Broken cars are the best teachers

If you want to understand how the world works, read about its least stable regions.

There's a lot of talk in the States about freedom and oppression, and an endless supply of well-to-do middle-aged men playing John Wayne, puffing out their chests and talking ad nauseum about refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots. Then there are the places where those ideas actually come into play, where people actually fight and die within their own borders to try to achieve the end they desire.

It's easy to dismiss malfunctioning foreign governments as irrelevant, but as any do-it-yourself mechanic can attest, you learn more about your car when it breaks than when it runs smoothly.

Ivory Coast democratic president-cum-dictator Laurent Gbagbo was ousted from control of the West African country earlier this month, after French missiles slammed into the walls of his executive mansion in Abidjan. Gbagbo was captured and taken into custody by forces supporting rival and rightful president Alassane Ouattara shortly after the air-to-ground assault. The subsequent photo of Gbagbo in custody is truly worthy of the classic "wa-wa" sound effect. Now Ouattara can take power, abuse it, and the cycle will begin anew.

It was the climax of a six-month crisis that began in the November presidential election, the first one since Gbagbo was (debatably) elected in 2000, due to civil war and political infighting during the intended 2004 election. Outtara won by a slim margin, but Gbagbo claimed fraud and locked down the country.

In January, an article in the New York Times reported precisely how Gbagbo was holding onto power despite frozen access to the government's accounts. In layman's terms, his solution was bullying: shaking down cocoa producers for advances on their export taxes, and using the threat of force to keep lines of credit open with national banks.

The second part of his strategy was to cut his personnel costs dramatically in order to make his  financial scavenging a more viable option. Basically, he restructured his government wage payment priorities to support a skeleton crew consisting of the military and key bureaucrats.

That article was nothing less than a spiritual and intellectual awakening. It's difficult to describe what took place mentally, and how much of a direct role the article in question actually had, if it was anything more than a midwife to something that had been gestating for a long time.

Gbagbo refuted the results of the Ivory Coast election, and by extension the idea of democracy in his country. The international community recognized Ouattara as the legitimate president, but Gbagbo was able to maintain actual rule of the country, for a time, because he established an infrastructure and resource supply that could support it. When he was toppled, it was only because Ouattara was able to bring in his own resources, the outside support of French and United Nations military forces, to achieve the result.

Therefore any idea, democracy included, is inherently meaningless unless it is supported by an infrastructure, and that infrastructure is meaningless unless it is supported by a resource.

It's a view that could be interpreted somewhat cynically and amorally as "might makes right," but I prefer to think of it as "ideas are only as good as the best and most executable solution to bring them about."

I was blind, but now I see—everything. The thirty minute commute from Enumclaw to Sumner isn't a burden anymore; it's a learning experience, a firsthand examination of the networks of roads and power cables that allow civilization to extend farther and farther out. Each stretch represents a place people decided to go, the steps required to get there, and the ability to put those steps to task.

Subjects that used to interest me only insofar as they could be used as sleep aids have become absorbing, such as economics and city planning. At last week's Sumner University evening session, my favorite subject by far was the history lesson by Ryan Windish, presented through the lens of his city planning experience.

I've become more impatient when it comes to arguments that skip steps to come to conclusions, rely on common knowledge "facts," or settle on what "sounds about right." Brian Beckley could tell you; I just about bit off the poor guy's head when he attributed a dropping word count in comic books to "dumber readers." I apologized a few minutes later, sheepishly explaining that I became frustrated because he didn't refer to any viable feedback mechanism for ascertaining reader intelligence, and that he was erroneously equating less words to less information.

I used to become annoyed when other reporters said—and I had occasion to be annoyed a lot—"I'm a reporter: I don't know math." Now I feel something akin to pure rage. Math is a useful and elegant tool for understanding the world. Why be so lazy? More importantly, why flaunt self-imposed complacency so proudly?

Of course, complacency happens when life becomes institutionalized. Our country, our states, our counties, our cities—their borders are sectioned off, they're defined, there is no room for more than moderate expansion. While we have many advantages over our pioneer ancestors, can we ever be as mentally alive as a group that ventured west and built cities where there were not cities before?

No... well, maybe. So many adults who came of age over the last generation grew up learning one rhythm: Do well in school and college will be there; do well in college and a job will be there; a spouse will be there; a family will be there; the place you want to settle in life will be there. I was well into college when it became apparent that graduates weren't readily getting jobs anymore, but people were still afraid to stop feeding money into the machine. Some of my graduating peers had a long wait before they nabbed, some are still searching, and others defied the market by becoming entrepreneurs with businesses that had literally nothing to do with their degree.

It hasn't been until the last year or so that a genuine movement questioning the pragmatism of a college degree in-and-of-itself has taken root. People are realizing the things we expect to be there... actually might not. In Texas, the city of Midland might evaporate along with its dwindling water supply, leaving an area still economically rich with oil, but poor in the basic resource needed to keep life going in the middle of the desert. A tragedy for the families who may have to relocate, but an opportunity for those who might look at the drought as just another problem looking for a solution.

When the machine breaks down, we have opportunity to look under the hood.

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