Amtrak Subsidy

August 25, 2015

I’d like to talk about an issue that has been below the surface of the news but reflects a constant disagreement in our politics. Economic conservatives would displace almost everything in favor of the marketplace. But when you decide what to pay for, what are you including or excluding from the transaction?

Perhaps you’ve been following the arguments about subsidizing Amtrak, for example.[1] The details are more complex but I want to set out the basic issue. Passenger trains and commuter rails and busses tend to be subsidized by government. If they depended on the marketplace alone, they would fail. When any of us decide whether to take Amtrak or a city bus, or the subway in New York City or Washington, we are thinking of the personal costs and benefits. I’ve calculated, for example, that when I go to New York City, unless my wife is going down with me, it is cheaper to take Amtrak than to travel alone by car.

But if Amtrak failed, the trip to New York City would impose much greater burdens on me than just the cost. Given that this corridor is one of the busiest passenger rail corridors in the country, that would put a lot of people on the highway. It could make the trip slower, the likelihood of accidents on a more crowded highway greater, and, of course, unlike an Amtrak trip, I couldn’t read or work on the road.

Notice, though, that those burdens of extra traffic on the highway don’t just affect me. They affect everyone on the road. And my Amtrak bill does not reflect those benefits of mass transit. There isn’t any calculation on any bill that identifies the costs to me and to all of us if Amtrak were allowed to fail.

And of course I haven’t listed all the costs. The pollution costs of taking the car are much more than the pollution attributed to train travel. Highways take a great deal of land that we could have enjoyed for other purposes – their land use is much less efficient. They are expensive to police, expensive to clear for winter travel, and expensive because of the damage from salt splashed on the underbodies of our cars and washed into our rivers and streams.

Nor do those calculations take into account the impact on global warming. It isn’t possible to be precise about the cost for global warming. But it will be large and should be accounted for. Many things can’t be put into numbers. What’s love or freedom or life itself worth in dollars? As a common ad says, “priceless.”

So to see if subsidizing Amtrak is justified, we have to add all those shared benefits to ourselves and each other that can’t be part of the ticket price. Social benefits have to be paid for by the whole society. None of us alone can buy the benefits of less climate change or less congested highways.

So yes, I believe in subsidizing mass transit and helping it grow. I think it is valuable for those who don’t take it too. More generally, the marketplace doesn’t handle every problem well.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 25, 2015.

[1] See http://www.cbo.gov/budget-options/2013/44782 for the Congressional Budget Office discussion. Individual routes raise additional considerations but even those decisions impact the entire system.

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Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 2015.


Do the police really have no time to do anything but shoot?

August 4, 2015

Perhaps you read the NY Times story over the weekend about the self-described expert in police killings, William Lewinski, who justifies every police killing on the ground that the policeman had no time to protect himself, no time to do anything but shoot. Victim’s back turned, no time. Hand in pocket, no time. Victim doing what the officer told him to do, no time. All the evidence contradicts the statement of the officer, no time.

On Lewinski’s logic, we should all not only carry weapons, we should shoot everyone on sight, because we have no time to react, so we should all practice  preemptive killing – dead men can’t shoot us. What we should really do is move to Iraq or Syria because that’s a matter of course there. Shoot, shoot, shoot.

And understanding that the police are taught by nut-jobs like Lewinski to shoot pro-actively, what we should really do is go out like armed vigilantes and attack the police systematically, kill ‘em all so they can no longer attack us. And in case you hadn’t noticed there have been groups that have targeted the police and for just that reason.

Lewinski’s approach is good only for the undertakers. I don’t know what the undertakers give him but they should chip in a lot because they will certainly benefit from a shoot on sight society.

Of course if you or I actually took that advice, we’d be charged with murder. But the rules don’t apply to the police. We can’t shoot unarmed people but police can – and get away with it. We can’t shoot people in the back but police can – and get away with it. We can’t tell a bunch of lies about what happened that are contradicted by the provable facts and get away with it but police can – and get away with it. Thanks to Lewinski.

Think what Lewinski and others of his ilk would have to tell the police if, like most of us, they weren’t armed. They’d have to tell the police to use their heads, not their guns. They’d have to tell the police to cool tempers instead of raising them. They’d have to tell the police that the best response to a disagreement isn’t a hole in the head. They’d have to tell the police that a traffic stop isn’t ground for ending someone’s life.

What a different world it would be if we learned to live together, if we learned that there is a difference between civilization and a jungle, if we learned that the default rule is respect for human beings, respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the Declaration of Independence tried to tell the world. What a different world it would be if police in America acted like our servants, not our rulers, that they don’t have a God-given right to issue commands but that like most of us, the magic word is “please.”

It’s time to imitate the British and take the guns out of the hands of the cops and leave to special rules those more unusual occasions when guns should be issued for specific jobs and reasons. The ordinary rule must be to use our heads instead of blowing away everyone in sight, leaving only death and destruction in the wake of the police.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 4, 2015.


Government and Our Trip South

August 1, 2015

Many people in this country believe that the Founding Fathers established our Constitution to get government off of people’s backs. My wife and I just traveled to North Carolina where that idea is big. They expect people to take care of themselves without the help of the nanny state. We are all expected to earn and pay our own way.

We were on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Nags Head, and traveled to Ocracoke Island by ferry. It is a lengthy ferry ride, about ten miles as it winds around shoals that would stop and probably destroy the boat. I chatted with one of the crew, an employee of the State of North Carolina, and told him that I hadn’t yet been told how much the trip would cost me. Nothing, he replied. It’s free. We were certainly prepared to pay our way. That’s quite a gift from the State of North Carolina.

Still the good people of North Carolina, and certainly their elected representatives, know that government is nothing but a problem in the way of the people. So imagine our surprise when we stopped at the Ocracoke lighthouse to discover that the feds, those doggoned feds, built the light house in the eighteenth century, before the ink on the Constitution had much time to dry, and rebuilt a sturdier one in 1825 that is still working today to keep ships off the rocks and shoals.

Then we mailed a couple of cards to our granddaughters. You guessed it – we relied on the Postal Service that the feds set up and ran since Ben Franklin, that old self-reliant founding patriot, ran the thing even before the Constitution was written. The old Founders, they certainly knew how to use the government to benefit the people. Guess no one told them they weren’t supposed to.

Daily we checked NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that includes the weather service. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but all those private meterologists on every television and radio station are basing their forecasts on weather data collected, analyzed and distributed by the federal weather service. Lawyers by the way, contact the weather service for information about the weather at the time of events being litigated – there’s no need to replicate Lincoln and his famous use of an almanac to get an acquittal for his client. Weather service data are recognized and relied on as authoritative virtually universally.

We drove back on U.S. highways, both in North Carolina and between there and Albany. Yes roads the government built. In good shape too. In fact some of the first roads in the United States were postal roads, built by Uncle Sam.

We had some great dinners. But I sure hope the health department was checking up on those places – it’s pretty darn hard for a traveler to know much about what’s going on in the kitchen. And we have sometimes had some pretty bad experiences despite our best efforts.

I expect MORE from our government, not less.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 11, 2015.


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