The Public Broadcasting Service show “Nova” recently broadcast a remarkable program about the new skyscraper and memorial being built on and near the site of the former twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Titled “Engineering Ground Zero,” the show is a collection of interviews and visual descriptions telling the stories of the workers involved in imagining, designing, engineering and building two of the new structures now emerging in the space devastated by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The show offers a careful explanation of many of the intricate structural and safety considerations that make the project so complicated. And it portrays vividly the emotional connections of those involved in the project with the tragic events of that horrific day.

Both the architect of the new 1,776-foot-tall One World Trade Center building and the designer whose plan for the memorial was selected by the project’s jurors actually watched the twin towers collapse from buildings nearby.

But the most striking fact evident in the faces, voices, eyes and often tears of virtually every person interviewed — and the reason I think the program worthy of comment in a column devoted to economic analysis — was not technical.

Rather, it was the palpable, visceral sense of shared participation in a common task that transcended individual pride, achievement or reward.

Every person involved expressed a personal sense of obligation to the memory of those killed so senselessly. The architects and designers expressed a vision, the glass and cement manufacturers tested new chemical formulations, the truck drivers navigated traffic from Brooklyn to get special cement delivered within 90 minutes, the ironworkers and pipefitters wrestled beams together at unimaginable heights, the Port Authority project managers juggled round-the-clock work schedules and arborists even brought trees from Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York.

“This job,” they all said in the single voice of their work, “just has to get done on time, whatever the effort, whatever the cost.” Each person, in his and her own particular way, just had to say, “No!” to the evil wreaked on our country and way of life, “This cannot stand unanswered.”

That fact, attitude and voice are remarkable because of the stark contrast they provide to the “I’ll get mine and not worry about anyone else” attitude that characterized so much of the past decade.

Mortgage brokers promoting “no doc, liar loans,” over-reaching borrowers signing them, financial wholesalers packaging them, supposedly independent agencies guaranteeing them, ratings agencies blessing them, Wall Street wizards simultaneously recommending them to one set of clients while shorting them for another, and everyone involved setting a little aside for the “friends of Angelo” lobbying effort that kept the three-ring circus going.

For years we engaged in a “hot-potato” economy where everyone remotely involved with housing took his/her fee or percentage or bonus and quickly tossed the product on to the next sucker, er … client, in the chain so as not to be stuck with any responsibility should the accelerating roller coaster cars ever come off the track.

We could tell similar stories about California municipal officials gaming pension systems and Detroit automakers maintaining brands nobody wanted and cost structures they couldn’t afford. And we all now know what happened.

After running off the cliff, we eventually had to look down and see that no matter how fast we kept churning our feet we had no ground beneath us and had to fall.

Now we’ve had more than two years of “recovery,” and unemployment still exceeds 9 percent.

We’ve had stimulus programs, bailouts, a debt ceiling crisis and now a jobs program.

Corporate profits are near record highs, and consumer confidence is near record lows.

The “just go shopping” response to terrorism and financial collapse hasn’t, and I believe can’t, work.

To recover from a major economic downturn, to regain confidence, to get what Keynes called the “animal spirits” and Schumpater called the forces of “creative destruction” flowing again, we all need a little bit of what the workers depicted in “Engineering Ground Zero” had in spades — personal pride in and commitment to an enterprise bigger and more important than their paychecks and monthly bills.

And we can’t get that inspirational commitment alone. We need community. We can’t all be part of the 9/11 Memorial project. But we can get involved in a new conference/convention/civic center — any one of the several proposed.

We can get involved in the efforts to strengthen and expand our engineering education efforts — in Orono, in Brunswick, at the paper mills in Millinockett and Rumford we hope to save and at the Texas Instruments plant in South Portland we hope to grow.

And we can get involved in the efforts to link our public schools more closely to the worlds of learning now available to us electronically.

The list goes on, but the action — and the jobs it will create — won’t unless we all find some way to achieve self-interest in a common purpose.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

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