Wake Up Call

I’ve been living in New York since the end of August of 2008, and ever since I got here, people have heard me complaining (we Portuguese like to complain) about paying for incoming calls and text messages on my mobile phone despite the bad reception, getting charged on ATM withdrawals and online banking, navigating through rats on subway platforms and supermarket aisles of junk. What I still find puzzling is the fact these same people think all this is okay.

But when I read Thomas Friedman’s “Time to Reboot America” op-ed article last December, I realized I wasn’t alone in my frustration with American infrastructure and corporate culture. In his “Dumb as we wanna be” America rant, Friedman addresses some of the things that are as wrong as taken for granted in this country: poor and expensive infrastructure, low education standards and, my personal favourite, “tax cuts we can’t afford”.

A lot of the problems Friedman points out are – let’s face it – a consequence of America’s reliance on the individual and the corporate for the building and development of the country. Historically, that has been interpreted as a celebration of the pioneer, entrepreneurial spirit that built the nation. That same spirit however, by disdaining and distrusting the nation’s government (and refusing to pay a cent more in taxes), has lead to a weak state, where basic infrastructure and essential services have been left in the hands of private interests. This would all be fine if these interests would be imbued with that same nation-building spirit of their founding fathers. But unfortunately, their spirit is closer to wise-guyism than nationalism, which always chooses good profit over the common good.

Media, food, transportation, education, healthcare, war: everything’s for sale, plus tax and tip – no matter how bad it is. ‘This is how we built America, they say”. What Friedman is saying here is that you not only built, but designed America wrong. That is the case with General Motors, Friedman’s aptly chosen illustration for the current state of the nation: “In fact, we as a country have become General Motors — as a result of our national drift. Look in the mirror: G.M. is us.” G.M.’s been selling Americans generic, gas-guzzling, badly built cars without being held accountable on how they’re made, their fuel consumption or their impact on the environment – in short, on how they’re designed (in case you were wondering, the design of a car is not only responsible for choice of seat upholstery or the shape of hubcaps).

A dumb, dormant public has lead to an disinvestment in design and quality over marketing and promotion. In other words, misinformed, badly educated people buy mediocre products and services because they are well marketed to suit their low expectations. In broad terms, what Friedman is saying is that the whole country needs to get its act together and redesign itself. And in a time when the going gets tough for the individual and the corporate, it’s the state they turn to in order to get things going. Now’s the time for the government to stop being bullied by “the corporate spirit”, regain its importance in the eyes of public opinion and look hard where it will spend it money. Now’s the time to invest, but also to plan, build, regulate, animate, stimulate and recreate the country its citizens deserve.


This post was written and published in March 2009 on http://maydaypost.wordpress.com for Emily Gordon‘s segment of the Print Meets the Web course. We were asked to write a post about the current state of the economy

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