Letter from America Dominic Green
Forget planes and trains – cars are the American dream machines
At some dismal hour of the Carter administration, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith predicted that in the 1980s the economy of the Soviet Union would overtake that of the United States.
These were the years of ‘malaise’, an affliction encapsulated by Carter’s appearance on television wearing a shawl-collared cardigan, like a retired member of the Rat Pack.
With oil prices soaring and station wagons lined up at the gas pumps, Carter advised Americans to turn down the central heating and switch off the AC. This was a grotesquely unpatriotic assault on the social compact – so no one was surprised when Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election on a promise to ‘make America great again’ by ensuring that all indoor spaces were at all times heated or cooled to 72° Fahrenheit.
Galbraith had not lost his mind. He had merely spent too long in the Acela Corridor. This, the intellectual-financial complex that connects the government in Washington, DC, to the markets in New York City and the eggheads in Boston, is named for the Acela Express – the Amtrak service that connects these cities. Amtrak’s unreliable and slow service expresses nothing other than a powerful argument for the kind of French-style subsidies Galbraith would have advised.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that everything the federal government touches turns to very expensive dust. The US has the world’s best hospitals but, since Obamacare, people can’t afford to enter them. The US was welded into a continental empire by the robber barons of the railroad, but Amtrak models itself on British Rail, c1974. The US has some of the world’s best research universities, but the federal curriculum produces American children whose average ability in maths is at the same level as Albanian children’s – only its acquisition has been much more expensive.
Everything else works pretty well – the reason being that if it’s not working pretty well, market forces can usually fix it.
The real governing force of American life is the compulsion to contrive the narrative of your life like that of a Mark Twain character – or of Twain himself. He made the early career switch from Sam Clemens the riverboat sailor to ‘Mark Twain’, purveyor of American legends and speculator in the commerce of literature.
This force compels the creation of the technology and economy that can support ‘living the dream’. And that technology and economy work well; sometimes too well.
To know America, you have to drive across it. Americans are a mobile people. Only when you hit the road do you realise how well things work – unless, of course, you’re flying, in which case you’re at the mercy of what demotic Southerners call the Feral Gummint.
But out on the road, there is still nothing like it: the endless, unspooling ribbon of blacktop; the enormous, empty wilderness around you; the Stars and Stripes flying next to the giant golden arches. Ain’t nuttin’ or nobody to stop you, as the poets say.
You might get ground up by an 18-wheeler or sideswiped by a college kid, but you’ll never starve on the Interstate. You might hear gunshots in the night at a motel, but you’ll also hear the comforting sigh and clank of the ice machine.
You might find yourself wheezing as you carry your bags, because your legs have turned into devices for moving you from bed to car to restaurant and back, but there’s always a free doughnut and coffee to send you on your way when you check out. ‘American runs on Dunkin’ goes the slogan for Dunkin’ Donuts, who recently dropped the Donut and now call themselves plain ole Dunkin’, to get us on our way even faster.
When cable television sliced movies so thinly that Americans were effectively watching four hours of ads with the occasional interlude of drama, Netflix restored the original cinematic experience. When taxi drivers either no longer knew where they were going or drove like getaway drivers on crack, Uber and Lyft appeared on our doorsteps.
All these economies of speed cost us, of course – in frayed nerves, the erosion of privacy and the expansion of waistlines; in the broken body clocks that strike 13.
The internet bloomed in America because the government agreed to stay out of it. Consequently, no one sleeps any more and the country wastes millions of hours online, arguing about politics and sharing cat videos. The improvements, though, are What the People Want.
American life is a race between glory and mortality. The American economy is a race between initiative – which Americans are no more likely to run out of than they are of barbecue sauce – and regulation, which Washington will for ever continue to spray over this land like silage over a beanfield.
The people know their rights, they know what they like, and they expect to get it until it kills them. This is a democracy, dammit.