LaHood: Golly, I envy the Chinese government

It’s bad enough to have a columnist at one of America’s most prominent newspapers regularly singing the praises of Chinese authoritarianism.  It’s worse when high-ranking members of the American government do it.  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood griped at the Aspen Ideas Festival about having to deal with political opposition, and yearned for the ease in which Beijing could impose solutions without having to deal with dissent:

Echoing the laments of pundits like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood argued Saturday that China outpaces the United States in building major transportation infrastructure like high-speed rail because of its authoritarian system and because the Chinese don’t have the Republican Party holding up progress.

“The Chinese are more successful [in building infrastructure] because in their country, only three people make the decision. In our country, 3,000 people do, 3 million,” LaHood said in a short interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30. “In a country where only three people make the decision, they can decide where to put their rail line, get the money, and do it. We don’t do it that way in America.” …

“Two years ago, between 50 to 60 Republicans were elected to the House of Representatives to come to Washington to do nothing, and that’s what they’ve done and they’ve stopped any progress. Those people don’t have any vision about what the government can do. That’s been a real inhibitor in our ability to think outside the box and think big,” he said.

Er, high-speed rail is outside the box?  Democrats have been pushing that idea for decades, even while our current passenger-rail monopoly eats government subsidies while delivering the kind of performance one would expect from an anachronistic transportation medium. Air travel surpassed fixed-rail transportation in the 1950s and 1960s, with its flexibility on routes and moderately free-market competition for passengers.

In California, for instance, the state and the federal government will spend $100 billion to build a route between San Francisco and Los Angeles that will consist of a government monopoly riding on tracks near one of the largest earthquake faults in the world for most of its length, all to deliver passengers slower and at greater overall cost between two fixed points.  Airlines give consumers a choice of carriers and airports on either end of that route, will deliver passengers more quickly, and probably with a much wider choice of departure and arrival times. That sounds a lot more “outside the box,” and since the infrastructure for that already exists, it won’t cost an additional $100 billion for a state chronically in ten-figure budget deficits year in and year out.

Furthermore, the people sent those “50 to 60 Republicans” not to do nothing, but specifically to block the Obama administration’s agenda on big-spending government.  That is how democracy works, and why we have midterm elections — so that voters can issue a corrective to Presidents and Congresses that defy public will.  LaHood tried to tell The Cable that “democracy is preferable” after his hosanna to China, but it’s not clear that LaHood even understands how democracy works.

David Harsanyi echoes that concern at Human Events:

In my career, I’ve been lucky enough to meet cabinet members, governors, senators and even a few presidential candidates, but, honestly, I’ve never met anyone less impressive at the higher levels of government than LaHood. When I listened to him claim that commercial flying was a perilous mode of transportation, heard him say that bullet trains would soon replace cars and claim that building more bike lanes would solve the congestion problems in major cities … well, how can I put this: giving someone this silly a cabinet position should be an impeachable offense. Remember this is the guy who recklessly, and without evidence, suggested Americans “stop driving” Toyota for safety reasons right in the middle of the debate over the General Motors rescue.

And how has China’s authoritarianism worked out for its high-speed rail infrastructure?  About as well as you’d expect:

The problem — beyond the idea of spending untold billions on the antiquated technology of static choo-choo trains — is that the three people making all these wonderful decisions in China now have a high-speed rail system plagued by failurecorruption, out-of-control costs and legitimate safety concerns.

Apparently, LaHood hasn’t heard about this, despite Charles Lane’s exposé at the Washington Post in April 2011.  It’s yet another measure of the cluelessness of the China-boosters, but then again, anyone demanding massive government expenditures on fixed-rail transportation can’t be all that terribly bright in the first place.

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