James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

More likely fallout from the bridge

There are more likely consequences of the Hwy. I35W bridge collapse than those that occurred to me and about which I wrote in the essay immediately below.

The far right is out to milk every possible political gain from that terrible event and the death and pain it brought. They're doing it even as their loyal and unthinking subjects flood newspapers with letters attacking those who “play the blame game,” and “seek political gain at a time when we should be coming together.”

Frank Hornstein, my able state representative, read the piece below and politely thanked me for my analysis. He also pointed out something that I had missed: Both George Bush and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have been yammering since the bridge fell about “streamlining the regulatory process” and “cutting red tape” to get a replacement bridge built.

What that means in Neoconspeak, Hornstein noted, is “throwing out very important labor and environmental regulations, as well as promoting privatization.”

Like me, Hornstein also is concerned that the upcoming special session of the Minnesota Legislature will see another Republican right attack on public transit based on the false claim that we can't afford both transit and safe roads and bridges.

He is right on all counts.

What we need, Hornstein said in his note, is “a mass mobilization to demand that transit investments be part of any comprehensive transportation package.”

In other words, friends, take a few minutes here and there to telephone, write, email your state representatives and senators – and your members of Congress, for that matter – and make them understand that we demand transit as part of the total package. Do it now, and do it again when the Legislature is in special session.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Infrastructure funding: abridged too far

The collapse of that Hwy. I35W bridge across the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis could have, and should have, big-time consequences, but I have yet to see any mention of what may be the most significant of the likely long-term outcomes.

They involve further cuts to programs and systems necessary to the well-being of most citizens -- not, as you might expect, improvements.

For now, of course, there is a Greek chorus chanting about how we must not talk about blame, nor outcomes; we must simply honor the losses of those who were directly affected by the terrible event.

It's not difficult to understand such feelings, particularly in Minnesota, where people do tend to rush to the aid of others in times of emergency – even if they are among those who ignore pedestrians in crosswalks and run red lights at other times – but it should be noted that the loudest of those condemning “the blame game,” are those on the right whose favorite politicians deserve to be in career-ending trouble over this mess.

Those who cry “Don't bring politics into it,” are the same people who most surely were figuring a way to cover their sorry asses within 10 minutes of hearing of the tragedy.

Politics is in it, has to be in it, because it is the political and social views of a powerful minority in our society that got us into the mess we're in now with a rapidly failing infrastructure.

It is their political maneuvering that is likely to trade on the Minneapolis bridge collapse to lead us further down the road toward the ruination of American democracy, along with America's roads, bridges, dams, transit, communications, air travel, utilities and other systems.

They are the same people who created the circumstances under which our bridge, or some other bridge, or a dam, or an airplane, simply had to fall down.

The Star Tribune's Nick Coleman is the only commentator, local or national, I've seen to address that fact head on, and he obviously has been taking considerable heat from the “Don't talk blame” phonies. Unfortunately, Coleman is like others with public platforms who have yet to recognize the worst of the likely consequences.

Here's what we're almost sure to see when the talk has died down and the network and cable news crews have gone back east:

First, the promised federal funding to rebuilding the Minneapolis I35 bridge will come through – though maybe not as promptly nor as adequately as promised under the scrutiny of television cameras.

But not too far down the road, the White House and its sycophants in Congress will begin a push to “privatize” more of our infrastructure. The argument, bolstered by millions of dollars worth of propaganda provided by industry, will be that government simply can't afford to maintain public highways and major bridges at a safe and efficient level. Our collapsed bridge will be cited as proof of that claim.

Therefore – ahem – we should sell those bridges and roads and suchlike burdens at very low prices to corporations that are courageously offering to take them off our hands and run them as toll roads and bridges.

The propaganda will not mention – nor will most of the undertrained scribes who pass themselves off as journalists these days – that the tolls, in providing enormous profits for the corporations, will cost us far more, in perpetuity, than would the taxes to bring our infrastructure up to acceptable levels.

Neither will there be any notice of the fact that by turning roads and bridges and other public assets into businesses, the rich, the corporate elite, get a permanent protection against paying their fair share of taxes. The poor and middle class tax rate will, in effect, rise, however, because tolls will, in the long run, cost us more than adequate taxes.

I know this is coming, because the push began long before the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, though it's still largely under the public radar -- and anyone who knows anything about news, selling and marketing knows that those who seek to turn the entire country over to profiteers simply cannot let such an opportunity pass.

Second, dead certain, outcome:

There will be a strong effort to pull money away from public transportation, especially light rail transit, to fund some repairs to roads and bridges.

This is an opportunity the right will not miss. Despite occasional claims to the contrary, they despise public transit; they don't use it, they have a deeply emotional fear of being “forced” from their cars onto trains and buses with the great unwashed, they mostly live in burbs which public transportation doesn't effectively reach, and some major funders of right wing politicians, notably executives of the oil and auto industries, are enraged by efforts to increase use of public transportation.

Third certain outcome:

Both the Republicans in Washington and Minnesota's neocon governor, his department heads and the right wing extremists who still hold many seats in our state legislature, will block every move to start repairing our crumbling infrastructure that doesn't include “practical measures” to “keep spending within reasonable limits.”

What that means, bluntly, is further cuts to virtually every state service that aids the poor, children, elderly citizens, anyone who now relies on state aid for survival at some level.

It also means further cuts in funding for education at all levels – a favorite target of those right wingers through the years they controlled the legislature – and for aid to cities. If the right wins this battle, the burden of paying for such already tragically sagging services as police and fire departments will be shifted further to property taxes and away from income taxes, which have been cut substantially for the state's richest residents.

They have a good chance of winning, given the usual weak-willed, feeble responses of Democrats to such attacks on the public good.

As widely reported in the past week, almost 600,000 road bridges in the United States are classified as “deficient” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. But as the coverage of the Minneapolis mess dies down, we'll start to be told, over and over, that “deficient” really doesn't mean dangerous until a bridge actually falls down.

Not so widely reported, but still out there, is the fact that one third of our country's dams are rated as “hazardous.” I won't take the space to list examples, but if you want an idea of what that can and at some unknown point will mean here, Google “failed dams” or “dam collapses” or some such.

It's possible we'll see a move to sell our publicly owned dams, too.

Another disaster that will (not just “may”) occur at any time is a major airline crash, or two or three.

There have been numerous reports on the disastrous state of our air traffic control system – overworked and undertrained controllers, grossly outdated computer systems and more. If it isn't completely overhauled, soon and, yes, at great expense, the crashes are coming. Should we somehow avoid that for another year or two or three, it will be only because of heroic efforts on the part of the remaining competent controllers -- who are bailing out at a fearsome rate, by the way.

The anti-government, anti-tax right is responsible for all of these messes. Our president, our mad vice president, the right wing nutters in Congress, are as responsible for the deaths and maimings that have occurred and that will occur in result of neglect of our infrastructure just as surely at they are responsible for the horrors in Iraq.

Our governor and his sponsors, the Minnesota Taxpayers League, and their servants in the legislature are responsible for all sorts of human pain because of their program cuts. We have fewer cops on city streets because of them, more kids are going without medical care because of them, more young people are unable to afford college because of them, and so much more.

At the moment, talking about the bridge, they're singing a different dirge, but it's an act. Any course changing they're doing is only minor, and temporary.

Our governor, Tim Pawlenty, slavish servant of the Taxpayers League, is playing statesman at the moment, in the most obvious and phony way possible.

At first he lied blatantly, proclaiming that 2005 and 2006 bridge inspections showed that there were “no structural defects” in the I35 bridge. He backed down quickly on that after being caught.

He ordered inspection of all bridges in the state, with immediate attention to a handful that are of the same type as the one that went down. He is being sympathetic to the people who were hurt and the families of those who were killed or injured. He is pledging quick replacement for the bridge, and generally doing a good job of following the politicians' script for such events.


Carol Molnau, Pawlenty's lieutenant governor, whom he also appointed as commissioner of the state's Department of Transportation, is firmly and repeatedly proclaiming that despite the thousands of bridges in the state that also are known to be “deficient,” and few of which have repairs or replacement scheduled, her department is doing a fine job.

She insists on that even though the Star Tribune and some national news outfits have reported that the department knowingly rejected recommendations for adding steel plates to reinforce the bridge that went down because, and only because, it was cheaper just to inspect it more often.

She also had her chin jutting out when pushed on the need for further spending now that the true dangers of deteriorating bridges have been exposed.

“We put together a system in this state that addresses the needs that we have within the fiscal restraints we have, as well,” she was quoted as saying by the Strib.

Note: Many of those “fiscal restraints” exist only because of Republican cuts in taxes paid by the rich, and because Pawlenty and the rest of the Republican crew have squeezed spending on infrastructure until there is no juice left.

And then there is Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican senator from semi-rural Lakeville, a still powerful member of the Senate Transportation Committee, who grew visibly angry on Minnesota public television's “Almanac” a couple of days after the bridge collapse when one of the show's hosts tried to get her to admit that much more spending on infrastructure, and bridges in particular, is necessary.

Democrats must give in on a number of Republican demands for cuts in other programs before her party can agree to pay for making bridges safe, she insisted, though she didn't phrase it quite that way.

“Something will get done,” she repeated two or three times, but she wouldn't say what, and she still insisted that the money had to come from elsewhere in the state budget because Republicans will not allow tax increases (or taking back substantial cuts they gave the rich). Fixes in funding of infrastructure repairs “can't happen overnight,” she said, and “We still have to respect the family budget,” which is Republican code for “hold taxes on the rich to a bare minimum.”

Conclusion: The right wingers in the legislature will stall, obfuscate, dig in and refuse to fund even bridge repair, let alone other badly needed infrastructure fixes, unless the Democrats cave in and agree to take the money from the usual places: education, food programs, health care programs and the like.

The only thing that could change that is honest and complete press coverage of every ploy and a resulting public outcry of considerable volume.

Don't hold your breath.


Along with being told to withhold placing blame in situations such as the bridge collapse – generally told by those who are to blame, supported by the naïve – we also usually are reminded that we shouldn't take such things personally. The implication is that all such terrible occasions are, somehow, acts of god or fate.


My wife, stepson and a grandson crossed the I35 bridge in downtown Minneapolis about 11 hours before it fell into the river. I crossed it twice later in the day, the second time almost exactly 90 minutes before it went down.

Friday I met a very talented young man working in a difficult and creative field who crossed it exactly five minutes – five minutes – before it fell.

That bridge collapsed because of neglect, because politicians have refused to raise sufficient tax money and to pay what is necessary to keep our infrastructure safely functioning. Big-money, right wing campaign funders have demanded that, and “liberals” and “centrists” have ignored the situation or folded easily.

It is their fault that bridge went down and people died and others were injured. It will be their fault when the same thing happens elsewhere, just as it is their fault that New Orleans dikes failed, that there was a volcano-like eruption in a New York street recently, that a woman died when a piece of tunnel ceiling fell on her car in Boston, and that several other deadly infrastructure collapses have occurred during the past couple of years. It is their fault that the dangers are increasing daily.

People do make mistakes, and accidents do happen, but all of these things are predictable and, in fact, have been predicted because of the actions of the tax cutting, cost-cutting, government-hating political right.

As anyone who has been on the receiving end of gunfire knows, if someone is shooting in your direction, you take it personally, even if you are not specifically, personally, the intended target.

In the course of doing my job, I've been in such situations three times over the decades. Only once was I specifically the intended victim, but I took it personally each time. “That sonofabitch is trying to kill me,” is what you feel and believe. It is a rational response.

We should all take it personally, and seriously enough to raise hell until we get action.

Those sonsabitches are trying to kill us.