Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Bridge-Collapse Fallout: What Next? What Drives Neglect of Infrastructure? Tax Cuts, Military Spending

[Published in the Des Moines Register (August 12, 2007), Op-Ed page.]

When an illness is left untreated, it is bound to end the life of the ill. The collapse of the Minneapolis bridge was similarly the logical outcome of an illness that was untreated for at least 17 years—the bridge was diagnosed unhealthy in 1990.

Outrageous as the bridge disaster is, it is regrettably not an isolated case. It is indeed something akin to an epidemic. The collapse of the New Orleans levee system, the recent explosion of an underground steam pipe in Manhattan, and a number of similar catastrophes are indications of our neglected public infrastructure.

Why is our public infrastructure neglected? And why despite numerous expert warnings not much has been done to rectify the process of decay?

While it is tempting to blame this official or that authority, the problem seems to go beyond an individual or locality. It is a matter of policy priorities on a national level; policies that have become increasingly “stingy when it comes to spending on public goods but lavish on armaments and war,” as commentator Mathew Rothschild pointed out.

Opponents of non-military public spending have since the early 1980s been using a subtle strategy to cut non-military public spending, to reverse the New Deal and other social safety net programs, and to redistribute national resources in favor of the wealthy. This insidious strategy consists of a combination of drastic increases in military spending coupled with equally drastic tax cuts for the wealthy. As this combination creates large budget deficits, it then forces cuts in non-military public spending to fill the gaps thus created.

One of the major consequences of this strategy has been further concentration of national resources in the hands of the wealthy. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the average after-tax income of the top one percent of the population has nearly tripled since 1980, rising from $314,000 to nearly $868,000. By contrast, the average after-tax income of the poorest fifth of the population rose just 6 percent, or $800, during this period, reaching $14,700 in 2004.

Beyond the issue of class and inequality, allocation of a disproportionately large share of public resources to war and military build up is also steadily undermining the critical national objective of building and/or maintaining public infrastructure. Evidence shows that neglect of public capital formation can undermine the long-term health of an economy in terms of productivity enhancement and sustained growth.

Opportunity costs of war and military spending in terms of forgone public goods are extremely high. The United States will pay about $140 billion of tax payers’ money for the cost of the Iraq War in FY 2007. According to the National Priorities Project, for the same amount of money the following could have been provided: 13,842 new elementary schools, or 39,240,332 people with health care, or 18,882,942 Head Start places for children.

In his Farewell Address to the Nation (January 17, 1961) President Eisenhower prophetically warned against the “acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower’s warning is more relevant today than when it was issued nearly half a century ago.

While the official Pentagon budget for 2008 fiscal year is projected to rise by more than 10 percent, or nearly $50 billion, a total of 141 government programs will be eliminated or sharply reduced to pay for the increase. This means that the fiscal year 2008 military spending would represent 58 cents out of every dollar spent by the U.S. government on discretionary programs: education, health, housing assistance, natural resources and environment, veterans’ benefits, science and space, transportation, training/employment and social services, economic development, and a number of other infrastructural projects.

The tragic collapse of Minneapolis bridge has provided another occasion for politicians to make elaborate speeches and promises. Such promises, however, are bound to remain pie in the sky as long as they are not backed by the dollars required for the treatment of our ailing infrastructure. Under tight budgetary conditions of supply-side tax cuts and escalating military spending, such critically needed funds are hard to come by unless our fiscal priorities are rearranged in a way that part of the skyrocketing military spending is reallocated to non-military public spending, or “peace dividends.”

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Ismael Hossein-zadeh, author of the recently published book, The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism (Palgrave-Macmillan 2007), is a Professor of Economics at Drake University.