Things Fall Apart

The January-February issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine features an excellent cover article by editor James Fallow weighing the question of whether America has entered a period of terminal decline. On the one hand, he suggests that the nation’s crucial comparative advantages, above all an unparalleled system of research universities and openness to talented immigrants from around the world, remain strong. He also believes that the U.S. can respond to challenges such as job losses, military threats, and globalization. Where he is far more pessimistic concerns the country’s rigid and unresponsive political system.  He writes:

What I have been calling “going to hell” really means a failure to adapt: increasing difficulty in focusing on issues beyond the immediate news cycle, and an increasing gap between the real challenges and opportunities of the time and our attention, resources, and best efforts.

One of the prime examples he quotes of the apparent inability to acknowledge and respond to pressing issues involves the declining state of  the nation’s physical infrastructure. It’s worth quoting him at length:

The American Society of Civil Engineers prepares a “report card” on the state of America’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, etc. In the latest version, the overall “GPA” for the United States was D, and the cost of bringing all systems up to adequacy was estimated at $2.2 trillion over the next five years, or twice as much as is now budgeted by all levels of government. In 1988, the comparable study gave an overall grade of C, with many items getting B’s. Now, the very highest grade was for solid-waste systems, at C+, or “mediocre.” Roads, dams, hazardous-waste systems, school buildings, and public drinking water all received a D or D–. The average dam in the United States is 50 years old. “More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” according to the latest report. Improving existing bridges would cost about $17 billion per year, or about twice as much as currently budgeted. Worn-out water systems leak away 20 gallons of fresh water per day for every American; replacing systems that are nearing the end of their useful life would cost $11 billion more annually than all levels of government now plan to spend. “Engineers don’t usually put things dramatically, but the alarm about infrastructure is real,” Stephen Flynn, of the Center for National Policy, told me. “Our forebears invested billions in these systems when they were relatively much poorer than we are. We won’t even pay to maintain them for our own use, let alone have anything to pass to our grandchildren.”

The decline of our public infrastructure – the roads and bridges, sewage systems, school buildings, etc. – threatens not just our material well-being, but our public health and security as well. As Fallows notes, the deterioration of our public structures stems from our growing unwillingness to raise the public dollars needed for basic maintenance and upkeep.  Whether we succeed in preserving a stable and functioning society hinges on if our political system proves able and willing to make the hard choices needed to pay for ongoing investment in our public structures.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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