No Train, No Gain
A recent online search of The New York Times for the term “high-speed rail” returned this headline as the third result: “High-Speed Rail Line Is Planned by Japan.” The date? July 14, 1958. Also included in the results was another headline, this one from 2009: “Obama Seeks High-Speed Rail System Across U.S.” Has the United States finally decided to do what most industrialized countries have been doing for over 50 years—namely, make a meaningful investment in mass rail transit? We hope so. The chronic underfunding of the U.S. rail system is an international embarrassment. President Barack Obama’s announcement in April that he was making available $8 billion to develop high-speed intercity rail transportation in 10 regions of the country is a welcome change indeed. A properly funded rail system would create jobs, reduce travel times and increase mobility. It would also reduce congestion on the highways and in the air and curtail carbon emissions, a leading cause of global warming.
Mr. Obama’s plan has already run into considerable criticism, mainly from the same tired coalition of automakers and pseudoconservatives who claim that the nation’s rail system should sink or swim on its own, without the added buoyancy provided by government subsidies. Such a critique would have some validity if the government were not already in the business of heavily subsidizing transportation. Ten billion dollars per year goes to the highway trust fund, and almost $3 billion annually goes to the Federal Aviation Administration (not counting airport construction). And let us not forget that the federal government is now practically running General Motors. We have no quibble with these programs per se, but rail should get its fair share. Japan figured that out 50 years ago. We would still do well to learn the lesson.
Everybody Is Somebody
One unexpected event during the installation of Timothy M. Dolan as head of the Archdiocese of New York on April 15 was the dramatic reaction of the congregation to a passage about life issues in the archbishop’s homily. At the mention of the unborn, the congregation leapt to its feet and cheered with the sustained passion of a political rally responding to a cue. Nothing else in the entire ceremony received a similar response, not even the formal announcement of the archbishop’s installation.
Nothing in Archbishop Dolan’s homily, however, invited such an intense reaction. Even as he spoke of the church protecting the weak and helpless as a “mama bear” protects its cubs, the archbishop was careful to broaden the scope of that concern to include not only the sick, the elderly and the poor but also others who often go unmentioned, like people who are mentally or physically handicapped and addicts. His plain-spoken, overriding idea that “everybody is somebody” was far from sloganeering. Indeed, it offers a highly positive and very useful way of explaining the church’s position to the world.
Church leaders around the country could enhance the public conversation about life issues by following Arch-bishop Dolan’s lead. Such inviting rhetoric would likely help the church accomplish its goals.
The French Paradox
It is a truism that French youngsters, growing up in families accustomed to wine with their meals, learn how to handle alcohol. But pending legislation suggests otherwise, now that alcohol-related illnesses are the second largest cause of death in France. (Tobacco-related illnesses are the first.) To combat problem drinking among the young, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has introduced a bill that would raise the age for beer and wine consumption to 18. Young people currently can buy beer and wine at age 16, and bartenders and shopkeepers seldom require proof of age. The bill also stops bars from allowing customers to drink as much as they want for a modest fee, a practice popular at student parties. The National Assembly approved the measure in March. The bill still needs the approval of the French Senate.
Binge drinking by French youth is of special concern. The number of people between the ages of 15 and 24 hospitalized for alcohol-related illnesses jumped 50 percent between 2004 and 2007. Although the overall amount of wine and liquor consumption in France has dropped over the past 50 years for the population at large, among the young it has been rising; hence the worry among health officials. France banned the advertising of alcoholic beverages on television in 1991. New regulations passed in March 2009, however, allow alcohol advertising on the Internet, a concession won by the powerful wine lobby. France’s high levels of alcoholism cause appropriate alarm among its health authorities, and whatever practical success the bill may have, it is at least a step in the direction of trying to protect French youth from a life-threatening addiction.