Liddick: Zombie Amtrak a symbol of grinding government (column)
June 26, 2017
So, Amtrak riders are organizing to protest cuts to government subsidies for the sclerotic passenger rail service.
225 cities in 23 states including Denver and Cincinnati will lose all service, the story goes, if the 13 percent reduction in the Department of Transportation's budget holds. The site "ProgressiveRailroading.com" (yes, God help us, there is such a site), says Amtrak officials will make sure the president and his Secretary of Transportation "understand the value of Amtrak's long distance trains and what these cuts would mean…" Amtrak's CEO notes the railroad "covered 94 percent of total network operating costs" in fiscal year 2016, but requires funds for the other 6 percent, plus necessary capital investment and improvement. For these, he insists he must put his hand into taxpayers' pockets. But the president and Ms. Chao already know the truth: Elimination of money-losing services will result in taxpayers not having to shell out $499 million a year or more to subsidize inefficient rail transportation. Forever.
Wherein lies the problem with much of modern America: We all want the best, fastest, most convenient everything — and we want someone else to pay for it.
A capitalist economy works efficiently to determine what people really want, as opposed to what they say they want. As Adam Smith explained, free markets do so by following the principle "give me what I ask, and I will give you what you desire." Simple, elegant, functional and ultimately fair, this exchange cares not one whit about the age, race, sex, status, occupation, connections or politics of either party.
On the other hand, government interference in markets has perverse effects: It introduces inefficiency, noise and friction, distorting economic signals and making it harder to determine true values and costs. At worst, it makes the government central to the economy; businesses then seek not a better, cheaper way to produce goods and services but regulations to plague their competitors and subsidy-mongers to prosper their efforts. The consumer is tertiary to a crony capitalist.
Government intervention produces new ways of thinking, of which Amtrak is only one example. From building apartments to manufacturing solar cells, growing soybeans to education, the heavy hand of the state lays its thumb on the scales. Many entrepreneurs now take subsidies to engage in business unjustified in a free market because they're relying on taxpayers to make them whole in case of loss. Much more of this and no one will be able to evaluate risk — to say nothing of other calculations necessary for prosperity. For example, in Washington these days a reduction in the rate of increase in funding for anything is called a "funding cut." So we may already have crossed that threshold.
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Another pernicious effect of government overinvolvement in our economy is the metastasizing idea that one's money is not one's own, but Washington's. Those who make it must send it there, that our political masters and their minions may decide how much they will give back to us, and in what form. Inefficient? Oh, you betcha…
This attitude is on display in the current health care debate: When you hear that a proposal "will rob the poor to pay the rich" or words to that effect, stop and think a bit. How will this work? The poor have few resources; they're poor. Where will this money come from, that they are paying the rich? It's an absurd statement on its face.
What is really meant is, "Instead of giving us their earnings to dispose in a way that suits us, the nasty rich insist they be allowed to keep more of what they make, to dispose of as they, not we, wish. They might also eventually realize their states could subsidize Medicare care directly, which would loosen our control. We can't have that." This expresses a very different view of our economy, one which mortally threatens prosperity. It must be resisted vigorously.
Let's begin by asking this question: What right have I to demand that another pay for most of my train ticket? How about the expenses for my home loan? My car, provided it's environmentally correct? My solar power system, even my bread and cheese. When we're done with those, there are untold others, even though our country is 20 trillion dollars in debt. If we continue on this track there's only one destination, and it's not a good one. Time to save ourselves by cutting up the politically expedient credit card.
No matter the effect on Amtrak.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News. Email him at email@example.com.
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