There are two tendencies among Americans in the rail industry that, taken together, don’t really mesh. The first is to ignore knowledge produced outside North America, especially if it’s also outside the Anglosphere, on the grounds that the situations are too different and cannot be compared. The second is to dwell on the past and talk about how things could have been different and, therefore, to spend a lot of time looking at old proposals as a guideline.
The problem with this is that the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The world of the imagined past of modern-day Western romantics, usually placed in the 1950s or early 60s, is barely recognizable, economically or politically; Mad Men hits watchers on the head in its early seasons with how alien it is. The United States was an apartheid state until around 1964; France only decolonized Algeria in 1962; Germany had a deep state until the Spiegel affair of 1962 started to dismantle it and wouldn’t truly apologize for its WW2 crimes until the Kniefall and the fallout therefrom.
So as a public service, let’s look at some economic indicators comparing the US to the three low-construction cost countries that the Transit Costs Project is doing case studies about:
|Indicator||USA 2019||Sweden 2019||Italy 2019||Turkey 2019||USA 1960|
|GDP per capita (2017 PPPs)||62,631||52,851||42,708||28,197||19,444|
|Female labor force participation, 15+||56.6%||61.2%||41.3%||34.5%||37.7%|
|Life expectancy at birth||79||83||83||78||70|
|Total fertility rate||1.7||1.7||1.3||2.1||3.7|
|Industry, % of jobs||20||18||26||25||32|
|Agriculture, % of jobs||1.4||1.7||4||18||6|
The US is comparable to Sweden on net – the higher GDP per capita is mostly an artifact of shorter vacation times. It is a considerably more developed country than Italy, by most accounts (except health care, where the US is more or less the worst in the developed world). Italy is a more developed country than Turkey. And Turkey, today, is considerably more developed than the US was in the imagined postwar golden age, even if it’s urbanizing later. The one indicator where they look similar, female LFP, masks the fact that the gender gap for employed women today isn’t especially high in Turkey and that, after a fall in female LFP in the late 20th century, today working outside the home is more middle-class, whereas in early postwar America it was considered a marker of poverty for a married woman to work.
So in that supposed golden age of an America before the Interstates, or when the Interstates were still in their infancy, GDP per capita was about comparable to Mexico today (and underinvestment in public transportation was comparable too; the Mexico City Metro’s expansion ground to a halt after AMLO was elected mayor). Women were only starting to emerge from the More Work for Mother era. Black people were subjected to literal apartheid. 65 was an old age to retire at (the majority of the increase in life expectancy at birth has occurred since age age 65 – it wasn’t mostly about declining child mortality).
Deindustrialization was nowhere on the horizon in 1960, which is a cause for celebration by people today who view industry as more moral than services. But the industrial jobs that are romanticized today were held by the era’s traditionalists to be morally inferior to the rapidly depleting farm jobs, and did not pay well until generations of wage increases brought about by unions. And Sweden, Italy, and Turkey are all deindustrializing rapidly; China today has a slightly lower manufacturing job share than the US had at its postwar peak, and elsewhere in the world than East Asia, there’s a serious issue of premature deindustrialization.
What about the law? Well, in 1960 the US had the same constitution as today, in theory, but the interpretative theories were completely different. The vast majority of the American constitution is unwritten (the word “filibuster” does not appear there) and there are vast differences in practice today and in the 1950s, when, again, members of the largest minority group risked being lynched if they tried voting in the states the majority of them lived. The party system at the time was extraordinarily loose; Julia Azari speaks of strong partisanship and weak parties today, but by postwar standards, both American parties are characterized by ideological uniformity and congressional command-and-control systems, even if the distribution of power within the parties is dramatically different from the European norm. Turkey might be comparable to postwar America – it’s hard to exactly say, since the two entities’ democratic systems are flawed in completely different ways. Italy and Sweden are not.
So the only thing that’s left is the romanticism. It’s the belief of 21st-century Americans that they could have ridden trains out of the old Penn Station, and worked in any of the prestige industries at the time, and done things differently. The constitution of the US today, its politics, its society, and its economy have little to do with their counterparts of 60+ years ago, but it’s useful for a lot of people to pretend that there’s continuity. It feels more stable this way. It just happens to be dangerously incorrect. Burn the past and look at the present.