The shameful state of the union

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of the union — not President Obama’s recent speech, but the actual state of the country.

I’m talking about its infrastructure: bridges, sewage systems, electrical grids and other boring things no one cares to think about. These are not hot-button political issues, but they’re in dire need of attention, upgrades and repairs.

Our country is literally crumbling beneath our feet while thousands of Americans are in need of jobs, and all we can do is scream at each other over our rights to keep an AR-15 in the closet.

Half a century ago, in his State of the Union address, John Kennedy stood before a strong, modernized nation and a people gleaming with potential. He informed them that their country was poised to send a group of human beings to the moon.

Today, the fraction of the U.S. federal budget allocated to all of NASA’s activities is only a half of 1 percent. Is that how we thank our country’s most brilliant minds for putting us on top?

We were doing so well, truly setting an example for the rest of the planet. But now, only a few decades later, Obama took to the podium to tell America that its infrastructure is failing.

Power a rocket to the moon? We can’t even keep the lights on in a football stadium.

Arguably the most publicized and scrutinized media event of the year, the Super Bowl was a tremendous embarrassment. That shameful incident let the entire world know that we’re hurting, we’re weak, we’re outdated and we’re vulnerable. It’s no secret that our nation’s power is failing.

According to the Laborers’ International Union of North America, “26 percent of all bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. A third of major roads are in mediocre or poor condition and 36 percent of major urban highways are stretched beyond capacity. Each day, 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water is lost to leaking pipes. The American Society of Civil Engineers predicts we will lose $1 trillion in business sales, $324 billion in exports and one million jobs annually by 2020 if we don’t act.”

Bill Richardson, former energy secretary in the Clinton administration, says that America is “a superpower with a third-world grid.”

So let’s recap: We’ve got an economy circling the drain, a dilapidating framework, and thousands of Americans aching for jobs?

I would call the situation hopeless, except that it sounds so familiar — we’ve faced the same problems in the past.

The New Deal and the Works Progress Administration employed more than 8.5 million people and sparked America’s golden age of capitalism. It was the Americans who launched the Marshall Plan and plucked Europe out of its war-torn, antiquated state after World War II.

Our country has plenty of experience with these issues, so why are we playing dumb? Why has it taken us so long to notice the state of the union today?

The stakes are high, but opportunity is ripe. If the president plays his cards right and truly acts on the recent infrastructure repair projects he has proposed, he could become our next Roosevelt. The conditions are prime for Obama to make a name for himself, but if he doesn’t turn us around soon, we could sink past the point of no return.

Reach the columnist at jwadler@asu.edu or follow him at @MrJakeWAdler

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