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The Day They Detonated the Golden Gate Bridge (a Social Security Parable)

California trades in a bridge for lots of tiny, poorly constructed motorboats.

Opinions, Chris Hayes, Mar. 3, 2005

California trades in a bridge for lots of tiny, poorly constructed motorboats.

By Chris Hayes

Let me leave you with a question: Why should young people who will retire around the year 2035 be forced to live with a system that was invented in 1935, especially when that system is in such deep trouble? So many things have since changed then. When Social Security was created the Golden Gate Bridge didn’t exist… —excerpt of a leaked Republican strategy memo

Shortly after eeking out a narrow reelection victory of two percentage points, the governor of California starts warning those in the Bay Area that the Golden Gate Bridge is headed for a crisis. It was opened in 1937, before we had Hummers and 16-wheel tractor-trailers, he says, and the bridge’s designers never could have imagined the sheer volume and wear and tear the bridge is experiencing today. And it’s only going to get worse. Traffic volume goes up every year. Last year 100 million tons moved across the bridge, the year before that it was 90 million tons. Next year it will be 110 million. Each year the increased use rips up the macadam, unbolts the rivets, and buckles the steel suspension cables. In 50 years, if we don’t do anything, there will be half a billion tons of traffic moving across the bridge every year and the bridge will either need a comprehensive structural overhaul or it will simply collapse.

We can’t leave the eventual demise of this cherished California landmark to future generations, says the governor during his frequent campaign rallies, we must face it now. It is our generational duty. So here’s what he proposes. Instead of having Big Government predetermine how you cross the bay, the state is going to start allowing Californians to own their own means of transport. Starting next year, the state will begin to extract massive chunks of steel from the bridge, melt them down and make them into motorboats that it will issue to each citizen in the Bay Area. These motorboats, in theory, will be faster than cars. There’ll never be traffic in the bay that backs you up, no annoying road construction during rush hour. No, you’ll be free to gun the engine and go as fast as you want. And best of all you own that boat. It’s yours and no one can tell you what to do with it.

This, says, the governor solemnly, is the only way we can save the Golden Gate Bridge for future generations.

But wait. A cry goes up from the hundreds of thousands of bridge commuters. We like the Golden Gate Bridge, they say. We use it every day. It’s convenient, and sturdy and provides the driver with a lovely view. By pulling out chunks of steel to make these motorboats, won’t you just speed up the demise of the bridge? And come to think of it, what the hell good is a motorboat anyway?

Not to worry, says, the governor. For all those Bay Area residents who are currently of driving age, nothing will change. He doesn’t want these folks making a big stink and throwing a monkey wrench into his plans, so he says, look, you keep driving across the bridge like you always have, I understand it’s hard to change. But for all the kids out there, the next generation who won’t stand for the government telling them how they can and can’t cross the bay, we’ll issue each of them a boat.

In the elementary schools and after school programs, and playgrounds across San Francisco and Oakland, no collective cry goes up. The region’s children raise no objections. They just nod their heads and go back to Legos and blocks and pop quizzes and homework.

And so it begins, the state starts issuing teenagers boats as soon as they reach driving age. These teenagers may have strong memories of driving across the bridge, but they’ve been told that the bridge is just for old fogies, a stultifying, oppressive structure that tells you exactly where you have to cross the bay. They kind of like the freedom and independence their rowboats give them, and there’s certainly the thrill of novelty.

As they begin to phase in the governor’s plan, a few careful observers raise an objection: Originally, these critics say, the plan was to actually extract the chunks of metal from the bridge itself, melt them down and then use that same metal to make the boats. But now, it looks like you’re keeping the bridge in place and also issuing the boats. So the question is this: where does the metal for the boats come from? The answer is simple, says the governor. The state is going to charge the cost of producing each boat to each person’s credit card. So let’s say we have Johnny Ownership, an enterprising High School junior who just got his driver’s license. The state is going to issue him a nice, new boat and pay for it by charging $10,000 to his credit card. Simple, right?

As more and more teens turn 16, more and more motorboats are issued, but they mostly go unused. The kids can still ride in their parents’ cars across the bridge and it’s a lot easier and faster to do so. Slowly but surely, though, as the years wear on, the people who have bridge permits begin to die off. Area residents are now forced to use the motorboats and traffic on the bridge begins to wane. Once this tipping point is reached the state reverts to its original plan, and begins extracting the steel from the bridge, using it to make new boats. This further accelerates the deterioration of the bridge, until one day the state’s highway commissioner declares it structurally unsound. “This symbol of the past must be brought down,” he says at a press conference.

And so the day is set for the bridge’s demise. There are some senior citizens who remember the heyday of the bridge. They show up to protest, but no one pays much attention to them. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of area residents gather on the banks of the bay, some putter their boats a few hundred meters out to get a better view. Those not watching in person watch from their television sets. On the edges of the bay, thousands of people – whose boats of broken or rusted or developed holes or never worked to begin with – stand stranded and watch.

(The boats were all produced by a company who’s CEO was one of the governor’s biggest fundraisers. Based on its lucrative contract with the state, the company has become one of the country’s most successful corporations and Wall Street darlings. A few odd kooks point out that a significant percentage of boats the company produce break within five years, but these nay-sayers are largely ignored.)

Thousands of others, who’ve run into a bad patch and sold their boats to pay for healthcare, go through their daily ritual of purchasing a ride from one of the many private ferry services. Rides typically cost $50 each way.

Up above, at what was once the toll station, the ex-governor, who has long since retired, gives a rousing speech about how important ownership is. The press gallery scribbles lines from his speech; the photographers snap their cameras. After he wraps up his speech, the assembled luminaries – congressmen, mayors, the current governor – all don hard hats, and the old governor, the man with the courage to bring about this proud day, is given the honor of plunging the handle of the detonator down and blowing the bridge up.

The bridge buckles and twists and then, almost as if in slow motion, plunges into the bay. The politicians applaud, and for a moment a few odd claps spread through the crowds standing on the banks. But then it stops. There is a long, deep silence.

“What,” says one woman sitting on a rock on the shore below, “have we done?”

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