Thursday, February 3, 2011

a wake up call…..

I wrote this blog a little over a month ago, but never posted it. 

In the late 1980’s, I had a mobile phone.  It came with a case and kind of looked like a real phone with a real curly cue cord.  It was heavy, sort of like carrying your lunch box with a few meals in it. 

I didn’t know too many people who had one, but I found it to really help in business, so I reluctantly spent the $1100 for the phone, plus the nearly $1 a minute cost to have one.   I kept the calls short, but over the course of an average month, I spent about $1000.

I was in a field where staying in touch was worth real money, so it was worth it to me.  The value of the call was greater than the cost.  It helped to make me money.  To most, it was an unaffordable luxury.   To me, it was a necessity.

Now, in 1989, if you would have gone to the public and said to them, we need $810 million to build cellular towers for these phones that cost lots of money, more money than most people could afford, would you have been in favor  of it?  To most, the answer would be no, because there wasn’t a clear need at the time, and it would only be for the very few.

We just said no to that type of investment in turning down high speed rail.  We’ve got our eyes on the past, with cheap gas and cheap cars compared to the rest of the world.  We are afraid to move forward because of current cost, not understanding the future cost of not reducing our national appetite for cheap gas.

The high speed rail project is not about the 70 or so miles from Milwaukee to Madison.  It’s about connecting the country to a bigger system. 

It’s about not building more runways at airports.  It’s about not building more highways.  It’s about saving fuel, which will become geometrically more expensive as more people from around the world have access to automobiles. 

We benefited in the short term with cheap vehicles and fuel.  Just like the credit bubble, our transportation bubble is the same.  Too many people will not be able to afford the real cost of the automobile. 

I’m writing this blog while I’m in China for business.  I was reading the newspaper today with three different headlines that underscore how different the world is from 21 years ago.

The first headline was about how GE (yes, that GE), was investing $50 million in a Chinese company, not because they were cheaper, but because they had the advanced technology to develop high speed rail in the U.S.  You see, China is the world leader in high speed rail, not the U.S.

The second headline was about how the Chinese had just developed the world’s fastest super computer, not Cray Research, and they were doing engineering projects that used to require days to compute in just hours. 

The third headline noted how the Chinese were on track to sell over 17.5 million new cars this year, breaking all sales records.  One dealership in Beijing sold 15,000 cars in one month.  They are actually implementing measures to slow down sales so they can catch up with their infrastructure.

The Chinese do projects that are unfathomable.  In one province where there are geological issues with earthquakes, they are moving nearly 3 million people to safer places over the next decade.

This is not meant to be an advertisement for China, but a wake up call to us.  We need to do better.  For some reason, we seem to have forgotten John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address that implored us “to not ask what our country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

We need our leaders to step up with hard things, not promises to give us stuff if we vote for them.  We need to think in bigger terms, not always “my” pocketbook.  We need to stop running our country like some sort of ATM.

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