Amtrak Shrugged

Watching one of the first showings of Part II of Atlas Shrugged was a surrealistic experience for me after testifying earlier in the day (September 20) to the House Transportation Committee about Amtrak. In the movie, government officials piously argue that for the “greater good” they need to provide “guidance” to the nation’s capitalists—and the more guidance they give, the more capitalism fails, which naturally justifies even more guidance.

In the hearing, I testified that Amtrak can’t be reformed because, as a government entity, it will still be controlled by politics, and the only solution was privatization. This led Peter DeFazio, my own former congressman (I moved to an adjacent district four years ago) to reem me out for not having faith in government.

“You don’t believe government should run our air traffic control? You don’t believe government should run our highways? You don’t believe government should subsidize the Port of Los Angeles?” Before I could fully answer each question, he would roll his eyes and interrupt me with incredulous moans. Fortunately, one of the other committee members rescued me and gave me a chance to answer.

Ironically, one of DeFazio’s own questions should have been his undoing. Somehow, he didn’t think Americans could manage to buy cheap goods from Asia unless the federal government subsidized the Port of Los Angeles. Aside from the fact that he probably bemoans the import of cheap goods from Asia, why subsidize the Port of Los Angeles when there are so many other suitable West Coast ports—and in particular, the heavily underutilized Port of Coos Bay in DeFazio’s own district?

Of course, DeFazio also thinks the feds should subsidize the Port of Coos Bay. But given that the Los Angeles metro area has 12 million people and therefore some two dozen representatives in Congress, while the Coos Bay area has about 60,000 people and therefore a fraction of one representative, subsidies are mainly going to go to the former and not the latter even though the latter is a much better natural harbor.

But it was not just DeFazio who supported government control of the economy. Republicans and Democrats at the hearing were equally guilty of thinking that they, the enlightened representatives of the people, should decide where “investments” should be made in transportation, how much people should get paid, and who should produce what “for the greater good.”

“Everyone here believes in creating jobs,” said one Republican. I wanted to raise my hand and say, “No, I believe in creating wealth, not jobs. Your idea of ‘creating jobs’ destroys wealth by taking from some people the wealth they created and giving to others who aren’t creating it.” But I realized that by “everybody here,” the Member meant “every elected official in the room,” not us non-entities who were there to testify or witness the hearing.

Later, another Republican who had been critical of Amtrak’s losses said, “No one here wants to destroy Amtrak; we just want it to run more efficiently.” Once again, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “I want to destroy Amtrak, because Amtrak is spending phenomenal amounts of money running crappy trains.” But again, I restrained myself.

Rather than privatize Amtrak, at least some Republicans propose to contract out Amtrak’s trains to private operators. Congress would still decide where those trains should run. The Republicans who support this proposal would also require the private operators to honor Amtrak’s contracts with workers. Those two requirements would destroy most of the benefits of contracting out.

In Atlas Shrugged, a man named John Galt convinces all the smart people in the country to “go on strike” until the government fails from mediocrity. Fortunately, such a strike won’t be necessary in real life as the mediocre results of government control will lead to failure all by itself. We just have to hope that there is enough wealth left in the country that we can put it back together.