How Philosophy Explains High-Speed Rail

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I didn’t understand Gov. Jerry Brown’s state of the state speech, but my fellow members of the press let me know it was brilliant. All those quotes – from philosopher to the Bible to the Little Engine That Could – explained everything, I’m told.

So I’ve decided to learn, to turn over a new leaf, and use philosophy and the sharp quote to answer questions that haven’t been answered.

I thought I’d start with high-speed rail. The project remains a go, despite a huge number of questions about its future that haven’t been answered. But if you just apply a few philosophical bon mots, everything is answered. Right?

Q: Construction is supposed to begin soon on the first stretch of rail, in the Central Valley, but the project lacks tens of billions of dollars of necessary funding. Isn’t it unwise to go forward without funding?

A: To quote Lao Tze, “It is the center hole that makes the wheel useful. Shape clay into a vessel. It is the space within that gives it worth.”

Q: OK, but who is going to ride this thing, anyway? Aren’t the ridership projections wildly exaggerated?

A: Was it not Ivan Illich, the Austrian priest turned theorist, who told us, “We must rediscover the distinction between hope and expectation.”

Q: Even if everything goes as planned, it’ll be more than 20 years before Phase 1 is complete. How can we possibly know what our transportation needs will be then?

A: Fear not. As Plato reminded us, “Time is the image of eternity.”

Q: Time is one thing, but the LA Times says the land hasn’t even been acquired for the beginning of construction.

A: Remember what Confucius said: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”

Q: Those are all interesting quotes, but I’m not sure how this whole thing comes off. Could Socrates have been thinking of high-speed rail when he said: “How many things I can do without!”

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