Sunday, June 21, 2009

Brown Shirts and Red Caps

Since not all of you follow conservative blogs, you might have missed it when a popular US Congressman called Amtrak a fascist organization. In a column earlier this week in the American Daily Review, former presidential candidate and Congressman from Texas, Ron Paul, rails against - well against the government really - but in this case, he's particularly upset by "bailouts."

He is most angered by the recent federal bailout of (and subsequent controlling interest in) General Motors. To make his case, he falls back on the most favorite of conservative pastimes, attacking Amtrak. Of course comparing it to fascism is a new twist, but the general meat of his argument is pretty consistent with what conservatives have been saying about government-supported passenger rail since the Nixon Administration.

Mr. Paul asserts that the promise that the government takeover of GM is temporary is false. As proof he cites the government "purchase" of Amtrak. Mr. Paul claims that the government promised to be out of the passenger rail business within 3 years, but that now, 40 years later, with billions invested, Amtrak is still a fiscal loser. Mr. Paul also claims that the government is so inept at running things that despite making Amtrak a monopoly, it's still unprofitable. He worries that same things will be the case with GM.

He is right about one thing: Amtrak is a fiscal loser. Mr. Paul's other claims are inaccurate. No promises were ever made about a sunset on Amtrak. The Nixon Administration had made secret assertions that Amtrak would wither and die before the rollingstock could be repainted, but despite Nixon's hopes that one last hurrah would be sufficient to let passenger service on America's railroads end, the American public and Congress had different ideas. Even today, support for Amtrak keeps conservative politicos at bay.

More importantly, Amtrak is not a monopoly. Besides having to compete with cars and planes, which are also subsidized by the American taxpayer, Amtrak is not a mandated monopoly. Other rail modes are available, including commuter trains, many of which duplicate Amtrak service for a cheaper rate. And nothing precludes corporations from starting other rail services. In fact, the United States government is currently seeking investors to implement high speed rail in the Northeast Corridor and around the country.

Another point of contention I have with Mr. Paul's argument is that he cites the government purchase of Amtrak to save passenger rail from bankruptcy. But the American taxpayer didn't buy Amtrak, they created it. They did so to save not only passenger rail, but freight rail, too. In the face of increasing federal investment in Airports and Interstate Highways, passenger rail ridership had fallen to all-time lows on the private carriers' beloved trains. Because the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated intercity trains, and because they mandated that service be maintained on often unprofitable routes and required a long, tedious process before any routes could be discontinued, passenger service threatened to bring down the entire industry, already on the brink of destruction.

Amtrak was created as a way to save the railroads. In return for preferred stock in the company, private railroads could pay Amtrak to assume designated routes through monetary means or through equipment. Initially, at least, Amtrak's fleet was made up of the remnants of many formerly separate fleets. The routes to be saved had been designated by the US DOT as a part of a National Network. Over time, these routes have also dwindled, although some, like the Pioneer, may soon return.

Like other modes, Amtrak is not profitable - at least not directly. The Interstates don't make money either, but they do generate other benefits. So does Amtrak. The Northeast Corridor has now captured half of the travel share of trips between Washington and New York. Amtrak also provides access to many communities far too small for an airport of their own. Without Amtrak's network of trains, we'd have a less robust transportation network, as September 11 proved, when airports and sold-out rental cars left trains as one of the only options for many.

Now, as far as I can tell, operating a national rail system does not make a nation fascist. But Mr. Paul says that "comingling public control of private business" is the definition of fascism. While I'm sure Congressman Paul is much more experienced than I with public-private corporate totalitarianism, I decided not just to take his word for it. So I looked up "fascism" in a dictionary.

Fascism is, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, "a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism."

Now, I'm not an expert in government systems, so I'll defer to the person who is a member of one and assume that Mr. Paul's assertions are accurate. In that regard, I thought I'd just make a brief list of other countries which we can assume are fascist because they have nationalized passenger rail networks. (List is not exhaustive)
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Greece
  • India
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • The Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Peru
  • Portugal
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • The United States


kenf said...

The only thing "fascist" about Amtrak is:

!. The way Amtrak police are dealing with photographers.


2. Amtrak's attempt to imitate TSA airline security measures with regard to passengers.

lexslamman said...

Amtrak is no more fascist than the military, the Federal Election Commision, or subsidizing highways with tax dollars. It is just another function of government - governments far more conservative than ours have seen the logic of funding, maintaining, and improving passenger rail. Why are people like Dr. Paul, President Bush, and Senator McCain so hostile toward common sense?

Anonymous said...

lexslamman that's because Paul, Bush, and other conservatives are incoherent! they are so ignorant, and I say that because passenger railroads are not meant to make a profit. they are intended to move people from point a to b. the issue with these guys is that they want to pocket that money and leave americans who use transportation like trains out to dry.