The Long View 2008-06-25: A Locomotive Pastorale


In speaking of Harry Truman, John J. Reilly mentions the small-town America that he was a part of, the same small-town America that produced the miracles of Silicon Valley.

In 2008, rising gas prices were one of the many things that tipped the unwise lending practices into widespread default. Small town America didn’t quite benefit at the time. Now it is the pandemic inspired remote work revolution. We shall see if anything comes of it.

A Locomotive Pastorale

I am reading David McCullough’s 1993 biography of Harry Truman [Amazon link], in no small part because I found the book’s straight-forward cover portrait of this straightforward man very reassuring.

It’s not a straightforward story, of course, but on the whole this is an edifying life. In any case, the story is interesting in part be-cause the political culture from which Truman came, the world of the small town, with its Masonic lodges and tiny opera houses, has become one with Nineveh and Tyre. We must wonder, though, whether this condition is permanent.

Let me go out on a very sturdy limb to remark that the current spike in gasoline prices is just that: a spike. There will be a re-treat in a few weeks. This is not to say that the age of cheap oil is not ending. I suspect that what will happen will not be persistently high prices, which could be adjusted to, but greater volatility, which cannot. Yes, speculators will have a hand in this, but that’s because sometimes speculation is well founded. We have already had occasion to consider forecasts of the implosion of suburbia, and just today the International Herald Tribune announced that life on the fringes of U.S. suburbia becomes untenable with rising gas costs. It is certainly affecting the way that consumers think of the real estate market:

More than three-fourths of prospective homebuyers are more inclined to live in an urban area because of fuel prices, according to a recent survey of 903 real estate agents with Coldwell Banker, a national brokerage.

May I suggest that we are overlooking a third possibility? Before the 1950s, America was not a dichotomy of big urban centers and the countryside. If you did not live in a big city, you probably lived in a town or small city, a place with a few thousand inhabitants. They had their own economic life and their own political culture. The evaporation of the “small-town vote” may be the most novel thing that happened to American politics in the late 20th-century.

The rise in transportation costs is likely to make this middle-level of settlement economically attractive again. Certainly there would be a dramatic change in retail. The big-box superstores, for instance, presuppose a customer base whose primary means of transportation is a large private vehicle. The key factor, though, would be the redistribution of production, or at least of local assembly. I am not thinking of the return of a craft-economy, but the franchising of high-tech assembly to small units.

The age of the small town was the age of the passenger railroad. So, it may be significant that Amtrak is boasting of record rider-ship and revenues as people adjust their driving habits. Still, self-confessed railroad buff Charles Martin makes some good points when he explains Why trains just don't work in America :

[W]hen Megan McArdle says “America’s freight rail system … is world-class. Its passenger rail should be too,” I’m naturally inclined to agree with her. It positively breaks my heart to have to say “no, actually it shouldn’t. Passenger rail is almost cer-tainly never going to work again, at least as a national transport system.”…

His enthusiasm remains undimmed for regional service. Train service works very well in the Northeast, he explains, for the same reason it works so well in western Europe: the journeys are usually under 300 miles. However, he took the trouble to find out Amtrak’s fares from Denver to Los Angeles, and from Denver to New York, and to calculate train and air travel times realistically (that is, taking into account the time needed to get to and from a plane seat). He summarizes his results thus:

The table tells the tale, I think. The train is from one and a half to five times as expensive, and takes four and a half to five times as long, turning a four-day trip into seven or eight days….

Even an American equivalent of the French TGV would only cut those times in half.

Okay, but let me make two points:

First, a train trip from New York to Los Angeles is one thing; a trip from New York to Chicago is another. The service on the latter Amtrak route is splendid, I am assured, but it takes more than half the day. A TGV or maglev upgrade would make it preferable to air travel. There are many routes in the country like that, They almost make sense now, and would make sense if the infrastructure improved.

Second, we must remember that, though air is preferable to train for long routes, train is preferable to bus and car for the same routes. It is not impossible that air travel will again become as expensive and rare as it was 50 years ago. For most purposes, even business purposes, it just will not be a sensible option. That leave trains.

* * *

A quick presidential note: Opinion polls about the presidential candidates are, of course, nonsense at this date, but the polling organizations produce the numbers, and the commentators comment on them. For several weeks, McCain had been running anywhere from 5% to 15% behind Obama. Today, I hear (but do not trouble to link to) that they have pulled about even. I mention this fantasy because I just heard a gaggle of talking heads on Fox News talking about them. The ideological heads, who had just criticized McCain for tacking to the center rather than to the right, were the keenest to disparage the putative uptick in his popularity.

As I have mentioned before, there could be no greater disaster for these people than for McCain to win without them.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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