Friday, January 08, 2010

Shiny, Happy, Useless Thought of the Day

It may not be stupid enough to qualify for Idiot Watch, but Nicholas Kristoff's most recent column in the New York Times certainly qualifies as inane blather. He notes that Costa Rica ranks at the top of several Happiness Index lists and wonders what lessons the US can learn from its tiny neighbor. He starts off with this potential reason for its happiness:
Hmmm. You think it’s a coincidence? Costa Rica is one of the very few countries to have abolished its army, and it’s also arguably the happiest nation on earth.
And having grasped this straw, he doesn't let it go:
What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education.
I’m not antimilitary. But the evidence is strong that education is often a far better investment than artillery.
And finally:
But what does seem quite clear is that Costa Rica’s national decision to invest in education rather than arms has paid rich dividends. Maybe the lesson for the United States is that we should devote fewer resources to shoring up foreign armies and more to bolstering schools both at home and abroad.
Oh, don't get me wrong, I think the Switzerland of Central America did a smart (and good) thing by disbanding its military. Of course they have security forces with military equipment, but we can even ignore that for the time being.
But all this is a luxury of a tiny nation residing in the shadow of the world's most powerful military force, with which it has maintained very friendly relations since disbandment. Costa Rica has a coast guard, which trains and cooperates with its US counterparts via the U.S.-Costa Rica Maritime Cooperation Agreement. Beyond that, a naval assault from a foreign country against Costa Rica within a few hundred miles of the home of the most dominant navy in the history of the world would be laughable. It has land borders with two impoverished nations (Nicaragua perhaps occasionally a bit bellicose), who, even if they had the inclination to invade, would be repelled in about six seconds by el Gigante del Norte.

But are there really lessons here for US domestic or foreign policy? Perhaps we could follow the Costa Rican model and have our debts forgiven in exchange for our creditors investing in US forest preservation, as the US did for Costa Rica in 2007. Maybe Obama should ask Costa Rica for around $75 billion in economic aid to invest in education here in the US, which would be per capita what the US gave to them in the 1980s. Maybe they should invest in sustainable development in the US, like the US did there in the 1990s.

Costa Rica made a bet on friendship with the US, and it's paid off. The US provides security, half its tourism, buys most of its exports, and has invested heavily in Costa Rica so they could build the educational system lauded by Kristof. There is no analogous "U.S." for the U.S.

Kristof wants us to learn the lesson from Costa Rica and invest in other countries' schools, uh, like we did in Costa Rica. Maybe Kristof means we should learn from that great bit of investment we already did and try to replicate it elsewhere. Should we — could we — encourage other countries to do the same, and invest along with them? Maybe, but its hard to find others with the geographic luxury of Costa Rica who are so friendly to the US.

The best thing the US has done recently in Latin American foreign policy has been the military aid given to Colombia, helping that country move back from the precipice of failure. Would Colombians be happier if they disbanded their military? With FARC destroying the country from the inside and Chavez lining tanks on the border?

We're building schools in Afghanistan as fast as the Taliban can blow them up. Maybe if Afghanistan disbands its military and we stop giving it military aid, the Taliban will leave them alone and let their daughters go to school.

Once the nations of Western Europe stopped fighting among themselves (check that, after the US stopped them from fighting among themselves) and moved under our security umbrella, we invested in their economy, too. Most places, you see, need that bit of security first.

I'd love to see us invest more in education. I wish the countries to which we gave military aid had Costa Rica's secure geography and could put that money to other use. Other Central American countries would probably be wise to follow Costa Rica's lead — if they could convince their respective militaries — and live under the US's protection and spend their (and our) money elsewhere. But what real lesson is there for the US? Mr. Kristoff?

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