February 08, 2011

High Speed Rail & Schizo-Politicosis

As I fumble my way toward my magnum opus, trying to define my topic, trying to describe the underlying connections between certain modern, media-related phenomena that have made our lives seem so alien to us...

One idea that keeps coming to mind, and I don't know how it relates to the overarching Theory of Everything, is that political discourse in America has taken leave of any lingering connection to reality in favor of an ideologically-driven style of "thinking" about all problems. As one example: as I played chess online, I listened with one ear to President Holograma's State of the Union Address. I believe at one point he voiced his support for high speed rail and talked about demonstration projects in different locations around the country. And the thought occurred to me: why don't you just build an intercontinental system? We have lots of unemployed people in the construction and manufacturing trades. We have tons of unused factory capacity, such as in Detroit (Michael Moore had the canny idea a couple of years ago that Obama ought to convert a lot of the auto manufacturing business to building locomotives and rolling stock for a national rail system, instead of propping up General Motors). Hire all those people and let's get to work. We need transportation. We need jobs. Air travel is a killer when it comes to carbon dioxide pollution. We need a way to get away from the single-auto mode of moving around.

Just build the damn thing. We must have the money, because we always find it when we need to invade the Middle East. Why can't we invade our own Midwest, say, with a high speed rail project?

It's right at this point that the insanity sets in. Immediately. First, everyone must consult their internal ideological gyroscope: is this Socialist, or is this Free Enterprise? That's the first cut. Obama must be very cautious (second nature to him) because he knows that Jim DeMint does not want anything whatsoever done that even sounds like government involvement in doing something other than building bombs. It might be better to "seed" private enterprise and just kind of hope that the private sector does it. The Obama Administration is sinking a whole $27 million into "promising" solar projects, for example. Imagine that. $27 million. And, over a very long period, $18 billion into high speed rail, if Congress will let him have the money after he's already out of office.

In China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain and the rest of the civilized world, they do not really detain themselves with ideological debates before they build high speed rail networks. It's assumed that such public facilities will require government support. They don't have to "pay for themselves." A Harvard economist named Edward Glaeser recently wrote a series of posts at the always-helpful New York Times in which he knocked HSR around because of its costs and other problems he foresaw. He used a hypothetical HSR line from Dallas to Houston for his model, which raised an immediate question in my mind: why would anyone in Dallas want to go to Houston? His hit pieces can be found here: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/high-speed-rail/ Thanks a lot for that, Mr. Glaeser, you buzzkill. The one thing I noted, in skimming through his analysis, is that all of his estimates are complete guesswork: cost per mile of construction, maintenance cost, everything. It's a complete GIGO situation that doesn't explain anything. After reading his blog posts, I had to ask myself whether it was simply a hallucination that I rode the AVE Spanish high speed train from Madrid to Seville, or the TGV from Lyon to Paris. Did those rides really happen, or can Prof. Glaeser correct my faulty memory? How were these other countries able to build these trains and continue to operate them?

I wonder if the free market extremists, in demanding that any good new idea always pay for itself, ever consider that the federal government currently taxes gasoline sold in this country to the tune of 18 cents/gallon, and that the money in this fund is used, among other things, to maintain the interstate highway system. Why don't the conservatives demand that the highway system pay for itself and refuse to drive on the nation's roads until they become self-sustaining? Why do we have a Federal Aviation Administration? Shouldn't the planes be allowed to collide in midair rather than risk doing something so obviously Communist?

Anyway, building a high speed rail system connecting all the major metropolitan areas in this country would really be something, which is why I suppose it has zero chance of getting anywhere over the next twenty years or so. We always begin every debate over doing anything with a very long, protracted discussion about which kind of "thing" it is, socialist, capitalist, anarcho-syndicalist, and expend all of our energy in this pointless drivel confirming everyone in their ideological purity. Then we move on to the next thing we don't do.

As I say, somehow this tendency, this increasingly ingrained habit of mind, has something to do with my Overall Theory of Everything. I don't think it will make anyone forget Godel's Incompleteness Theory, but perhaps 'tis enough, 'twill serve.

1 comment:

  1. Machipongo John4:42 PM

    As Gödel clearly stated in "Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme I",
    "Man geht nie von hier bis da auf dem Eisenbahn". I think that speaks for itself. Anyway, there is already an intercontinental railway system that was built in the 19th century. We have been busy tearing it up and converting it to jogging paths and parking lots ever since. The problem is, it is mostly owned by CSX, the freight company, and is capable only of traffic at no miles per hour. Passenger trains are strictly second class and must pull off to a siding whenever a freight train needs to use the track. Since the right-of-way is already dedicated (mostly) to railroad traffic, it would be just a case of fixing up the roadbeds and laying extra track for passenger trains. Of course, as Gödel said, it will never happen.