Moderation in Pursuit of Solutions Is No Virtue

Jun 28th, 2011 | Posted by

One of the effects of turning something into a culture war is it tends to undermine support for the idea in question by sending the more timid elements in search of a compromise solution. Some people seek compromise over the best, smartest, most sensible solution, and it is these people who are the true target of culture warriors. Remember that culture wars are started and waged by the side of an issue that is opposed to change. The side that wants the change doesn’t start or wage a culture war because they don’t see it as a war at all, but instead see the change in question as natural and sensible.

But if the moderate types perceive the proposed change as an irritant, as a source of discord, then they will move quickly to call for the change to be junked and replaced with a lesser version, in an attempt to appease the culture warriors and restore harmony to society. These types believe that argument and discord is the worst possible thing, and that a bad idea, a flawed compromise, or an unworkable solution is far preferable to anything that causes a fight.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this is “civil unions” – the idea that in order to prevent a bruising political and cultural battle over same-sex marriage, some sort of compromise position must be found short of marriage. Of course, by denying marriage rights to certain consenting adults, it reinforces discrimination and inequality, which is one of the reasons why LGBT activists and their allies want marriage rights in the first place. (The other reason is that civil unions don’t actually confer all the legal benefits that marriage does.) Moderates love civil unions because it’s seen as a way to defuse a fight, even though its effect is to reinforce discrimination and injustice and gives the homophobes a victory.

This same phenomenon is at work with high speed rail as well. Now that HSR opponents have turned the issue into a culture war, moderates are starting to crawl out of the woodwork to seek a compromise solution that destroys the concept of high speed rail and replaces it with something that is slower, less efficient, and won’t carry as many people.

A good example of this is Phillip Longman’s article in Washington Monthly, The Case for Not-Quite-So-High-Speed Rail. In it, Longman argues that because Republicans turned HSR into a culture war, we should stop pushing for true bullet trains and learn to love something like the Acela:

You might expect me at this point to proclaim, like so many Americans who have sojourned in Europe, Japan, or China on gleaming bullet trains, that what the United States needs now is a crash program to catch up with our peers in building high-speed rail for the twenty-first century. And, for the record, I will proclaim that. It’s a vision almost all progressives have come to share, even as conservatives increasingly denounce it as creeping socialism, social engineering, or worse. But I’ll make an important qualification that should inform the increasingly partisan debate about high-speed rail in this country—one that is illustrated by my trip back to Frankfurt later that afternoon….

My point? Yes, bullet trains speeding at 180 mph or more from major city to major city are great for business execs in a hurry and on an expense account. But the more conventional, cheaper, “fast enough” high-speed rail lines like the West Rhine line are the real backbone of the German passenger rail system and that of most other industrialized nations. And it is from these examples that America has the most to learn, especially since it now looks as if the U.S. isn’t going to build any real high-speed rail lines, except possibly in California, anytime soon. In an ironic twist, between the mounting concern over the state and federal deficits and growing Republican and NIMBY opposition to high-speed rail, the Obama administration is being forced to settle for incremental projects that will only bring passenger rail service up to the kind of standards found on the West Rhine line. And that’s a good thing, provided Republicans don’t succeed in killing passenger trains in the United States altogether, as they are increasingly wont to try.

The debate over high-speed rail in the United States has become akin to that over organic food. Most people can’t define exactly what it is, but they tend to have strong, almost theological opinions about whether it’s morally good, elitist, impractical, and/or politically correct. Progressives are likely to tell you that high-speed rail is necessary to reduce global warming, prepare for “peak oil,” and overcome “auto dependency.” The Obama administration plays to this growing progressive consensus by proudly proclaiming that it has set in motion projects that will bring high-speed rail to 80 percent of the U.S. population within twenty-five years.

Meanwhile, especially since the elections of 2010, conservatives have been rallying their troops in full-throated opposition to any and all government spending to improve passenger rail service, often portraying it as another step on the road to serfdom. Though many Republicans, such as Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, have strongly supported Amtrak over the years (especially for service in their own backyards), we now see a new breed of Republican governors in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin all making a big show of waving away billions in federal stimulus dollar for rail improvements in their states.

So how about we all calm down, chuck the theology, and look practically at what should be the future of passenger trains in the U.S.?

Longman’s words are telling. He does the typical journalistic act of blaming both sides for making HSR a “partisan” issue even though it’s only one side – House Republicans – who have done so. Progressives support HSR, yes, but so do many moderate Republicans and even some conservative Republicans. That includes many Republican legislators in Sacramento who have played crucial roles in backing the HSR project but who must remain nameless lest they bring the wrath of the Koch Brothers down upon their heads.

But because the right turned HSR into a culture war, people like Longman run away from the debate and seek compromise at all costs. Longman isn’t interested in the details of true bullet train service or why it would thrive in the United States just as it has across the globe. No, all he cares about is appeasing critics so that the shouting stops.

Think I’m kidding? Longman again:

But as great as it would be to have passenger service as fast and elegant as the TGV in the United States, there are many reasons not to put our first dollars into such an ambitious project. First off, building a truly high-speed rail system in today’s America would be so expensive, disruptive, contentious, and politically risky that it just might not be possible. It would require, for example, securing brand-new rights-of-way, because trains traveling at more than around 125 mph can’t share tracks with slower freight or passenger trains. This in turn would require using eminent domain to secure millions of acres of real estate, and these days, in the U.S., that would involve endless litigation, environmental review, and the innumerable other processes that always stand to derail any large-scale infrastructure project.

This is why America is collapsing. We have way too many people like Longman dominating our political discourse – people who want to appease obnoxious loudmouths rather than actually work toward a solution that he acknowledges would be “great,” “fast and elegant.” His only reason for not doing this is because it would be “disruptive and contentious.”

Thank god nobody ever did anything costly, disruptive, contentious, or risky in history. Surely the American Revolution was cheap, orderly, and without any argument or shots fired in anger. Freeing the slaves was similarly easily accomplished. We obviously defeated the Nazis, put a man on the moon, and cured polio without spending a dime or risking a damn thing.

I mean, this is just ridiculous. And yet Longman is reflecting the dominant narrative in Washington, DC which holds that we should never ever try and do anything bold or risky, even when facing a serious economic, environmental, and energy crisis. The true path that is costly, disruptive, contentious and politically risky is to do nothing at all, to let the failed status quo continue unchanged.

But because people like Longman are played like a fiddle by the culture warriors, these moderates are convinced that the status quo is actually the safe bet, and that anything that produces change must be avoided at all costs.

The sad thing is that Longman isn’t wrong when he says there is value to rail that isn’t exactly “high speed.” He praises the Acela and properly so; it is a good example of how even incremental improvements in rail speeds and service can bring rewards. This blog may be focused on true bullet trains in the mold of the French TGV, but we’ve always supported other kinds of rail service, such as Amtrak California’s existing routes, the long-distance Amtrak routes (I am a huge fan of the Coast Starlight), commuter rail services like Metrolink and Caltrain, heavy rail like BART and the Metro Red Line, light rail such as the Metro Blue Line, Sacramento RT, the San Diego Trolley, and VTA light rail, to streetcars such as the Muni Metro, and even things like Angels Flight in downtown LA.

America needs all kinds of rail, from slow to medium to fast. Each serves a useful purpose in our transportation system, and each should be given full-throated support by people who care about economic recovery and sustainable prosperity, doing something about global warming, and finding affordable energy independence.

People who are more interested in finding compromise than in actually solving our problems

  1. D. P. Lubic
    Jun 28th, 2011 at 22:36

    An important point to consider in America is that the “conservative” crowd has no moderation where rail is concerned. Light rail, Amtrak intercity rail, HSR, local trolleys–all are deemed “socialist,” “wasteful,” “subsidized,” and “boondoggles” (Can’t these guys come up with new names?)

    The great irony? Plenty of Republicans I know, true conservatives, see and understand the need for rail service.

    Their party leadership serves them poorly.

  2. Derek
    Jun 28th, 2011 at 22:37

    That reminds me of King Solomon’s famous compromise. I wonder if the Republicans are familiar with it?

  3. political_incorrectness
    Jun 28th, 2011 at 22:40

    The politics is also a major issue. While their are the few loners on the other side of the aisle in each case, it is mostly partisan. Expensive, well isn’t infrastructure expensive. Now for the disruptive claim? How about we build an airport in his backyard and we’ll talk. HSR is a way to limit short-haul air travel and limit the growth. If short-haul flights are replaced with trains, what carriers will do is reallocate the aircraft to other destinations and add capacity, however if that is not needed, there would be a reduction of departures. This is an investment in making other systems more efficient and providing a redundancy in an oil overburdened transportation system.

  4. D. P. Lubic
    Jun 28th, 2011 at 22:43

    Off topic, but perhaps of interest–commentary on freight and passenger rail relationships:

  5. Andy M.
    Jun 29th, 2011 at 02:20

    If the civil union vs marriage thing is a compromise then it’s a compromise because it’s badly implemented, not by nature. I would consider it a good compromise to offer LGBTs and indeed also straight couples who may have trouble with the cultural baggage of the word “marriage” some alternative that is in effect the same with a different word, so leaving the conservative and church types the feeling that they have gained something also. Or better still dispense with civil marriages altogether and offer only civil unions and let marriage be something that the church dispense at their own leisure similar to a baptism or a confirmation, something that has no legal weight outside of maybe very special circumstances.

    If that hasn’t been done, then the problem is not with the compromise but rather with the lack of it.

    Likewise, talking about HSR, there are areas where compromise is okay. Not everybody who objects to some aspect of a project is a thick-skulled nimby. Some objections actually are opportunities for improvment. Often local people understand local situations, habits and culture better than planners in some distant office. So don’t treat every objector like a nimby but lesten to them first of all. Maybe some nimbyist objectors are set up but that doesn’t mean they’re part of or payrolled by the “conspiracy” so if you treat them right they may actually switch allegiances.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    “Marriage” is a French word derived from the latin “matrimonium” which contains “mater” (mother). The purpose of the institution is clearly to enable a couple to legally breed children. To avoid that etymological impropriety the word “marriage” could be replaced with “wedding”, from the old English “weddian” meaning “pledge”. The word could fit any type of union.

    Peter Reply:

    Didn’t France recently stop having the state perform marriages, instead performing civil unions, and leaving “marriage” to the churches?

    Andy M. Reply:

    Well, it sounds sensible. The concept of separation of Church and State would seem to me to be incompaitble with both sides being able to provide the same contract.

    wu ming Reply:

    not really. the state has no interest in the rituals, it’s interest is in the orderly registration of citizens entering into legal relationships. as long as there is a reliable witness (religious authority, elected official, justice of the peace, notary public), a signed document, and a user fee turned into the county govt, the needs of the state have been fulfilled. if people want extra ceremony before or after they fill out the proper paperwork, that doesn’t really impinge on the separation of church and state a bit.

    what does impinge on the separation of church and state is when religious groups demand that the centuries-old legal institution of secular civil marriage encode their prejudices into law. it’s fine for mormons or catholics to refuse to marry gay couples, just as it is fine for them to refuse to marry interfaith couples. the problem lies in churches demanding that nobody, not the state and not other churches, be allowed to marry people that some churches have a problem with.

    Dan Reply:

    yup, When I got married in France we first went to the Mayor’s office where the civil union was perfromed … and then off to the church in the afternoon to take some religious vows. It’s fairly rare now in france to get married in a church; most just choose the civil route.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    “Didn’t France recently stop having the state perform marriages”

    No, it’s still called marriage. Here’s how it goes:
    You enter the Salle des Mariages (marriage hall) and the mayor wearing the tricolor sash welcomes you and reads the passages of the civil code concerning the duties of the couple towards each other. If both say they understand and accept them the mayor then solemnly says: “in the name of the law I declare you husband and wife”.
    Then you may go to church, synagogue or mosque.
    The words “husband and wife” make same sex marriages legally impossible, so there is another sort of union called PACS (pronounced pax), Pacte Civil de Solidarité, which can bind anybody to anybody else regardless of sex.

    HSTSheldon Reply:

    The French seem to have it right. It should be obvious to anyone that considering gay marriage as equivalent to heterosexual marriage is a farce. A gay couple physically cannot do or be all the things that can be ascribed to traditional couples. In my opinion, equivalency assumes equal in every sense of the word like the ability of the two to procreate without involvement of a third party.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    So post menopausal women shouldn’t be allowed to marry?

    Arthur Dent Reply:

    Heh. Wouldn’t this put guys who shoot blanks and guys who aim for the ‘wrong’ (procreation) target on the same footing?

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There’s also the question of what to do about people who procreate without the benefit of a license. On the other hand if the point of the license is procreation why is it issued before the procreation? In other words you can’t apply for the license until you show up with a baby….

    wu ming Reply:

    on the one hand, you have the basic human rights of citizens to be treated equally under the law. on the other you have the feelings of religious conservatives.

    your logic of compromise, treating both arguments as equally valid, would have gutted the civil rights movement.

    not every two sides in a disagreement are equally valid, and not every wise solution splits it down the middle of whatever two poles are presented in the media.

  6. Andre Peretti
    Jun 29th, 2011 at 08:41

    Longman’s position corresponds to what anti-capitalist Eurogreens want. They say HSR is like the Concorde in its time: a technological achievement but an economic nonsense. They consider both as relics of a wasteful past.
    The Eurogreens are poweful enough in Germany to dictate their conditions to the chancellor. Thanks to Fukushima, their French counterparts are on their way to becoming equally powerful and they are everywhere in the media. Their representatives have consistently voted against any state or regional participation in financing new high-speed lines, recommending that the funds be affected to increasing regional train frequency. They also favor slowing existing lines down to 125 mph.
    If they have their way, speed will no longer be politically correct in Europe. Goodbye AGV, hello Pendolino.
    From a Eurogreen point of view, Longman is right and Robert is fighting yesterday’s battle.

    Peter Reply:

    I used to be sympathetic to Germany’s Greens, but their time in power with the SPD showed that other than some vague environmental ideals, they have no clue how to govern a nation.

    Emma Reply:

    Let me guess, you support the reality-challenged FDP?

    Miles Bader Reply:

    Hmm, so what do they think if people are driven to use airplanes again…?

    Peter Reply:

    They have no realistic solutions, just dogmatic ones.

    Andy M. Reply:

    There is some truth to their arguments. badly conceived HST can be worse than no HSR, especially seeing that few people have the luxury of living next to a HSR station. Total journey time is thus local transportation to HSR station (be it their own car or some local bus or rail service) + waiting time till HSR train leaves + same procedure at other end. Switzerland for example worked out that rather than boasting super fast services on select lines benefitting only a minority and cannibalising the rest of the rail system and making things worse for everybody else, they could actually reduce average journey times for the majority by more than that by just optimising connections at all nodes in a holistic concept that stretched from main line rail to local buses.

    This was the right thing to do in Switzerland because:

    a) the country is small and so advanatges of HSR would easily be negated by poorly conceived feeders. The longer the HSR journey, the less this is a problem
    b) Switzerland already had an advanced passenger rail system which they didn’t want to partially canibalise and dismantle through the disruptive introduction of HSR

    Neither of these arguments applies to California. But that’s not the same as saying the Eurogreen approach was wrong.

    Mind you, having said that, although the Swiss approach is the one the Eurogreens advocate, in Switzerland it was actually invented and put in place by non greens. Eurogreens are often good at thinking out general concepts but then fail to implement them well because they often fail to differentiate between dogmas and practical compromises.

    Andre Peretti Reply:

    “Hmm, so what do they think if people are driven to use airplanes again…?”

    It’s a question they’re often asked and I’ve never heard any of them answer it clearly. They just beat around the bush and talk about a necessary change in mentalities, and blah blah blah…

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Longman’s position corresponds to what anti-capitalist Eurogreens want.

    I disagree.

    Under European regulations, it is straightforward to develop high-quality passenger service on legacy track. Among Europeans, there is a credible argument that spending billions of Euros for a dedicated HSR line is a waste, when that money could be spent developing out an entire network.

    On the other hand, FRA regulations make it impossible to run useful passenger service on legacy track. The only option available is to build completely new ROW, which becomes ludicrously expensive in urban areas.

    As usual, Robert lives in his own universe, and sees this as some cultural war or something (I don’t have the patience to read the nonsense). But this is a simple problem that could be fixed simply by having Sec. LaHood initiate a rule-making process at the FRA to modernize the regulations.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    As I see it, we may well have both a cultural war and a need for regulatory reform.

    It might be interesting to see what would happen if the cultural warriors found out there were efforts at regulatory reform to make HSR and passenger rail in general work better. My bet is that if they did find out there was something like that afoot, they would attempt to block it, claiming safety would be compromised–and then drive smugly home via the least safe mode of transportation, the car.

    Emma Reply:

    No. The Greens support High speed rail that not only connects major cities but also countries. What the Greens don’t support is wasteful spending for prestige. You need to know the difference:

    Prestige: The ridiculous $110 billion Northeastern Corridor HSR proposal by Amtrak.

    Good, cost-efficient investment: California High Speed Rail.

  7. sustainable
    Jun 29th, 2011 at 12:17


    I read this blog frequently and am a huge proponent of HSR for a variety of reasons. I would ask that if you are trying to get as many others as possible on your/our side of HSR than you may want to stay on target and not portray those who disagree with you on social issues like marriage as bigots. Like myself, there are many social conservatives who whole heartedly support a variety of “liberal” causes, but you alienate your opponent by linking the “progressive” marriage supporter with the “progressive” HSR supporter. By doing so you ignite the culture war all the more by forcing people to take sides as either liberals or conservatives and then marching in lockstep rather than helping people make nuanced choices. Just a thought.

    Bret Reply:

    I’d have to agree. I know Robert was just trying to “liken” the two arguments, but let’s try to keep this blog on the topic of HSR. Immediately there are comments that try to generalize groups of people (Mormons and Catholics) as being of one mind, just like this blog continually tries to group all “Conservatives” and “Liberals” together. If you want to call out an individual for his or her stance on a particular topic, that’s fine, but let’s try to refrain from grouping people together in a collective who, despite their “label”, may or may not agree with a particular side of the issue.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    I have been highly active in the movement for LGBT rights and marriage equality during the entire time this blog has been around, and I’ve rarely ever brought it into the conversation here. While I do not care about the feelings or concerns of people who oppose marriage equality, I also try not to veer too much off topic in my posts here. I raised that particular issue because it was a good analogy that many people understand well. And I agree that HSR advocacy is a broad coalition, even if I can’t wait to ride it to a same-sex wedding someday…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If you consider the Acela to be HSR, you can already ride HSR to a single-sex wedding today…

  8. Alon Levy
    Jun 29th, 2011 at 12:57

    Robert, your posts would be a lot better if they didn’t inadvertently dismiss Switzerland as too moderate or timid.

    The Longman bits you quote portray him in the opposite way as what you say. You say “Longman isn’t interested in the details of true bullet train service or why it would thrive in the United States just as it has across the globe. No, all he cares about is appeasing critics so that the shouting stops.” But then you proceed to quote him on right-of-way acquisition, track-sharing with slower trains, and other details of true bullet train service.

  9. Andre Peretti
    Jun 29th, 2011 at 13:09

    It’s true that the US situation is different.
    I don’t disagree with all the Greens say. Upgrading regional lines to run Pendolinos on them rather than spending billions on superfast lines does make sense. What I don’t like is their quasi-religious dogmatism. Slowing TGVs down to 125 mph, for instance, is stupid. It would revive the Paris-Lyon and Paris-Marseille air shuttles. Good for Airbus and Boeing, but certainly not for the environment they claim to defend.

    ericmarseille Reply:

    To the ordinary man (, the true, great advantage of high speed rail is that it is FAST.
    Fast first and foremost.
    In my opinion, the tremendous success of the TGV lies by declining order in : Speed, Fares, Comfort, Reliability (this one not being optimized yet btw).

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