Tag Archives: Stockholm

Let’s Talk About Infrastructure

What is government for?

That is the question at the root of all political philosophy, and by extension, all punditry. After all, the way we evaluate how well a government is functioning is by comparing its operation with its mission: is the state doing what it is supposed to be doing? If so, how well?

I began my most recent book by cataloging the areas of “broken-ness” in American governance–what I (and most commenters to this blog) believe to be areas where our government is failing to perform. And that, of course, raised the question: what should government do? Why do humans need the collective mechanism we call government (at least, beyond restraining Leviathan, per Hobbes)?

My conclusion–with which, obviously, you all may differ–is that government is needed to provide necessary infrastructure–both physical and social.

The dictionary defines infrastructure as the “basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”

Most of us are familiar with this definition in the context of physical infrastructure: roads, bridges, sewers, the electrical grid, public transportation, etc. Within the category of physical infrastructure I’d also include physical amenities like parks and bike lanes. Schools, libraries and museums probably fall somewhere between physical and social infrastructure. Purely social infrastructure includes laws that prevent the strong from preying on the weak, and the various programs that make up what we call the social safety net.

I have just returned from Europe where I attended a conference in Stockholm; on the way home, I stopped in Amsterdam to see my middle son, who now lives there. Sweden and the Netherlands vastly eclipse the U.S. when it comes to both kinds of infrastructure.

The academic conference I attended was on “Social Citizenship,” a concept commonplace in Europe and utterly foreign to Americans. (The conference was focused upon the effects of significantly increased migration on the social unity fostered by the European approach to social welfare–tribalism isn’t restricted to the U.S.and Europe is far more diverse than it was even a decade ago.)

Social citizenship and policies that support unity are topics that increasingly intrigue me; my most recent book focused on them and I routinely blog about them. But right now, I want to rant about physical infrastructure.

I took the subway in both Stockholm and Amsterdam (In Amsterdam, I rode their interconnected transit system, which includes trams, subway and buses). In both cities, the subway stations were immaculate, and there was lots of public art. Electronic signs informed passengers when the next train was due–usually, within 4-5 minutes. The cars themselves–and in Amsterdam, the trams–were shiny and clean, and looked new–although in Amsterdam, my son said they were several years old, and simply well-maintained.

Well-maintained. What a concept…

It wasn’t only public transportation. Streets and sidewalks looked equally well-tended; in Amsterdam, according to my son, sidewalks throughout the city are replaced every 30 years. Also in Amsterdam, where there are 1.3 bicycles for every resident and absolutely everyone bikes, protected bike lanes are everywhere–usually, they separate the sidewalks from the roadways.

Thanks to robust public transportation and the culture of biking, there were far fewer cars on the streets than there are here, and among those that were I saw numerous hybrids. Efforts to use clean energy were prominent. (Coincidentally, a friend just sent me an article about a European consortium that plans to deploy 1,000 fuel cell buses in European cities, and to provide the necessary hydrogen infrastructure.)

All in all, the clear impression was that we are a community, and we care. 

In these European cities, government’s approach to infrastructure provision appears to be a collective effort to ensure a workable, efficient and pleasant environment for all citizens–not a grudging and slapdash accommodation for those who cannot afford private vehicles.

I’m jealous.



I Think It’s Too Late For The White Nationalists….

I’ve been posting this week from Stockholm, Sweden, where I’ve been attending a fascinating conference on Social Citizenship, Migration and Conflict. The issues involved are important, and once I’ve absorbed the papers being presented, I’ll undoubtedly blog about  what I’m learning and what the research tells us, but this post is based on my own perceptions and very unscientific anecdotes.

First, a caveat: the last time I visited Stockholm was some 20 years ago, and it was a very “touristy” visit. This time, I’m out of the city center, in a neighborhood next to the University of Stockholm, which is hosting the conference, so much more likely to see “real life” Swedes going about their business.

The most immediate impression: the people I see on the streets, in the (incredibly clean, convenient and efficient) subway, and on campus are absolutely indistinguishable from crowds in any sizable American city. They include the (mostly young) people on scooters just like the ones we have in Indianapolis, and  the numerous people who are wearing jeans and/or headphones, or are fixated on their smartphones.

There are ATMs everywhere, terrible traffic, lots of advertising….

And there appears to be enormous diversity. Walking back to my hotel from the subway station I passed several Asians, a man I would call African-American at home (I guess he’s African-Swedish), two inter-racial couples, and several typically Nordic-looking folks speaking a variety of languages, including British and American English.

It was the same on the planes I flew getting here; passengers and crew alike represented a wide variety of nationalities. On KLM–Royal Dutch Airlines–the pilot introduced the flight attendants, who were male and female, black and white and (like Ms. Rodriguez) Latino.

The hysterical right-wingers mounting a last-ditch effort to defeat globalization and cosmopolitanism are too late. Middle-class folks, at least those from first-world countries, have become used to casually crossing borders, adopting each others’ cuisines and fashions, and working together on everything from construction projects to scholarly research. The two block stretch from my hotel to the subway station hosts a French cafe, a sushi restaurant, a gelato shop, and an establishment touting German beer.

There are still plenty of places on this planet that Americans would experience as  exotic, but increasingly–at least in the west–large cities and their polyglot populations look pretty much like the places we call home. In a way, that’s regrettable–on my taxi drive from the airport, we passed McDonalds, Starbucks, a Ford showroom and numerous other establishments that mirror those dotting the American landscape. Although we also passed buildings that are architecturally recognizable as Swedish, there are a lot more that look pretty much like the buildings back home. Admittedly, this sort of homogenization deprives us of encounters with formerly unique–or at least different– cultures, and that is a loss.

Offsetting that loss is the immense increase in interaction and the resulting recognition that we are all members of one human family.

The process of globalization and integration is inexorable. It is no longer in its infancy–it’s probably at least at the toddler stage. It clearly has a long way to go, but my sense is that it is just too far along to be reversed. Too many people have seen enough of the world to be inoculated against tribalism– the notion (fear?) that there is something alien and dangerous about humans from other places, who speak other languages, or have different skin colors.

Too many people recognize the truth: White Nationalism barely elected Donald Trump and narrowly authorized Brexit, but those “victories” were among the last gasps of a dying world order.

It won’t be missed.