Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trains, Planes, and Krugman

There are times when Paul Krugman seems to play into every stereotype about the wooly-headed liberal, and this is one of them. Now, before I do criticize him for his position, let me add that I, too, love to ride on trains. I really do.

In fact, when I went up to NYC in January, I took the Amtrak from Cumberland to DC, and DC to Newark (where I stayed with friends). For the most part, I enjoyed my trip.

However, as George Will notes in this column, the collectivist mentality that always dominates Krugman's writings seems to manifest itself in the demand that everyone ride trains because it is good for them. Writes 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 latest high-speed-rail caper reminds me of the silly fit that Krugman and his employer threw when Gov. Chris Christie closed the curtain on the mega-billion rail tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan. Now, Krugman justifies all this by saying that trains are nicer than a drive, trains allow you to avoid traffic, etc.

And, to a point, I agree. I like riding the New York Subway, the New Jersey Transit, and will use the PATH trains when I go to a conference in NYC in two weeks. However, I am not naive about what these things cost, and how heavily each passenger mile is subsidized.

Yes, riding a train is more pleasant than driving, but building and operating them mean a huge opportunity cost that must be paid somewhere by someone. And it does not help to see the Obama administration claiming delusional ridership numbers, as Will notes.

But there is more. Will concludes:
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!”
So, what does Krugman say? First, the guy who has praised the TSA and claimed that its very existence is proof of it legitimacy, now complains about the "war on liquids" and the stressful airport security.

Second, while train travel is nice, he forgets the part about taxpayers having to pony up the big bucks to pay for it. True, Keynesians don't believe in opportunity cost, but that does not mean it doesn't exist.

So, when I am riding the rails into NYC in a couple of weeks, I will thank all of you for paying for my trip.


Woody said...

Riding Atlanta's MARTA rapid rail is great if you want to go downtown, because they built all the lines to go downtown. But, you can't even get to Turner Field. MARTA is great if you like taking over twice as long to go somewhere, because you have to wait on the train and then stop at every single station, as there are no express lines. And, the system is great as long as you don't feel uneasy with some of the people hanging around the stations and stinking up the trains. But, MARTA will take them out of downtown and to your neighborhoods, necessitating huge increases in security patrols. And, MARTA is so great that it still takes a penny sales tax that was only going to be used for construction, it charges ever growing fares, and sucks in huge taxpayer subsidies. Of coure, much of this is the result of MARTA directors who once elected a welfare mom as the President of the system, because she would know what the poor riders would want. Thank goodness the voters didn't elect the Democratic candidate for governor who was anxious to complete a rapid rail from Macon to Atlanta, that would never come close to paying for itself. Oh, yeah. MARTA is great as long as you go where they want you to go, have plenty of time to waste, and love government spending money on it instead of improving highways.

Mike Cheel said...

I used to work for the second largest public transit system in Los Angeles county. During football season they bus fans back and forth between the Rose Bowl and a location a few miles away.

Occasionally as I was loading passengers onto the bus I would get comments similar to 'This is a great service! Who pays for this?'. I would look them in the eye and say, ' do!'. It was funny watching the happy face turn to a questioning one. Then to one that realized that their tax money was being spent on this.

Dan said...

When gas prices spike to $5-6 per gallon because of some instability in the Middle East that we have no control over, we will see the long-term wisdom of the private sector.

Governments who have invested in some sort of *gasp* urban planning and transit will be able to withstand the shock much better than our oil dependent infrastructure and economy.

Another thing that I never see libertarians address is for example...what is the opportunity cost of NOT building a subway in NYC. Lets think of the time, energy, and resources saved by having an efficienct mode of transportation that gets people to places quickly. You people only think in terms of liabilities, never of assets.

Of course if people here believe that taxation is so immoral that we shouldn't even do it to save mankind from a doomsday asteroid, I don't expect much meaningful discussion usual.

Mike Cheel said...


Do you even live in the US?

How can you not see that everything the government touches is a disaster?

Can you tell me something that the government has done efficiently, at the cost promised, in the time promised and that actually delivers what was promised (no more, no less)?

Don't you see that government is in bed with corporations and industry lobbies?

If you think the government is a humanitarian organization, think again. Instigating wars and meddling in peoples lives is not humanitarian. Having the world's largest military and the world's largest prison population is not humanitarian.

You attack free market ideas but you have never lived in a free market.

If it is profitable the private sector will come and do it. Unless of course the government steps in and prevents them as they do all the time. What incentive does the government have to do anything properly? If they fail they throw more money at it and deliberately stifle any competition.

Just what is it that endears you so much to this small group of people that you would forsake the fact that most people (not all but most) do want to do things fairly and above board?


D. Lawless Hardware said...


You do realize that private companies built the subway systems in NYC???

(wiki not best source, but its common knowledge to non-doofuses that this is true)

Hahaha. If high speed rail wasn't a huge loser someone would have built it LONG before Obama ever thought about it.

(correct spelling on "doofuses" too btw)

D. Lawless Hardware said...

@Dan again

Also, we used to have the best rail system in the world. Then government destroyed the whole system (or a least drastically harmed it) by building the interstate highway system.

Now they want to go back...

If I'm still alive in 30 years they'll change their minds again.

Dan said...

@Mike: Spare me the cliches about government ruining everything it touches etc. It's old, it's sound like sloganeering politician.

Projects such as mass transit systems, interstate, you name it require huge upfront capital investment that create huge barriers to entry. If you think that perfect markets can exist in such an environment you're typically naive.

Why do you think utility companies must be regulated? Because your wonderful private sector monopolists would be jacking your electricity bills sky high if they weren't. Oh, but then we could all just install our own windmills and make campfires because economies of scale don't exist in the Austrian world.

PS: I don't give a crap who built the NYC subways system, thats not the point...obviously the government contracts work out to specialized firms...that's no shocker.

Tocano said...

"When gas prices spike to $5-6 per gallon because of some instability in the Middle East that we have no control over, we will see the long-term wisdom of the private sector"

If we had a truly free market, it would be able to quickly adjust to such an occurrence by encouraging the extraction of other (what was previously too expensive) sources of oil to increase supply and thus reduce the price. Or perhaps in a free market, where "speculation" isn't treated and regulated as evil, we'd see a larger futures market and sudden isolated supply reductions wouldn't translate to such a price shock. Or perhaps a free market would have more refineries that would increase our capacity such that if the supply of refined oil were to drop, we could still process crude quickly.

In a free market, maybe we'd have nuclear power plants that make electricity much, much cheaper. Thus encouraging more electric usage and less gas/oil usage.

But we don't have that a very free market.

So, the same "long term wisdom" of the public sector that:
- that created the Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid black-holes,
- that created the Federal Reserve,
- that setup Bretton Woods,
- that supported the Taliban and the Shah of Iran (then helped seat the Ayatollah),
- that caused and then worsened and deepened the Great Depression,
- that aided the creation of the housing bubble, and
- that created union pensions far beyond what was long-term affordable,
- [list could go on and on]

has also restricted the free market to the point that small instabilities in countries halfway around the world suddenly create massive price fluctuations here.

ekeyra said...

"When gas prices spike to $5-6 per gallon because of some instability in the Middle East that we have no control over"

You mean we didnt overthrow mossadegh in 53 and install the shah of iran? We didnt bomb the hell out of libya in 86 to help topple the regime then? We havent been kidnapping people and shipping them to egypt to be tortured?

Way to make your case for the public sector dan.

You know who really liked trains? Nazis.

Toyin O. said...

Interesting info, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Can someone find AP Lerner and Lord Keynes, wherever Dan has them gagged and bound, and release them already? Dan's making me miss them by comparison, and that's really saying something. I still think Dan's probably a poe.

Sauros said...

Anderson and Will act as if social engineering is somehow wrong or impractical, when history and the common breed of mankind prove them wrong at every turn. Not only is social engineering eminently practical, it's a piece of cake. Man is an animal, and therefore is amenably malleable like any other beast. Moral and ethical theories aside, if something is scientifically possible, it will inevitably occur eventually. The only danger is that the wrong sort might one day use social engineering. Thankfully that eventuality is presently impossible as the right sort - by which I mean sentient, well endowed, and cultured scientific minds - are firmly at the helm and have erected bulwarks at every possible ingress of the field: universities, the Fortune 500, organized religion, governance, finance, relevant tax exempt foundations, entertainment, etc. Such bulwarks prevent the rabble and quacks from hijacking the science while simultaneously acting as filters for novice practitioners.

Anonymous said...

Why hello Dan.

Mass transit is typical of high-population density regions like Japan or Western Europe.

But in the giant continent of North America in which only 5% of the land is human-settled, and the population spread out thinly over this giant stretch of primeval mountains, forests, and deserts, the case for trains is harder to make. North America already has a large collection of highways and airports, but only New York has enough population density to justify an intra-city mass transit system. Let's remember that 40% of North America's mass transit users are in New York and only 10% of New Yorkers use mass transit.

Unless we are talking about a region with 400,000 people packed in every single stretch of a street, we should not even consider mass transit as any necessary venture.

ekeyra said...

Sauros, any derisions you cast upon humanity's lowests members apply to its brightest prodigies. There is no dividing line between the "wrong sort" and the "right sort", although I can surely guess which camp you think you belong to. To quote someone, Im not sure who, "We are all undesirables to someone". Your line of reasoning is exactly what lead to human beings getting rounded up like cattle and routed by train to their deaths. They were the "wrong sort" of humans and the "right sort" decided what was best for them and the rest of us. I hope you are proud of that moment in history because it is a wonderful example of what that kind of logic is capable of allowing human beings to inflict on their fellow man.

Mike Cheel said...

@Dan Instead of the smarm how about actually refuting what I said and answering some of my questions?

@Anonymous "Can someone find AP Lerner and Lord Keynes, wherever Dan has them gagged and bound, and release them already? Dan's making me miss them by comparison, and that's really saying something. I still think Dan's probably a poe."

Funny I was thinking the same thing. At least AP and LK attempt to explain their positions and refute what the others are saying. Dan just seems to be here to troll.

Sauros said...

Bravo, you refer of course to the Hitler moment, a brief period which represents a sort of bogeyman-for-the-ages meme amongst the more emotive specimens despite being ancient history and rather typical. Nobody faults Ptolemy for being superseded by Copernicus, nor is there any outcry over Kepler burying the junk science of his predecessors. Science depends on trial and error, and while I’m certainly no devotee of Adolf, I readily acknowledge his regime’s scientific contributions to all mankind, and so too did the United States government when it welcomed the Reich’s finest minds into the highest echelons of the nation‘s intellectual establishments. Adolf’s methods were barbarically primitive, his mystically unscientific belief in racial superiority set back authentic applied eugenics for half a century, and he was a caustically rabid fanatic, all of which is why Hitler is remembered as a colossal loser in the history books. Fortunately, we are now beginning to slough off the anti-eugenics taint engendered by that pathetic individual.

Nevertheless, what the Nazis bequeathed to the cause of science is invaluable. I assure you, we won’t spook the herd with such precipitous actions again. Fabian methods have proven to be of more use in the cause of scientifically transforming mass-man into a useful creature. The division between mass-man and sentient Man is found in Transhumanism. Those incapable of directing their own evolution are obviously the wrong sort.

Whatever his faults, where are the detractors when it comes to der Führer‘s “victims“? After all, they cooperated almost completely with the mechanics of their own demise. Then again, nobody criticizes gazelles for getting gobbled up by lions.

EndTheEcho said...

Let's see we have George Will who tries to make things as difficult to follow as possible with his language. Then we have Paul Krugman who tries to simplify in common language challenging concepts.

In criticizing Krugmans column, he highlights the freedom to travel without having to do the driving. Without the hassle of airports, and last month I was stuck at Atlanta waiting over an hour for a gate to open up to get off the plane.

He is just pointing out the conveniences of train travel and not needing a car. It is pretty simple.

Regarding the subsidizing the costs of train versus roads, those don't really pay for themselves unless tolled.

Anonymous said...

This blog is just about wholly absent any intellectual substance. Easy to see why you are at Frostburg State, while your nemesis PK is at Princeton. No, scratch that; it is hard to see how you have a job at ANY university--until one begins to understand the general decline of intellectual standards in American society.