Roger Bybee

All Along the Mississippi

Small Government, Giant Disasters

From one end of the Mississippi to the other -- from the washing away of the levees in New Orleans to the collapse of I-35 in Minneapolis -- the results of starving the public sector's vital functions are becoming apparent.

First, governments have been deprived of the revenues that they need to conduct critical work like maintaining bridges, roads, and parks. (In Milwaukee, the decline of the once-prized park system -- the legacy of our early Socialist mayors' commitment to public green space for all citizens -- is shameful, as ballparks are becoming overgrown (with some implanted with toxic fertilizer), water fountains removed, bathrooms closed and supervisory staff, vital to preventing the parks from becoming overrun by gangs and driving out families, eliminated. Yet County Executive Scott Walker remains intransigent about opposing a tiny 1% sales tax.)

More and more of the remaining resources go to the war in Iraq and the prison-industrial complex. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take $9.4 billion a year over the next 20 years -- a sizable sum -- to restore our bridges to stable and safe condition. But meanwhile, the US occupation of Iraq is consuming at least $8 billion each month.

Further, at both the state and federal levels, corporations and the wealthy have jettisoned their share of the tax burden. In Wisconsin, for example, 62% of corporations with more than $100 million in revenues pay zero in state income taxes -- including such giants as Johnson Controls, Kohl's Department Stores and SC Johnson. Bush tax cuts for those earning $1 million or more have enjoyed tax breaks of about $93,000 a year, while major corporations like the drug companies continue to shield their huge profits from taxes by stashing them in offshore tax havens.

Second, the horrific tragedy in Minneapolis, like the aftermath of Katrina, has triggered a round of deceptive statements by public officials denying any neglect of vital infrastructure. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has been maintaining that his administration did the equivalent of a "heckuva job" in monitoring the state's bridges.

Pawlenty insisted that inspections in 2005 and 2006 had found no structural problems with the bridge. But the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the bridge "was rated as 'structurally deficient' two years ago and possibly in need of replacement." The bridge was borderline -- with a 50 sufficiency rating; if a bridge scores less than 50, it needs to be replaced.

According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the bridge's suspension system was supposed to receive extra attention with inspections every two years, but the last one had been performed in 2003. The governor had every reason to obfuscate; in 2005, he vetoed a bipartisan transportation package that would have "put more than $8 billion into highways, city and county roads, and transit over the next decade." At the time, he was applauded by many Republicans for his staunch fiscal "conservatism." (See "Are the Dead From the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Victims of Conservative Ideology?" by Joshua Holland,, Aug. 3.)

But Minnesota has not been alone in its systematic unwillingness to confront the need to protect the infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimated in 2005 that 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation's 590,750 bridge inventory, were rated "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete."

However, the ruling ideology of this age among political elites is still the philosophy articulated by conservative strategist (and close pal of convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff) Grover Norquist: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Of course, before government is completely drowned, Norquist and his allies in the corporate world are spewing anti-government rhetoric while simultaneously soaking the taxpayer for huge subsidies, tax breaks, low-cost mineral rights and a host of other government-provided goodies.

That leaves very little money left over for building levees that will resist hurricanes, staffing a competent and professional FEMA or re-constructing our sagging bridges.

But the situation will not change until Democrats re-frame the debate and insist that government can competently and compassionately help ordinary Americans. (It does not help, to say the least, when a prominent liberal Democrat like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) defends the privileged tax status of earnings from hedge funds that flow to multi-millionaires and billionaires.) When Democrats echo Norquist's "no tax increase" message, they only reinforce the current paralysis over rebuilding New Orleans and our bridges, and tie their own hands if and when the Democrats achieve power.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activist with a blog at Email


From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2007

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