Wednesday, October 27, 2010

China's New Bullet Trains Reminds Us U.S. is Standing Still

The front page of the Financial Times this morning shows off two science-fictionish-looking bullet trains that have just gone into service between Shanghai and Hangzhou. Yes, the People's Republic of China has just added two new cool super-fast trains to its network of rapid rail that, the FT informs us, now extends 7,430 kilometers. I don't know what that is in miles and am too lazy to look up the conversion, but I know it's a lot.

Meanwhile, California is still squabbling over building a north-to-south high-speed rail line in the state. The California version will travel slower than the 400 km/h of the Chinese trains, but much faster than the usual slow rail traffic in this country.

What's happened to us? Why aren't cutting-edge trains and bridges and skyscrapers being built here in the United States? Are we too lazy? (Okay, okay, so 7,430 kilometers equals 4,616.788 miles, and 400 km/h equals 248.54848 miles per hour -- so I've proven that Americans can reform.) Too cheap? Too worried about government spending needed to do giant infrastructure projects? Or – and I think this is the main reason – do we no longer care?

I can be tempted to sympathize with that last reason. I get easily tired of the boosterism of most people in most places, for whom being the biggest and best is a self-justifying pursuit. New Yorkers think they're the center of the universe. San Franciscans think they're the coolest people ever. Texans think nothing can't be made better by making it bigger and gaudier. And we'll easily get tired of the boosterism and the boasting of other countries, such as China's rapidly expanding national economy and ego.

But Americans' lack of interest in being cutting-edge on technology and infrastructure strikes me less as a modest and mature reaction to having achieved a great deal, and more like a rejection of the concept of advancement and technology (and science) altogether. I don't think it's a coincidence that our country's fundamentalist religions are gaining strength and political power at the same time as our country has lost its fascination with how the world really works. Instead, the new spiritualism seems more dedicated to defending how we feel things are, and that's not how science works.

You can't build a 248-mph bullet train without science. Jesus and St. Paul (and the Talmud and Dianetics and the Koran and every other religious source) didn't leave us directions on building bullet trains. That's okay. I don't want Deepak Chopra or Rev. Al Sharpton performing brain surgery or designing suspension bridges, and I don't want Sir Richard Branson or Steve Jobs giving me warmed-over Wired editorials as pop spirituality.

Defenders of America's drift often claim that China's able to do these giant leaps of technology because it has an authoritarian government. But Europe is filled with countries that are even more democratic than the United States, and they're building record-breaking tunnels and bridges and high-speed trains all across that continent.

Another tactic these defenders of staying put use is to argue that private enterprise will build these things in the United States, and we don't need government involvement and funding. If that were true, of course, we'd already have privately built high-speed rail here, but we don't. I'm all for a vibrant and expanding private sector; as I've written here before, I think one of the best things to happen to space technology has been the government's near-exit from the field and private industry's embrace. But let's face it: Private enterprise will be just as happy designing and building the trains and bridges and buildings in Asia or South America or wherever as they would be building them here. Whoever cuts them a check.

Yesterday I read these words by David Gergen, a longtime presidential aide and political commentator, that he spoke at The Commonwealth Club recently:
[T]he reason America became the number-one nation in the world was that we had the best educational system in the world. As of 1900 we were the most-educated people in the world, and we continued to improve the quality of education in this country right through the first decades of the 1900s. Every generation went to school on average two years more than their parents did, and that happened generation after generation after generation. As of the 1960s, we were number-one in college graduation rates in the world, and we had and continue to have the best universities in the world. But since the 1960s and ’70s, since that “Nation at Risk” report, we have actually gone downhill very rapidly. We are now number 15 in terms of college graduation rates. And you know a third of our kids are not finishing high school, another third finish but are not ready for college, not ready for 21st-century jobs, only a third come through the system. We talk about No Child Left Behind – it’s a joke; we are leaving millions of children behind. That’s because we haven’t come to deal yet with this chronic condition.
Gergen identifies part of this overall decline, which is we're just feeding less-educated and less-equipped people into the world, while other countries are equipping their students better and better, all to the betterment of their economies.

I want bullet trains. I want spaceships. I want new cures for diseases. I want giant windmills offshore powering my cities. I want supercomputers. And I want them here, in the United States, as well as elsewhere.

But I fear the tidal forces of culture and history are going to hold back America for a while, until this new wave of superstition has run its course.
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