Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Infrastructure and Height, Myopia and McCain

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 2, 2008

Since the 1970s I have worked mostly in Eastern and Western Europe, regularly returning to my native New York for occasional assignments and to enjoy the pleasures and pride of being a New Yorker.

When I first showed up in Western Europe almost four decades ago, the process of post-war recovery was not yet over.  As the years passed, however, I watched Europe slowly overtake America on a number of fronts, in part by engaging in long-term investment in its infrastructure and guaranteeing the health, education, and housing of its people as well as by curbing the extremes of economic inequality.

I’ve also watched changes in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism and seen the gaps in standards and ways of life between east and west narrow, especially as former Soviet bloc nations merge into the European Union.  From a New York perspective, European upswings are mirrored in shifts in the City’s immigrant populations, for example Irish and Polish immigrant communities have declined in size in part due to recent arrivals from both countries being lured back home by comparatively more attractive work opportunities and standards of living.

America, on the other hand, seems lost in a time-warp.  In this year’s presidential speeches and debates, as for what seems time immemorial, Democrat and Republican candidates prove their patriotism by repeating over and again the well-worn claim that America is the “greatest country on earth.”   America might have been so in the immediate post- World War II years but the disinvestment in social and physical infrastructure by the Republicans since the 1980s and the rapacious corporate culling of short term profits have undermined the country — as have the effects of the inappropriateness, extravagance, and incompetence of America’s military adventures abroad post-September 11, 2001.

Inadvertently, John McCain drew attention to an objective measure of this in last Friday’s presidential debate when he pointed out that residents of communist North Korea are, on the average, several inches shorter than fellow-Koreans living in the capitalist South.  What McCain did not say, however, whether out of ignorance or cynicism, is that over the last few decades Americans have become shorter than Western Europeans, over whom they had towered less than a century before.  For what this tells us about disparities in incomes and opportunity within the US, the consequences of the dismantling of America’s “welfare state,” and the absence of adequate insurance coverage and medical treatment in the country, go to this recent posting on the Health blog of the New York Times which, in turn, offers links to longer pieces on the subject from the files of both the Times and the New Yorker.

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