What’s Behind HSR’s Recent Political Struggles?
Today the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose high speed rail, even though Kern County voters approved the project and Proposition 1A in 2008. I guess this means I can vote against the Bush Administration and the Black Death?
The three supervisors who voted against HSR did not bother to come up with an alternative solution to their 13.4% unemployment rate, to their county’s dependence on oil, and how it would threaten to make Bakersfield even more cut off from the Southern California metropolitan area. Presumably they don’t believe they need to think about those concerns – they must assume that the status quo is working out just fine and the bigger threat comes from taking action rather than standing still.
This vote won’t stop the project, of course, but it is another sign that high speed rail is facing some political struggles. It’s one thing for House Republican ideologues to defund it because they hate trains. It’s another for California elected officials to oppose a project this state desperately needs, and will benefit from just as other countries have around the world, because they don’t understand that the greater risk comes from doing nothing.
Some may point to the rising cost projections as an explanation of HSR’s struggles. The spate of official reports claiming the project is “risky” simply because House Republicans are attacking HSR – a principle which, if faithfully followed, makes virtually everything the State of California does a “risk” given Congress’ desire to slash funding for everything in sight – aren’t helping. Despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, claims that HSR will struggle to get riders persist. NIMBYs have proven to be quite effective in scaring local politicians to flip-flop and oppose a project they once backed.
All of these factors matter. But the main problem is that we live in a country that is increasingly giving up on its future.
In the 20th century, both California and the United States were places where elected leaders generally preferred to solve problems rather than use them as excuses for doing nothing. California built dams, canals, bridges, freeways and universities that still power economic activity to this day.
It’s hard to imagine any of those things happening now. California as we know it today could never be built today. It would be too expensive, to risky, too unfamiliar, and piss off too many NIMBYs.
The difference is that for much of the 20th century, Californians understood that to have prosperity, you could not simply stand still. You had to build. You had to innovate. You had to do something new and sometimes do something a little bit risky.
Today, California is governed largely by people who are afraid of risks. Governor Jerry Brown is a notable exception, but that runs against the grain of a political and media class that got where they were by being cautious. Sure, that caution came at the expense of addressing problems, and one of the reasons we are in such a deep economic crisis today is because people found it easier to avoid taking action than to proactively solve problems. But caution and doing nothing was easier in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s, and those who thrived during that period by doing nothing are now in positions of leadership and power. Brown, who attained political power in the ’70s, comes from a different era and is thus immune to the defeatism that is so pervasive in California politics.
This political defeatism is rooted in those segments of the state’s population that also thrived during the long, slow decline of the last 30 years. This group is best personified by the Palo Alto NIMBYs, folks who have more than enough money to handle any possible impact of high speed rail but who believe they don’t have any obligation to make such concessions. They are convinced that they got where they were by ignoring the needs of the society around them in order to live in their own narrowly conceived vision of an idealized 20th century community. Any effort to address the state’s economic, environmental, or transportation problems is immediately seen by them as a threat to their privileges, and rather than work together to solve those problems, they just prefer to ignore those challenges or somehow assume that their privileges will carry them through it just fine.
They’re the liberal side of a coin whose reverse is the right-wingers who believe that spending government money on anything other than services that benefit them exclusively is wrong. These Tea Party types see the cost of high speed rail, ignore the cost of doing nothing, and conclude that we shouldn’t spend money on trains or anything else that might help pull us out of the economic or environmental crisis because they too believe that it will come at their own expense.
On their own the Tea Partiers and the NIMBYs aren’t nearly powerful enough to influence policy. But when politics are controlled by defeatists who believe the way to solve problems is to ignore them, members of the public who have readymade arguments and justifications for doing nothing suddenly have a lot more power and influence than their numbers would justify. After all, the opponents of HSR lost the 2008 and 2010 elections badly, at least in California. But the political class enables them because they need someone they can point to in order to rationalize inaction.
As to the media, they are busy clinging to their vanishing audience. Rather than try and build a new audience among the Millennial generation, the largest generation currently alive, they are instead focusing on the Silents (folks about age 65 and over) and Boomers (about age 50-65), generations that have now grown deeply defensive of the fading 20th century values they were raised to believe were the Greatest Thing Ever. Most Tea Partiers and NIMBYs come from those age groups. The average age of a newspaper subscriber is 55. The media is skittish about challenging the values of that generation – and of course, most publishers and editors come from that cohort and share those values anyway. To them, high speed rail isn’t a noble idea but a classic example of the “omg government run amok!!!” story that they love to chase. The media, then, also act to justify political inactivity, giving it the veneer of respectability, even truth.
Four years into the economic crisis and at least seven years since California strongly embraced Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, the majority of the state’s population still believe that government ought to do something about unemployment and global warming. Californians heard all these same anti-HSR arguments in 2008 and rejected them, and rejected them again when Meg Whitman made them in 2010.
But with a political class unwilling to act to solve our problems, a media that refuses to see the need to change, and well-organized groups of people looking to prevent change, you have a powerful alignment of forces that can do something like slowly grind down the HSR project.
None of those forces will last much longer. Massive political change is coming. The newspapers will either adapt or die, and their moment of truth is not far away. The Tea Party and the NIMBYs will soon fade away as demographic replacement works its way through the generations. By the 2020s, perhaps sooner, public tolerance for inaction, defeatism, and giving up on our future will be at an end, replaced with a loud and proud demand for doing something to build a better future.
HSR is unfortunate to be just barely on the wrong side of that timeline. Even after 30 years of planning and four years after voter approval, the political forces that don’t want to change or take risks remain just strong enough to present a challenge. And the forces that want change and want to innovate are not yet able to reverse the situation.
This isn’t meant as an obituary for the HSR project. It’s not dead, and in fact its future remains bright, especially as long as both Governor Brown and President Obama support it. But it is important to recognize the nature of the challenge we face. Mobilizing public support means convincing people that the bigger risk is to stand still and do nothing.
Most other major projects in California faced a similar white knuckle moment. The Golden Gate Bridge project financing nearly fell apart after the successful public vote in November 1930 to authorize bonds. The California Aqueduct was nearly killed by the state legislature in 1959. It took decades for Shasta Dam to get approved. In each case, political leadership came together to solve problems and ensure that the infrastructure got built, and Californians have reaped the benefits ever since.
High speed rail will come through this rough patch. The case for it is too strong to be denied now, unless California really does want to go full Tea Party and abandon passenger rail in order to ignore the economic and environmental challenges the state faces. That won’t happen unless HSR advocates remain persistent and strong. The other side wants the advocates to give up. But they misunderstand us.
We won’t give up on HSR, because unlike them, we won’t give up on California’s future.