Streetwise Professor

September 24, 2011

I’ve Been Working on the (Intercontinental) Railroad

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — The Professor @ 6:36 am

Obama repeated his gaffe about the “Intercontinental Railroad.”  I’ve stayed at Intercontinental Hotels.  I regularly fly in or out of Intercontinental Airport.  But I’ve never ridden on the Intercontinental Railroad–nor has anyone else in the US.  The US pioneered the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and intercontinental air travel.  But the Russians get credit for the first intercontinental railway–the Trans-Siberian.

No, what Obama was referring to was the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869 with the driving of the Golden Spike.  The “Pacific Railroad” (as it was called) was the culmination of a movement that began in the 1840s and reached a fever pitch in the 1850s.  Although Obama invokes the project because of its connection to Lincoln, and hence the Republican Party (due to the fact that the enabling legislation was passed in 1863), the railroad’s most passionate booster was Lincoln’s main rival–Democrat Stephen Douglas.  It was his almost monomaniacal focus on the Pacific Road that spurred Douglas to champion the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The road was more of a sectional issue, with “westerners” like the Illinoisan Douglas being the main advocates of a northern route contending with slave state legislators advocating a southern route.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act’s elimination of the Missouri Compromise was a way of securing Southern support for Douglas’s dream.

Ironically, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a major impetus for Lincoln’s return to politics, and was a major subject of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  So, in a sense, the connection between the railroad and Lincoln is quite a bit more complex than Obama’s set-piece suggests.

The Act was also a major turning point in the nation’s road to dissolution and Civil War.  Talk about your unintended consequences.  But if Obama can’t even get the name right, one shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a little hazy on the checkered history of the “road that spanned the continent.”

One thing that I find fascinating is that Obama harkens back to a time most Americans couldn’t care less about (a huge number of Americans can’t date the Civil War to within several decades).  Yes, the lame, lame, lame WWLD trope is part of it.  But in recent decades, whenever a politician has tried to demonstrate the failing of the current generation to live up to the example of its predecessors, he or she has  quite typically used space exploration as the standard to be met.  “If we can put a man on the moon we can [insert pet project here].”

Although the vision of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon is becoming less compelling to most Americans, it is still far more evocative than the image of guys in stovepipe hats shaking hands in front of two trains in Promontory Point, Utah.  So why does Obama invoke events of 140 years ago, than something in living memory?

I think the reason for that is pretty clear.  He’s effectively gutted NASA.  Pretty hard for a guy who has pretty much terminated the manned space program to use the manned space program as an example of what America can achieve when it sets its mind to it.

Truth be told, I am ambivalent about NASA and manned space programs.  Even though I grew up when the race for the moon was a subject of intense national interest, and I have pretty distinct memories of major events (the landing itself, Apollo XIII, the fire on Apollo III, the Christmas Eve orbiting of the moon), I was never all that interested in it: history and things here on earth have always been more intriguing to me.  Moreover, I bring an inherent skepticism to any huge government program.  This is particularly true today, when the country’s financial condition is so fraught.  I understand, intellectually, the arguments about the innovations produced as a result of NASA, but have yet to see a convincing demonstration that the current rate of return on investments in NASA–including the value of any information or innovations that it generates–makes the investment of billions a paying enterprise.

So I am not slamming Obama on slashing NASA.  I don’t know enough about it to make a judgment one way or another.  I just find it very interesting that his slashing has eliminated a common rhetorical trope from his repertoire, and forced him to harken back to a day that no one remembers and very few care the slightest about in order to flog his stimulus proposals.

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  1. Intercontinental railroad may yet happen.

    Comment by La Russophobe — September 24, 2011 @ 8:49 am

  2. I am against public railroad support now, and would have been against it then. However, it was a thing of obvious importance and benefit, and not intended (I don’t think) as “stimulus” as we would call it now. Most of Obama’s projects are either unimportant, or highly speculative.

    FWIW, the railroad was the fulfillment of the “American System”, which was the catchy name for projected paid for with public money given to private businesses. In other projects it proved so corrupt that it did create the Republican party, since the Whigs, which championed it, were so disgraced it literally destroyed the party. It plagued the Republicans too, with scandals like Credit Mobilier dogging them for decades.

    Comment by ThomasL — September 24, 2011 @ 8:50 am

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