AGORA DEBATE: Never Mind Obamacare, What about Obamarail?

In this installment of the AGORA debate, TNH Executive Editor Constantinos E. Scaros joins the millions on the anti-Obamacare bandwagon, but for a different reason – because Obamacare preempted “Obamarail” (aka high-speed rail). Classical liberal/anarchist/historian Dan Georgakas thinks that should just be the tip of the iceberg.  WHAT’S YOUR OPINION?


Dan, count me among the many who were disappointed when newly-elected president Barack Obama focused his attention on sweeping healthcare reform, which resulted in the law commonly referred to as “Obamacare.” But don’t count me in for the same reasons as most.

Though I find much wrong (and much right) with Obamacare, and though I continue to criticize Obama’s handling of the entire matter – from “leading from behind” to lying about the details – I am hardly one of those ready to join a “freedom compound” somewhere in the Northwest, with a small arsenal of weapons, ready to take on Obama’s “Marxist armies.” The reason that Obama’s preoccupation with health care reform troubles me is because he had made a promise to place his priorities on a different issue: energy independence, and to that end, spoke about high-speed rail.

In one of the 2008 debates against John McCain, both candidates were asked which issue – among them energy independence and health care reform – would be their top priority. McCain, responding first, gave the quintessential politician’s answer: “I’d make them all my top priority.” Obama, to his credit, answered the question in the way it was meant to be answered: to make a tough choice among various important priorities. “Energy independence,” not health care reform, was his unequivocal response.

Conservatives may cringe as they continue to read, because what I wish Obama had done from the time he took office was swap one big government program for another. Instead of becoming embroiled in a nationwide argument about Obamacare, I wish that we Americans were debating the merits of: Obamarail. Mainly, sweeping transportation reform that virtually would have turned our nation into one giant train track, filled with high-speed expresses that would zip from New York to Chicago faster than passengers could finish breakfast.

Here’s how I envisioned it: 1) Obama would have been obsessed WITH developing the finest high-speed rail system in the world; 2) he would have told Congress “just do it, and make sure everyone has access”; 3) he would have left Congress to deal with the details, and they would have created a massive piece of legislation that no one would have read in its entirety, and that would have been packed with special interest pork. Right now, we would be experiencing technical glitches, a need to raise taxes, and to “blow a hole in the deficit,” as “born-again” deficit hawks like to say. Just as with Obamacare, the president would have been accused of leading from behind, and might have even told a lie or two about tearing down roads on which cars travel to make room for whole new sets of tracks: “if you like your highway, you can keep your highway, period” – something like that.

If I sound pessimistic, it’s not that I don’t have faith in anything going according to plan. Rather, it is to emphasize that even if Obamarail had gone awry, I would still have been very much in favor of it.

First of all, in the long run, transportation by rail saves on energy, and for every barrel of oil we don’t need, the Middle East becomes that much more irrelevant.

Second, it is downright patriotic. We hear all these stories about China’s vaunted economic and technological explosion. Developing a world-class rail system that would make theirs look like a putt-putt choo-choo would be as much a boost to our national psyche as when we beat the Russians to the moon in ’69. By comparison, the WHO ranks France, Italy, San Marino, Andorra and Malta as the countries with the top healthcare systems in the world. Climbing from number 37 to catch and surpass them might be noble, but hardly a fist-pumping phenomenon. After all, the other big boys on the World Stage, Russia and China, are 130th and 144th, respectively.

Finally, high speed rail would usher in the greatest economy in our nation’s history. Unemployment would be next to zero, if time and distance were no longer impediments. Not to mention, it would provide sheer joy to hundreds of millions of Americans: tired of frosty New England? Just hop on a train to Miami for the day, lay on the beach all afternoon, and catch the next train home in time for dinner!

If any of this sounds far-fetched, consider Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ recent interview on 60 minutes, in which he discussed that within the next five years, his company plans to deliver items 30 minutes after they are purchased online, directly to people’s homes, by drone!

Dan, I know you favor many progressive reforms that involve a huge role played by government – such as health care and education for all.  What do you think about Obamarail?


Dino, since the 1960s the United States has remained stagnant in its government services while other nations have surged forward. We were the first on the moon, but today we need Russian craft to put our astronauts in space. We invented the Internet yet have the worse cellular phone system in the advanced world. The problems with rapid transit and national health care are part of this pattern of economic underdevelopment.

All advanced nations have health care systems that based on a single payer, the form used in our own Medicare, the Veterans Administration health program, and the health plan serving members of Congress. Obama did not even attempt to create such a system for the general public. The result is a cumbersome bureaucracy with 2,000 pages of regulations that are difficult to cope with, even if the technology works as planned. Insurance companies continue to take a huge cut of the health dollar. In that regard, Americans need to realize that Romneycare, the Massachusetts plan touted as the model for Obamacare, has the highest per person cost in the world.

Your observations on rapid transit are indeed accurate in terms of convenience, pollution, national security, and economic development. All major European cities are connected by rapid rail transit. In the United States, there isn’t even a nonstop route between New York and Washington, DC, the nation’s two most powerful cities. China has hundreds of new rapid transit projects. We have only one, a link between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Only the federal government has the legal authority and borrowing power needed to create a modern, low-cost rail system. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and Eisenhower’s building of the interstate highway can serve as models of what can be done.

Roosevelt used government funds to build, dams, tunnels, and bridges essential to grow the American economy. They remain vital to our prosperity. He even brought publically owed electricity to much of the Tennessee Valley. That, too, still exists. Eisenhower, concerned with national security and commercial development created the interstate highways that transformed postwar America. That system remains a key factor in our national economy.

All of these projects were created to serve the collective needs of the nation, not for private profit. Long-term financial gains for society would be substantial, but they would be the consequences of the service, not its purpose. Such systems can be run at cost or even at a loss and still be economically invaluable.

Opponents of a single-payer health plan or a federal rapid rail system often denounce them as socialist. What we know, however, is that private enterprise cannot handle these problems here just as it could not handle them elsewhere in the world.

A well-known schoolyard ditty is, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Politically speaking, that isn’t true. Americans need to understand that socialist measures can be good or bad, depending on how democratically they are conceived and administered. Our library system is a good example of a success. The community invests in books and computers, use is available to all free of charge, but no one owns the books or computers.

The American public needs to get out of the political sandbox and demand government attend to its essential needs, even when that requires a socialist project. Obama is a mediocre president and the Congress is dysfunctional. Until there is a mass movement demanding change, we will continue to fall behind other advanced nations and ultimately, dire economic consequences will result.