Last week, in a meeting of the state transportation board, I listened to a sales rep for a Spanish high-speed rail company extol the impressive virtues of his firm’s products, and once again I began to wonder:
How and when did this happen?
How and when did the United States of America become the consumer of dreams that others have made real? On video screens no doubt made in China, we watched sleek trains flowing at close to 200 mph through the countryside of Spain, a nation with per capita income roughly 30 percent lower than our own. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in that room wondering how Spain — and Germany and France and again, China — can afford such infrastructure and we, supposedly, can’t.
The answer takes many forms, but I think the overarching point is that as a nation we’ve gotten complacent and unwilling to change. We still don’t see the need. Coming out of World War II, our dominance was unchallenged in any sphere other than brute military power, and by 1991, our only rival in that arena disappeared as well with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That vision of the world, and our place atop it, remains our reference point.
But World War II ended 65 years ago; our victory in the Cold War is now two decades in the rear view mirror. The world has changed a lot since then, and I don’t think we’ve kept up. It’s not just our physical infrastructure that’s old and outdated, it’s our mental infrastructure. We’re more interested in where we’ve been and where we are than in where we’re going next and how to get there. We’re more invested in the past than we are in the future, because that kind of investment takes no sacrifice.
LIsten to our political debate: If things aren’t working out quite as well as they should be, we tell ourselves that it’s because we’ve gotten away from the old ways that brought us such prosperity and progress. And that’s just flat-out wrong. Thanks in large part to changes that we ourselves wrought, that prior world in which the old ways worked so well no longer exists. A new world will require new arrangements, and we are reluctant to admit that fact.
Last week, the Cuban government announced that 500,000 government employees would be laid off and forced to find work in a newly expanded private sector. Here in the United States, the news was greeted as further evidence that communism doesn’t work, as if that particular point hadn’t been definitively proved years ago.
Cuba’s decision represented the last brick falling from the Berlin Wall, our final vindication of the Cold War era. But the Cuban announcement was also evidence of a system recognizing that major change was required and attempting however haltingly to begin that change. But I suppose that’s easier to do when you’re tiny little Cuba rather than the self-proclaimed No. 1 in everything.