Stuck on the Ideological Divide

NTSB_2015_Philadelphia_train_derailment_4

The week closes with the ongoing sense that many Americans are not tuned into dealing with the crucial issues that really face us. The old question resurfaces: where is the outrage?

I have been passionate in posting and commenting about the underlying issues surrounding the Amtrak tragedy outside Philadelphia. I am outraged that such an accident could happen at all. For me, the key is infrastructure – why hasn’t the government already pushed completion of Positive Train Control?

I’ll admit a bias. I live in Washington and the response and coverage of the train crash has been strong among media types who — like me – live and work along the Northeast Corridor and use Amtrak all the time.

So in the flurry of retweets and shares this week from Daily Beast and The New Yorker and The New York Times, I was slowed down when one of my Facebook buddies–not a product of the Northeast–questioned the basic notion that Amtrak should be “subsidized.”

Here’s how the story came down:

I had just shared an item on Facebook from the New York Times:

One Day After Wreck, Increased Funding for Amtrak Fails in a House Panel.

By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and JAD MOUAWAD

WASHINGTON — The bodies had not yet been fully recovered from theAmtrak derailment in Philadelphia before Capitol Hill erupted hours later into its usual partisan clash over how much money to spend on the long-struggling national rail service.

My Facebook contact, who I know to be a thoughtful fellow, left this comment:

I’m not convinced that the government should subsidize travel for parts of the country. It seems that Amtrak actually makes a profit in the Northeast (~$250 million a year), but its losses elsewhere are much larger (I think 6 or $800 million). I don’t think keeping Amtrak afloat everywhere is a wise use of government funds.

Rightly or wrongly, I perceived that comment to come from the political right. I answered gently, wary of getting into an argument that would never end:

It’s part of rational infrastructure development and rehab which should include nationwide regional success stories like the Northeast Corridor — Atlanta // Tennessee major cities // Florida major cities // California and many more. Try taking a train from Chicago to Cincinnati. The country is 3/4 of a century behind on railroads. Admittedly it is a much larger divisive argument — does spending money for infrastructure fuel progress, jobs and progress?

I then dropped in another shared file, this time from NPR:

“One key safety feature was missing from the stretch of track where an Amtrak passenger train going more than 100 mph derailed and killed seven people.

“Investigators say that if positive train control had been installed on that stretch, the technology could have automatically slowed the train and perhaps saved lives.”

My Facebook friend had an answer for that:

      I’m not saying that it’s not a conversation worth having. If the federal is going to spend money on infrastructure, however, I’m not convinced that increasing subsidies to an unprofitable, private business is the wisest choice. Even if it is, I don’t think the accident near Philadelphia is a sound launching point for that argument. Indeed, I would wager that had the government given more money to Amtrak in the name of infrastructure, it wouldn’t have prevented this accident.
     Although it’s not in the article you linked, I heard on NPR this afternoon that it would cost *billions* to outfit all of Amtrak’s rails with Positive Train Control.

I decided not to answer, at least until now. I saw an argument without end.

One of the dangers of social media and the Internet is that people tend to flock to birds of their own feather. I worry often about preaching to my own choir – and also about bothering to pick a fight with those who will never stray from their own ideological lines.

That all said, my answer to my friend would be: billions of dollars doesn’t sound like too much to fix the system. In fact, I agree with the argument that we need to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure.

Does the American Society of Civil Engineers fly a communist banner when it says in its infrastructure scorecard that the United States earns an average D+ on questions of infrastructure? It says we face an array of crumbling disgraces that threaten the future – bridges that are crumbling, rails like Amtrak that have delayed maintenance programs – run down the list from safe drinking water to schools to hazardous waste.

The organization says the United States needs to spend more than three trillion dollars this decade for crucial upgrades. It says that “infrastructure is America’s backbone.”

I agree with economists such as Paul Krugman that the 2009 stimulus plan that followed the disastrous Bush era-induced economic collapse should have been vastly more ambitious, the equivalent of a modern New Deal recovery. Building infrastructure fuels jobs, investment, a cycle of progress.

There is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in saying such things. I suspect my Facebook buddy will deeply reject what I say. And I know that the broken political system we face – run by “I’m-no-scientist” Congressional leaders and end-of days-presidential candidates– has everything to do with stagnation, with virtually no chance of infrastructure improvements anytime soon.

So I write this hesitantly, figuring that some of the usual subjects will agree and hit the like button, while others will come out screaming. To what end? There is no national debate – there are only sectorized talking points. Too often, what passes as news is handled–never moderated–by cable television discourse that looks for noise and ratings, rarely with the focus on civility, compromise and common sense.

1 Comment

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One response to “Stuck on the Ideological Divide

  1. Alan Pagliere

    Just this morning I listened to Sam Harris ( http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/final-thoughts-on-chomsky
    )
    talk about the complete failure to engage in a dialog with Noam Chomsky. Harris wanted a conversation with a willingness to explore, learn, even have one’s mind changed. Chomsky immediate launched into a debate and of course that means that someone has to lose.
    And of course these days every politician’s utterance, every Facebook post that isn’t about a cat or dog, every everything that even hints at political views falls into “debate” at the start. Conversation is dead.

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