Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, January 09, 2006

America's Real Achilles Heel

by John Feffer

ZNet Commentary (January 09 2006)

These days you can get from Seoul to the southeastern tip of South Korea in less than three hours, thanks to a sleek new bullet train supported by public investment. The South Korean government has made information technology a national priority as it works to become the global leader in broadband access. Government investment in research and development in such fields as biotech and nanotech has sharply increased. South Korea is not satisfied with being the eleventh largest economy in the world. It wants to be the major economic hub of Northeast Asia and compete head to head with China and Japan.

The Asian model of economic development, which seemed to collapse during the financial crisis of nearly a decade ago, is alive and well. The South Koreans know an economic secret that laissez-faire enthusiasts just can't get into their heads. The government can and must play a major role in fostering economic development. Don't expect the corporate world to shoulder these responsibilities, because short-term profit clouds their vision. Only public investment into infrastructure - trains, communication systems, research facilities, schools and universities - produces equitable and sustainable growth.

The South Korean approach is far from perfect. There is still too much unhealthy collusion between government and the business sector. And there has been great pressure on South Korea from the outside - the United States, the World Trade Organization - to "open up" its economy. But what enabled the South Korean economy to rise from the level of Uganda in the early 1960s to its current global position makes as much economic sense today as it did then.

Now compare South Korea's approach to that of the United States.

I live in Washington, DC. Here, the subway escalators often don't work, so commuters have to walk up and down long flights of stairs. The public schools are overcrowded and dangerous. Medical care for those without health insurance is either terrible or terribly expensive. In the poorer sections of the city, there are abandoned houses, crumbling streets, and too many guns. The rates of murder and infant mortality are appallingly high. In many ways, the capital of the United States is a showcase city, with its world-class museums and monuments, impressive government buildings, extensive parks, and opulent neighborhoods like Georgetown. But the average tourist sees only this small part of the city.

Like so many American cities, the overall condition of Washington, DC reveals a dirty secret about the United States. Despite its claim to being the world's only superpower, America has an Achilles Heel: crumbling infrastructure. In 2005, declaring that one third of American roads are in major disrepair and nearly one-third of all bridges are structurally deficient, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US infrastructure a failing "D" grade.

Compared to South Korea's high-speed trains, the US passenger train system is falling apart and always on the brink of bankruptcy. No one uses the trains if they have to get somewhere on time.

Or look at education. South Korea, along with Japan and Finland, scored at the top of the recent OECD rankings in reading, mathematical, and scientific literacy. US students scored in the middle of the pack on these tests. Despite spending more on education than most countries in the world, the United States finds itself with a polarized system of top-notch private schools that attract students from all over the world and underfunded public schools that serve the poor and recent immigrants. Education expert Jonathan Kozol declares that the America's school system is full of "savage inequalities". In other words, it is not simply the quantity of investment that is important, but the quality and the equality of investment.

The United States has long prided itself on its technological advances: the personal computer, the Internet, biotechnology. But even here, Americans should be worried. While countries like South Korea are investing huge sums into information technology so that all citizens can become netizens, the United States is falling behind in both research and development and in distributing the benefits to the population. Half of all government investment in R & D is monopolized by the Pentagon, and the civilian portion is forecast to decline by another ten percent by 2009.

It is therefore no surprise that manufacturing has virtually disappeared from the US economy, falling from 23 percent in the 1980s to only 12.7 percent today. Without public investment in transportation and communications and research, manufacturing shrivels up.

Wealthy Americans can pretend that they don't live in this crumbling United States. They don't use public transportation. They don't send their children to public schools. They live in safe neighborhoods, alarm their cars and houses, and pay for top-notch health care. Their jobs are not outsourced to China.

But even the wealthy can remain ignorant of the Achilles Heel of infrastructure for just so long. As America's infrastructure continues to deteriorate so will US standing in the world. Without proper education, the majority of American students will be unable to support a world-class economy. Without sufficient public investment to support smart growth, businesses will continue to relocate overseas.

The experience of Hurricane Katrina is a cautionary example. Because the US government cut funding needed to strengthen the levees in New Orleans, the city was overwhelmed with water. While the poor suffered disproportionately, the rich too were forced to flee the city.

If the US government continues to pour money into the war in Iraq and ignores the educational, social, and physical infrastructural needs of the country, it will face the equivalent of dozens of Hurricane Katrinas in the future. It's been over twenty years since Americans looked at the Asian model of development for inspiration. It's definitely time for a second look.

John Feffer ( is the author of North Korea, South Korea (Seven Stories).

Bill Totten


  • Nonsense. The last thing we need is more gov't involvement. By your own admission, our gov't is doing a lousy job of running anything & everything it controls.

    The gov't needs to stop over-regulating & over-taxing free enterprise & preventing entrepreneurs & small business owners from functioning. It is free enterprise that made this country great... & gov't control (over-regulation, favoritism & over-taxation) that has brought it down.

    The gov't needs to get out of the business of supposedly providing public schooling (& other services). Your own statements show that private enterprise (private schools) do a better job. Even homeschoolers do better. If people weren't paying so much in taxes, they would have money left over to pay for private schooling.

    The gov't is poised to over-regulate space travel.... just as it over-regulates & controls air, train, bus & automobile travel - making it more expensive & "exclusive" (& able to exclude those it doesn't want involved).

    The gov't assists a handful of large manufacturers to control industries & prevent new developments that they do not wish to see hapopen. This is true of all transportation related industries (ie. cars, gas/oil/alternative fuels, etc.), as well as pharmaceuticals, farming, real estate, etc.

    Korea is only comparable currently because their gov't is more interested in waging economic war (at the moment) than physical war. That will change. And their trains will devolve into disrepair over tie just as ours have. Only whatever happens to be the gov't's current priority gets money spent on it & that changes over time.

    And what about all of the people who they have over-taxed to pay for something that they will probably never use & don't want??? If people want it, let them pay for it VOLUNTARILY.

    If you want things to work better in the US, get the chains of gov't OFF of people. Don't add more. More gov't involvement will only mean a faster slide downhill.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:08 AM, January 10, 2006  

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