Dandong is a city in Northeast China with a population about 780,000. Here is a photograph I took of Dandong’s airport last fall – an airport that serves a city that is more populous than Seattle, Boston, and Washington, DC:
A personal favorite is this photo I snapped of the airport’s parking lot. Would that, say, JFK, were so easy to navigate:
By contrast, here is a picture of just one concourse of Denver’s airport. This is a only one section of an airport that serves a city of 610,000 people, a city a good deal smaller than Dandong:
President Obama used his State of the Union address earlier this week to lament that “China is building newer airports,” and to imply that the United States should be doing the same. It’s a familiar sentiment, one that we hear often from American journalists, politicians, and academics.
But lost in America’s current bout of China Envy is the fact that the Middle Kingdom is emerging from decades of extreme poverty. As it becomes a middle-income nation, with more of its people taking to the sky, of course China needs new airports. As recently as the spring of 2008, Beijing’s airport consisted of only one small terminal. Look again at that photograph of Dandong’s airport to see just how inadequate the infrastructure it is replacing is. The same situation is true of China’s rail network, which Obama also praised. China is now constructing new rail lines because it’s replacing trains that were little better than standing-room-only freight cars.
To be sure, the US is in need of upgraded air traffic infrastructure in order to ease congestion around the country’s largest airports. That’s all well and good. But the idea that America needs to go on a binge of airport building is risible. It would be an example of needlessly replacing something that is perfectly adequate, and of fetishizing the new simply because it is new. Should New York’s Grand Central Station be demolished because Beijing recently built a nice new train station? Should Buffalo tear down its magnificent art deco City Hall because Shanghai’s is “more modern?” Our situation is wholly different from China’s – we are not just starting to build a functional country after decades spent mired in third world conditions. We are not the China of the West.
The call to build new pointless airports brings to mind John Maynard Keynes’ injunction to “dig ditches and fill them up again.” Come to think of it, that’s probably why Obama supports the idea.