Excerpt: 'The Healing of America,' by T.R. Reid

Those German roads came to mind when, in 1953, President Eisenhower was presented with rather timid plans for a two-lane highway network across America. "After seeing the autobahns of modern Germany, and knowing the assets those highways were to the Germans," he wrote in his memoirs, "I decided, as President, to put an emphasis on this kind of road-building. I made a personal and absolute decision to see that the nation would benefit from it. The [American plans] had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land." So Eisenhower built those "broader ribbons": a state-of-the-art network designed to a single national standard, with four-lane divided highways; overpasses and ramped interchanges to avoid intersections; and rest areas for refueling every hundred miles or so. There was considerable debate about how to pay for this hugely ambitious engineering project. A giant bond issue was proposed. But in those more innocent times, it was considered irresponsible for the federal government to run up large debts; in the end, Ike settled on a highway trust fund financed by gasoline taxes.

Today, the interstates—formally designated the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways—comprise 47,000 miles of road, 55,500 bridges, 14,750 interchanges, and zero stoplights. The system has spawned such basic elements of American life as the suburb, the motel, the chain store, the recreational vehicle, the automotive seat belt, the spring-break trek to Florida, the thirtymile commute to work, and, on the dark side, the two-mile-long traffic jam. It's one of the finest highway networks in the world—and nobody seems to care that the basic idea was copied from the Nazis.

Eisenhower, the pragmatic commander, was willing to borrow a good policy idea, even if it had foreign lineage. In the same spirit, my sore shoulder and I hit the road, looking for good ideas for managing a nation's health care. But where should I look?

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