The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fancy over Fact

In light of the results of the November election, the looming budget crisis, and out-of-control federal spending, it would seem incomprehensible that the Obama administration would champion still more spending on a project that is doomed to become still another budget buster even before it begins. But the President never ceases to amaze.

Robert Samuelson reports:
WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden, an avowed friend of good government, is giving it a bad name. With great fanfare, he went to Philadelphia the other day to announce that the Obama administration proposes spending $53 billion over six years to construct a "national high-speed rail system." Translation: the administration would pay states $53 billion to build rail networks that would then lose money -- not a little, but lots -- and, thereby, aggravate the budget squeezes of the states or federal government, depending on which covered the deficits.

There's something wildly irresponsible about the national government's undermining states' already poor long-term budget prospects by plying them with grants that provide short-term jobs. Worse, the high-speed rail proposal casts doubt on the administration's commitment to reducing huge budget deficits (its 2012 budget is due Monday). How can it subdue deficits if it keeps proposing big new spending programs?

High-speed rail would definitely be big. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has estimated the administration's ultimate goal -- bringing high-speed rail to 80 percent of the population -- could cost $500 billion over 25 years. For this stupendous sum, there would be scant public benefits. Precisely the opposite. Rail subsidies would threaten funding for more pressing public needs: schools, police, defense.

Worse, it won’t work. Like Amtrac, high speed rail will require massive government subsidies (money we cannot afford), will do almost nothing to improve our transportation infrastructure, will do little if anything to improve the environment, and will be wildly expensive (e.g., one way from NYC to DC on Amtrac: $139.00; one way by bus: about $40.00, both originating from inner city locations.)

Samuelson summarizes nicely:
It [high speed rail] is a triumph of fancy over fact. Even if ridership increased fifteenfold over Amtrak levels, the effects on congestion, national fuel consumption and emissions would still be trivial. Land use patterns would change modestly, if at all; cutting 20 minutes off travel times between New York and Philadelphia wouldn't much alter real estate development in either. Nor is high-speed rail a technology where the United States would likely lead; European and Asian firms already dominate the market.

Governing ought to be about making wise choices. What's disheartening about the Obama administration's embrace of high-speed rail is that it ignores history, evidence and logic. The case against it is overwhelming. The case in favor rests on fashionable platitudes. High-speed rail is not an "investment in the future"; it's mostly a waste of money. Good government can't solve all our problems, but it can at least not make them worse.

Unfortunately, whether it’s domestic or foreign policy, President Obama’s first term is increasingly becoming “a triumph of fancy over fact.” Not good for him, and far more important, not good for the country.

Update: (2/17/11)

It appears that The Washington Post, certainly no adversary of the Obama administration, concurs with the above analysis and thinks that high speed rail is a boondoggle. The Post's editors write:
When it comes to high-speed rail, Europe, Japan and Taiwan have two natural advantages over every region of the United States, with the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor - high gas taxes and high population density. If high-speed rail turned into a money pit under relatively favorable circumstances [in Europe and Asia], imagine the subsidies it would require here. Every dollar spent to subsidize high-speed rail is a dollar that cannot be spent modernizing highways, expanding the freight rail system or creating private-sector jobs. The Obama administration insists we dare not lag the rest of the world in high-speed rail. Actually, this is a race everyone loses.

I sometimes get the feeling that Barack Obama idealizes any modern country that isn't the United States. The problem is that he seems intellectually incapable of objectively analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the foreign programs he idolizes (e.g., health care, high speed rail) in Europe and Asia and barrels headlong into emulation. Maybe its because he's never had private sector experience, but his uncritical rush to be like them (regardless of profound cultural, economic, geographic and population differences) is doing a disservice to the country he purports to lead.