All aboard the democracy train

Yevgeny Shrago 

While markets anxiously watched America’s debt ceiling debate and Europe announced another round of bailouts for Greece in the hopes of saving Greece’s increasingly rickety monetary union, the big news out of China carried a more tragic cast: 32 people died and another 200 people were hurt when one of China’s new high speed trains rear-ended another train that had lost power. This collision culminated months of unreliable service on the main Beijing-Shanghai line.

America’s national sport these days, at least in some quarters, appears to be counting the ways in which China is catching up to or surpassing us. Those who fear China love to worry about our massive trade deficit, China’s burgeoning manufacturing industry or China’s million man People’s Liberation Army. Even those not looking to score political points by railing against China note with envy its ability to spend $120 billion a year on railway construction, while America’s big move toward modernizing it’s rail system ensures that Amtrak’s locomotives will remain obsolete for another 30 years.

But these worries about China are largely overblown. The trade deficit calculations ignore the fact that much of the deficit is funded by American companies selling goods they’ve made cheaply in China, which keeps the profits from this so-called deficit in America. America’s industrial productivity still exceeds China’s by an order of magnitude. As long as we avoid a land war in Asia (such a war should be inconceivable), the PLA can’t hurt us.  But ah those trains, envy of all the cool, urbanism savvy progressives.  If only we had those trains.

This crash illustrates what we should already know about China: the fact that it can spend $120 billion easily doesn’t mean that it can do it effectively. Institutions matter and Chinese institutions have no voter accountability. It’s much easier to please your boss when he doesn’t worry about keeping the electorate happy. Furthermore, without robust political discourse, there’s much less incentive to ferret out corruption, so when the Chinese do discover that someone’s hand has been in the till, it’s inevitably spectacular. China already fired one railway minister this year for “severe disciplinary violations.” China’s trains may be pretty and fast, but their reliability falls far below American standards.

Yes, it would be wonderful if stodgy old Amtrak would buy some new lightweight (or even mag-lev!) trains so that the so-called high speed rail can beat the regular trains by more than 20 minutes. The political process, particularly at this moment, means that such advances are unlikely. But American politicians can’t funnel millions of dollars to their buddies (or the people who bribe them) without someone noticing, and the things that our democracy does manage to build aren’t usually an accident waiting to happen. If the voters really want high speed rail, it will happen and it will happen well. Until then, it’s on progressives to keep making the democratic and Democratic case for rail, instead of envying China’s autocratic speed.

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