Reboot! Reboot!

by wjw on December 24, 2008

(“Reboot! Reboot!” sounds like something a cartoon frog would say, doesn’t it?)

“Reboot!” is also what Thomas Friedman is recommending for the USA. (He had a lousy flight from Hong Kong, apparently. )

Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

The next day I went to Penn Station, where the escalators down to the tracks are so narrow that they seem to have been designed before suitcases were invented. The disgusting track-side platforms apparently have not been cleaned since World War II. I took the Acela, America’s sorry excuse for a bullet train, from New York to Washington. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to conduct an interview and my conversation was interrupted by three dropped calls within one 15-minute span.

All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us? What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity? Back home, I was greeted by the news that General Motors was being bailed out — that’s the G.M. that Fortune magazine just noted “lost more than $72 billion in the past four years, and yet you can count on one hand the number of executives who have been reassigned or lost their job.”

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode of “Dumb as we wanna be.” We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with tax cuts that we can’t afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars, public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating and immigration policies that have our colleges educating the world’s best scientists and engineers and then, when these foreigners graduate, instead of stapling green cards to their diplomas, we order them to go home and start companies to compete against ours . . .

und so weiter . . .

Lance Larka December 24, 2008 at 9:53 pm

I loved reading that piece this morning when I got up. What a perfect reminder of what we all have lost in this society over the last 30 (60?) some odd years.

I was reminded of the loss of civility yesterday and today as we drove to do some last minute food shopping in suburbia DC. I went out of my way to chat politely with every cashier and say excuse me to every shopper I had to scoot around with my basket. Not a single shopper acknowledged me. But the cashiers did and were very appreciative. I’ll take my good karma wherever I can get it.

I don’t think spending 700-1000 billion dollars is going to change people’s basic temperament, but I wouldn’t mind have a real bullet train to get around the country. Then at least I wouldn’t have to put up with the traffic on I-81 Friday.

Happy Holidays everyone.

captain-button December 26, 2008 at 3:38 am

ReBoot was a rather good CGI cartoon series back in the 1990s.

S.M. Stirling December 28, 2008 at 10:49 am

Show me a country with superb bullet trains, and I’ll show you one that has slower economic growth than we do.

Seriously. It’s a sign that they’re systematically misallocating capital. Our freight railways (which actually make money) do fine.

The French TGV system is a sinkhole that has hurt them a lot worse than Madoff did us (and he roped in a lot of supposedly conservative European bankers, too).

The US share of the world’s GDP is higher than it was in 1978, and this is the reason. Our capital allocation system works better. Note that everyone else screwed up just as badly or worse in the current credit crisis.

If people in Hong Kong (or elsewhere) really lived better than they do in the US, lots of Americans would go -there-, rather than vice versa.

Year in and year out, the US usually invests an amount equivalent to 16% of its total GDP and gets about 3.5% economic growth, which is well above the developed world average.

China invests about 48% of its GDP and gets about (discounting inflated government stats) about 8% growth.

In other words, it has to invest about 3x as much to get a bit more than 2x as much growth. It’s acutally worse than that because of China’s low TFP growth.

What declinist pundits are really complaining about is that the US is a country that isn’t set up for people like THEM and people like them.

Lance Larka December 28, 2008 at 5:56 pm

Those other countries do not need much economic growth as their populations are shrinking. This is a simplification for sure but it is the basic truth.

We subsidize our roads and cars in just the same inefficient way other countries subsidize high speed rail. Government spending on roads and highways is of course the biggest subsidy but even the tax credit on hybrid cars is a subsidy.

Our society made the decision to go for cars over rail is all.

I feel that this was a mistake. I lived in Germany for several years and never had a car. I either took the Subway, Metro, Bus, or rail to go everywhere…much like everyone in the US did prior to the explosion of suburbia post WWII.
I’m originally from San Francisco area and it’s a sad statistic that when the Bay Bridge (the one that crosses the Bay from Oakland to SF for those not familiar) carries fewer people per day now as a car-only bridge than when the old Keys streetcar system did when the bridge was a rail-only system and only a single deck (now it’s a double). These are the trolley cars that tourists love to ride in downtown SF. Before they ripped up all the lines the Keys system linked the entire bay area.

Regarding your point of economic growth I would point to a vibrant and protected middle class in Germany. The ratio of executive pay to worker pay is a reasonable 40:1 (or so) instead of our ridiculous hundreds or thousands to one. Our economics growth continues to go to the top end and has for the last 30 years. All of us not in that category are giving up our slice of that economic growth.

halojones-fan January 3, 2009 at 9:37 am

US Bullet Train? Hey, great idea. Once someone bombs one, trains will be exactly as annoying as flying. If airports had the same security as train stations, there wouldn’t even be metal detectors!

The fundamental problem with the US is not that we’re a capitalist society. In fact, the problem is that we AREN’T.

Americans have no immunity to mawkish sentiment, in the same way that Latinos have no immunity to theatrical bombast. Show us a commercial with sad grandpas and violin music, and we just go completely to pieces. We’re too sentimental to actually just be capitalist, so we end up with a sort of half-assed socialist setup.

SMS: “What declinist pundits are really complaining about is that the US is a country that isn’t set up for people like THEM…”

Exactly. I always wonder why, if America sucks and Europe is so awesome, these people don’t just…y’know…fuckin’ move to Europe already? Oh, right, because Europe won’t have them.

Lance: Roads aren’t “subsidized”. They’re paid for by user fees; gas taxes and DMV registration fees. (Except in states like California, which got addicted to the quick fix of dumping gas-tax money into the general revenue pot.)

“it’s a sad statistic that when the Bay Bridge carries fewer people per day now as a car-only bridge than when the old Keys streetcar system did…”

There are many explanations for the decrease in Bay Bridge traffic other than “hurr carz durr”. If nothing else, THE FREAKIN’ BART EXISTS NOW.

As a side note: Despite the ranting above, I voted to extend BART from Fremont down to San Jose. The only thing worse than a mass-transit system is a crappy underbuilt limited-scope mass-transit system.

Lance Larka January 3, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I have lived in Europe. I enjoyed it very much and had absolutely no trouble getting a work permit. Took all of 3 weeks. Pretty different from how the US does things.

BART is a great system if you happen to live close to a station and your destination is near one as well. When I lived in Alameda I had to go less than 10 miles to my job in Berkeley. To take BART took me 90 minutes from my door to my lab. Bus. Bart. Bus. Bus. Cost me $4 each day too. To drive took 20 minutes and cost less than a dollar in gas and all the other costs. I fully support expanding BART, but the system does have limitations. And we need to be honest with ourselves that there were better systems in the past.

The Bay Bridge traffic (actually what I said was the number of people that crossed it) is at capacity. It isn’t a matter of people choosing to take BART instead of driving reducing the throughput, it’s that there is no more capacity to use.

As for fuel taxes paying for roads completely, you’re wrong. In fiscal 2008 CA collected about $2.9 Billion for fuel taxes. DMV collects about $4 billion a year in registration fees. Caltrans 2008 budget was 14 billion. The difference came from general funds. And the 4b that the DMV collected also had to fund the DMV itself. Thus, even people who do not drive are subsidizing the roads. This doesn’t even take into account FedTrans.

I’m not even going to talk about the bond measures that keep being floating (ok, not so much in the last few months) to pay for public roads and bridge projects.

But if you want even more proof that we’re subsidizing roads go read the paper. Those “Shovel Ready” projects that every state is lining up to get money from the fed next year? Almost all are for roads and bridge work. 500b to more then 1 trillion dollars worth in 2 years. If it isn’t more.

That’s a lot of subsidies.

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