Sunday, February 27, 2011

George Will hates liberals who love trains, especially High-Speed Trains

On the other hand, does George love liberals who hate high-speed rail trains?  I doubt it.

This opinion piece in Newsweek is by George Will.  That pretty much tells you what to expect.  In many cases, the Conservative rejection of high-speed rail is based on ideological grounds, and conservative George Will is no exception.

He makes his case at the end of the article, blaming the collectivist (Socialism!) imperative of progressive thinkers.  Please remember, I'm one of that tiny minority of pinko, bleeding heart, progressive,commie, tree-hugging liberals that hates the high-speed program.  That means, I reject high-speed rail, but not on ideological grounds.  So, even those with whom I concur about the rejection of high-speed rail as a national or state enterprise, I disagree with their ideological rationale.

Democrats are "do-gooders."  They (that is, we), if I may generalize, have a penchant for helping the less fortunate, or to use the Republican perspective, move revenue from the top, to the rest of us in the form of government social services, like public schools, for example.  

Based on their behavior and decision making, Republicans, on the other hand, seek to prevent that "income re-distribution"  and permit those who have the most to keep that get even more.  And, as we now know, they have been remarkably successful in that endeavor.  

This all means that high-speed rail is perceived by Republicans, or at least George Will as a case in point, as a Democratic effort to deploy tax dollars in order to move people around the country as a politically correct public service, obliging them to relinquish their cars, fly less (if at all), and provide that service universally, even at subsidized cost to all the taxpayers. Democrats see high-speed rail not as a luxury for the well to do (which it is), but as a necessary obligation for all of us to use instead of any other means of transit, besides biking and walking.  Republicans = trains and public services bad.  Democrats = trains and public services good. 

So, what does all this mean?  Democrats support high-speed rail in theory because it provides for the "many."  In addition, some Democrats don't really care about the train itself, but about the federal funds which, coming from Washington, can be used to mitigate unemployment and stimulate the state and local economies.  The train project is merely the "vehicle" for that function.

Republicans oppose the train because it uses, and in this case, mis-uses tax dollars.  Since the rich, being rich pay more taxes than the poor, this is a waste of their good tax dollars.  Hence there should be both less taxation and less government spending on wasteful projects such as high-speed rail.

Republican claims for cutting HSR in the name of "deficit reduction" are less convincing in the short run, but over the long period of ever growing costs, HSR will indeed cost the US over a trillion dollars, the source for which is totally unknown and have a major adverse impact on the US debt. And so, the Republicans are correct, because we are now only at the earliest stages of funding and we are already talking about fifty billion or more.  Hundreds of billions must follow.  If the program persists, the total costs will rise astronomically to trillions.  Hence, stop it now.

Having said all that, in what ways are both Parties right?  The Democrats are right insofar as federal funds can and should be used to fix what's now "broken."  We've made that point many times.  Even passenger rail, which now exists in the threadbare service provided by Amtrak, can and should be vastly improved, and freight rail even more so. Our economy is far more reliant on freight than moving people around.

But, those federal funds should also support the repair and upgrade of all other deteriorated major infrastructure elements in the US, including airports, highways, dams, bridges, the power grid, the power supply, the water supply, the water delivery capacity, and far superior forms of population management during times of severe crisis, natural and man-made. By comparison, building high-speed rail is an enormous waste of those precious, borrowed dollars. Yes, it is a zero-sum game. 

The Republicans are right, and I have said so repeatedly, insofar as they point out that building high-speed rail is supporting the most expensive boondoggle the US has ever seen. No, it cannot be compared to the Interstate Highway System, or the first cross-continental railroad, or the Europeans and their rail developments. And, it certainly cannot be compared to China.  As Will puts it correctly, when the President, in promoting HSR, promises the nation that 80% will have access to high-speed, neither "access" nor "high-speed" are explained.  This project has nothing to do with 'innovation' in the race to "win the future."

And, we know already by the nature of the awards made by the FRA, that the term "high-speed rail" is very loosely constructed, including awards for upgrading Amtrak routes to 90 mph. Furthermore, neither the President nor his Transportation minions have any idea how this vast and hugely expensive enterprise is to be paid for.  'Let's throw a number of billions of dollars at eager politicians and see how it develops,' is not a strategy.  It's crass politics.

As you surmise, I'm not a George Will fan.  While I agree with his rejection of the high-speed train program, I reject his dismissal of his conception of the Democratic agenda, which he believes drives the high-speed rail program.

As I've said in this blog already,  I reject this train project on empirical, not ideological grounds.  When George says, "liberals love trains," his point is nonsense.  Everybody loves trains. Don't Conservatives, Libertarians and Tea Party advocates ride trains when they can?  Of course they do.  Be assured that the major Class 1 freight rail operators are also Republicans. They love trains for profit.  What does that have to do with this particular program for the United States? 

High-Speed Rail doesn't need ideological blame.  It can stand on its own feet as a project that the United States cannot afford and does not need.  That's enough reason to terminate it now.


High Speed to Insolvency
Why liberals love trains.
by George Will
Generations hence, when the river of time has worn this presidency’s importance to a small, smooth pebble in the stream of history, people will still marvel that its defining trait was a mania for high-speed rail projects. This disorder illuminates the progressive mind.

Remarkably widespread derision has greeted the Obama administration’s damn-the-arithmetic-full-speed-ahead proposal to spend $53 billion more (after the $8 billion in stimulus money and $2.4 billion in enticements to 23 states) in the next six years pursuant to the president’s loopy goal of giving “80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” “Access” and “high-speed” to be defined later.

Criticism of this optional and irrational spending—meaning: borrowing —during a deficit crisis has been withering. Only an administration blinkered by ideology would persist.

Florida’s new Republican governor, Rick Scott, has joined Ohio’s (John Kasich) and Wisconsin’s (Scott Walker) in rejecting federal incentives—more than $2 billion in Florida’s case—to begin a high-speed rail project. Florida’s 84-mile line, which would have run parallel to Interstate 4, would have connected Tampa and Orlando. One preposterous projection was that it would attract 3 million passengers a year—almost as many as ride Amtrak’s Acela in the densely populated Boston–New York–Washington corridor.

The three governors want to spare their states from paying the much larger sums likely to be required for construction-cost overruns and operating subsidies when ridership projections prove to be delusional. Kasich and Walker, who were elected promising to stop the nonsense, asked Washington for permission to use the high-speed-rail money for more pressing transportation needs than a train running along Interstate 71 between Cleveland and Cincinnati, or a train parallel to Interstate 94 between Milwaukee and Madison. Washington, disdaining the decisions of Ohio and Wisconsin voters, replied that it will find states that will waste the money.

California will. Although prostrate from its own profligacy, it will sink tens of billions of its own taxpayers’ money in the 616-mile San Francisco–to–San Diego line. Supposedly 39 million people will eagerly pay much more than an airfare in order to travel slower. Between 2008 and 2009, the projected cost increased from $33 billion to $42.6 billion.

Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute notes that high-speed rail connects big-city downtowns, where only 7 percent of Americans work and 1 percent live. “The average intercity auto trip today uses less energy per passenger mile than the average Amtrak train.” And high speed will not displace enough cars to measurably reduce congestion. The Washington Post says China’s fast trains are priced beyond ordinary workers’ budgets, and that France, like Japan, has only one profitable line.

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”