We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time
James Kunstler -- World News Trust
April 20, 2009 -- People of good intentions and progressive predilection are scratching their heads wondering just how President Barack Obama managed to turn himself into George W. Bush Lite with sugar-on-top just twelve weeks after that fateful walk down the U.S. Capitol's east stairway to the waiting helicopter.
I'm hardly the first observer to note that Mr. Obama's actions in the face of an epochal finance fiasco and economic collapse are a mere extension of the pre-Jan. 20 policies, carried out by much the same cast of characters.
The assumption up until now was something about the reassuring value of continuity -- if we could just prop up an ailing set of banks for a little while, the US public could resume a revolving credit way-of-life within an economy dedicated to building more suburban houses and selling all the needed accessories from supersized "family" cars to cappuccino machines. This would keep everyone employed at the jobs they were qualified for -- finish carpenters, realtors, pool installers, mortgage brokers, advertising account executives, Williams-Sonoma product demonstrators, showroom sales agents, doctors of liposuction, and so on.
This was a dumb strategy for such a supposedly bright group of people surrounding Mr. Obama. That old economy was dead on arrival January 20th. Even the kindest physicians don't put corpses on life support. This particular corpse has been placed in the world's cushiest intensive care unit, with transfusions running about a trillion dollars a month -- not to mention hefty bonuses for the attending nurses. Instead, a fast and furious wake might have been held, with the corpse of the old economy laid out on a granite countertop for all to toast and bid farewell. President Obama might have led this exercise with some aplomb -- even while directing his new justice department warriors to round up a host of suspects in the old economy's suspicious death.
What it comes down to, apparently, is a leadership elite across all sectors -- politics, business, academia, media -- that is incapable of processing the truth, and then conveying it to the broad American public. Alas, this also appears to be a common theme in history, with a commonly tragic outcome, which is that elites get ruthlessly dumped and replaced by new elites, often composed of zealots, maniacs, nincompoops, and others generally ill-disposed to the able management of complex affairs. It's called the "circulation of elites," and in times of crisis it tends to take on a kind of downward spiraling flavor, with each gang of discredited leaders tossed out for a progressively worse one until a kind of exhaustion is reached -- whereupon the archetypal man-on-a-white-horse arrives on the scene.
Mr. Obama looked to be the man-on-a-white-horse -- on the exhaustion of Reagan-Bush Jesus-Republicanism -- but he's coming off more like Philippe Égalité (Louis Philippe Joseph d'Orléans, duc d'Orléans) in 1793, with perhaps Newt Gingrich waiting offstage to become Robespierre in 2012 -- and some obscure US Army captain now toiling in Kirkuk slated to become the American Napoleon of 2015. As you've surely heard a thousand times now, history doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes. The enormities of Wall Street today are a little like those of the French Ancien Régime at Versailles. If America encounters the sort of disruptions of food and energy supplies that are brewing on the horizon, and unemployment keeps arcing up its current trajectory, civil uproars could easily follow. Readers think I joke about the Hamptons going up in flames. But the antics of the bankers, hedge funders, the CEOs, the Madoffs, and even the P. Diddy's of our time, are liable to attract murderous attention as the public mood moves from sour to wrathful.
So, what people of good intention and progressive predilection want to know is how come Mr. Obama doesn't just lay out the truth, undertake the hard job of cutting the nation's losses, and get on with setting this society on a new course. The truth is that we're comprehensively bankrupt, and no amount of shuffling certificates around will avail to alter that. The bad debt has to be "worked out" -- i.e. written off, subjected to liquidation of remaining assets and collateral, reorganized under the bankruptcy statutes, and put behind us. We have to work very hard to reconfigure the physical arrangement of life in the USA, moving away from the losses of our suburbs, reactivating our towns, downscaling our biggest cities, re-scaling our farms and food production, switching out our Happy Motoring system for public transit and walkable neighborhoods, rebuilding local networks of commerce, and figuring out a way to make a few things of value again.
What's happened instead is what I most feared: that our politicians would mount a massive campaign to sustain the unsustainable. That's what all the TARP and TARF and PPIT and bailouts are about. It will all amount to an exercise in futility and could easily end up wrecking the USA in every sense of the term. If Mr. Obama doesn't get with a better program, then we are going to face a Long Emergency as grueling as the French Revolution. One very plain and straightforward example at hand is the announcement last week of a plan to build a high speed rail network. To be blunt about it, this is perfectly fucking stupid. It will require a whole new track network, because high speed trains can't run on the old rights of way with their less forgiving curve ratios and grades. We would be so much better off simply fixing up and reactivating the normal-speed track system that is sitting out there rusting in the rain -- and save our more grandiose visions for a later time.
I don't like to be misunderstood. With the airlines in a business death spiral, and mass motoring doomed, we need a national passenger rail system desperately. But we already have one that used to be the envy of the world before we abandoned it. And we don't have either the time or the resources to build a new parallel network.
But grandiosity is just another way that we lie to ourselves about where we're at and what is really possible. Surely Mr. Obama knows that hope fades where the light of truth doesn't shine. He is a charming fellow. I don't especially want to see Newt Gingrich chop his head off.
My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback at all booksellers.