The best deep-think piece I’ve read about the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis comes from Michael O’Hare at The Reality-Based Community. First off, horrific as it was, it may not be as important in politics or engineering or economic terms as we’d think:
“Bridges almost never fail suddenly and by themselves; I can only find two such examples in the last twenty-five years. Usually they fail from events like earthquakes, floods, barge collisions, gas tankers catching fire under them, and such, or partly and slowly enough to close them before people or trains go in the drink. So while we should obviously do a good post-mortem on the pieces and history of this one to learn what we can, we will probably not find out how to avoid a lot of social cost in the future. There’s just not much payoff in having less of something that almost never happens. That said, there may be real payoff in designing for more extreme events when we change our probabilities of their occurrence: if we’re going to have more floods from global warming, we should spend more on bridge footings; as we come to recognize the seismic risk in Memphis and Boston, we crank up the building code. But any design conditions omit events so rare they aren’t worth building for.”
I’m personally sympathetic to the idea that we’re not spending enough tax money on infrastructure maintenance and repair, but O’Hare is too smart to simply use a handy, spectacular disaster to flog that horse.
“One really egregious example of bad inference from this event is its effect on Minnesota Republicans’ views about taxes; they are suddenly willing to increase gas taxes to pay for bridges and highways. The collapse may have illustrated what’s really at risk, or focused attention, but the infrastructure of Minnesota is no more dangerous this week than it was last month, and the failure added no real information to the previous stock by which that danger, and thus the net benefit of collecting and spending public money to reduce it, might be estimated. What we have learned is that Minnesota has a governor so stupid and stingy and ideological that he counts the shelf of engineering reports and data available before the accident less than this single extremely rare occurrence. That’s simply a humiliation of Minnesota voters. The job of a governor is to be ahead of the nightly news and on top of opportunities to invest resources for a good payoff, and to appoint a Secretary of Transportation who keeps him hip to stuff that isn’t in the news yet, not to be running around after CNN stories break saying ‘how was I supposed to know?’. ‘Less taxes!’ is neither a moral principle nor a form of thought, it’s just cynical laziness and deliberate ignorance.”
And it remains cynical, lazy, and ignorant — not to mention ungrammatical! — when a Democrat like Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich runs on it.