The dumbest thing ever said about ‘You didn’t build that’

Almost exactly two years ago, when Moment Magazine featured an interview with conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, the magazine’s cover described him as ‘One of the nation’s most loved/hated pundits’.

This post stems not from a feeling of love, nor from a feeling of hate. I feel no great need to defend Mr. Obama’s remarks – though I agree with them and believe they have been willfully misinterpreted – and I feel no great need to bury Mr. Krauthammer.

But I can say with absolute certainty that Krauthammer wrote the dumbest thing ever written about You didn’t build that not because I’ve read every word ever written on the subject, but because it was so certifiably stupid that it would be literally impossible to surpass. Without further ado, the relevant excerpt:

Obama’s infrastructure argument is easily refuted by what is essentially a controlled social experiment. Roads and schools are the constant. What’s variable is the energy, enterprise, risk-taking, hard work and genius of the individual. It is therefore precisely those individual characteristics, not the communal utilities, that account for the different outcomes.

Mr. Krauthammer’s infrastructure argument is easily refuted by the minimal application of brainpower.

I could proceed in any number of ways, but I’ll do so from personal experience: As you may or may not know, I spent some time last year volunteering in Nepal with an Israeli NGO called Tevel b’Tzedek. And I can report without hesitation that roads and schools are anything but a constant.

Here’s a picture of the road winding its way through Sundrawoti, the village where I lived. The voyage from the Kathmandu to Sundrawoti lasts anywhere from six and eight hours along a terrible, twisty, bumpy, windy road — in other words, six to eight hours of pure misery. Every bus, bar none, was filled with vomiting Nepalis – out the windows, over the side of the roof, onto each other – and I traveled only in the Spring, when the length of time since the monsoon last rained landslides was at its greatest.

I once took a video from atop a Nepali bus so I could more easily convey what the roads there are like:

As for schools – here’s a short post I wrote about Nepali education.

And if you don’t feel like clicking through, these three things are basically all you need to know:

  1. the village school was built along a ledge that will likely collapse in a landslide sometime over the next few years,
  2. one of my co-volunteers once showed up to her kindergarten classroom only to discover the students locked inside and no teacher in sight, and
  3. they once let me run a classroom (the full story is considerably more horrifying than that seven-word summary could hope to convey).

Unless Krauthammer thinks Nepalis and Americans are of a fundamentally different breed — and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he does not — it’s difficult to argue that the availability and quality of roads and schools approaches anything like a constant.

I could describe similar discrepancies within the United States – indeed, within individual cities – but I think Krauthammer would concede that the Sundrawoti education system is not likely to produce a success story of the type he would celebrate as the product of only energy, enterprise, risk-taking, hard work and the genius of the individual. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask one of those successful Americans:

If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.

– Warren Buffett



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