American infrastructure

In America, there are two simultaneous national debates going on:

  • America's crisis in physical infrastructure: crumbling roads, schools, parks, hospitals, ports, railways etc etc.
  • America's crisis in moral infrastructure: Bernie Madoff, Detroit, Wall Street, Governor Blagojevich etc etc.

The first debate is about rewiring America, the second is about rewiring Americans.

Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses the crisis in physical infrastructure in this week's Newsweek. He says that America doesn't "make sense" anymore because the country's technological achievements aren't reflected in its increasingly antiquated transportation system:

We live in the country that first landed a man on the moon, that is responsible for the mass-produced automobile and that created the Internet. So why do we sit bumper to bumper on the freeway for two or three hours in order to get home from work during rush hour?....We're a society where e-mail, handheld devices, videoconferencing and thousands of satellites in orbit keep us connected. So why do Americans stand in long security lines at the airport, in our socks, just to sit in the terminal for hours as our flights get delayed because of overcrowded airport runways?... None of this makes sense in America. It doesn't make sense that in the greatest country on Earth we still rely on trains that go the same speed as they did 100 years ago, so our shipping times and commutes are longer than other countries.

If Schwarzenegger believes that America is the "greatest country on earth", does it follow that Americans are the greatest people on earth?

Speaking of personal greatness, The New York Times' Roger Cohen discusses the second crisis today. Responsibility, he argues, is making sure the buck stops somewhere. Detroit and Bernie Madoff represent the same breakdown of moral authority in America. It's all about the disappearance of accountability:

The whole financial crisis is about the death of responsibility: the buck stopped nowhere. Everyone profited from toxic paper. Bernard Madoff, he of the alleged multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, is only the latest example..... Irresponsibility has also characterized Detroit. I don’t see how you restore responsibility with a bailout. Obama has a deeper task than changing the economy; he has to change the culture.

Cohen may be right. Obama needs to change the culture. And one way to start this internal rewiring of Americans is to correct the parochial Schwarzenegger conceit about America being the greatest country on earth. Indeed, it's only when Americans realize that they are no better or worse than everyone else on the globe that they can rebuild America's infrastructure to make it equal to other countries in the world.