Don’t Know Much About …. the Economy

(Written the other day)

The other day my 12 year-old nephew’s social studies class (middle school) took the same citizenship test those who are to be naturalized U.S. citizens.  Of the 17 or so in his class, he was one of three who passed it.  For their efforts, each student passing received a red, white, & blue ‘rubber’ bracelet.  There was some ‘patriotic saying’ etched onto it as well.  But the thing that caught his attention was where the bracelet was made – where else?  China.  But then what ARE we producing anymore?  What?  Financial strategies? SUVs? Genetically altered seeds/food?  War weapons?

Like many other people my eyes will often begin glazing over as soon as Paul Krugman or anyone else for that matter starts talking about finance or the economy.  It is not that we or I don’t understand.  For me, I just think a lot of it is a bullshit, made-up game that’s just too testosterone-drenched for me to pay attention.

Ever since the news of $700 billion being needed to “bail out” Wall Street, I’ve been absolutely livid.  The Friday before last, there was the crash of the commuter train in the San Fernando Valley in California, Sept. 12th.  During a press conference in one of the days immediately following the accident, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, Kitty Higgins, spoke of a safety system that could’ve, would’ve stopped these two trains from colliding.  The cost?  Two billion dollars – $2 billion dollars.

The accident brought new calls on Tuesday to expand greatly the use of “positive train control,” collision-avoidance systems using satellites, transponders and other technology to automatically stop a train headed for a crash. Such systems are in use on a small fraction of the nation’s rail lines, mainly on high-speed segments of the Amtrak Washington-to-Boston run, and are being tested in several other states.

The National Transportation Safety Board has lobbied for years for these systems and has accused the industry of foot-dragging over the cost, which could exceed $2 billion to put on major lines nationwide.

Now here was a dramatic example of how our infrastructure needs updating, reinforcing, and revamping while that goddamned ‘war’ in Iraq rages on at an estimated $12 billion per month and the cost to be incurred in implementing it.  And yet we “can’t.”  I paraphrase Ms Higgins inquiry: Just how many deaths are acceptable before the technology is utilized?

“We regulate in this country by counting tombstones,” said Barry M. Sweedler, the former director of the NTSB’s office of safety recommendations. “If you don’t have enough people dead, not much gets done. The pressure isn’t there to do it.”

And just today Senators Boxer & Feinstein worked to get a railway bill readied for the vote and “grilled officials with Metrolink, the Federal Railroad Administration and Union Pacific in a briefing earlier in the day in Washington.“.

While the Commerce Committe with Senators Boxer and Feinstein were busy in their grilling, the Senate Banking Committee were raking Henry Paulson (Secretary of the Treasury) and Ben Bernanke (Chair, Federal Reserve Board) back and forth over red-hot coals.  Paulson appeared bored during many of the opening comments from senatorial members on the Banking Committee while Bernanke had the good sense to look interested with his attention usually focused on who was speaking.

We can bail out the greedy misfits who suckered up people to the tune of $700 billion dollars, but cannot reinforce, rebuild or otherwise insure the stability of our infrastructure to the tune of a mere $2 billion.  $2 billion vs 12 billion vs $700 billion.


One Response

  1. Is $2 billion too much for technology that could prevent train collisions? To answer this question, we need to compare it what it costs to operate trains without this technology. Does change operating costs by less than 0.1%? We cannot forget to factor in the unplanned cost in lives and dollars of accidents that could have been prevented.

    One form of train accident that claims lives every year are careless or suicidal individuals loitering on tracks especially in busy urban corridors lacking fences or grade separation.

    I’ve long thought that all types of train accidents could be reduced by lightweight unmanned scout vehicles acting like cow catchers further ahead of a moving train. These automated scouts would stay just far enough ahead to detect a problem in time to trigger automated measures for minimizing a disaster. At lower speeds, the device would not have to be very far ahead and could physically dock with the train when at a stop and perhaps recharge or refuel itself.

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