Sunday, August 7, 2011

High-Speed Rail: A religion you can believe in

In the interests of honesty and full disclosure, this blog is written by a Democrat who reads the New York Times daily. It's also written by a Democrat who strenuously opposes High-Speed Rail.

This article from the Op-ed pages of the NYT this Sunday is by Frank Bruni who talks about how many of our political beliefs have little or no substance in rationality or empirical evidence, but are based on "magic."  It's a religious thing, as I've been saying about the high-speed rail supporters for a long time. 

That's why this article is so informative.  It explains this phenomenon and we can easily see how high-speed rail advocacy, with the pile-up of facts clearly indicating that it's a bad idea for California, persists in the same way that religions persist, despite evidence to the contrary.

High-speed rail continues to be oversold, a panacea for every imaginable problem and national illness. You already know the litany.  Indeed, the Democratic Party agenda for the upcoming Transportation budget fight in September is based on a budget for repairing unemployment and bolstering an ailing economy.  Why it would take the construction of a high-speed rail to achieve that and nothing else, remains one of those religious mysteries.

It's so simple, so clear.  And that's a pre-requisite for such magical ideas. Whatever HSR is, it's the best; the fastest, the most luxurious, the most appealing, and, of course, the most expensive. It's not a broad, complex, sweeping policy of fixing this bridge, repairing these potholes, maintaining those tracks, improving this airport, adding those lanes, tracks and runways around the United States.  That's too diffuse and never benefits politicians running for office.  But a shiny, photogenic train; that's different. It's almost a form of eyeball-attracting pornography by another name.

And how do we elevate the status of this universal solution? By listing all the problems -- real problems -- it will solve.

Unemployment?  It will create life-time, high-paying jobs in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.  Environment?  It will scrub the environment of all pollutants, and at the same time, use no carbon fuels, especially if they come from the Middle East. Traffic? With high-speed rail, there will be open (although in poor condition) highways since most car traffic will disappear; most people will be taking trains rather than driving.  The airlines will also suffer for lack of passengers who now opt for rail travel, since -- we are promised -- it's faster.  

The train becomes the equivalent of the caped, crusading super-hero, the fixer we all long for and the fixes we can't do for ourselves.

Is the comic-book immaturity of such faith not apparent?  Is this not the 21st century version of snake-oil? As Bruni puts it so well, it becomes faith-based high-speed rail and we challenge it at our risk.  In previous blogs, I've cited a book, titled, The Locomotive God.  That title is apt when conjoined with the idea and vision of high-speed rail.

August 6, 2011

True Believers, All of Us

ALMOST from the moment it was announced, Saturday’s enormous prayer rally in Houston drew widespread attention and remarks — for many reasons.

It was championed by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, whose flirtation with the presidential race is genuine as opposed to Trump-ian. It summoned tens of thousands of evangelical Christians, with whom we journalists become triply fascinated whenever the Republican primaries roll around.

Above all, it presented a spectacle that — let’s be honest — most of us in the news media don’t really get. Seeking relief from the country’s woes through a louder, more ardent appeal to God strikes us as too much hope invested in too magical a solution. It suspends disbelief and defies rigorous reason.
But if we stick with this honesty thing, don’t we also have to admit that to varying degrees and with varying stakes, there’s magical thinking in secular life, and that it springs from a similar yearning for easy, all-encompassing answers? Didn’t the debt-ceiling showdown show us that?

That battle was defined largely by the unshakable, grandiose convictions of low-taxes, small-government puritans in the House, for whom Cut, Cap and Balance wasn’t so much a three-pronged wager as a holy trinity, promising salvation. While it’s inarguable that government has a tropism toward waste, and while tax increases should indeed be preceded by an inquiry into other options, the adamancy of the puritans’ position flew in the face of what many economists say, and it brooked no dissent. It felt more like theology than science.

“Particularly on the conservative side, we’re seeing a lot of beliefs that have this faith-based quality: ‘We know it’s true because our ideology tells us it’s true,’ ” said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University, when I raised the subject with him on the phone last week.

Faith-based is right. We all have our religions, all of which exert a special pull — and draw special fervor — when apprehension runs high and confusion deep, as they do now. And if yours isn’t a balanced-budget amendment and a government as lean as Christian Bale in one of his extreme-acting roles, it might well be a big fat binge of Keynesian stimulus spending. Liberals think magically, too, becoming so attached to a certain approach that they wind up advocating it less as option than as panacea.

It has always been thus, all around the world and all through history. Marxism was supposed to be the answer to everything. Prohibition was supposed to redeem America, and unionization was supposed to guarantee a decent life for workers forevermore. Not all worked out exactly as planned.

Even lesser, more specific initiatives command a reverence out of proportion with actual facts. Look at the early-education program Head Start. Unimpeachable in its goals and seemingly sound in its logic, it’s one of the most celebrated, cherished antipoverty initiatives of the last half-century.

Discussion about it has almost always centered on how best to protect or, ideally, expand it, because it so surely accomplishes such great good.

Except maybe it doesn’t. As Joe Klein reported in Time magazine earlier this summer, a comprehensive impact study for the Department of Health and Human Services raised questions about whether Head Start in its current form had all that much lingering benefit to its participants. That the department did so little to acknowledge or publicize these findings suggests the extent to which the program is considered gospel.

In government and so much else there are a multitude of options to weigh, a plenitude of roads to take and a tendency to puff up the one actually taken, because doing so squelches second-guessing and quells doubt.

“The minute you decide to buy the Toyota, your evaluation of it goes up,” said Jon A. Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies attitude formation. “You overly romanticize it.”

The same goes for religious creeds, political theories or, for that matter, management philosophies. 

Corporate America embraces one eureka approach after another, be it employee ownership or management by objective or the cult of the charismatic C.E.O., and when such movements begin, “They’re considered like the invention of fire,” said Eric Abrahamson, who teaches at Columbia University’s graduate business school. “They do everything, they work everywhere, with great consequences. Just like religions, they give a whole explanation of the world.” That is, until they are swept aside in favor of the next movements, to be clung to as fiercely and blindingly as their predecessors.

Clarity seduces. So does simplicity. We don’t want to hear that different skills produce different results in different contexts, but rather that there are “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” the number specific, finite. We like to believe that triathlon training will trump genes and keep all major illness and minor sagging at bay, and that the metabolic alchemy of a cabbage-soup diet or a no-carb diet or some other diet will work wonders and obviate humdrum moderation. Magical thinking, all of it.

Want a box-office smash? Just cast Tom Hanks. (Unless it’s in “Charlie Wilson’s War” or “Larry Crowne.”) Or get Julia Roberts. (Ditto.)

Want baseball dominance? In the early half of the last decade, the sport became obsessed with “sabermetrics,” an entirely fresh way of analyzing player statistics to predict future performance. It’s the subject of the Michael Lewis best seller “Moneyball,” a movie version of which, starring Brad Pitt, is expected this fall. Sabermetrics survives and is used today, but it lost the holy-grail aura once accorded it. Tellingly, its zenith coincided with a time of much angst in baseball over the disparate financial resources of big-city and small-city teams. It was supposed to make the latter more competitive. It was supposed to proffer the prescriptive.

And right now, with the stock market floundering and our credit rating downgraded and millions of Americans stranded in unemployment and Washington frozen in confusion, the temptation to look for one summary prescriptive — for certainty, even miracles — is strong. We’d be wise to resist it. To get us out of this mess, we need a full range of extant remedies, a tireless search for new ones and the nimbleness and open-mindedness to evaluate progress dispassionately and adapt our strategy accordingly. Faith and prayer just won’t cut it. In fact, they’ll get in the way.
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