It took just a few sorry hours for the news to become politicized. On Tuesday evening, we were told of a tragedy. An Amtrak train running between New York City and Washington D.C. had derailed disastrously at Philadelphia, killing eight and wounding two hundred. By Wednesday morning, tragedy had become transgression. Speaking from the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest explained that he didn’t know for sure why the train had crashed, but that it was probably the Republicans’ fault. “We have seen a concerted effort by Republicans for partisan reasons to step in front of those kinds of advancements” that would have prevented crashes such as this one, Earnest proposed slyly. His message: “Yeah, the conservatives did it.”
Before long, this theory had become omnipresent on the Left. At PoliticsUSA, Sarah Jones complained that, “gambling with Americans lives,” “reckless Republicans” were planning to respond to the “deadly derailment with more proposed cuts to Amtrak.” At MSNBC meanwhile, erstwhile transportation expert Rachel Maddow contrived to play Sherlock Holmes. “There’s no mystery about this disaster in Philadelphia,” Maddow submitted, ‘and there will be no mystery when it happens again.” The culprit, she proposed, was a lack of infrastructure spending. “This is on Congress’s head.” Not to be outdone, Mother Jones got in on the act, too: “The Amtrak Crash,” Sam Brodey declared excitedly, “Hasn’t Stopped Republicans From Trying to Cut Its Funding.” Well, then.
In all cases, the implication was clear: The dead were dead and the injured were injured because old rails had buckled under new weights; because underserviced wheels had locked up and given out; because the electrical wires that undergird the information systems had finally disintegrated and gone back to seed. Thus was a new tragedy ghoulishly recruited to an old cause. Rare is the day on which we are not told that America’s bridges are crumbling and that its roads are cracking, and that selfish and unimaginative politicians in Washington are rendering the United States as a shadow of its former self. Rare, too, is the day on which it is not asserted by someone that if we would just have the good sense to funnel more money to our favorite groups, we would be able to escape our present economic mess. With the news of a terrible crash, the would-be spenders were given a chance to wave the bloody shirt and to put a face on an agenda. Disgracefully, they took it.
In a sensible world, this execrable line of inquiry would have been abandoned at the very moment that it was revealed that the train had been traveling at almost twice the rated speed limit when it flew off the tracks, and thus that physics, not funding, was the proximate cause of the crash. But, alas, we do not live in a sensible world. And so, rather than conceding that we should treat the questions of infrastructure spending and of Amtrak’s subsidies separately from the questions surrounding this incident, the partisans scrabbled around to find an alternate — and conveniently non-falsifiable — theory: To wit, that if more money had been available to Amtrak’s engineers, they would probably have been able to find a way of saving the deceased. Never mind that the money is already there, but is being spent elsewhere; never mind that the reason that existing “crash-preventing” technology has not been implemented has more to do with “unique” “logistical challenges” than with an absence of funding; never mind that new technology is as capable of failing as old technology. If Amtrak had just had some more money in the bank, something would have been different. If we had rendered unto Caesar what his acolytes had demanded, the laws of physics would have smiled more kindly on the Northeast.
At the Federalist yesterday, Molly Hemingway argued persuasively that this sort of magical thinking is ultimately born of a peculiar form of secular theodicy, in which money has taken the place of piety and in which all accidents, hiccups, and human mistakes can be blamed squarely upon the unwillingness of the American taxpayer to pay their April tithes with alacrity. On Twitter, Red State’s Erick Erickson concurred, writing pithily that “the leftwing reaction to the Amtrak derailment” reminded him of televangelist “Pat Robertson’s reaction when a hurricane hits somewhere.” There is, I think, a great deal of truth to this. In our debates over education, healthcare, energy, and . . . well, pretty much everything, the progressive instinct is invariably to call for more money, regardless of the nature of the problem at hand. Naturally, there is a cynical pecuniary aspect to these entreaties: behind every “for the children” plea, it seems, is a union that is looking to get its claws into your wallet. But there is also a bloody-minded refusal to accept the world as it really is. We do not, pace Thomas Paine, “have it in our power to begin the world over again,” and we never will — however many zeroes the Treasury is instructed to scrawl on its checks. Accidents happen. Humans err. Evil prevails. Perfection is a pipe dream. The question before us: How do we deal with this reality?
On the left, the usual answer is to deny that there is any such reality. Just as conspiracy theorists prefer to take shelter in the comforting belief that 9/11 was the product of omnipotence and not of the unavoidable combination of evil, luck, and incompetence, the progressive mind tends to find calm in the heartfelt conviction that if we adjust our spreadsheets in the right way — and if we elect the correct people to public office — we will be able to plan and spend and cajole our way into the establishment of a heaven on earth. Thus did the arguments yesterday so dramatically shift and bend in the wind. Thus were their progenitors willing to say anything — yes, anything — in order to avoid the conclusion that the world can be a scary and unfair place and that there is often little we can do it about. The crash was caused by a lack of infrastructure spending that has left the railways in a dangerous shape! No, it was caused by a lack of interest in finding a way to prevent human error! No, it was caused by a general American unwillingness to invest in the sort of trains they have in Europe or Japan! Republicans did it! Midwesterners who don’t use trains did it! The rich did it! Quick, throw money at the problem, and maybe it’ll go away!
Throwing money at a problem is not always the wrong thing to do, of course. But one has to wonder where the limiting principle is in this case. There is no department or organization in the world that would struggle to find a use for more cash were it to become available. If our standard is a) that more funding might potentially equal less death, and b) that all death must inevitably be assuaged by more funding, we will soon run out of treasure. Alternatively, if the conceit is less absolute — i.e. if we accept that we do not have infinite resources and that this debate is there about priorities — one will still have to question the choices that Amtrak’s boosters would have us make. To support federal spending on Amtrak is by definition to suppose that every dollar spent on the trains is money that could not be spent better elsewhere: not by taxpayers; not by businesses; not by other parts of the government; not on paying down the debt; not on anything else on this earth. This, naturally, is highly debatable. Per the agenda-less, data-driven denizens of Vox, Americans today are 17 times more likely to be killed in a car accident and 213 times more likely to be killed on a motorcycle than they are to be killed on a train. Trains, in other words, are relatively safe. That being so, one has to ask why anybody would advocate increasing the train budget. By rights, shouldn’t that money be going to General Motors or to Harley Davidson or to the various DMVs up and down the land? Shouldn’t it be “invested” in areas where it will be 17 and 213 times more useful? If it should not, why not? Why do those who wish to spend money on the trains and not on motorcycle safety not have blood on their hands, just as we are supposed to believe that those who wish to cut Amtrak’s budget do? Surely if Harley Davidson had a little more money, they could develop systems to save lives. Why, pray, are they being denied that money?
One’s answers to these questions will vary according to one’s ideological outlook and one’s broader political judgment. For my part, I am not wild about the idea of subsidizing Amtrak at all. Others, I know, want the state to underwrite a much wider network of trains, the better to discourage Americans from flying or from driving their cars. Such disagreements are reasonable and, perhaps, inevitable. And yet they are only instructive when indulged dispassionately. It may make us feel good to hover over rapidly cooling bodies and, searching for anything that might assuage our grief, entertain our “what ifs” and nominate our villains. But it is certainly no grounds for the establishment of public policy. Whether they are broke or they are flush, terrible — yes, even fatal — things happen to good people all the time. Accepting that this is inevitable is the first step toward maturity. In Philadelphia, the inevitable happened; and “shoulda, woulda, coulda” were the last words of the charlatans.