The infrastructure of a healthy society

Well, I’m back. I had some sort of crud yesterday that made me leave the office about this time yesterday– upset stomach, weakness, achiness. It lasted until late last night. When I got up this morning, I was better, but puny. So I went back to bed, and made it to the office just after noon. Much better now.

Anyway, instead of reading newspapers over breakfast at the Capital City Club the way I usually do, I read a few more pages in my current book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann. Remember how I was all in a sweat to read it several months ago after reading an excerpt in The Wall Street Journal? Well, having read the prequel, 1491, I’m finally well into this one.

And I’m reading about how settlement by Europeans in many parts of the New World established “extraction societies.” At least, I think that was the term. (It’s one I’ve seen elsewhere, related to “extraction economy” and, less closely, to “plunder economy.” The book is at home, and Google Books won’t let me see the parts of the book where the term was used. But the point was this: Settlements were established that existed only to extract some commodity from a country — say, sugar in French Guiana. Only a few Europeans dwelt there, driving African slaves in appalling conditions. Profits went to France, and the institutions and infrastructure were never developed, or given a chance to develop.

Neither a strong, growing economy with opportunities for all individuals, nor its attendant phenomenon democracy, can thrive in such a place. (Which is related to something Tom Friedman often writes about, having to do with why the Israelis were lucky that their piece of the Mideast is the only one without oil.)

Here are some excerpts I was able to find on Google Books, to give the general thrust of what I’m talking about:

There are degrees of extraction societies, it would seem. South Carolina developed as such a society, but in modified form. There were more slaves than free whites, and only a small number even of the whites could prosper in the economy. But those few established institutions and infrastructure that allowed something better than the Guianas to develop. Still, while we started ahead of the worst extraction societies, and have made great strides since, our state continues to lag by having started so far back in comparison to other states.

It is also inhibited by a lingering attitude among whites of all economic classes, who do not want any of what wealth exists to be used on the kind of infrastructure that would enable people on the bottom rungs to better themselves. This comes up in the debate over properly funding public transit in the economic community of Columbia.

Because public transit doesn’t pay for itself directly, any more than roads do, there is a political reluctance to invest in it, which holds back people on the lower rungs who would like to better themselves — by getting to work as an orderly at a hospital, or to classes at Midlands Tech.

It’s a difficult thing to overcome. Other parts of the country, well out of the malarial zones (you have to read Mann to understand my reference here), have no trouble ponying up for such things. But here, there’s an insistent weight constantly pulling us down into the muck of our past…

6 thoughts on “The infrastructure of a healthy society

  1. bud

    This extraction society sounds an awful lot like Bain Capital. We need to be ever vigilant to the prospect of becoming a plutocracy with democracy serving only as cover. Thankfully the propaganda arm of the GOP (Grand Oppresive Plutocracy) as led by Rush Limbaugh have successfully torpedoed their credibility and perhaps any further progress toward this extraction outcome. At least that’s what I hope.

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  2. Bryan Caskey

    “It is also inhibited by a lingering attitude among whites of all economic classes, who do not want any of what wealth exists to be used on the kind of infrastructure that would enable people on the bottom rungs to better themselves.”

    What noun are you replacing with the pronoun “It”?

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  3. Silence

    The extraction society you are mentioning is also referred to as the “Resource Curse” and it doesn’t get better or worse usually just because of who happens to be in charge. A local kleptocracy can be just as bad as colonial masters. It goes on in places like Nigeria and Angola even today.

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  4. Brad

    Good catch! I had gone back and rewritten the previous paragraph. I don’t recall the precise antecedent that led to the “It” originally, but by inference, I’ll say “it” refers to something like “Development of an economically healthy and democratic society,” or community. Something like that.

    Another way to put it would be “progress.”

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  5. bud

    This “economically healthy and democratic society” is impossible with an ever increasing share of the wealth concentrated at the top. Addressing this atrocious, and growing, inequality should be our top priority as a nation. Until such time as the folks at the bottom, and I mean bottom 99%, remain largely unaware of this reallocation of wealth we will continue to suffer through hard times. Even the very wealthy will be adversely affected at some point. Not sure it’s necessary to have a commodity such as gold or diamonds to have an extraction society. The clever plutocrats can always find a way to exploit.

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