On Things Collapsing

The recent collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore was profoundly dramatic. It struck a chord because something similar happened in Tampa in 1980. Ships are big and always getting bigger. And this bridge was a bit older and not made with today’s state-of-the-art design and technology.

How did it happen? Was it a freak accident? The poisoned fruit of affirmative action? Sabotage or terrorism? I have no idea, and we may not know for a while.

I do know that if the truth threatens some chestnut of politically correct conventional wisdom, it will be hidden in a footnote, if it is allowed to be released at all. Planes have crashed and ships have crashed into other ships, and the possible influence of affirmative action and lower standards was never really explored in any depth, even though it appeared to be a contributing factor. The powers-that-be seem to think we can take people with one or more standard deviations lower general intelligence and obtain the same result in technically demanding fields like aviation, seamanship, medicine, and engineering.

In Baltimore, the captain or pilot apparently sounded the alarm, permitting the police to save many lives by closing off the bridge to traffic. This was the good news part of the story. But I am more concerned about the timeline for the bridge’s replacement. There are reports that it will take at least ten years.

The original was built in five.

Sclerotic Nation

We went from biplanes to jet fighters in 20 years. Then we went from jet fighters to men in space in another 20. But repeating yesteryear’s technological achievements like building skyscrapers, dams, bridges, railroads, and the like is apparently going to take longer and cost more than it did in years, if it is even able to be repeated.

Hoover Dam took five years to build. The Empire State Building only took 13 months. But a bridge across Baltimore’s Harbor in the year of our Lord 2024 will take twice as long as America’s participation in World War II.

When we think of the concept of “Making America Great Again” and what diminishes that greatness today, the slow pace of progress and the lack of tangible symbols of success loom large. In the recent past, ordinary people could see all around them testaments to American ingenuity and enterprise. This included the construction of the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, Mt. Rushmore, and later, the World Trade Center, the Sears Tower, and the St. Louis Arch.

People from every economic station could enjoy clean and gleaming cities and safe public spaces. What monument exists to justify the trillions of dollars added to the national debt over the last two decades? Nothing memorable other than the tripling of our health insurance premiums and the debasement of our currency.

The closest we have to an impressive structure is the belated construction of the Freedom Tower in New York following the 9/11 attacks, but even this was preceded by a decade of seeing the idle and gaping footprints of the destroyed twin towers.

There has similarly been no major victory over a disease, foreign enemy, or persistent domestic problem like drug addiction in my lifetime. The one apparent victory—Operation Warp Speed, which gave us the MRNA vaccines for COVID-19—may prove to be a chimera, driving health problems for years to come. Big Pharma’s contributions to our common life are a mixed bag at best.

Government Used to Do More With Less

The absence of large public achievements surely stems from the different incentives facing the private and public sectors. Impressive and fast changes are still happening in the private sector, whether it is the chip technology behind iPhones, artificial intelligence, or other developments in science and medicine. But the public sector was not always so impoverished.

The Manhattan Project was a government program, as were the Apollo mission and the Hoover Dam. These impressive projects were completed and probably could not have happened without the government’s marshalling of resources, talent, and funds. But the window of big government achievements was short-lived.

You can see the first hints of this decline in public architecture. Once upon a time, every county, even rural ones, boasted a beautiful courthouse. In smaller cities and towns, churches were ornate and sturdy, as were schools and banks and libraries and train stations. But after World War II, public spaces became more utilitarian and ugly. The brutalist architecture of the time neither encouraged respect nor stewardship. In many cases, the old and beautiful buildings were knocked down to make way for uglier replacements.

The indifference to other values besides the bottom line reflected the values of the cosmopolitan ruling class: they were here to make a buck, and they would just as easily wind up in London, Tokyo, or Paris if an opportunity arose.

They were not merely cosmopolitan; they were alienated. They treated the emerging proletarian class like cogs in a machine rather than as fellow citizens, depriving them first of their pensions and then of small comforts like beauty and elegance in their homes and workspaces. The emerging postwar managerial class was not animated by the spirit of noblesse oblige or rooted in the soil. They were passing through, seeking individual fortune, more so than public honor.

Wealth, Luxury, and Corruption

Perhaps this is the result of an inevitable cycle of civilizational growth and decline. We would not be the first civilization to go from an early period of uncontainable energy, initiative, and daring—American characteristics from, say, 1776-1976—which led to security, affluence, and a bona fide empire. But affluence contains within it the seeds of self-destruction. In the words of Sir John Grubb in his excellent essay The Fate of Empires, “There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people.”

When people are not striving for public honor and adventure but are more intent on enjoying and prolonging luxury, the desire to take risks plummets. A languid, feminine energy predominates. We see this in individuals and nations alike.

Even within private corporations, as they mature, the visionary entrepreneurs and problem-solving engineers are often corralled and gelded by the human resources department, a terrible innovation arising from the minefield of litigation risk for employment discrimination. In practice, human resources tends to accrue power to itself and stifle creativity and excellence.

These dual concerns for safety and fairness seem to be the chief cause of the current lethargy in every field, particularly public works and infrastructure. These priorities create countless opportunities for an army of consultants, lawyers, lobbyists, busybodies, and complainers to gum up the works of any large public project. We extend the power of a veto to the timid and the litigious, and everyone just accepts this as the way things are.

California has apparently been unable to build a rail line for 20 years. Our defense sector takes forever to field simple weapon systems like armored cars. And, when a bridge gets knocked down, we learn the replacement will take twice as long to build and cost more than its predecessor. This is a broken system where projects get lost in a warren of rules, regulations, administrative hearings, impact studies, and rent-seeking.

This is not a uniquely American problem. In every advanced industrial country, there are similar stories of never-ending public works, like high speed rail in Japan and the massively delayed and overbudget Berlin Airport. These countries too have gone from nations of innovators, inventors, and dreamers into welfare cases and cowards.

There is, of course, a notable absence of such delay in places like China, where authoritarian governments can ignore public opinion. But, even without such authoritarianism, the United States once stood apart from its European peers because we lacked the extensive bureaucracy, stultifying rules, and timidity that defined the rest of the industrialized world.

We were bolder, faster, more reckless, and accomplished more than our peers. We broke the sound barrier and put a man on the moon. We built big flashy cars with fins and thumbed our noses at effete European critics. Sure, there were setbacks. Occasionally, a spaceship blew up or a bridge collapsed. But we were more manly about such things, accepting them as the price of progress.

This is not just a question of regulations, technology, or safety. The America of the mid-20th century was a nation of Americans with a distinct culture and character. That character has been suppressed since the 1960s by the accretion of millions of newcomers, from whom very little is asked in the way of assimilation, augmented by the relentless pressure of a verifiably anti-American education system.

The result is a very different America than the one that put a man on the moon. Today, we are risk-averse, slow, rule-bound, self-critical, and weak. Changing the rules won’t happen until we restore our collapsing national character. And that is a much larger and more difficult project than what goes into the federal budget or repairing a bridge.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: TOPSHOT - The steel frame of the Francis Scott Key Bridge sits on top of a container ship after the bridge collapsed, Baltimore, Maryland, on March 26, 2024. The bridge collapsed early March 26 after being struck by the Singapore-flagged Dali container ship, sending multiple vehicles and people plunging into the frigid harbor below. There was no immediate confirmation of the cause of the disaster, but Baltimore's Police Commissioner Richard Worley said there was "no indication" of terrorism. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP) (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)