Monday, April 30, 2012

If you can't lie about high-speed rail, what's a metaphor?

At first, I wasn't going to bother with this article. It's in the Huffington Post, a liberal online publication, and generally, a supporter of high-speed rail.

However, the interviewer of Governor Jerry Brown and the author of this article raises some issues that warrant further attention and discussion.

We've covered this turf already. Jerry Brown, analogy lover, this time cites Chartres Cathedral. (For other silly analogies, he might also consider all the sand castles at the beach he built as a kid.) 

He asks and answers the question, how did the peasants pay for this cathedral?

"How did the peasants of medieval France afford to build the cathedral of Chartres?"

His answer?  "They did it slowly... they did it with community investment and a great belief in the future."

It's the wrong question and therefore the wrong answer. You would think that Jesuit-educated Jerry Brown would know better.

The peasants -- serfs -- of the Middle Ages could barely afford to survive, had no community outside of the Church and they certainly had no future. They could not and did not pay for building the great cathedrals; they had no disposable incomes. They owned nothing; they barely survived.  They lived a short, hard-scrabble life and endured staggeringly high mortality rates. 

The peasants worked the land owned either by the Church or the aristocracy. Their life expectancy was measured in decades.  They had no sense of time; they had no sense of any future except in the next world.

It was the rich nobility of the feudal aristocracy who owned the lands that built the great cathedrals to ingratiate themselves with the Catholic Church and to buy their way into Heaven. In effect, they bought "Indulgences," first-class tickets to Heaven. Princes and kings -- royalty -- contributed immensely to these multi-generational construction projects. As did wealthy Bishops and Arch-Bishops. It was, relatively speaking, a Theocratic world and culture. 

The great wealth accumulated by the Church also provided the building funds. In the later Middle Ages, the wealth of rapidly growing commerce centers, the cities, made investments in the Gothic Cathedrals that were to dominate their towns. Craft guilds became enormously rich; think woolens, leather, gold and silver, etc. They would buy and dedicate one 'transept' of a Cathedral to their guild, with appropriate sculpture and stained glass iconography. 

But, enough about medieval history.

What a mindless analogy. What's Governor Brown's point?  That we are those peasants who will chip in to pay for this Cathedral-Railroad to assure ourselves a future in railroad heaven? 

His other analogies are just as ridiculous.  The Panama Canal? The Canal that connected all transportation between the entire Eastern Hemisphere with the Western Hemisphere? Compared to this dinky 500 mile train from San Francisco to Los Angeles? 

Does our Governor even think about or care about what he says? Does he hear himself when he makes these off-the-top-of-his-head declarations?

Most of the analogies that the Governor has cited previously, such as the Transcontinental Railroad or the Interstate Highway System, either had sufficient funds in hand or were funded by a reliable source, such as in the case of the highway system by the newly created highway trust fund which collected gasoline taxes, as they do today.  

The Four Railway Robber Barons, Stanford, Hopkins, Crocker, and Huntington, received generous government loans and land grants and thereby made vast fortunes from the railway construction. Is this what Governor Brown sees as HSR's future in California?  A railroad built by self-aggrandizing venal greed? Lincoln wanted that train and threw a lot of federal funding at it. Much of it lined a few pockets.

And, by they way, it's not only the Governor who uses these irrelevant analogies so freely. Congressional Senators have done the same.

Are these the examples he seeks to emulate with the high-speed rail project? If so, he's going about it in a strange way.  There are no funding sources to build this train, not even the promise of all the many bilions that are required.

Or does Brown wish us to believe in this train as if it was our Cathedral as an act of faith, the provider of religious and spiritual experience? How stupid does he think the California voters are?

Is it to early to consider a recall movement?

For a smattering of that cathedral history, see also: 


Alison van Diggelen
Host, FreshDialogues
Can California Afford High Speed Rail? Jerry Brown Still Bullish, Likens it to Cathedral Building
Posted: 04/28/2012 8:06 pm

Governor Jerry Brown responded to questions from Fresh Dialogues Tuesday about high speed rail and electric vehicles at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group's CEO Summit in Silicon Valley. Is he still an advocate for high speed rail in light of pressure, negative HSR reports and the sorry state of California's budget? The emphatic answer is: YES.

And he's got a historic precedent to support his case -- from Medieval France no less.

"It's a very powerful idea that could become something of great importance to California," he said. "New ideas are never received as well as old ideas, but I think California is the one place where high speed rail can get its start for the United States."

But with California's budget in the red and more spending cuts on the table, can California afford to spend a penny on high speed rail?

The 74-year-old governor took a page from history and replied with a question: "How did the peasants of medieval France afford to build the cathedral of Chartres?"

He then enlightened Fresh Dialogues with this answer, "They did it slowly... they did it with community investment and a great belief in the future."

This echoes Brown's 2012 State of the State Speech in which he said, "Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking... I understand that feeling, but I don't share it because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here."

Governor Brown is thinking very long term. In fact, the high gothic Chartres Cathedral, famous for its flying buttresses, took almost 60 years to build.

But it's an unfortunate analogy. In the 13th Century, the cathedral's "free trade zone" was also the cause of bloody riots between bishops and civic authorities over tax revenues. An ominous sign indeed for the Governor of California. Plus ca change...

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