July 29, 2009

The Parallax of Nostalgia

I consider it one of my minor contributions to public discourse: coining phrases. This is much easier than research, after all, which is painstaking and time consuming. The parallax of nostalgia is the term I have settled on to explain that nagging problem which hinders so much in the way of progress in the United States: the belief in American Exceptionalism. Clinging to this delusion makes it very difficult to come to terms with what actually has to be done to rejoin the First World, instead of sinking into the debt-ridden obsolescence of a banana republic or Soviet-style collapse.

We can recall the parallax phenomenon from our geometry or astronomy classes, or we could if American schools still taught geometry or astronomy or if there were still American schools. Leaving such caveats aside - broadly speaking the parallax error is introduced by looking at a phenomenon from a different angle; for example, if you have a needle type speedometer, a passenger in the front seat may complain that you're going too slowly (particularly if he is an older Jewish person from New Haven now living in Florida). This error in perception is because the needle appears to be slightly to the left of the numeral which it is actually above because of the different angle of perception.

I borrow the parallax idea to explain the misperception about America so common to my generation and those older. In my case, for example, my mental matrix or "trance" concerning my Homeland (which we never called the Homeland then) was formed during the heyday of American dominance, the 1950s. At that time America stood astride the world like a Colossus. About 67% of everything manufactured in the world was made here, "Made in America" was a guarantee of quality, General Motors was not only the largest car manufacturer in the world but the largest company, period. Chevrolet, all by itself, was bigger than Toyota, Mercedes, Volvo, Fiat, et cetera. Militarily, no one could touch us, despite the hysterical ranting of the Right Wing and their lies about a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union.

Things have changed just a little bit. It's true that militarily we still stand alone, the result of concentrating almost all of our public resources on this one enterprise. For day to day living, however, there is a limit to the utility of a large store of hydrogen bombs. For many people who have never thought it through, the gross slippage in the quality of American life has been masked by this "parallax of nostalgia," the distortions caused by the attempt of a consciousness formed in another era to see the present.

A modest example. A few summers ago, I was in Germany with my daughter for a few weeks. Having 3 or 4 days on our hands at the end of the trip (she had spent most of her time with the exchange student from Ulm who had lived with us for a year and attended our local "high school," although her academics were hamstrung by the inability of the school's math or science departments to offer any course she hadn't already covered by the eighth grade), my daughter and I decided to take a train trip up the Rhine to see the cathedral in Cologne, as well as the superb modern art museum in that fair city. So we did. Our flight was scheduled out of Frankfurt on the third day, so rising at a reasonable hour that morning we boarded the Neubaustrecke - Koln/Rhein-Main Inter-City Express at the Cologne main train station. Color-coded squares along the platform told you exactly where to stand so you could easily board your car and take your reserved seats. These seats were leather recliners with reading lights, and everything in the car was scrupulously clean. The train covered the 177 kilometers (110 miles) in about 70 minutes. The ride was so smooth you were barely aware of motion. The train went directly to the Frankfurt Airport, arriving downstairs an escalator ride away from the check-in lobby.

This line was rebuilt between 1995 and 2002 at a cost of about 6 billion Euros, which in those days was about the same amount as in dollars. The engines had to be very powerful to maintain speed over some stretches where the train pulled a 4% grade, and of course the railbed needs to be buttressed to ensure safety at high speeds. $6 billion is about what the United States spent every three weeks in Iraq during the height of the war ($2 billion per week being the most often quoted figure). If you look to the clock on the right, you'll note we're inching up on $670 billion for Iraq at this point, and this is the simplest calculation of the cost - money out the door so far. Using my 1950s math skills, I conclude that the United States could have built about 112 Neubaustrecken of its own with the same money during the same time period, or about 12,320 miles of high speed track. This is enough to connect many of America's main metropolitan areas with German-quality Inter-City Expresses.

Everyone more or less concedes now that the Iraq war was simply an act of political idiocy. I don't think we often stop to consider how much our stupidity costs us. I could quit right there, but I noted recently that Tom Friedman, the "porn-'stached" columnist for the New York Times (Matt Taiibi came up with that absolutely priceless image), and a major cheerleader for the Iraq war, was writing one of his usual pugnacious columns about our "competition" with China where he noted:

"Eventually, I decided that the only way to respond was with some variation of the following: “You’re right. It’s your turn [to use dirty energy]. Grow as dirty as you want. Take your time. Because I think America just needs five years to invent all the clean-power technologies you Chinese are going to need as you choke to death on pollution. Then we’re going to come over here and sell them all to you, and we are going to clean your clock — how do you say ‘clean your clock’ in Chinese? — in the next great global industry: clean power technologies. So if you all want to give us a five-year lead, that would be great. I’d prefer 10. So take your time. Grow as dirty as you want.”

Clearly, Friedman has an advanced case of Parallax Nostalgia, yet he is the kind of "opinion-maker" who dominates our national conversation about such things. Earth to Friedman: the technologies have already been invented. Israel, Germany, Denmark and China lead the world in wind turbines, Germany and Japan have a huge headstart in photovoltaics, and China is already manufacturing all of this stuff. You're dreaming. That huge military establishment you're so fond of, enabling you to travel to all of America's "theaters of war," ensures that we're not going to clean anyone's clock, except maybe literally, as one of the "service industries" we specialize in.

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