I've been corresponding with a Norwegian-American friend on, among other things, the cheap electricity and clean water of Norway. During our correspondance, the news in Norway was able to tell me that a) the power companies don't earn enough to fix leaks that could power a city of 500,000, and b) the pipelines in Norway are several decades old, and fresh water lines are laid right next to sewer lines. There's been an outbreak of giardia and some other icky things in Oslo's water this past week. My own town of Bergen had the same about two years ago. The family of the woman who died from drinking water infested with giardia is currently suing Bergen.
A friend in California lives in a city with a river that could easily overflow its borders and the shoddily-built levee that was meant to contain it. Due to other regulations, people were allowed to settle in what is now designated the flood zone. It could be New Orleans after Katrina all over again, and the reasons are poor workmanship and a federal government that won't fork over the money.
Money. Both the US and Norway are rolling in it. Norway even has the advantage of running a surplus and owing nobody. And yet schools in both countries are too small and too old, there aren't enough books or school buses for the kids, roads are in disrepair, and the water that comes out of your own tap is not necessarily good for you.
I am in awe at these so-called developed nations. It is almost bizarre that society had better schools and education, better job security and more willing governments before we got so well-run and rich.
We were developed. Now we are stagnating, choking on our own plethora of codes and regulations and government programs, and yet managing to avoid spending a sum of money that would really help (like refurbishing all the decripit public schools now, because it will not get any cheaper or easier in the future). It is sad, and somewhat uncomfortable, to watch this backslide happening. Decades of taking things for granted are catching up to us, and the unwillingness of any modern government in the developed countries to spend the necessary money and just get the job done is fascinating. Where did the notion not to act come from?
As one co-worker pointed out, over 100 years ago, someone said we needed a railroad over the mountain from Oslo to Bergen, and they started building it. At the time, it cost four - 4 - annual national budgets! But it got done!
I was discussing the matter also with my friend Alice. I was pointing out that plain greed and not supply and demand seem to be the main reasons now for doing anything, whether it be private company or government. Her response was that it is now about "creating a demand for something that people ordinarily wouldn't want. Like homes in flood-prone areas, or teeth whiteners, for that matter[...]."
The amusing thing about this musing, which has meant that this post has been sitting as a draft for a few days, is that the answer came tonight, during my Roman Empire lecture series. Tonight the lecture had gotten to the time in Roman history where the Christians were being thrown to the lions. Our lecturer explained "the circus" as it related to Roman times, and also the discovery that the caesars had made: As long as people had food and entertainment (bread and circuses), you could pretty much do what you wanted. However, if people were going hungry, no amount of material wealth or entertainment would compensate for that. I quote from Wikipedia's entry on bread and circuses:
"[The phrase] refers to low-cost, low-quality, high-availability food and entertainment that have become the sole concern of the People, to the exclusion of matters that some consider more important: e.g. the Arts, public works projects, human rights, or democracy itself. The phrase is commonly used to refer to short-term government palliatives offered in place of a solution for significant, long-term problems."
The Romans nailed it. Amazing what history can teach us. And we all know what happens if we don't learn history's lesson.