Originally written four years ago in my first weeks in Mongolia, the observations about the need for public policy and infrastructure are as important today, as we continue to argue the need for effective government.
Today was my day off, and for most of the day the other residents of Khovd and I had no electricity or water. As winter nears, ancient infrastructure is called into service and it takes time to find and fix all the problems that arise when the hot water is turned off between April and October. And as the temperature drops, the air has become toxic with the smoke from coal, cow dung, and anything else that will burn in a stove. Sidewalks, though good compared to those in Ulaanbaatar, are still not generally smooth enough for anything with small wheels, and are spotted with traps and hazards. Manhole covers go missing (I don’t know how) and whether on the sidewalk or in the middle of a street, they are sometimes replaced by large pieces of concrete — and sometimes not. Stairs are irregularly spaced and of different heights, even on the same flight, and the four flights up to our apartment are unlit. Hot water may be on the left, as it is at home, but it may also be on the right, and a faucet handle that is red will not help you to know if it is hot or cold. Although the temperature has been down in the single digits (℉) and we have had snow on the ground, the university has not, until two days ago, had heat.
On the eve of elections we Americans are sitting before a choice about the scope of government and the role it should play in our society. One popular argument insists that it is government regulation that prevents us from reaching our economic potential, both as individuals and as a country. Showing little appreciation for what we have accomplished (and paid for) as a society, the proponents of this argument seek to roll back some of the most important advances we have made toward essential fairness and the standards we live by. Here in Mongolia, I miss The Clean Air Act. I miss building codes. I miss heated classrooms.
As I write this, the headlines in the NY Times are Big Factories’ Lapses Add to Drug Shortages and Dangers. News at home also contains daily reminders of the recession we’re still trying to pull out of and the financial crisis that brought it on. I have been in Mongolia for nearly a month now, and so far what I have seen would not make a very good case for a smaller role for government — nor does a careful reading of our news at home. Because of its economy and sparse population, I don’t have the same expectations in Mongolia as I do at home, but my experience here makes it harder than ever to understand a desire to abandon the expectations we take for granted at home.