Off the Cuff: September 2010

America is becoming more pessimistic.

I believe things have been going terribly wrong in this country, and we all feel it. Everywhere I go, there is an undercurrent of frustration and anger. It’s not just the economy, or the incompetence of the President and U.S. Congress. It’s not just the incompetent teachers and their unions, and the city councils and statehouses. It’s a feeling that anywhere we turn, nothing is working, and we’re completely helpless to fix it.

I recently read a column by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal that focused on the frustration:

“When the adults of a great nation feel long-term pessimism, it only makes matters worse when those in authority take actions that reveal their detachment from the concerns — even from the essential nature — of their fellow citizens. And it makes those citizens feel powerless. …

“Inner pessimism and powerlessness: that is a dangerous combination.”
The day after the Noonan column, the Inquirer began a terrific series on high-speed trains and how they’ve taken off in Europe. As I read how it’s now possible to zip from Madrid to Barcelona — 385 miles — in under three hours, given that the trains have a cruising speed of 186 miles per hour, my frustration boiled higher. High-speed trains are merely the latest example of how the rest of the world is passing us by; in America, we can’t even solve a problem as basic as getting our standard passenger trains to arrive on time.

High-speed train lines are being built all over Europe, not to mention India and Vietnam, and their impact is huge. As the Inquirer noted, “Fast trains are transforming the continent, bringing cities and countries within a few hours of one another, easing centuries-old regional divisions, resuscitating long-dormant towns, cutting air pollution, creating new economies and manufacturing jobs, and … making some air travel obsolete.” Meanwhile, in America, the Obama administration has allocated $8 billion to take a little look-see into giving our antiquated railroads a push.

This is a sad commentary on what we’ve come to accept. Our problem is not simply that the rest of the world has surpassed us in education, in technology, and in governance. America is being outdone in ways we barely recognize — we seem to be asleep as to how the rest of the world is rapidly changing.

Imagine getting to New York by train in 37 minutes, to Washington in an hour, across the state well before lunch! It would change the way we do business, and the fate of many of our cities. It would transform the way we live.

But it will never happen here. The problem isn’t money, though high-speed trains, especially in the crowded eastern part of the country, would end up costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The problem isn’t environmental concerns, or right-of-way problems, or technical challenges. All these things could be overcome, because we used to overcome those very problems regularly. The real issue is that we have lost our will to take on challenges and remain a leading light in the world.