On Monday Robert Samuelson gave a mighty insult slap to rail advocates everywhere in “A Rail Boondoggle, Moving at High Speed.” I’ve been carrying it around since Monday, having torn it out of the Post—yes, it comes in paper—mulling over how I could blog about it without just having a verbal tantrum. I’d take it out of my bag and –grrrr—get all riled up to respond, and then I’d put it back, asking myself on what basis was I going to argue with him. He’s a major guy, Samuelson and a compelling writer. I always read his stuff to counter the very real human desire to seek only corroboration for ones own position, because only occasionally do I agree with him-- on his support of raising gas taxes for one. He has people, I assume, who research these things, crunch numbers, and present him with data from which he writes these authoritative pieces. He uses numbers and statistics. He seems to know what he’s talking about.
To know what we’re talking about...how does that happen? How do we know what we know? I write this each week with a certain kind of knowledge, underlying a certain kind of authority, but I am acutely aware of my responsibility to “know what I’m talking about.” To say I just know that Samuelson is wrong about this is a true statement but also the sort of intuitive leap that philosopher Michael Polanyi writes about (in his book The Tacit Dimension, among others). That hunch, the intuitive leap, is what keeps me reading and re-reading, examining my own biases and blindnesses, to search for what's left unsaid. Once I stopped growling and started nit-picking, I started to think that maybe I did know what I was talking about. For example...
“That would be only the beginning. Ticket prices would surely be subsidized; otherwise, no one would ride the trains. Would all the subsidies be justified by public benefits -- less congestion, fewer highway accidents, lower greenhouse gases?” So says Samuelson, leaving aside the obvious question: isn’t automobile travel subsidized? Highways? Cash for clunkers? Given his own clarification of the benefits, I think the answer is yes, Robert, the subsidies would be justified by the public benefits.
He goes on, of course, leaning on the crutch of our suburban traditions. “By contrast, plentiful land in the United States has led to suburbanized homes, offices and factories. Density is 86 people per square mile. Trains can't pick up most people where they live and work and take them to where they want to go. Cars can.” Nobody, not even I, expects the trains to pick them up. I’m okay, you know, going to the train. The great absence of a mention of alternative modes of mobility between rail and car is glaring. And, averaging density across the entire country becomes so abstract as to be meaningless.
It also seems quite risky to argue that present conditions will persist as future conditions. Let’s not forget that the people who brought us “this page left blank intentionally” (my all time favorite bit of inadvertent surrealism) also remind us that “past performance can not be used as a guide to future performance.” Except, apparently, when it comes to making specious arguments on why Things Will Always Be This Way Because Americans Jus’ Love Their Cars. We weren’t always car-dependent, and we won’t always be so.
“Distances also matter. America is big; trips are longer. Beyond 400 to 500 miles, fast trains can't compete with planes.” Well, neither can cars. And below 400 miles, the plane becomes ridiculous. Let’s keep multiple options on the table, just as we should with renewable energy. Solutions have to be highly situational.
I know it’s expensive. I know that buses can move lots of people in the cities. I know that change is hard. I know all that, in a Polanyian sense. But the steel rail is the diamond ring of infrastructure: it signifies commitment. It says: go ahead make your plans for the future based on this. We’ll be together, in good times and bad, in boom times and bust. Alas, we’ve had our transit hearts broken before: ripped up streetcar rails in cities, letting long distance lines get overgrown, selling off the rights of way. With all due respect to those who at least want to preserve those rights of way for public enjoyment, “rails to trails” is a serious downgrade of the value.
Tell me please, wise economists, why that argument made sense.