26.4.16

LESSONS FROM THE RAILS.

Dean Dad found an article on the difficulties Washington's Metro has been having with, well, running trains safely, which he used to tease me about writing train stories, and perhaps to bleg for specifics, a few elaborations of the parallels that you'll find in his comments.

Yes, divided jurisdiction (deregulation contributed mightily to the railroad renaissance,) deferred maintenance, and lack of operating funding make the task of a provost, dean, or department head more difficult.  But the next question Mr Reed asks calls for an extended answer.  "Ample blame for disappointing results while cheaping out on the resources that could have prevented them?"

To what extent do taxpayers view funding community colleges as paying for high school a second time, or for junior high a third time?  After everything else has failed ...  Thus, the taxpayer burden of expensive and ineffective public education is also hidden and complicated, and it's the community colleges and regional comprehensives that have to do the intellectual repair work, and get hit with that "high school with ashtrays" perception.

Moreover, and the comparison is probably unfair, but it's out there, all of higher education gets tarred with the perception, based on Oberlin and Wesleyan and Wisconsin and Yale, that the idiots are in charge and sticking their fingers in the eyes of normal Americans.  (Yeah, the proper academic phrase is epater les bourgeois, but I write train stories.  Deal with it.)  And there's enough out of Missouri and Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the like, not to mention the ongoing corruption accompanied by academic underachievement at Chicago State, to render taxpayers reluctant to appropriate money for fear the crazies will get some of it.  Never mind that returning veterans and working parents and immigrants might have something other than privilege-checking or who is using the potty on their minds.

Then, there's this excursion into political economy.
Some contend that the answer is to give up on the public provision of anything, and to resort to a sort of Randian hellscape. But that ignores the real and substantial public resources poured into supporting supposedly private transportation and education. And it writes off entirely the folks for whom public options are the only practical options. Somalia’s experiment with the absence of government doesn’t seem to have led to a libertarian paradise. Perhaps there’s a flaw in the theory somewhere...
Repeat with me. Libertarians are not anarchists. Institutions matter.  (One of these days, I'm going to have to read and review the books I bought on the ethics of piracy.  Yes, you read that right.  I write train stories. But great sea stories have that "No s***, this really happened!" quality.)

Thus let's consider that the way to expand practical options might be to expand private provision.

Have you wondered, dear reader, why Senator Sanders speaks only of roads and bridges and waterways when he mentions "crumbling infrastructure?"  Oh, Mr Trump has griped about "lousy trains" on occasion, but I think he's referring to the rudimentary pre-Acela service that grounded his Trump Shuttle.



The freight railroads don't offer many opportunities to give the noveaux riches impression one can provide by sticking gewgaws in a casino or a hotel or on an airplane.  Style maven Virginia Postrel would probably struggle to describe the modern freight train using terms other than form follows function.

But it functions so well that Warren Buffett saw fit to buy BNSF.  It was worth his while to run a second track through Abo Canyon in New Mexico.  Eighty freight trains a day.  Competitor Union Pacific thought it worth doing to provide a bridge capable of handling two intermodal trains running 70 mph across a deep river valley in Iowa.


Trains weblog photograph.

Yes, these things take time to build, and they cost money.  Yuuuge, to borrow a term, sums of money.  But where the return on investment is favorable, and investors are free to invest ...

Now consider part of Mr Reed's worst-case scenario.  "Shut down community colleges, and good luck keeping newly-scarce nurses’ salaries from breaking the bank. But that cost is a step removed, and requires thinking a step ahead." Thinking a step, or a second main track, or a new bridge, or a professional development program ahead, is what entrepreneurs do.  Perhaps the way forward for community colleges involves more commercial freedom and more partnerships with, e.g. hospitals, air conditioning and automobile repair establishments, and perhaps the maintenance department of the local subway.

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