Thursday, August 30, 2007

Don't Look Back

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that for New Orleans was avoidable. I've written about Katrina and New Orleans before. The levees in New Orleans were known to be substandard. This country did nothing. Eventually, the inevitable happened; the levees failed.

In Washington D.C. and Minnesota, politicians are still pointing fingers about the collapse of a bridge across the Mississippi River this year. Like New Orleans and Katrina, the Minnesota disaster was completely avoidable. The bridge, like many bridges on US highways, had known problems. Nothing was done.

It's tempting in these cases to blame government. How can it be that a country so rich and powerful has a thirld-world approach to maintaining its infrastructure? It's tempting to simply charge our nation's governmental bodies, both state and federal, with incompetence.

But I don't think that's quite accurate. I think that something else is responsible. It isn't government per se. It's public attitudes about what's important. This country doesn't do maintenance well because ultimately the public doesn't think that maintenance is that important.

Every nation has its own quirks and ethos. And one thing that defines this country is that it's always looking forward. Our country's motto could well be the saying coined by the major league pitcher Satchel Paige: don't look back because someone may be gaining on you.

We don't look back. We love the new. We wait in line to buy the latest, greatest cell phone even though our old one worked perfectly fine. We buy the newest thin TVs because they look cool (even though their picture quality is actually inferior to the old style tube TVs). And what do we do with the old perfectly decent stuff? We throw it in the dump.

Even the way we treat our elderly is governed by an ethos that is always looking forward. We throw our old and infirmed in the dump as well. We don't call them dumps. We call them rest homes. I invite anyone to visit a few rest homes and not walk away depressed by the shabby care our elderly receive.

We are doing the same with New Orleans right now. It's an old city with a poor economic base. In response to the levee failures, this nation has essentially abandoned the city. We are doing little to bring it back to life.

Our inability to look back does come with economic advantages. A forward looking nation will tend to want to not only buy the latest and greatest stuff, but also to create it. When it comes to goods and services, we are as a nation incredibly innovative. That innovation allows us to be a worldwide economic powerhouse.

But it does have its drawbacks and they include more than our shameful treatment of the elderly and our abandonment of New Orleans. It means that when it comes to maintaining our old things we don't do a particularly good job. We let our levees, bridges and roads decay. We're too busy looking forward to spend time, money and energy on infrastructure that's decades old. It's there already. We focus on building the new.

Our attitude toward our infrastructure can be summed up in an old phrase: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. We wait until failure happens. Then we stop looking forward for a little bit to make repairs. It isn't pretty to watch us behave so irresponsibly. But I would argue that it's built into our ethos. It's not government that's to blame for failing bridges and levees. It's us.

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