Friday, June 06, 2008

The dying American empire

My recent trip to Europe made very clear what I've known for some time: The US is a dying empire.

The eastern European nations I visited are on the rise and making tremendous gains. Travelling around Europe involved clean, comfortable, efficient trains that ran on time. Everywhere we went things were improving. European societies are seeing phenomenal economic growth while maintaining a reasonable social safety net to ensure prosperity for all. The cities are compact and easily navigable. Because of the urban density, the countrysides are still full of open space that is easily accessible to urban residents.

The day I left was a vivid example of the contrast. The day started in Hannover, Germany. My wife and I walked to the train station. As a rule, almost everybody in European cities lives close enough to the transit hub to reach it in 20 minutes or less by public transit or bike, ridding them of a dependency on oil-sucking autos. At the train station, Skye departed for Prague, taking a route that required a transfer with only an 8 minute before the second train departed. She easily made it, of course, as the trains almost always run right on time. I left for the Frankfurt airport, covering a couple hundred miles comfortably and in a little over two hours. The train pulled right into the airport and I was at my gate in no time. Everything in the airport was well laid-out and clearly signed. The airport was also the train station as well as a shopping center and banking complex.

After arriving in the States, everything changed. The entire customs and passport-control process was poorly laid out with minimal signage. Unlike in Europe, all the airport staff appeared to be monolingual and unable to help the visitors from other countries. The baggage collection area was chaotic...the signage conflicted with what agents were telling us. When the baggage was re-checked, nobody seemed able to tell us where to put our bags. I left the secure area to meet my dad, who lives in the area, during my long layover. Finding a simple place to eat required almost 45 minutes of driving around. I noticed multiple ATMs and electronic kiosks were out of order. Simply driving a few miles from the nearest restaurant back to the airport took over 20 minutes. The final leg of my journey began with a wait of well over an hour at the gate. First the subcontractors who loaded the luggage spent 45 minutes trying to figure out what to do with oversize luggage. Then another 30 minutes was spent trying to locate somebody authorized to drive the truck that pushes planes away from the gate. On the other end of the flight, we spent 30 minutes waiting for the luggage to get unloaded. Overall, the whole experience on the US side of the Atlantic reminded me of experiences I've had in Costa Rica and Jamaica.

Clearly the US is on the downside. We've had a good run, but it looks like our time as a global superpower is over.



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