And the lucky journalist is Megan McArdle of The Atlantic, who wrote “The Significance of China’s First High-Speed Rail Disaster.” Why does McArdle win the coveted insensitivity award? Well, as it turns out, she believes the disaster is significant because it tells us that democracy is better than autocracy and that the United States should be thankful for the infrastructure system that it has.
Stupid, but somehow all that stuff about the U.S. escaped me over the past couple of days. How thoughtless of me. McArdle must be confused as to why this crash received so much press coverage here in China without anyone talking about how this relates to the United States. China’s media sure is incompetent.
Here’s her first sentence, which tells you a lot about her point of view:
With all the other horrible events of the weekend, China’s high speed rail crash sort of faded into the background.
OK, I understand that she is an American journalist writing in an American publication meant for an American audience, but still, I gotta respectfully tell her to fuck off with that first comment. Outside of Asia, the crash might have received limited coverage, but would it have killed her to at least tack on a qualifier or something to that sentence?
Moving on to the substance of McArdle’s argument:
China’s decision to build a $400 billion, 16,000 km high speed rail network in the space of a few years was initially greeted with awe at their committment to winning the future, and laments from the usual suspects that America could never do something this fantabulous.
This is her setup. Those “usual suspects” (i.e. dirty rotten hippie liberals who support public works) who talked up China’s infrastructure expansion (i.e. thought it was so “fantabulous”) and criticized the crumbling U.S. counterpart sure have egg on their face now, right? Traitorous Commie sympathizers, every last one of ’em.
And here is where she lowers the rhetorical boom, reminding all of us who may have talked up Chinese infrastructure building in the past at the expense of U.S. roads, bridges, rail, etc.
While I was in China last year, I wrote:
Viewed from a purely technological perspective, America’s high speed rail is an embarrassment compared to China’s: shaky, slow, and not particularly sleek. But viewed in another way, our slow rail network is the price for a lot of great things about America: our limits on government power, our democratic political system, and the fact that we’re already rich enough to have an enormous amount of existing infrastructure, in the form of houses, industrial plant, and roads, that would be very expensive to tear up in the name of building rail lines. All in all, I think these things are more valuable than even a really cool train system.
Now that the really cool train system seems to be maybe slightly deadly, I feel this more strongly than ever.
Whenever I hear “When I was in China last year . . .” I know that the next few words are going to be stupid and ignorant. Nauseating smugness aside, though, the part I really can’t stand is that line about how a slow, crappy rail system is the price that America pays for . . . well, to be honest, I couldn’t really figure out what the hell she was getting at there.
I sat and stared at the wall for a few minutes trying to figure out what was the connection between bad trains and a democratic political system. The only thing I got out of the process was a slight headache and a dirty look from the cat (I think staring at the wall for no reason is her schtick).
McArdle then goes off on a barely comprehensible tangent about autocracy and public policy. Her point? That anyone who argues that China’s system of government has some advantages over American-style democracy is wrong, and that somehow the Wenzhou crash is evidence of this.
For what it’s worth, most reasonable people understand that democracy and autocracy both have advantages and disadvantages. Apparently McArdle is a purist.
Here’s the big wrap-up that should appeal to her conservative American readers:
We don’t know that this accident was caused by China’s autocratic political system; even the best-run systems do occasionally have accidents. But what’s emerging from behind the shiny pictures of whizzy trains and smiling engineers is a story of overreach, corruption, and possibly disastrous construction shortcuts. We should not lament the fact that we couldn’t do anything like this here.
I was with her until the last sentence, which again makes absolutely no sense. A few points of logic:
1. The Wenzhou crash doesn’t mean that all of China’s infrastructure is worthless. There might be endemic corruption, standards and quality problems, but the system seems to be working fine in many other areas. This sweeping generalization is rather lame. When that bridge collapsed in Minnesota a couple of years ago, was that evidence that the entire American road system was on the verge of collapse? (Some would argue yes!)
2. U.S. infrastructure is an embarrassment no matter how you look at it. There is absolutely no reason why a democracy can’t spend the money to upgrade it like Roosevelt and Eisenhower did in the past. Saying that not doing so is a vindication of democracy over autocracy is a ridiculous excuse for inaction. Even a Tea Party/conservative Republican type wouldn’t go that far.
3. This manufactured debate about the crash and China’s system of government, written a couple days after the accident as the rescue workers are still pulling bodies out the wreckage, is really poor timing. And this is coming from someone (i.e. me) who usually couldn’t give a shit about hurting people’s feelings. She couldn’t have waited a couple of weeks and written something a bit more academic for Foreign Affairs or something?
Let me put my cards on the table here. I’m no fan of Megan McArdle. Her big thing seems to be spouting off Chicago School talking points in order to justify Republican policies, and doing it such a way that makes it seem as though she’s the only adult in the room. Her response to liberal ideas is usually “Grow up.”
A lot of people are talking about the Wenzhou crash and what it says about corruption, incompetence, the fast pace of infrastructure construction, and so on. Plenty of questions out there. But taking this one crash and using it to somehow vindicate the deplorable state of U.S. infrastructure is laughable.