Sunday, February 1, 2009

America: Collapsing Like the Roman Empire?

Anderson Cooper asked recently whether America is collapsing like the final days of the Roman Empire. Most Americans would probably disagree. But the parallels are great. We have become an economic disaster. We're are broke with a crumbling infrastructure and fighting endless wars. And just like the Roman Empire are borders are unsecured and being overrun. This article is a rallying cry not an obituary:

COOPER: Well, as you all remember, there was a lot of talk during the campaign about fixing our infrastructure, but today a reminder that the government needs to do more than just talk. In a report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, America's infrastructure earned the barely passing grade of D. From failing bridges to leaky water mains, the country's infrastructure is in such bad repair, the report estimates it's going to take five years and $2.2 trillion to fix it.

Tom Foreman tonight is "Keeping them Honest."


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Anderson, Americans have witnessed dramatic infrastructure failures in recent years. It sounds boring, but it's really not. Think about the levee collapses in New Orleans during Katrina, all those lives lost, billions of dollars in damage done down there.

Think about what happened up in Minneapolis when that bridge fell down during rush hour; 13 people killed in 2007, a major commuter road shut down, as well. And then just a few weeks ago, here in Washington, D.C. -- nobody killed -- but a water main broke just outside of town and turned a road into river in seconds. Civil engineers have long warned of a tidal wave of these infrastructure problems. Barack Obama talked about it on the campaign trail too.

OBAMA: We can rebuild our electricity grid, put people back to work right now, rebuilding our infrastructure. Right now repairing and rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our schools. If we can spend $10 billion a month in Iraq, we can spend $10 billion here in the United States of America.

FOREMAN: The latest report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers is stark. Out of 15 systems we use every day for transportation, drinking water, garbage disposal, the highest grade was a C plus for the way we're managing solid waste, the vast majority as you can see got D's. Some particular points of worry, bridges out there: one in four structurally deficient or obsolete. Four thousand dams are considered in need of some kind of attention. Almost half high hazards because they could flood communities downstream.


FOREMAN: And almost incredibly, think about this, the report found that we're losing seven billion gallons of clean drinking water every day through leaky pipes, public schools, parks, airports, railways, roads, and so much more since the last report card in 2005. The Society says almost all have grown worse and the cost of fixing them has only gone higher -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Tom, thanks.

The costs are not just financial, congested highways, fragile power grids, second-rate ports. Experts say that not only makes us less productive as a nation, it leaves us more vulnerable to terrorists. We're literally rotting from within. At $2.2 trillion or whatever the price tag almost triple President Obama's current economic stimulus package. The question is can we afford to fix it?

Let's dig deeper with Stephen Flynn, author of the book "Edge of Disaster" and a frequent guest on our program. This is not a sexy topic. It doesn't grab anyone in, but it's a national security issue.

STEPHEN FLYNN, AUTHOR "EDGE OF DISASTER": Well, it really is fundamentally one in that when our competitiveness is at stake, our safety and quality of life is at stake, but also our national security. The more brittle we are the more soft targets we essentially are. We get a three-for by investing in infrastructure: better economy, better quality of life, we actually improve our security. COOPER: And everyone sort of thinks -- I mean, I was surprised David Gergen said I think five percent of this thing is being spent on this kind of road building infrastructure. Everyone thinks the stimulus is really all about rebuilding this infrastructure in a massive way. It's really not yet.

FLYN: It's a very small down payment on what we really need to do. The big crisis we really haven't have talked about -- obviously the president in this campaign trail highlighted it. And it's been the first time in almost 30 years we started talking about our failing infrastructure. And I said we're like a generation who has inherited our grandparents' mansion and we decided to not do the upkeep anymore. Everybody's thinking it's a nice house but the wiring's gone to heck and the plumbing has gone bad. And not investing in it is a bit like not changing your oil on your car because you think it's a hassle and a little expensive.

COOPER: And both Democrats and Republicans haven't been doing this. I mean, this is not one...

FLYNN: Well, right now the debate in Washington is really almost the same old debate. It's simplistic to say it's just about jobs. There's no question this is an investment in our economy, and jobs over the long run will be produced by investing in this.

At the same time, this whole "this is robbing the taxpayer of his honest dollars." Well, you need infrastructure to be in an advanced society. Our grandparents and great-grandparents bequeathed to us the greatest legacy in terms of infrastructure since the Roman Empire. But this report today reads just like something that's going on in the eve of the collapse of the Roman Empire.

COOPER: The problem -- I read you said something that this is like in the last days of the Roman Empire. This is the kind of report card they would have gotten, which is a terrifying thought. In terms of how the money is being spent, though, it seems like we're kind of just throwing the money at the states and letting the states decide what the priorities are for their infrastructure. Is that the way it should be done?

FLYNN: Well, in the near term, moving money quickly, there are a lot of projects the states have got cleared because they got the environmental impact done. They're in the works but they ran out of cash. So getting cash into them probably makes sense as a Band-Aid.

But the real challenge, Anderson, we're not looking at the nation's infrastructure as a nation. It's a patchwork quilt, basically, of local projects. Some bridges are more important than others. Today we learned, yet again, 150,000 bridges in bad shape. There's probably a hundred of them more important than the other 150,000 that you don't have done. So where are they? We don't have a system in this country to even do this analysis. They pointed out levees...

COOPER: On a national level, we don't have a system?

FLYNN: There's nowhere you can say where are the top 100 bridges that are most broken...

COOPER: Really?

FLYNN: ... that we need to fix. Because historically, the federal government hasn't played that role; it's the states and governors that do it. So the solution going forward is that one of the things that certainly the president can do to get out ahead of this problem is to put together a bipartisan commission, get the input from the states, and prioritize with the expertise we have in this country, like the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Academy of Science. We have shovel-ready expertise in the citizens in this country, the universities and so forth. We can do this.

The thing that is amazing is that we somehow decided that we can't afford to maintain an infrastructure that our forebears built with their sweat, with their equity, with their inventiveness, and not investing in it costs us a lot of money.