America's terrible trains are an ideological triumph

America: Home of the political party formed on the idea that government is inefficient who, once in office, dedicate their public careers to proving themselves right.


Reading through the attached article.

“The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet
trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks;
it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these
things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would,
when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to
build a better terminal.”

I’ve been thinking for a while of this image I have of the Platonic Ideal of the modern Republican: that of a mummified corpse in the midst of a scorched desert, with a grin on its dessicated lips, because he poisoned the waters of “his” oasis rather than let anyone else benefit from it, and died of thirst with a smile.


Part of the whole “ideological mirror twin” thing is the fetishization of “free markets.” Like the Communist Dialectic, or for that matter Catholic Doctrine, free markets will give you an answer to just about any question. But with all of the above mentioned systems, people think that the system that they believe in always provides the “best” or “right” answer. Capitalism and Communism are at an essential level amoral. Which is not to say that either is inherently evil, but you should not rely on either one for moral decisions.


…regardless of what that answer is. If the answer is crumbling bridges and failing schools, well that’s just what the Free Market gave us, so it must be the best we can get. It’s like an insane hybrid of Ebenezer Scrooge and Dr. Pangloss.


For me, that’s one of the big lessons of the recent Amtrak tragedy.

Officials said Amtrak had made installation of the congressionally mandated safety system a priority and was ahead of most other railroads around the country.

But the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.

Good old free market, allowing squatters to delay progress and the public good.


Given recent history - for example, the Boston Big Dig and the $11 billion price tag for a new NYC bus terminal - it’s clear that there is not enough money to build high performance trains in the USA absent the hiring of a magic dwarf who can spin straw into gold.

The announcement of such a project would attract a sky-darkening swarm of featherbedding consultants, bureaucrats looking for another two decades of locked-in “work”, cost-plus contractors, and NIMBY protest groups with their attorneys, all well equipped with wallets full of political grease and ready to settle in for the long term like lampreys hooking into a fat sea trout.

Five years in, not a mile of track will have been laid, the cost estimates will have quadrupled, and taxpayers will be screaming to be let off the hook.

Everyone knows this. And this is why you can’t have nice trains.


This is a useful counterpoint, but none of it explains why other place do have nice trains…

That is to say, are these problems unique to the United States (perhaps a product of our unique blend of government funding and private contracting)? Also, don’t cars and their attendant roads come with an equivalent set of messiness?


Isn’t irony just a liberal conspiracy to cast scorn on the authentic wisdom of the simple folk(when it isn’t being exploited by shrewder operators who have learned that people busy reveling in the ironies of their opponents ideological projects are conveniently passive about actually resisting them)?


These problems are not unique to the United States. Plenty of third world countries have just as much of a graft culture as we do.

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I don’t think calling this ideological project irrational fully understands it. The dismantling of the post war Keynesian state did serve rational ends for those who did it. Sure, the lack of major public infrastructure funding might reduce economic growth in aggregate, but the removal of the redistribution mechanisms that made it possible allowed virtually all of the smaller amount of growth to pool at the top. Basically it was a choice between bigger gains overall but more equitable distribution, or smaller gains yet highly concentrated distribution, and the wealthy picked the latter. They will always pick the latter.

That said, adherence to this ideology is going to generate some amount of irrationality in terms of wealthy people picking political stances that conflict with their immediate individual best interests, but on the whole it is very rational for the rich as a class.


This is wildly inflated by a pair of governors who don’t want to spend the money. So it becomes magically “too expensive.”

When the Calatrava PATH hub is a quarter of the price at five times the size, I’m not buying 11 billion for a bus terminal, especially when it contains a money-making parking lot. Last summer it was one billion. Now? Magic!


The US is hardly the only place in the world with dysfunctional contracting; but I suspect that the ideological project issue actually has a lot to do with it:

When you run on the platform that ‘government is dysfunctional and wasteful, so it has ever been.’ you not only have an excuse to avoid infrastructure projects, you look more accurate the worse you perform on any projects that you do undertake(in addition to having the chance to feather the nests of useful friends).

If you run on the platform of ‘our society deserves great infrastructure and I will accept no less’, you look more incompetent the worse you perform. Doesn’t mean that you won’t run into project management issues(project management is hard), or that the projects won’t be expensive; but there is no built-in sympathy for failure.

It’s analogous to military contracting during WWII vs. today: I strongly doubt that every WWII contract was a success, that every contractor refrained from a bit of grifting of the public purse, or that various projects didn’t go off the rails either on cost, delivery time, or performance. However, had the ‘liberty ship’ construction effort followed the trajectory of the ‘littoral combat ship’ or the F-35, it is unlikely that some impotent sighing about inevitability and a few mordant comment pieces in obscure wonk pieces would have been the extent of the displeasure. Hell would have been paid; because both the popular and governmental view was that We Are Not Messing Around Here. This is not a makework project for raytheon, you screw this up, you fail the nation and the troops, etc.

That’s the big advantage of not having an ideological commitment to failure: it doesn’t assure you that everyone will rise to meet your expectations; but it at least gives them a reason to try.


What it sounds like you are saying is that in order to make these projects work, you have to fire those who fuck up.

I could not agree more.


Unless they overdo it. Plundering the public purse is fun and profitable, and being the upper crust of society is a non-stop party; but if you go too far, you realize that, for all your assets, all your powers, all your privileges, you can’t step outside the razor wire and private security forces surrounding your compound without your soft, fleshy, all-too-human body being painfully vulnerable to the grim non-society you’ve created(and if there is one depressing lesson to be learned from history, it’s that the squalid, angry, and desperate have a more or less unlimited supply of squalid angry desperation, the poor bastards, while your ‘security forces’ always have a finite budget and willingness to continue fighting).

As much as they seem to be rushing to replicate the model, this seems to be one of the things about (parts of) the united states(also a big factor in the London real estate boom) that the global ultra-wealthy recognize, explicitly or instinctively: There are yawning inequalities, and guard labor and defensive architecture to match; but compared to the countries that they’ve looted wholesale, you are still relatively unlikely to be executed if the political winds shift, or kidnapped by militants, or need to be flown out of the country should you require medical care.


This idea of Capitalism (with a capital C) as the mirror image of Communism seemed to have a lot more currency in the sixties and seventies; I’ve read more than one book from that era that seemed to treat it as a well-known idea.

I think what changed, and arguably this was when Western politics took sick, was when people started to unironically describe their politics as “capitalism”. The broad political consensus evolved over the last 800 years had based on liberal commerce but also on individual rights and social responsibility. “Capitalism” is a word coined by… um… Karl Marx to critique one particular, poisonous aspect of that society, but Reagan and Thatcher decided they liked the sound of his dire predictions and set out to make them come true. So now we live in Marx’s vision of the future, only it’s the dystopian counter-example rather than the utopian communist version.


I initially read this as, “America’s terrible brains are an ideological triumph.” I thought it would be an article about how the education system fails us by design to keep Americans from realizing how good they could have it. Weirdly, I ended up reading the exact same story, just a different angle.


Of course, because those are some places where neoliberalism has been allowed to run amok…


Oh yeah, it’s not politically sustainable over the long term. Won’t stop them from trying however, and to a large extent the globalization of the last 30 years will protect them better than all the guard labour and defensive architecture of yester year. Capital is global now, but those who want to expropriate it are still stuck on a national level. So long as a significant part of the world remains open to doing business as usual, those countries that try alternatives will find themselves isolated and punished by world markets. Though we’re nearly at the point where the mildest of post war social democracy is seen as a deviation to be punished.


I wonder if you noticed, there is a tacit admission about ideological success in this very comparison.


Ah, cost-plus military contracts.