Orleans, where the Bush US Department of Education and the Louisiana governor used the devastation caused by Katrina as an opportunity to dismantle the public school system. Like everything else that the Bush administration has done in post-Katrina New Orleans, the result was a manmade catastrophe on top of the natural disaster.” Leo Casey, Edwize-UFT

    It is inconceivable to think that there are children in this great nation who are missing out on an education. And if something is not done very soon, history will repeat itself.

    History teaches us that the students of Prince Edward County were denied the benefits of a public education in Prince Edward County from 1959 – 1964. For five years the public schools were closed . Hence, the black students who remained in Prince Edward County were not afforded the benefits of any formal education. have been variously dubbed “the lost generation” and “the crippled generation” by reporters and researchers studying the long-term effects of educational deprivation.” Bagly-Longwood College-Virginia

    How are funds squandered on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, today?

    It is ironic that the bridge which collapsed in Minneapolis caused a cancellation of a ground breaking ceremony for a new baseball stadium. Furthermore there is a proposal for another stadium under consideration on the University of Minnesota’s campus estimated at $288 million. It is reported that this stadium would be funded with private and corporate contributions, as well as funds from the state of Minnesota.

    How do we squander funds “on the over abundance of overkill armaments” today?

    Case in point, the war in Iraq: “If we can spend 10 billion dollars on an unnecessary war, we can feed the minds of our kids.” said Congressman Charles Rangel, Chair of the Ways and Means Committee.”We cannot survive by losing one half of the brain power.”

    Therefore, I believe a basic education should not be a dream deferred but a dream realized. Our public schools must become structurally sufficient. Our public schools can no longer afford to produce youth who,like former slaves, are “partially educated sufficient to make their work efficient, but insufficient to raise them to equality.” Martin Luther King 1964 .

    And finally, I believe it is necessary for all United States legislators who ran on a platform of educational equity and access must be summoned back to the legislature to map out a plan to get all disenfranchised students back in school. The bridges to nowhere can wait. Surely, the education of all children must be a national priority and not another national tragedy.

    Phyllis C. Murray