Ed Driscoll

Obama's Antique Vision

In “Obama’s Antique Vision of Technological Progress,” Michael Barone explores what the president’s obsessions with Sputnik and “high-speed rail” say about his curiously mid-20th century worldview:

Barack Obama, like all American politicians, likes to portray himself as future-oriented and open to technological progress. Yet the vision he set out in his State of the Union address is oddly antique and disturbingly static.

“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said. But Sputnik and America’s supposedly less advanced rocket programs of 1957 were government projects, at a time when government defense spending, like the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, drove technology.

But today, as Obama noted a few sentences before, “our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.” Private firms develop software faster than government can procure it.

Undaunted, Obama calls for more government spending on “biomedical research, information technology and especially clean energy technology.” Government has some role in biotech, though a subsidiary one, but IT development is almost exclusively a private-sector function and clean energy technology that is not private-sector driven is almost inevitably uneconomic.

And then there is transportation. “Within 25 years,” Obama said, “our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you,” he said breathlessly, “to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying.”

Wow! There’s some advanced technology. Except that France inaugurated service on its TGV high-speed rail from Paris to Lyon in 1981. That’s 30 years ago. It’s as if President Eisenhower were inspired by Sputnik to promote the technology of 30 years before, Charles Lindbergh’s single-engine propeller plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. It’s as antique as the Tomorrowland of the original Disneyland.

In fact, government high-speed rail projects in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida wouldn’t approach the speeds of France’s TGV or Japan’s bullet train and would not beat autos in door-to-door travel. And they could never match the low fares of the free enterprise bus lines that have competed successfully with the Acela for budget-minded travelers.

Truly high-speed rail might make sense in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor for business travelers willing to pay high fares to save precious time. But it might also prove to be a technology as commercially unprofitable and politically unfeasible as the Concorde supersonic plane that was retired from service in 2003. Northeasterners might block high-speed rail lines in their backyards just as they blocked Concorde’s sonic booms over land.


Residents near Palo Alto are not happy with the proposed route and want some of it underground. The San Jose Mercury-News reports that Caltrain, which owns the right-of-way, has asked the state’s high-speed rail authority to phase in the project, which locals think could lead to a route more preferable to them, including an underground segment: “the agency was scheduled to formally announce Tuesday its request for the rail authority to ‘refocus’ its environmental impact report on the design and construction of an initial phase of the project.” Palo Alto city councilman Larry Klein still has problems with the project, along with many on the Palo Alto City Council) and said “Caltrain could be more effective than any city in bringing down the project because it controls the track right of way.”The Palo Alto City Council is discussing on Monday whether to move forward with a possible lawsuit against the train for allegedly not meeting environmental standards. The cities of Menlo and Atherton have already sued.

But then, as Barone concludes:

If you put together Obama’s resistance to just about any serious changes in entitlement spending with his antique vision of technological progress, what you see is an America where the public sector permanently consumes a larger part of the economy than in the past and squanders the proceeds on white elephants like faux high-speed rail lines and political payoffs to the teacher and other public-sector unions. Private-sector innovation gets squeezed out by regulations like the Obama FCC’s net neutrality rules. It’s a plan for a static rather than dynamic economy.

Or as I wrote on July 4th last year:

It occurred to me recently that for a guy who evidently really, really seems to dislike the British quite a bit, the America that President Obama wants to build looks a lot like pre-Thatcher England, circa 1977 or so: shoddily built cars from a quasi-government manufacturer (British Leyland then, GM today), an endless welfare state, mammoth unemployment, a neutered military, an exhausted and culturally bifurcated society, etc.

Or as the Blog Professor writes today, “On this 4th of July, I am asking myself why liberals celebrate independence from the British at all since they now want to be just like them.”

Which is an odd paradox for the president to be in: he certainly seems to loathe America, loathes England, and yet is forced to govern the former country as he attempts to mold it into the second.

So maybe the answer to that paradox isn’t England in the 1970s, but France in the mid-1980s — all the dysfunctionality of England in the ’70s, but with high-speed rail, and an even more supercilious bureaucracy.

But better food, which will make Michelle personally happy, but she’ll continue to take her guilt out on the rest of us, making it a bit of a mixed blessing.