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Lights Out 

America is arguing its way to Second World status

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The lights went out in New Orleans — a mishap that was symbolic of America’s drop into Second World infrastructure status. If nothing changes, we may be heading to Third World status, perhaps leading to a generation of young people giving up on the future of this country.

One friend, after visiting Korea, said that compared to Seoul, most American cities seem Second World at best.

I had a student in class last year whose dad works for a multinational company — the kid spent much of his childhood in Singapore. He went home there for Christmas and reports that, by comparison, our public infrastructure is simply decrepit.

Other friends just returned from a month in Southeast Asia. Their son has a study-abroad gig in Thailand. First off, their favorite place to visit is Hanoi. They were there during the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s Christmas bombing. Today, it’s a booming place in all the right ways. They loved Hanoi and were well treated. They said Vietnam Airlines is the best they’ve ever flown. Moreover, they had no problem getting on the Internet anywhere they went.

Every year, I have my freshman students read A River Lost, by Blaine Harden. It’s about the Columbia River and the political issues that it has spawned. From the Grand Coulee Dam being built without fish ladders to the controversial Army Corps dams along that river and on the lower Snake. And then there’s the nuclear facility at Hanford. Harden examines all the interest groups that have a stake in what he terms the Columbia River Plumbing Project — the irrigators, the ranchers, the barge operators, the wind surfers, the environmentalists, the sport fisherman and, of course, the tribes. Harden explores the politics of it all.

One thing always stands out to me: No matter the many unintended consequences associated with the dams, I cannot imagine America ever again taking on an audacious project like building a Grand Coulee Dam. And that’s a shame. Indeed, today America can’t even fix its aging airports. Or its bridges. Or its highways. Public transportation has been reduced to an afterthought. (If you ever ride on a bullet train, you’ll know what I mean.)

My point, whether compared to Korea or Singapore or Hanoi, America is now coming off looking, at best, like a Second World nation.

Setting aside infrastructure, America can’t even get health care right. Other countries are spending half what we spend and getting far better results. Or take gun regulation: We can’t pass reasonable gun regulations — and it’s not really all that difficult. (The Biden proposals are all completely reasonable and would help.) Indeed, we can’t even have a serious discussion. This is a no-brainer — or at least it is in countries that can fix airports, that can run great airlines, that have universal health coverage, that are building roads and bridges.

When our friends’ son completes his Thailand gig, he intends to head off with friends either to Australia or New Zealand. Does he have a job offer? No, but he’s sure that he can find something. His dad’s take: “These kids, the bright ones, see themselves as citizens of the world; they have given up on the American government doing anything remotely effective.”

This is our experience, too. Our son is spending more and more time in Canada. I have no doubt that he will make an effort to move there someday.

And why? These kids, those who graduated from college post-2008, have zero confidence in our Congressional leaders. (Especially the Republicans, but also the likes of Harry Reid, who had a chance to fix the filibuster but bailed on the opportunity and in so doing reconfirmed what so many young people had thought all along — that it is one big, corrupt country club.) They look at what other countries just assume that civilized countries do (universal health care, gun control and avoidance of trillions spent on “wars of choice”), and they shake their heads.

America can’t even pull off a Super Bowl, and can’t bring itself to pass even the most modest of gun regulations, and is fighting over how to pay for health care when the solution is obvious. That’s what they see; and that’s why the country risks losing the best and brightest of an entire generation.

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