Opinion Columns & Blogs

Gravitas vs. gravity

I don't know who's the greater ninny, syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell or Gov. Mark Sanford, but their respective responses to the collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minnesota provide examples of why neither can be taken seriously.

In his column last week, Sowell attributed the bridge's failure to the federal government's having wasted money on less important projects, particularly golf courses!

No serious person would argue that "government" never spends more than necessary. You can look to FEMA's Katrina relief efforts or boondoggles in Iraq to see billions in misspent dollars. Nevertheless, it's simplistic to imply such misused funds could have been used to prevent a bridge from falling into the Mississippi. Those arguments make good fodder for talk radio but are counterproductive when they divert attention from serious matters such as bridge safety.

More than 73,500 bridges in America have been rated "structurally deficient," a classification shared by the ill-fated bridge in Minneapolis. The estimated cost of replacing them exceeds $1 trillion.

And while politicians vociferously proclaim commitment to traffic safety, the crisis didn't surface last week. The news media for years have carried stories about bridge disasters in-waiting. South Carolina alone has a backlog of more than $1.5 billion in highway or bridge repairs.

If a bridge has been declared "structurally deficient" but restrictions aren't placed on the number or weight of vehicles crossing it, who's to blame: Highway engineers or politicians who refuse to be honest with voters about what it will cost to fix the problem?

Clearly, every state wants to reassure motorists that its bridges are safe, but those assurances must be backed up with concrete and steel -- not just rhetoric.

What's not helpful is for pundits such as Sowell to insinuate that the I-35W bridge wouldn't have collapsed if taxes hadn't been squandered on golf courses. Like Ronald Reagan's tale about the Cadillac-driving welfare mother, such images are intended to inflame voter opinion. They often bear little relation to reality; worse, their purpose is to distract the public from painful truths.

Sowell engages in the same intellectual dishonesty other pseudo-conservative commentators have spewed for years, i.e., that money collected by government equates to waste; therefore, until government gets its act together, taxes should be cut, not raised. Some advocate "starving the beast" of revenues, glibly claiming the private sector somehow magically will supply critical public services.

That Sowell believes the solution to America's crumbling infrastructure is to harangue government is mildly irritating; that South Carolina's chief executive believes such nonsense is frightening.

When asked whether he would support an increase in state gasoline taxes to help replace the Palmetto State's deficient bridges, Sanford said he would endorse a higher gas tax only if proceeds were devoted to cutting income taxes!

What? Where's the logic in that equation? Bridges are in danger of collapse, so we raise gasoline taxes to give more tax cuts for the wealthy? Does he think Lexuses float?

In Sanford's mind, of course, cutting taxes is the answer to every problem, from low-achieving schools to lack of adequate health care. Like his soul mate Sowell, the governor is a glib, articulate spokesman for a philosophy that seeks to slander spending for the greater public good. As such, they lack substance.

"Gravitas," an aura of seriousness, shares the same root as "gravity." Lightweight politicians can project gravitas; bridges must obey the law of gravity. Therein lies a critical difference.

Sanford can rant about government waste, but, at the end of the day, the governor is responsible for ensuring public safety. If he lacks authority to fix bridges in this state, then he should climb into the bully pulpit and raise hell until the General Assembly and the S.C. Department of Transportation do so.

As lame as Thomas Sowell's ideas may be, they won't kill anyone. When politicians are derelict in their duty, people might die.

Mark Sanford upset a lot of folks when he recently vetoed a bill that would have made it illegal for small children to operate ATVs. Given his political philosophy, there's probably no truth to the rumor he'll back legislation to require motorists on South Carolina highways to wear life jackets.