It Doesn't Have To Be This Way

The high-speed train that connects Shanghai and Beijing covers the roughly 1,100 km in a bit over 4 hours. Jen Zhu Scott, the Hong Kong-based technologist pointed out that this is comparable to the 1,300 km that separates Boston and Chicago, yet the trip on Amtrak takes 21 hours and 35 minutes and costs twice as much.

Some people replied that, sure, China’s high-speed trains are far superior to ours (we don’t have any to speak of) but we chose to rely on air travel. But the comparison still doesn’t favor America. The flight between Chicago and Boston is just shy of 3 hours and that doesn’t include showing up at the airport an hour or two early, waiting for bags upon arrival, or the serial indignities when passing through security, let alone driving into Chicago from O’Hare or into Boston from Logan. No matter how you slice it, China’s train is faster and cheaper.

But this isn’t an argument for trains or against air travel. It’s about what’s possible. China has been investing a lot of money in infrastructure for the past few decades. They had to as part of modernizing what was a largely agrarian society not so long ago; and one that had borne the added cost of war and then Maoism. The result is that today, China’s infrastructure is often far superior to that of the United States. Have you been to Los Angeles International Airport or JFK in New York? They’re the gateways to America for people coming from abroad and they’re national embarrassments. Likewise, the Chinese power grid was built with newer smart technology that makes it more efficient and anti-fragile than our own.

Contrast this with America’s recent experience with big projects of all kinds: infrastructure, technology, politics, foreign policy. California’s high-speed rail project is a case in point. When the project was begun in 2008, then governor Jerry Brown and the rest of the project team promised that the line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, including extensions to San Diego and Sacramento, would be complete in 2022 and would cost $33 billion. But, if successful it would make getting from LA to SF fast (2 hours 40 minutes), cheap, and easy.

Spoiler Alert: None of that was true.

The line is nowhere close to completion and the cost of just the Los Angeles to San Francisco portion is now estimated at $100 billion and completion is a decade away at best. The first segment of the line is currently supposed to open in 2029 - seven years after the whole thing was originally slated for completion. And that’s the San Jose to Bakersfield run, which almost guarantees an operating debacle as it will surely lose money for years after opening because - to state the obvious - there isn’t a tremendous amount of demand to travel from San Jose to Bakersfield. Adding insult to injury, the project won’t even deliver the high-speed travel promised in the original pitch. The fastest trains currently slated for service will take over three hours to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Feel free to blame California’s broken political culture if you like or even say it’s “the Democrats” this and corruption that. California is a one-party state after all. There’s something to all of those explanations. But ultimately they’re not satisfactory because this doesn’t just happen in California. It’s true that California, as in so many other things, leads the way but it happens everywhere. Like California, this country hasn’t successfully completed a big project in a long time.

It Can Be Done

It wasn’t always this way. Getting things done was once so common in America as to be unremarkable. A few examples of what could be a much larger list include the following: In 1930-31 the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world was constructed in 410 days. In 1942, the first 1,700 miles of the Alaska Highway were built in 234 days. The last time we were really able to do big things was in the Sixties and that gave us the Apollo Program. It was a major undertaking and a huge success. But there were others; in less than 3 years Boeing went from the launch of the 747 program to having the first one built and in the sky. Contrast that with the F-35 fighter program which grew out of the Joint Strike Fighter initiative of the 1990s. The program launched in 2001 and has been plagued with legendary delays, cost overruns, and performance deficiencies. The first fighters didn’t enter service until 2015. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the aircraft known as the Lightning II often can’t fly when there is actual lightning in the area because it could explode. And all of this to produce an aircraft that is built for the last war - or maybe two wars ago - at a cost that will ultimately exceed $1 trillion.

I’m interested in big projects that have been successful because they are essential to national success. The capacity for collective action is one of the essential marks of civilization vitality and it’s something that’s been in short supply for a long time. Has there been a successful big project since 1970? If so I can’t think of it. Maybe the internet? Sorry, Arpanet was launched in 1969.

There have been no major successful public works projects either; no interstate highway system, no Hoover Dam. There has not been a major political success. You could, perhaps, cite the end of the Cold War, but again, that was begun decades earlier. It’s true that the United States successfully restrained the international expansion of Bolshevist violence and sociopathology, but it’s not entirely clear that, for all our efforts, we won the Cold War rather than the Soviet Union simply failing under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

The Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan can hardly be described as successes. They’ve cost nearly $3 trillion plus a staggering butcher’s bill in American lives - not just the dead, but the wounded, the PTSD, the military and veteran suicides, and the toll on all of their families over the past 20 years. And what’s better? Is Iraq? Is Afghanistan? And more importantly, is America? No. Rather, it’s been a costly distraction that dissipated our energies and badly misallocated many our most precious resources, which accelerated the decay at home. Since 2001, when the war in Afghanistan started, the middle class has become more precarious and wealth and power have steadily concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. At the same time, our ability to sustain ourselves - to make the things we need like antibiotics and N95 masks - has declined.

The one thing that could possibly be said in favor of those wars is that they were ambitious; they were misguided and ultimately failures that cost us dearly, but if one were to look for something positive to say, it could be that they were thinking big. But the architects of those wars, in addition to their historic hubris, dramatically over-estimated American capabilities. Attempting to remake Iraq, an ancient culture, in the the mold of early 21st century America was not only dumb, it was always unattainable. It was an ideological fantasy being played out far away. And in any event, why should we believe we have a right to force Iraq to conform to the standards of American elite opinion anyway? Why would we want to? Based on the already advancing decay at home, perhaps wisdom would have dictated that we focus our energies on improving the lives of Americans.

A fundamental problem that is evident in all of this, is that American elite institutions and elites themselves are, for some reason, far less capable and vital than their predecessors. There is a generational aspect to this. The end of the era of big projects coincided with the ascent of the Boomers to leadership. I don’t think it’s all the Boomers’ fault, but there is something at work in which they are at least implicated. Perhaps the Me Generation was just less interested in big projects because they were focused on themselves. And in the case of the one very big project they tried - Iraq - it was a disaster from which we have yet to extricate ourselves. I’ll try and unwind this knot at a later date.

It really doesn’t have to be this way. But fixing it requires breaking out of old, failed, frames, accepting risk, defining goals in concrete rather than ideological or rhetorical terms and then building what you want.

Exit, Voice, & Loyalty

So, what to do? Some people want to remodel what we’ve got, some people want to build new, and others just want out. This spectrum of response was described well in the book from which I took the header above, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States by Albert O. Hershman. La Wik gives a good overview:

“The basic concept is as follows: members of an organization, whether a business, a nation or any other form of human grouping, have essentially two possible responses when they perceive that the organization is demonstrating a decrease in quality or benefit to the member: they can exit (withdraw from the relationship); or, they can voice (attempt to repair or improve the relationship through communication of the complaint, grievance or proposal for change). For example, the citizens of a country may respond to increasing political repression in two ways: emigrate or protest. Similarly, employees can choose to quit their unpleasant job, or express their concerns in an effort to improve the situation. Disgruntled customers can choose to shop elsewhere, or they ask for the manager. "

The internet was supposed to give voice and enable exit of certain kinds when necessary. That was the idea anyway. And it worked for a little while. All kinds of voices appeared on the internet starting in the late-90s talking about everything: politics, sports, art, music, movies, fitness, and so forth. “Information wants to be free!” You could just about see the cypherpunk dream coming into view; Cryptonomicon come to life.

Lots of businesses started too. Web stores proliferated giving people lots of choices and easy access to all kinds of things that were either hard or impossible to get before. That gave consumers the ability to exit, i.e., take their business somewhere elsewhere. The Golden Age lasted for about a decade. Then everything consolidated and the internet became much more hierarchical and much less decentralized. Small retailers, unless they were highly specialized, had a hard time competing with big retailers. Then even big retailers had a hard time competing with the biggest retailer. Today, Amazon represent about one-third of all e-commerce sales in North America. Wal-Mart is second. The group of very large retailers that dominate e-commerce in America capture over 75% of all dollars spent online.

Likewise, much voice moved off of forums and blogs and to a handful of very large social media platforms which, having consolidated their grip on power (and customer data) proceeded to restrict voice and their dominance has grown so great that they’ve also restricted exit. It’s not impossible to exit, but it’s hard.

My argument is that exit is necessary for voice and that anything that makes exit possible is best understood as instrumental in achieving voice. Exit alone is not an answer. Sorry libertarians. Voice always wins.

Balaji Srinivasan, a partner at a16z, offered some provocative ideas in a Clubhouse discussion last week. Balaji is a well-know advocate for all things blockchain. Its cryptography makes it secure, high-trust, and anti-fragile as a result of the distributed ledger. That sounds a lot like exit. If you don’t like what’s going on, you can take your Bitcoin and move. But where? That’s the problem. Eventually voice is necessary. Politics, understood as people deciding how best to live with one another, continues even if you have all of your wealth in Bitcoin.

Balaji implicitly acknowledged this in his discussion though he framed it somewhat differently, perhaps even a bit more hopefully. He offered the possibility of virtual states enabled by the blockchain, suggesting that like-minded people would come together, first organically online and then intentionally in real life. Groups with intense affinity are the most likely to do this: tech-oriented people, vegans, Christians, and so on. The proto-states would form virtually and could even develop economies owing to the fungibility of Bitcoin.

From there, virtual communities as a stepping stone to fully formed in-real-life communities should be encouraged; they’d be a seedbed of renewal. What’s charismatic his idea is precisely that it’s not simply about exit, it’s about voice. It’s about building something better.

But while that’s happening (if it ever happens) our existing IRL communities - our cities, states, and nation - need an upgrade. In a real sense there is a race underway: can we rebuild vital institutions that support the vitality of the whole nation before the existing decay reaches its unhappy conclusion. I think we can.

Let me suggest a few places to start. In every case I think we need to think big enough that people will think the ideas sound at least a little ridiculous. Here are some starters:

  1. Reinvigorate the family: We need more families and more children. Families are the foundation of every healthy, sustainable civilization. I wrote a little about that here. But will do more soon.

  2. Longer lives. Healthier lives. A healthy country is, by definition, healthy. We’re not. Or at least a lot of Americans are not. And most every institutional force is, in practice, aligned against better health not in favor of it, from Big Ag to Big Pharma. Much more on this front to come.

  3. Cheap, abundant, sustainable energy. It’s coming and it will change everything. But let’s make America the leader in this and let’s make it happen fast.

This is a good place to recall where we started: Chinese trains vs American trains and the long absence of successful big projects in this country. I’ve mentioned a few that we could do now; that we should do now. A few of them are above. There are more. I’ll dive deeper on this next time.