Friday, November 14, 2008

Costa Rica: Some Thoughts

Over the past few days I posted the details (and some photos) of our trip to Costa Rica. Now's the time for some reflection.

First, for those who want to read the posts in chronological order:
Day 0
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

My first thought is that Costa Rica lived up to its billing. Great climate and lush greenery everywhere. The people really are friendly. The cost of living is very low, and I can see why so many Americans retire there. We talked to one couple who travel to Costa Rica because it's cheaper than Mexico. Fancy restaurants in Costa Rica cost less than everyday sitdown restaurants here in Albany, and the food is excellent.

The petty crime problem is a turn-off. In most of the US you can park your car and not worry about someone breaking into it. In CR it's apparently so common that you're an idiot if you leave anything in your car. This is a challenge for a country that is relatively poor (compared to us) and that has an admirable practice of avoiding too much incarceration.

Costa Rica seems to have everything going for it - a good education system, great climate, and so much more. But while their economy is fairly strong by Central American standards, they're still way behind us and well behind Mexico.

So what's different about Costa Rica that holds its economy back? The first thing that comes to my mind is infrastructure. It stands out most when it comes to the roads. Imagine driving on a major highway and having to stop for a one-lane bridge. They have a lot of these in Costa Rica. Nearly all their roads are one-lane each way.

Here in the US (and in Europe and Japan as well) infrastructure makes all of us more productive. It is far easier to get to Boston from Albany (170 miles) than it is to get from San Jose to Jaco (73 miles). All the time that Ticos (the nickname for Costa Ricans) spend in cars is time they could spend being productive.

You see infrastructure take different forms in different places. Here in the US a lot of it is roads. In Japan and Europe you see extensive train networks. And that's just the transportation infrastructure. I've read about significant power outages in CR (though we didn't see any). Power outages are pretty rare in the US, and I don't remember any when I lived in Japan. That's an infrastructure issue.

When I complain about government wasting our money on this blog, I usually don't complain about infrastructure projects. There was the infamous bridge to nowhere in Alaska. But it's important to realize that infrastructure investment has strong benefits. It doesn't have to be built by the government. In fact, they are building a new road in CR to the Jaco area, and it's being done by a private consortium who will get their money back by charging a toll. This might be a better way. But even if it's built by the government, it's better than blowing that money on misguided wars or other boondoggles.

I also get the sense that the "rule of law" is not followed as tightly as it generally is here in the US. I used to work for the Honorable Robert P. Best, a Justice of the Supreme Court in Fulton County. On Law Day (May 1st) he would talk about the importance of the rule of law. As I grow older and learn more in life, Judge Best just keeps getting smarter.

Having sensible laws that are enforced in a consistent manner is a very important trait of a civilized society. When people are subject to arbitrary government, they are less willing to invest and make plans for the future.

Back to Costa Rica, I really wanted to go to the northwestern part of the country, to visit the Guanacaste coast (near the Papagayo Peninsula) and also to the Arenal area (a nice lake and an active volcano). But that would have been difficult for a short trip starting from San Jose. There is a closer international airport in Liberia, but it's not easy to get to that airport from Albany. If and when we go again, we will fly into Liberia and see that part of the country.

Some other thoughts:

- I was a bit surprised about how pedestrians walk so close to traffic. Seems very unsafe. We would see someone walking with a very small child, perhaps 2 or 3 years old, and the kid would be walking right on the edge of a narrow road. I think there are a lot of car-pedestrian accidents and those are the most deadly. Not sure how easy it would be, but I suspect CR would be better off if they improved pedestrian safety, both through education and widening roads.

- We saw a lot of dogs, especially small dogs. Not sure why, but I'm guessing they provide some degree of security, barking in case someone tries to break into your house.

- I read an article in the November 7 Tico Times called "Disarming Young Ticos". If I remember correctly, there are less than 50 juveniles incarcerated in this country of 5 million people. That's amazing in contrast to the US, where we probably have more than that in Albany County (population less than 500,000). The US grossly overuses incarceration as a policy tool. Will we ever find our way out of this trap?

Do you have any thoughts about Costa Rica? Please post your comments.

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