When Ideology Trumps Facts

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on May 15, 2015

When Ideology Trumps Facts

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.

When Ideology Trumps Facts
When the news broke Tuesday of a catastrophic Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia, lots of people thought they knew exactly why it had happened. The most idiosyncratic theory was that the disaster was caused by Donald Trump’s underachievement. The source of that theory was Donald Trump, whose tweets were recorded for posterity by the Twitchy website. “The only one to fix the infrastructure of our country is me—roads, airports, bridges,” he claimed. ‘I know how to build, pols only know how to talk!” Well, then, get to work, buddy.

The more common explanation was put spiritedly by mononymous songstress Cher, a former wife of the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R., Calif.). From the Hill:

“Hrs ago, Republicans chose 2 cut Some of The meager Funds, 4 AMTRAK!!” Cher tweeted.

“They did this EVEN AFTER the Train Crash & loss of Life, last nite!!” she said.

“Majority of GOP congressmen & senators don’t give a flying [xpltv dltd] about the wellbeing of Americans,” Cher said in a separate tweet. “They defund Everything PPL DESPERATELY NEED.”

It’s getting so you can’t even buy a vowel anymore.

Those Cher tweets were on Wednesday, but already on Tuesday night people had already been tweeting to the same effect, as another Twitchy roundup demonstrates. Examples: “So the right wingers aren’t disturbed by the inadequate safety funding for #Amtrak that transportation officials have decried for decades.” “Hope there are lots of Republicans on that Amtrak train then maybe they’ll have a come to Jesus moment and fund infrastructure. #LastWord.”

When other tweeters objected that it was in poor taste to seize so quickly on a disaster to score ideological points, the Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi sarcastically rejoined: “Please be polite and don’t talk about the crumbling infrastructure while the infrastructure is crumbling onto people. Thank you.”

The etiquette question here is uninteresting; after all, “Person Says Rude Thing on Twitter” is about as newsworthy as “Plane Lands Safely.” But the reaction—the rush for a pat explanation in the absence of facts—is a curious intellectual and political phenomenon. It reminded us of the weather truthers, who instantly blame every meterological disaster on global warming, a reflex even climate scientists warn against.

And the knee-jerk response is hardly limited to Twitter. “Calling the Amtrak train derailment a ‘horrific incident,’ White House press secretary Josh Earnest said investment in upgrades to the rail system’s infrastructure remain important to the administration,” National Journal reports.

Earnest at least acknowledged “that the cause of the crash is still under investigation, and it’s unclear whether infrastructure problems were involved.” The same can’t be said for some lawmakers, as the Hill reports:

“I do hope we can keep the accident in mind [during {Wednesday’s} markup],” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said about the derailed Amtrak train. “Cutting the funding drastically does not help improve the services at Amtrak.” . . .

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, which produced the bill, said the measure is “totally inadequate.”

The measure “does not provide adequate funding to address the capital needs required for safety.” . . .

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said Congress “failed” passengers who traveled on the Amtrak train Tuesday night.

“Last night, we failed them. We failed to invest in their safety. We failed to make their safety our priority,” he said. “We are divesting from America in this committee. . . . It defies the interests of the American people.”

Journalists got into the act as well. MarketWatch’s Rex Nutting:

America is crumbling before our eyes. Once, the U.S. was the envy of the world with its modern roads, airports, railroad bridges and other infrastructure.

Everything was first-class.

Now, it’s third-rate.

An Amtrak passenger train derailed Tuesday in Philadelphia, killing at least seven passengers.

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (as noted by NewsBusters) used the crash to declaim against property rights:

We have a country where people can complain. In communist countries like China, they just draw a straight line, whether it goes through your house or not, it’s a straight line. We have this Amtrak, I’ve been taking it for a half a century, it doesn’t go in a straight line. In this case, it tried to make a turn and turned over! Because there’s so many turns on that route. How do you get rid of the turns?

A headline from the liberal New Republic: “House Republicans Aim to Cut Amtrak Funding the Day After Philadelphia Derailment.” A headline from the supposedly nonideological Associated Press: “House GOP Approves Cuts to Amtrak Budget Despite Crash.” The lead sentence refers to the Appropriations Committee as “a Republican-controlled House panel”—a redundancy in a Republican-controlled House.

Perhaps the worst offender is Salon, which ran a story Wednesday under this headline: “This Is Why Amtrak Train Derailed: The Real Story Behind Our Disastrous Infrastructure Neglect.” This misleading title was a disservice to author Rosabeth Moss Kanter, whose article is an excerpt of a book that was published Monday and thus quite obviously has nothing to say about a train that derailed Tuesday.

The facts are beginning to come out, and they do not appear to support the “crumbling infrastructure” narrative. The Wall Street Journal reports the train “was traveling at more than 100 miles an hour, twice the speed limit, as it entered a sharp curve where it derailed Tuesday night, federal officials said Wednesday”:

The National Transportation Safety Board said a “black box” data recorder put the train’s speed at 106 mph just before the curve. The train’s engineer applied emergency brakes, but several seconds later, the train’s speed was only down to 102 mph, when the data recorder stopped.

“As we know, it takes a long time to decelerate a train,” said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt in a news conference.

Referring to the application of the brakes before the crash, he added, “You’re supposed to enter the curve at 50 miles an hour. He was already in the curve.”

Common sense suggests excessive speed is usually a human-caused hazard, although just what happened in the cab isn’t yet clear. Engineer Brandon Bostian’s lawyer “told ABC’s ‘Nightline’ that the engineer has no recollection of the crash and ‘no explanation’ for what happened.”

What about Matthews’s suggestion that train tracks should run straight, even if that means going full communist and displacing thousands of homeowners? It’s not exactly a realistic proposal; not even Democrats propose to rebuild the entire Northeast Corridor in this manner. Besides, China may not be the most attractive example to emulate. As London’s Guardian reported in 2011:

Chinese authorities face growing public fury over the high-speed train crash that killed at least 38 people and injured 192, with the disposal of wreckage and attempts to control coverage of the incident prompting allegations of a cover-up.

The railways ministry has apologised for the collision in eastern Zhejiang province and announced an inquiry. Spokesman Wang Yongping added: “China’s high-speed rail technology is up to date and up to standard, and we still have faith in it.”

Internet users attacked the government’s response to the disaster after authorities muzzled media coverage and urged reporters to focus on rescue efforts. “We have the right to know the truth!” wrote one microblogger called kangfu xiaodingdang. “That’s our basic right!”

Leaked propaganda directives ordered journalists not to investigate the causes and footage emerged of bulldozers shovelling dirt over carriages.

And a pair of National Journal stories give the lie to the simpleminded story of evil Republicans slashing budgets. “Everyone in Congress agrees that Amtrak—particularly in the now-paralyzed Northeast Corridor—is ailing,” report Fawn Johnson and Rachel Roubein. “But the two parties are offering very different prescriptions to fix it.” To wit: “Democrats want more money for Amtrak to shore up the rail line, and Republicans want more accountability.”

The other story, by Johnson alone, reports that there are points of agreement across party lines:

House Republicans and Democrats had already agreed on a plan that they say will help fix Northeast passenger rail.

In March, the House approved a measure reauthorizing funding for Amtrak, which would rework the accounting structure of the rail network such that money made from the Northeast Corridor would be reinvested in the same line. One of the biggest criticisms of Amtrak is that it funds its money-losing long-range routes with profits from the Boston-New York-Washington line. Some of those long-range routes, like the Texas Eagle from Chicago to Los Angeles, lose hundreds of dollars per passenger. Meanwhile, the Northeast Corridor, a profitable route, has its own bottlenecks that can back up hundreds of trains for hours. For example, money to fix the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey would make a major difference in easing rail-line congestion.

It should be noted that this idea is somewhat counter to Republican lawmakers’ interests. The Northeast Corridor runs from Washington to Boston, passing through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island—all Democratic strongholds though Pennsylvania is sometimes reckoned a swing state. The heavily subsidized lines, by contrast, pass through many red states.

What accounts for the rush to affix partisan blame for the crash? The obvious answer is opportunism, but if so it seems like foolish opportunism, and not only because it’s foolish to rush to judgment in the face of known unknowns. It’s also emotionally foolish. Is any nonideologue’s reflexive reaction to a train derailment to think we should spend more money on trains?

That’s not necessarily to say we shouldn’t. The New York Times reports that a technology known as positive train control, “designed to automatically slow or stop a train to prevent accidents, was not available on a critical stretch of track in Philadelphia where Train No. 188 derailed”:

Congress mandated that the system be installed throughout the nation’s railroad system by the end of 2015 after a commuter train tragedy in September 2008, when a Metrolink train collided head-on with a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., killing 25 people and injuring more than 100.

But implementing the system has proved to be a challenge for regulators as well as for railroads, and Congress is considering extending the deadline to 2020 at the urging of the freight and passenger rail systems.

Part of the issue is that the technology is complex. Basically, positive train control means that locomotives, engineers and train dispatchers have real-time information about train speed and location, and that trains can automatically respond to sensors along the tracks.

The Association of American Railroads argued as early as 2012 that meeting the 2015 deadline would be a challenge for most of its members because of the high cost of the system and the complexity involved in installing and testing it.

The trade group estimated the total cost for the railroads at $10 billion and said operators had already spent $5.2 billion.

If more money would speed compliance with this mandate, it may well be a worthy expenditure. But the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008, which established the mandate, passed Congress with strong bipartisan support and was signed by a Republican president. Why should it be cause for partisan acrimony now? …

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