10.03.11

Invest in America Before It’s Too Late

Spending four years in Haiti, where the government is too poor to provide even basic services, made me realize that the United States is moving in the same direction. It’s time to start propping up our government—instead of destroying it.

When I moved back to the United States in May after four years in Haiti, I knew I’d miss the dysfunctional little country I had left. After all, a country can’t break your heart unless you love it. And I loved Haiti, from the dizzying whirl of the marketplace, where I acquired mangoes and sea sponges and minor proficiency in cross-cultural repartee, to the formal courtesy that every Haitian inculcates in her children. Most of all, I loved the Haitian character. Some crazy grace—teasing, courage, affection, generosity—sweetened and sharpened lives that were all too hard, short, and bleak.

But now, ensconced back home in the U.S., the Land of Plenty, I see reminders of Haiti everywhere. Our infrastructure is crumbling. The able-bodied and quick-brained can’t find work. The chasm between the super-rich and everyone else has so widened that our elites seem to inhabit a different country. Oh, and there’s a housing crisis, too. (Granted, a magnitude-7.0 earthquake caused Haiti’s, where almost 600,000 still live under tents and tarps 21 months afterward, while unsustainable loans caused ours.)

Welcome home—to the Great Recession. Apparently, while I was abroad the bill came due for Americans' spending without gains in productivity: turns out all those McMansions and Chinese-manufactured goods didn’t come for free. As we struggle to lift ourselves out of recession, I sometimes hear a new, harsh suspicion coming from Americans’ mouths: the jobless are lazy, taxing the wealthy is theft, and the state is indulgent, inefficient bureaucracy at best. Those espousing it generally believe the way out of recession is to continue Bush-era tax cuts while making draconian cuts in social spending. They would do well to keep Haiti in mind as a cautionary example.

Haiti is the apotheosis of the small-government state; for most citizens, the state is functionally absent. Even in Port-au-Prince, the capital of the overcentralized country, public services are unreliable at best. Those who can afford to do so order water by truck, get electricity by generator, and fly to Santo Domingo or Miami for health care. Those who can’t afford it—and 80 percent cannot—bathe in a shallow stream or carry buckets from afar, light a stubby candle, and see a leaf doctor. Absent government causes a lot of "stupid deaths," as Paul Farmer, the renowned physician whose organization tries to build government capacity, puts it. And the much-ballyhooed “resilience” that Haitians exhibited after the earthquake was little more than a practice of self-help cultivated over centuries. Haitians must fend for themselves and their kin because no one else, least of all the state, will help them.

Haiti wasn't supposed to be like this. A few centuries ago, it was the era’s Land of Plenty— the "Pearl of the Antilles," they called it—replete with sugar, cotton, and indigo. But soon after the dawn of the republic in 1804, it was crippled by an enormous public debt. Unlike the United States’ deficit, Haiti’s debt was unjust, levied by France as the price of recognition of its statehood and an end to the trade blockade. As Haiti’s riches went to paying down the debt, were squandered in dumb wars and secreted to Swiss bank accounts, the resources for a modern nation-state dried up.

Today its government can no longer afford public investments in job creation, education, infrastructure, and health that would benefit all Haitians. The 2 or 3 percent who control most of Haiti's wealth have little incentive to invest in public goods: the needs are too great. It's far cheaper to send their kids to private schools than to shoulder the burden for decent public ones, to buy an SUV rather than pay taxes to pave potholes, or simply to leave. Trying to produce things in Haiti is no picnic, either. Domestic markets are small, workforces untrained or illiterate, and input costs—especially electricity and transport—are much higher than in states that invest in public goods. Sometimes I worry that it is too late for Haiti.

The much-ballyhooed “resilience” that Haitians exhibited after the earthquake was little more than a practice of self-help cultivated over centuries.

Anyone who has spent time in a place like Haiti realizes how vital the state is to human flourishing. While there, I missed decent sidewalks, potable tap water, and a subway, markers of a society that cares about the common good. I missed movie theaters and parks, spaces of collective leisure. But I outright ached to be in a place that paid at least lip service to the notions of equal opportunity and meritocracy. I felt privileged to be an American—part of a society that aspired to provide its citizens with just enough that, with hard work and ingenuity, they could make their own lives. Decent public schools, health care, and infrastructure were critical parts of the promise.

Obviously, it's not too late for the United States. We're not in dystopia's dark maw. But we are at a crossroads. Is now the time to tax the very rich, make humane cuts, and invest in jobs and public goods like education, health, and roads? Or should we whittle back the state's reach farther, and hope that it creates the gains in production and capacity we need? To this recently returned expatriate, the latter sounds rather like magical thinking.