CDS Column: Tourism Tales

CDS Column: Tourism Tales

e5a29-dsc_0019My first real job in journalism was in Berlin, New Hampshire. I was working for the weekly newspaper, tasked with covering a community in sharp decline from its former glory. At one time, Berlin was the third-largest city in New Hampshire. Today, it is saddled with aging infrastructure intended for 25,000 residents, with 10,000 residents footing the bills. Even the paper itself was in decline — there was no office, and I spent most of my time working from the local community college.

But hard times bring their own kind of renaissance. Berlin was stripped bare by the changing economics of the paper industry, but the winnowing distilled the city to its core, discarding those lacking a deep connection to the community and leaving residents with a deep sense of themselves. It was a process that made Berlin both weak and strong, an unlikely place to choose to live yet still a community in the richest sense of the word. I would drive north over the notch each day from the Mount Washington Valley, where nearly everyone hails from away, to a place where few chose to move unless out of options. But those who stayed did so with pride.

At the time, Berlin and the rest of the North Country were searching for whatever was going to support them next. The mills were shuttered and something had to take their place, but what? Prisons and biomass electricity were floated as options but lacked the economic steam to restart the engine.
But what about tourism? No individual North Country town had the assets to constitute a tourist haven, a hired consultant told them, but if the region as a whole banded together, it could be a market. The idea was to link the North Country’s three stately hotels — the Mount Washington, the Mountain View Grand and the Balsams Resort — in a campaign that sold the “Grand Hotels, Grand Adventure” alongside the region’s untrodden natural wonders like lakes, mountains, rivers and forests.

Berlin, however, was always skeptical. Tucked along the Androscoggin, it sits in a pocket removed from the namesake hotels. And, more important, as a blue-collar industrial city, Berlin has always looked at the tourism with suspicion. The stink of the former pulp mill was once the smell of good jobs, and any transition to the low-wage service jobs tourism brings would be a hard one. Mill work offered a middle-class living. The promise of a restaurant job or a gig as a whitewater raft guide is hardly analogous.

But in today’s economy, what other options are there? As rural towns decline, many are looking at their last remaining asset: their picturesque surroundings. North Country tourism moved forward, and Berlin grudgingly went along, never full-bore but willing to play the game.

Then the Balsams shuttered, and with that the trifecta that gave the “Grand Hotels, Grand Adventure” plans resonance came to a halt. How tenuous plans for selling yourself as a destination can be.

But as economic changes sweep across New England, tourism is repeatedly raised as the fallback plan. The mills close? Turn to tourism. The furniture factory goes quiet? Tourism. The industrial sector struggles (in Conway Village, for example)? Tourism.

But does tourism have the strength to take up the slack? As the modern economy recedes from rural areas, can visitors from away fill the void? It’s a question a small town on the Maine coast has been wrestling with, and the answers it has come up with look much like ours.

Boothbay is three hours to the east of us, a coastal community watching its working waterfront empty and its population dwindle. The town is hollowing, so what are they considering? Tourism. Specifically, a proposal to build a retail development complex distinct from the village district, installed around a redesigned traffic pattern that includes a roundabout.

Sound familiar?

Tourism North Conway-style is the new black, a solution for rural economic malaise, a unique intertwining that combines natural beauty with shopping centers in hopes of lifting all boats.

But is the economic mix that keeps the Mount Washington Valley afloat a prosperous one, something worthy of exportation? Is our brand of tourism the one to aspire to? And will it even work? Can the pull of shopping repeal stagnation?

Boothbay is already a tourist town, but it is a one-season destination, packed for July and August and otherwise quiet. It’s a far cry from North Conway, where skiing, foliage, mountains and rivers combine to create four seasons of visitors.

In looking at the attempted copycats, the uniqueness of the Mount Washington Valley stands out: Not every tourist destination can claim a year-round status. Our retail district is an important part of the draw, but its strength is that it exists as an accessory, a complement, the place to drop uninterested family members while everyone else goes skiing, paddling or hiking. It is not the focal point to which crowds flock. It is part of a whole package that makes us a destination. In isolation our retail district is but a shopping mall, and tax-free though it is, it would hardly qualify as a unique draw.

The same is true of any individual ski area, any single mountain. But pair each asset with the river, with the leaves ablaze in October, with sap running in springtime, the Scenic Railroad and the shopping, and suddenly a destination emerges. Suddenly North Conway has its the trifecta of grand hotels.

Not everyone has that. Not every place contains the mix that makes a destination. But as rural economies change, more will be looking toward tourism. The Mount Washington Valley model might find itself played on repeat.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

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Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize’s Tired Tourism

Belize-1050971Storms roll in each morning just after sunrise. The thunderclouds sweep the ocean and crawl up the beach, prolonging the night and laying soak rain across the sand, palm trees, patios and walkways. But it never lasts, the Caribbean sun quickly burns through and turns the air into steam. Placencia summers are sticky and dense.

The town juts out like a thumb, surrounded on three sides by water. It’s a town of sand and ocean breeze and falling coconuts, a Belizean paradise. Pink and yellow cabañas dot the beachfront. A quiet walkway parallels the sea. Shops selling conch shell jewelry abut seafood stands. Placencia is the real thing, the kind of sleepy backwater escape first-worlders dream of.

And so they’ve come. Tucked among the shops and stands and bungalows are restaurants advertising happy hour drink specials, pizzas and ocean views. ReMax realty signs dot empty lots proclaiming the ideal locations for vacation homes. Tour operators bark snorkel excursion and scuba trip information in the streets. Everywhere the signs of a bustling tourist economy call.

But if that bustle marks opportunity, it is growth that leaves Belizeans behind. The realtors are expatriates, as are most restaurant owners, tour operators and even many shop and stand owners. The face in the window may be Belizean, but usually the owner behind them is not.

“They want to own everything,” one Belizean food stand owner told me, “and to tell us what to do.”

Belizeans smile and don’t let on about the tension, but if you ask they’ll tell you: the best of their country feels taken from them. Expatriates are the new colonialism. They own the resorts and restaurants and tourist businesses. They buy the land for cheap, developed it in ways no local could afford and then hire on the former owner at sharecropper wages. They sell to tourists and export the profits, leaving Belizeans marginalized, pushed aside in their own country and unable to afford a home in the towns they grew up in.

But no one will tell you that. Everyone is too friendly, too polite. You have to ask.

It’s not a dissimilar story to thousands of other tourism destinations, the skyrocketing real estate prices and the foreign investors/developers. But in Belize for some reason it feels different. The expatriate-owned properties are billed as ecoresorts, a term that conjures images of local cooperatives, not exploitive practices. That such sustainability-focused businesses are environmentally conscious but socially bereft (or worse, intentionally abusive) seemingly runs counter to their mission. The idea of an expatriate-owned business helping elevate overall economic standards seems an empty one.

Without the infrastructure built by such investment, however, there wouldn’t be much in Placencia. The tourism economy was founded by those expatriates, even as they changed it. The economic prosperity of the peninsula is intricately tied to those foreign-owned shops, restaurants and hotels.

How do you balance growth with economic prosperity? How do you ensure locals have access to the kinds of jobs that feed a future? Is it a business owner’s responsibility? Government?

Owners, it appears, aren’t doing it, but at the suggestion of government Belizeans laugh. “They’re as bad as the foreigners,” they say. Politicians in Belize are notoriously corrupt, and everyday Belizeans know better than to look to them for relief. If a big house on the beach isn’t owned by an expatriate it’s owned by a government official. The path out of poverty, it seems, lies elsewhere.

Perhaps it is in education, notoriously underfunded in Belize but a possible path to something other than displacement and servitude. The cost of high school, however, is borne by families, to say nothing of college. In a country of 300,000 it’s hard to spread the cost of public necessities. College is not in everyone’s future.

These are the quandaries hidden beneath white sand and rum drinks. They are the veiled problems of paradise. Belizeans know that Caribbean destinations are only desirable if they are warm, inviting, happy, and so they remain beneath the surface—to do otherwise would threaten the few economic scraps available. So any tourist with $40 U.S. can land a cabaña on the beach and stare at the stretching blue Caribbean, sip rum drinks near the lap of waves on sand.

But that is the tourist economy today—one of displacement and denial, an economic scramble that leaves behind more people than it elevates.

Welcome to Belize. Welcome to the world.

Belize-1050964

 

CDS Column: The Cost to Learn

CDS Column: The Cost to Learn

IMG_0400The other day I came across a news release from my alma mater the University of Southern Maine: “USM hails turnaround,” was the headline, “Admissions numbers substantially up and budget balanced for first time in years.” Classes are full, and the university is in the black. Officials were upbeat; for the first time since the Great Recession the university is making money.

USM was hit hard back in 2008. There were cuts, layoffs, changes in leadership. Officials threw countless levers in search of something capable of putting things back on track, of making ends meet. Now they finally have good news: “The number of high achieving high school graduates attending USM this fall is soaring. ‘Last year at this time 16 admitted students who were awarded merit scholarships sent us a deposit,’” a school official said. “’This year that number is 216, and we expect the numbers to climb.’” Things are looking up.

I studied at USM a decade ago, graduated in December of 2007 in the calm before the financial firestorm. Those were flush days for the university, before a lot of tough decisions and belt-tightening.

Today in-state USM students pay $253 per undergraduate credit. That’s not much different than when I was there. Out-of-state tuition, meanwhile, costs $665 per credit. One year of classes and fees costs $8,920 per year for in-state students, while out-of-states pay $21,280.

An hour away, meanwhile, at University of New Hampshire, an in-state student pays $600 per credit hour. A year of tuition costs $14,410, plus an additional $1,607 in fees. Over four years those numbers add up, and the $60,000 price tag for UNH doesn’t include food or a place to sleep. College today is full of opportunity, including for students to saddle themselves with significant financial baggage barely into adulthood.

It wasn’t always this way. The prosperity of the American Century wasn’t financed by 18-year-olds; it was fueled by public investment. In the wake of World War Two former soldiers swarmed university campuses backed by G.I. Bill dollars. A generation later their children attended low-cost state universities, another gift of government dollars. These two generations—the Greatest and the Boomers—built success out of this community investment. They prospered, and America prospered. They grew in tandem, gains forged in the fires of collective investment in higher education. We were a nation of government-funded students and state-sponsored graduates, two parallel rails that fostered America’s transition from industrial nation to an economy interlaced with technology. Today forms of commerce unimaginable in the post-World War Two years are commonplace, built by this army of first financial aid recipients. Complex derivative industries now sustain us, and the grandchildren of people born before telephones reached a majority of households are finding jobs as ap developers for smartphone companies. Such is the growth in an educated society.

1140f-highBut those opportunities are becoming harder and harder to afford. Over the past 50 years education has changed. The opportunities have changed. Even as the necessity of a college degree has increased, support for obtaining one has dwindled. Political pressure has forced entities built on public investment to operate more like businesses, to focus on growing income streams rather education opportunities. School budgets once covered by government have been cut while the portion left for students to bear has ballooned. The task of educating, a responsibility once felt by all of us, has been privatized, individualized and handed off to the kids. Education has transformed into something you buy, and it’s no longer affordable.

How did this happen? How did investment in a strong workforce, with the stability and prosperity that it brings, become the responsibility of 19 and 20-year-olds? How did we so erode our public support of higher education that the costs now land on the shoulders of children?

Perhaps it is tied to the modern narrative around education. The story of school was once that of a tide that lifted all boats: No one lost by investing in education. Gains might be unevenly distributed, but society as a whole saw tremendous advancements as a result of rising standards. Better education meant better jobs, more wealth and general upward mobility. The trajectory was one of growth. Investment in education was a building block in creating middle class communities, an investment in a collective future, and a brighter one.

Today, however, that storyline is gone, replaced by a simpler tale. Today we are told education exists for the individual. It is a personal investment with personal rewards: the chance for more money and a better job. From a societal level there is little incentive to see others educated, as only the individual sees the benefits. Taxpayers, meanwhile, bear the expense. Society is saddled with the cost. For individuals college is an investment; for the rest of us it is an expense.

Such a shallow view of our society, history and economy. Education, like economics, is not a zero-sum game; with investment, the pie grows. There is no finite number of slices. Inventions like the internet and the iPhone revolutionize entire sectors, creating new opportunities and derivative markets that spill their way down the economic food chain. Exploding technologies may be built by engineers and computer programmers, but they create opportunities for accountants and janitors, lawyers and food service workers, CEOs and parking lot attendants. Everyone benefits. Education is no simple rising tide; it is a wave, a tsunami, a tremendous force for change.

We knew this, and for years we watched it work. For generations. The result was the American Century, a middle class revolution built on public investment in knowledge, creativity and growth. America led the world, leadership funded by all of us.

We could get back there, but not by ignoring the cost. We must spend wisely and choose which bills to make our own. Education is one that belongs to all of us.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

PP-1030179How long does it take to turn a ship? How long does it take to change course, to do something different, to avoid the metaphorical icebergs?

I say “metaphorical icebergs” because the risk of real icebergs is dwindling. It’s a warming world. Things they are melting, and there are real risks hiding behind the warmth: rising sea levels, drought, severe storms. These are the icebergs. Which of the levers do the turning? Does anyone understand the controls?

I spoke to ecologist Gene Likens last week, the scientist who discovered acid rain in North America. It took a generation to get from initial discovery to the passage of legislation aimed at curbing the pollution that caused it, or as Likens puts it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

There are important things to note in that timeline: his first study, for example, came out 9 years after the discovery, meaning 27 years falls to 18 from when the information was publicly available. And it wasn’t until a 1974 study that newspapers picked up the story. That’s when acid rain really became a household issue; now we’re down to 16 years.

16 years is not the generation 27 years nears. It is, however, a long time. Likens said his science faced pushback from industry. Entrenched interests like oil and coal rejected the premise they had any responsibility for acid rain. It took proving that link scientifically to end the argument.

Of course such proof is important—there is no use in regulating an industry innocent of the charges. If it wasn’t oil and coal those laws would have just been more wasted time.

But every day that passed was a lost opportunity. More acid fell from the sky. There is a saying that the only two days that are impossible to change are yesterday and tomorrow. A lot of todays, however, went by in inaction, todays that could have turned the ship.

arctic-death-spiral
Arctic sea ice volume since 1979.

Now we face a different iceberg. Scientifically climate change is undisputed. The argument over human involvement remains, but the planet is getting hotter. And every today gets us closer to whatever comes next. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps it is catastrophe.

Likens compared the struggle over acid rain science with what’s happening today with climate change. “The pushback was just like it is now,” he said, again pointing to entrenched interests. Another generation-long fight could be in store.

A decade ago An Inconvenient Truth exploded the conversation about climate change, much like the New York Times coverage of the 1974 acid rain report. So if we benchmark the two, we’re at 10 years. Maybe we can match 16; maybe some course alteration will come down in 2022. That is a long way off, but it’s also almost here.

And what would it mean? What would turning the ship at this moment do? Are we surrounded by icebergs already? Are the coming changes beyond our power to affect? Are we simply too late, caught in a disaster impossible to avoid?

Who knows.That falls to tomorrow, one of those days you can’t change. But we can change today. But to do that we need to have faith in science, something seemingly in short supply with some.

spiral_optimized
An illustration of global temperature change for the last 166 years.

Science is not the conspiracy of one man. It’s multilayered work, an exploration of chance, a process of search more than an answer. And while it can be mistaken (think of early experiments aimed to determine whether light was a particle or a wave—it behaves like both), those missteps are part of the process. The call is always daring to be proven wrong. Scientists strive for that, and yet climate change is not proving wrong.

Industry, meanwhile, as Likens pointed out has a mixed record, much more so than science. Tobacco companies, for example, showed the willingness of big business to subvert science for their own ends. Science’s agenda, meanwhile, has no choice but to bend toward truth. It’s built into the method, the practice of the discipline. It may be hard to put the two on a scale, but if you could the weight of replicable results would trump corporate claims, particularly when huge revenue losses enter the conversation. The skeptic sees industry with strong motivation to deceive; scientists, meanwhile, do not gain by being controversial, or by being wrong. They succeed by being right, precise and verifiable.

And these debates are the fulcrum on which the ship turns. Is there still time to spin the wheel? Even science doesn’t know. But we may all get a chance to find out. Tomorrow.

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

IMG_7896I love free pens.

As a reporter and someone who writes copiously in my free time, always scribbling in notebooks both for work or for myself, free pens are awesome. They’re like being sponsored—free equipment!

If I had a pen sponsor the company would have to be TD Bank. Their pens are basically my go-to: every time I pop in to deposit a check I grab one, maybe two. Green TD Bank pens are stashed in four different spots in my car, live in my computer bag, hide alongside my notebooks and ride shotgun all day in my front right pants pocket.

In exchange TD Bank gets lots advertisement out of me. The other day I was in line at the post office and a woman was looking around for a pen. I pulled one out of my pocket and handed it to her. “Keep it,” I said, “I get them for free.”

Cashiers and servers are often impressed when you pull your own pen out of your pocket to sign the slip. “TD Bank” — there it is again.

And there’s no feeling more satisfying than using a pen until it’s bled dry. When it scratches its way across a notepad, empty of its usual inky glide, I feel a sense of accomplishment: it’s proof I’ve dedicated a certain measurable amount of time to writing, that I’ve invested in my craft. Years ago I never used to run pens dry; I would lose them well before that was ever a risk. But these days I write enough that it occurs fairly regularly.

Lately, however, I’ve been looking askew at those stacks and stacks of pens. Every one I run dry makes me wince. I toss them in the trash after their last word and I hesitate: isn’t that a lot of waste?

Think about it: when I run a pen dry, it still works. The spring mechanism that clicks the point from retraction into action still operates perfectly. The plastic shell is intact. Even the ink cartridge remains. Everything about the pen is fine, still in perfect working order, it’s just out of ink.

But for my TD pens, this is the point they becomes useless. The only thing left to do is discard them, then swing by the bank to grab two more.

It’s a bit like driving a car until it runs out of gas and deciding to walk away: there’s no problem with the machine, but the liquid that makes it useful is spent. Fill up station? No, there are none of those.

When I just lost pens I never had to think about it—they disappeared without me ever considering their end. But when I’m running them dry, bleeding them to the point they have nothing more to give, I am forced to stare their untimely death in the face. And like I said, as a writer I find myself doing this a lot.

But then I go into my local TD Bank branch, where the bucket of pens is always full. From one perspective there is an endless supply; the cars will keep running out of gas, but there will always be another full one available. And apparently for free.

But really? Are these pens really “free”? I don’t mean in a monetary sense; I mean in the sense of consequences, in the sense of an endless supply. Plastic pens are not apples—they do not grow on trees. They are not the result of some miraculous act of nature that transforms sunlight and rainwater into ballpoint and ink. Pens are plastic, an oil-based technology. They require fossil fuel to make, and when they find their way into the garbage they do not decompose. They are offered up as free gifts, but the are only “free” in the banking sense of the word.

In the global sense, however, plastic is plastic, and it’s not going away. It is turning up everywhere: filling landfills, clogging up the oceans, killing wildlife. A new study found that microplastics—tiny shards of polymers now found throughout the world’s waterways—are stunting the growth of some young fish and killing others.

Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources, effectively starving them before they can reproduce.

The growing problem of microplastics – tiny particles of polymer-type materials from modern industry – has been thought for several years to be a peril for fish, but the study published on Thursday is the first to prove the damage in trials.

Microplastics are near-indestructible in natural environments. They enter the oceans through litter, when waste such as plastic bags, packaging and other convenience materials are discarded. Vast amounts of these end up in the sea, through inadequate waste disposal systems and sewage outfall.

“Convenience materials.” That sounds like my pens. And my grocery bags (I have two fabric bags, but I don’t always remember them). And my food packaging. It sounds like so much and so many of the everyday things we buy: toothbrush packaging and the toothbrushes itself; sunscreen bottles; electronic accessories; a new windshield ice scraper. Kayaks. Car parts. Tupperware. Printers. Plastics. Plastics everywhere. They are literally everywhere.

IMG_1043What does “disposable” mean? Where does “disposable” go? These are questions we don’t really wrestle with. There is not time to wrestle with them. They are big and unwieldy and quite frankly depressing. They seem too big to tackle, a societal issue that will never get solved.

But it has real implications. In the Pacific Ocean there is a patch of floating garbage roughly the size of Texas. It is called the Pacific Trash Vortex, a place where discarded refuse goes to swim. And as most of it is plastic, it will swim forever.

Add that to climate change, to ocean acidification, to coral bleaching and glaciers melting. There is a Texas of trash out in the ocean. And the Texas estimate is a conservative guess.

But I get free pens. So it’s convenient at least.

This is not someone else’s problem. This is something that is happening because of my doing, my contribution. Like so many of us, I live in a world of convenience. Like so many of us, I recognize I’m contributing to a bleak outcome but have no idea how to approach it differently. How do you change a society? How do we change our reliance on ease, find our way back to an era when what we “threw away” had a shot at actually going away? Even more basic, how do I change myself, my habits that make up a small part of the whole? Can I even do that.

That is ours to wrestle with, and we better wrestle fast: Trash Texas is growing. If our habits remain unchanged it will eventually cover the Earth.

I read a book recently by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. In the final chapter he wrote:

I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct.

What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed…

Watching another pen fall into the trash, I can’t help but hear his words echoing in my ears. I too wonder if we can outlast them unscathed.

 

Note: In researching this I found a place in California that recycles pens! Not enough to solve things, but hey, it’s a start. Also TD Bank recommends removing the internal mechanisms and recycling the plastic shell with other plastics. They were very quick in getting back to me:

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Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

IMG_5458Sometimes the economy and the environment are at odds.

In recent weeks I’ve been reading a lot about plastic, and plastics in the ocean in particular.

It started in April with a stop at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Wandering the exhibits I came across a pair of displays in the Sant Ocean Hall that caught my attention: two piles of trash. One was pulled from the stomach of a seabird, the other from the stomach of a whale. In each pile were hundreds of scraps—pieces of bags, bottle caps and boat parts—almost all of them plastic. Both animals died as a result of their ingestion choices. Plastics look bright and shiny, similar enough to edible tidbits these creatures have eaten for generations to be deadly. So they gobble it up. The result is a belly full of trash.

That was the first thing that got me thinking about plastic. Then I stumbled upon a “say no to straws” campaign highlighting the amount of plastic used each day for the completely arbitrary task of getting our drinks out of our glasses and into our mouths. It seemed absurd: like there isn’t another way to drink a drink? Is that really what we are doing, filling our oceans with garbage in exchange for saving us the trouble of lifting our glasses?

After a bit more research and a few conversations with friends I learned about this initiative:

 

Apparently the answer is yes, that is exactly what we are doing. Plastic is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In the ocean, ground up into little bits so small we can’t even see them, rolling among the waves.

That is plastic in the environment.

Then there is plastic in the economy. This morning a news piece from Marketplace.org called “The Next Global Glut: Plastics” popped up on my news feed. The gist is this: with crude oil prices at record lows production of oil-derived goods like plastic are going to increase.

Several new petrochemical plants are being developed, especially around Houston and Louisiana. Vafiadis said the high output from the natural gas industry in the U.S. makes it financially feasible for companies to spend billions of dollars in new plants. 

“There’s enough natural resources available to make the majority of the projects that are being considered today viable,” Vafiadis said. 

As new plants come online, global plastic output will swell. IHS expects that more than 24 million metric tons of new production capacity of polyethylene alone will be added to the market by 2020. About a third of that new capacity will come from the U.S. and will come online within the next few years.

Not mentioned in the story is with increased production comes increased disposal. The giant pile of trash already swirling in ocean will grow.

The environment and the economy—when it comes to plastics there seem to be two distinct conversations: one about growth, the other about impact. Watching these conversations unfold in tandem and without intersection is like watching someone with multiple personality disorder argue with themselves. It’s two halves of the brain unable to connect directly. There are questions of demand, but also of impact. Where is that, the complete conversation, supposed to live?

CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

CDS Column: Socialized Soldiers on Quieter Battlefields

Iraq-1020772The ceilings hung squat and low, traced by fluorescent lights dotted among recessed tiles. The hallway was dingy, scraped paint along bare walls and floors that wouldn’t shine no matter the scrubbing applied. Worn signs hung on the bathroom doors, faded now after too many handprints, only half the words now visible. Someone redrew the head on the men’s bathroom symbol, but they’d drawn it square. Inside, a black Magic Markered smiley face stared out.

It didn’t look like a hospital. Or it didn’t look like an American hospital, particularly not one in a major city. American hospitals are shiny and well-lit, with glass walls and artwork lining the corridors. They are regal, siblings to university buildings and museums and federal government offices.

But this wasn’t. What came to mind was Cuba — the dark hallways and simple plastic-upholstered seats lining the waiting room walls in the public clinics, the cement stairwells and overcrowding.

But even in Cuba the lines of patients move. People get seen promptly. Not here.

The emergency department was full. Some people stood along the walls. The woman behind the desk said it was a five-hour wait, maybe more.

“Busy day?” my friend asked.

“No,” the woman said looking apologetic. “This isn’t bad.”

We sat down beneath an overhead television. It was 1 p.m. The afternoon soaps were on.

Seven hours later, the evening news was coming to a close. Our wait also was ending.

Welcome to the VA system.

I’ve heard not every Veterans Affairs hospital is the same. Some, I’m told, don’t feel caught in the Soviet era. I don’t know; I’m not a veteran, and I’ve only ever been to one VA hospital. But that one visit was disturbing enough.

My friend and I were in San Diego. Our visits to California overlapped by a few days, so we decided to team up for some surfing, snorkeling and exploring the city.

But on day two she began complaining of lower back pain. An Air Force vet, she Googled the local VA services. There was a hospital on the outskirts of the city, just outside La Jolla Cove where we’d been snorkeling the day before.

She looked at me. “This should be fun,” she said.

Being a veteran, she knew. I did not. But within a few steps of walking in the door I understood viscerally. All the news stories I’d heard in recent years came flooding back, about long wait times and how the head of the VA had resigned and the system was again due an overhaul. It was akin to walking into an inner-city school — one look was enough to know the facility was under-resourced, that the job it was expected to do far exceeded its capacity. Long waits, substandard care, lost files and missed diagnoses seemed to ooze from every exam room. This was less a hospital than a holding pen. Prisons are better equipped.

And sitting there I had ample time to consider the string of ironies I was witnessing. Here I was in a VA hospital, and I kept having flashbacks to Cuba, a country where the population lives on a fraction of the American standard. But despite appearances, Cuban hospitals get better results. Their version of socialized medicine competes favorably with the profit-driven system employed by the United States, and it blows the VA system out of the water. I was looking at America’s finest — the soldiers, airmen, seamen and Marines of the U.S. military — as they were served up the worst of American health care. Some of them may have even served on Cuban shores, may have stood guard on Guantanamo Bay, Cold War warriors who fought the spread of communism.

What did they earn in return for their service? Socialized medicine.

It almost made me laugh: Fight in honor of American values and you earn guaranteed free government-run health care. “Oppose communism to secure your place in socialism.” I doubt that made it onto many recruiting posters.

But there is a tragedy hidden within the comedy: The modern American application of socialized medicine offers veterans few gifts. They give us their best, and we give them our worst. The VA system is known for wait times that sometimes outlast patients, for diagnoses that come too late. “Support our troops” seems to only hold until the fighting is over. After that we leave them to die on quieter battlefields.

The problem, of course, is not socialized medicine. Plenty of countries pull that off at a high standard — most of Europe, Canada, Costa Rica. But the United States has proven incapable at setting up its own system, even for soldiers. That U.S. soldier who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay may have done better to wander off base to see a doctor than visit the hospitals provided by their own government.

So, every day we rob veterans of what they have earned. We underfund and understaff and under-resource to the point of no return, to the point that servicemen and women die as a result.

It’s easy to blame the bureaucracy, to rest at the myth government can’t run anything well and move on. But that is a farce. Government-run health care works worldwide, just not here.

But the VA has to work. Not marginally, not sluggishly, but well. Efficiently. Smoothly, with dynamism and grace. We owe it to every American willing to pledge more than taxes and a vote every four years for his or her country. It may not have been on the recruiting poster, but it is the promise we made.

And we’ve failed. For a generation now we’ve failed. We’ve accepted the myth that government can’t work, that socialized medicine is doomed to fail, and our soldiers have paid the price for it. Sagging buildings and five-hour wait times are not the best we can do. Our veterans are worth more than that.

This piece appeared in today’s edition of the Conway Daily Sun.