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Following the Money in the Amtrak Tragedy

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Leadership & Transparency
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By Joseph Plummer

An Amtrak train derailed last week in Pennsylvania, which triggered a set of questions that are not often associated with tragedy. Questions like “Is Amtrak underfunded?” and “Could technology have prevented the crash?” seem out of left field. But given the times we live in, and the current state of politics in Washington, these questions seem more legitimate.

Even if there hadn’t been a tragedy last week, these questions are legitimate, and they deserve some discussion. Can technology prevent tragedy?

I think this is a great question that social entrepreneurs and innovators should continue to ask themselves every day. This is also a question for our policymakers. We can extrapolate and ask: If we invest more in technology, can we reduce the number of tragedies and deaths?

And, tragedies and deaths are not our only concern. We also care about things like quality of life, convenience and long-term costs. All of these things can be affected positively by investments in technology. However, as a percentage of GDP, our investments in research and development, at least in the federal government, have gone down significantly over the past five years.

This prompts questions about funding such initiatives. The question asked last week about the state of Amtrak’s funding is a question that should be welcomed at any time, but most importantly after a tragedy occurs.

Congressman Bill Shuster responded to the question about the state of Amtrak’s funding by saying, “What I believe is this action did not have anything to do with money — it had to do with a failure on either the operator's fault or the equipment's fault.” That is a fair assumption of any tragedy. The direct cause of the event was undoubtedly a failure of the operator and/or the technology. However, the logical question that follows Congressman Shuster’s response is: Would better funding have allowed Amtrak to upgrade the equipment and train the operator better? And, the next question that comes to mind is: What is the optimal level of funding for Amtrak, where the risk of tragedy is virtually zero because of state-of-the-art equipment and exhaustive operator training? This is the question we need to be asking.

Milton Friedman once said, “Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can only gain at the expense of another.” It is no mystery why we haven’t asked the right questions. It is because our budgets have become combative. Washington has adopted the mentality that in order for one budget to increase, another has to decrease.

Logically, given the constraint of the federal government’s tax revenue, this line of thinking is understandable, but primitive. We need to consider how much money needs to exist to operate and maintain our society. We need to consider how much money is necessary to maintain a quality of life. We need to consider how much money is necessary for us to minimize tragedy. If we make these considerations, we will likely come to the conclusion that our money supply has not been optimized.

In my humble opinion, there is some optimal level of money supply where the right kind of capitalism, reasonable taxes, and society’s propensity to give effectively fund things like infrastructure, education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation. The high-level macro question we should be asking is: How much money should exist?

In a conversation with a friend about this, I proposed this line of questioning. He eloquently suggested that: “… The main feature of money is that it is used in transactions and negotiations, which as far as we know are uniquely complicated with human beings. So, money is just a small piece of the big picture. Some people have written lately that the evolutionary reason we have language is to do negotiations. So, a theory that doesn’t include negotiation at the heart of it will be incomplete.” Negotiations are all about give and take. Apparently, we have reached a point in Congress where Republicans and Democrats are simply not willing to negotiate. Gridlock.

It is bizarre that the idea of increasing the money supply has not been talked about more. With the exception of discussions about QE3 and QE4, there have been very few discussions about optimizing the money supply. And, quantitative easement hasn’t really proven itself as an effective mechanism in increasing the supply of money for public infrastructure. Increasing the money supply could give Congress the wiggle room necessary to begin collaborating again. And, perhaps this collaboration could lead to a better-funded Amtrak, but more importantly -- a more vibrant and sustainable economy.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/John H. Gray 2) American Association for the Advancement of Science

Joseph Plummer is a degree candidate in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech, expecting to graduate in May 2016. He currently works for a non-profit organization that works with schools and schools districts on renewable energy and sustainability initiatives.

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