Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Russia of the 21st Century?

At Wofford, students are required to take at least one semester of Western Civilization as part of their core curriculum requirement, which means that everyone in the department (even an American historian!) teaches it. As a result, I often teach the course from 1815 to the present, and in the time-honored (or is it time-worn?) tradition, the first big topic we tackle is the industrial revolution.

It can be a less than exciting topic, but it is an unusually important one, and I try to drive home how significant it was for European and world history that Britain took the early lead in industrial development. One of the statistics I use to accomplish that goal is the following: in the Britain of 1850, there were 9787 km of railroad lines--this in a state with about 81,000 square miles of territory. In that same year, the Russian empire, with over 8 million square miles of territory, had a mere 501 km of railroad lines.

So why am I talking about this? Bob Herbert had a column last week in the New York Times about how China is leaving the U.S. in the dust when it comes to clean energy development. The day before, a Times news article highlighted China's investment in high-speed rail. China today has 1,800 miles of high-speed rail lines. The U.S., with only 100,000 square miles less territory than China, has zero. As the articles notes, the "United States hopes to build its first high-speed rail line by 2014, an 84-mile route linking Tampa and Orlando, Fla."

Even that modest first step, a part of the much-maligned stimulus bill, has been denounced as wasteful government spending. It is that kind of knee-jerk, "everything-government-does-is-bad" criticism that threatens to make the U.S. the Russia of the 21st century. The Russian empire, with its sclerotic political system, limped through the rest of the 19th century with its great power status technically intact. But in 1904-05, it was humiliated in war by Japan, which had mobilized itself and developed industrially. Unless the U.S. finds a way to get beyond the political paralysis of our time that prevents significant investment in the technologies of the future, we may suffer a similar fate.

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