A FIRST-RATE THIRD-RATE COUNTRY

Posted in Rants on October 12th, 2010 by Ed

I rarely find compelling anything Bob Herbert has to say, but today I came dangerously close to cut-and-pasting this in its entirety to ensure that you will read it. I'll restrict myself to an excerpt and some strong encouragement (really, read it).

We can go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threaten to blow Iran off the face of the planet. We can conduct a nonstop campaign of drone and helicopter attacks in Pakistan and run a network of secret prisons around the world. We are the mightiest nation mankind has ever seen.

But we can’t seem to build a railroad tunnel to carry commuters between New Jersey and New York.

The United States is not just losing its capacity to do great things. It’s losing its soul. It’s speeding down an increasingly rubble-strewn path to a region where being second rate is good enough.

The railroad tunnel was the kind of infrastructure project that used to get done in the United States almost as a matter of routine. It was a big and expensive project, but the payoff would have been huge. It would have reduced congestion and pollution in the New York-New Jersey corridor. It would have generated economic activity and put thousands of people to work. It would have enabled twice as many passengers to ride the trains on that heavily traveled route between the two states.

The project had been in the works for 20 years, and ground had already been broken when the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, rejected the project on Thursday, saying that his state could not afford its share of the costs. Extreme pressure is being exerted from federal officials and others to get Mr. Christie to change his mind, but, as of now, the project is a no-go.

This is a railroad tunnel we’re talking about. We’re not trying to go to the Moon. This is not the Manhattan Project. It’s a railroad tunnel that’s needed to take people back and forth to work and to ease the pressure on the existing tunnel, a wilting two-track facility that’s about 100 years old. What is the matter with us?

I wrote about this exact topic back in March in response to the stimulus bill's curious lack of emphasis on repairing our nation's crumbling basic infrastructure. If anything, Herbert understates the problem. It isn't merely that we can't build a new railroad tunnel; we can't even keep what we have from falling apart. At one time we didn't think any challenge – technological, economic, military, or social – was too big. Now, in the misguided belief that penny-pinching is going to solve our problems, everything is too big.

How pathetic is this? There is a fine line between American Exceptionalism – the swaggering hubris that accomplishes nothing positive – and a healthy optimism. Everywhere we see the signs not only of three decades of lousy political leadership but of giving up anything resembling concern (let alone hope) for the future. We gut forward-looking investments like education and healthcare because we don't give a flying shit about tomorrow. We hear nothing except how we can't afford anything…and who among our neighbors we should blame (Unions! Welfare queens! Mexicans! The elderly! Greedy GM retirees! Teachers! Doctors! Lawyers! EVERYONE!!) Of course we believe we can't accomplish simple goals when we're bombarded with a carefully orchestrated campaign to make us hate each other.

To paraphrase Jimmy Carter's famously unsuccessful speech, we've sunk into a deep malaise.** It's so deep that keeping a public school open or fixing century-old urban infrastructure seems impossible. And there's no need to do any dramatic soul-searching to figure out why and how it happened. Generally speaking, when I can plausibly tell a group of people that their pessimism has gone too far, it's not a good sign. It's time to face the fact that we could build the stupid tunnel if we wanted to, just like we could give everyone healthcare, old age financial security, or a decent education if we wanted to. The problem is that we don't want to. We don't want to because we're depressed, because we're constantly told we can't, and because we don't give enough of a crap about one another to care who goes without what.

**If you're ever in a trivia contest, note that the word "malaise" appears nowhere in Carter's "Malaise speech."