The Failed Philosophy Behind the NJ Train Crash

The idea that ate the common good.

There could be many causes of the tragic NJ Transit train crash yesterday. But assuming it wasn’t willful intent, we know that a contributing factor was a lack of investment in new technology.

In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring railroads to install “positive train control” technology, which could have slowed the train automatically. But many regions, and New Jersey in particular, are woefully behind on implementing it.

A big reason: no money. A bigger reason: a failed doctrine that’s obsessed with shrinking all government and despises all spending on the common good

Even with one of the lowest gas taxes in the nation, New Jersey legislators can’t pass an tax increase to cover public transportation investments. Governor Christie has fought the tax rise and many other infrastructure investments. [UPDATE: Hours after I posted this, Christie agreed to a 23 cent rise in the gas tax. In return, he got a lowered sales tax and an elimination of the estate tax. So total government revenues will likely go down — the doctrine lives clearly.] Remember, one of his early acts in 2010 was to halt the construction of a much-needed commuter train tunnel to NYC. This awful decision had repercussions. Remember last summer when electrical problems caused massive commuter delays into New York?

The underfunding of NJ Transit is not new. And it’s not unique to New Jersey issue. US governments at all levels have been underinvesting in infrastructure for years. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps telling us that our infrastructure needs trillions of dollars of investment. They gave the system a D+ in their last quadrennial report card (rail got a C+).

But one Presidential candidate wants to come to the rescue. “We need new roads, new tunnels, new bridges, new airports, new schools, new hospitals,” said the candidate at the first Presidential debate. The surprise? The big spending politician here was actually Trump.

He also said “our airports are like from a third world country.” Although any Trump “policy” is at best negotiable, he has talked about spending half a trillion dollars on infrastructure. But in Monday’s debate, Trump also said, “I’m going to cut taxes big league.” The biggest tax cut “since Ronald Reagan,” he bragged.

How can you reconcile these two statements: spend big on infrastructure but cut taxes by trillions? It should be obvious that you can’t. Only a couple of intellectual underpinnings could possibly square the circle here. You must believe either…

1) There’s so much fraud and waste we can cut out in government, we can have our cake and eat it too. This is a much longer discussion but let’s just say that while there’s fraud and waste in every system, it’s light years from being worth trillions.

2) Lowering taxes, especially on the wealthy, will actually increase tax revenues. This is the classic trickle-down view. Look, I’m open to evidence about what economic theories work, and fairly qualified to judge them (I have an economics degree from Princeton and an MBA). But we’ve had 30-plus years of evidence that trickle-down doesn’t work, at multiple levels of government. Just look at Kansas’ recent failed experiment in slashing taxes, which even state Republicans are rebelling against. But it’s a philosophy that won’t die. Candidate Trump says his giant tax cut “will create a tremendous number of new jobs.”

This perspective is, to put it mildly, highly debatable. Recent evidence suggests strongly that moderate tax increases on the rich to close budget holes leads to thriving economies. Over the last 5 years, it’s been true in California and the country as a whole. Not renewing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest helped cut the deficit by more than half.

But the trickle-down idea is part of the larger, neoliberal argument that all government is bad. The smaller the better, period. Infrastructure, for decades, was safe from this philosophy — it was bipartisan to the extreme. President Eisenhower famously signed a $200 billion (in today’s dollars) national highways bill that Congress passed nearly unanimously. But no more. In a “drown the government in the bathtub” world, everything is on the chopping block.

Part of the problem here is imagination and optics. It’s easy to see what something will cost, and much harder to see all the benefits. This is true in corporations and in governments. The “I” part of ROI — the classic measurement tool, return on investment — is staring us in the face. It will cost x millions to retrofit a factory to save energy. Or x billions to revamp a rail system to include new safety technology (or build a new tunnel to New York City).

The “R” side, if measured in pure cash only, can be hard to envision, especially for government projects which often don’t have direct payback. What’s the value of people being able to get to work or the value of a functioning economy? Or, more poignantly, the value of lives lost in senseless accidents?

These are hard questions, but we can answer some of them. The ASCE, again, tries to sound the alarm regularly on the cost to the economy of ignoring these investment. One report, that looked at the cost of power outages from an aging electric grid, estimated an $819 billion reduction in GDP by 2025.

I could go on, but the bottom line is this. There are things — many things — that we all want and need as a society. Things in our collective self-interest that make us safer, healthier, and more prosperous. And those things cost money, which we need to collect and share the burden on.

Many of these decisions to invest — or not — are literally life and death. But for now nothing is safe from the philosophy that ate the common good.