Paul Pillar

The Amtrak Disaster: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

The fatal crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia obviously is disturbing to those of us who often use the same service; it also is a symptom of a pattern, involving politics, economics, and morality, that is disturbing in a much larger sense. The chief investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board assesses that had a federally mandated automated system for restricting the speed of trains been in operation on the section of track involved, the crash would not have occurred. Amtrak has been ahead of the rest of the railroad industry in installing the system, but as is often the case, resources are the major factor in more rapid progress in installation not having been made. The day after the crash, and despite that fatal incident, a committee of the House of Representatives rejected a proposal for increased funding of Amtrak. This posture is indicative of a broader neglectful attitude toward America's notoriously deteriorating infrastructure. The anomaly of this situation prevailing within the world's superpower is apparent to any traveler who has enjoyed the use of more modern public services in any of several European countries, with rail transportation providing one of the most glaring contrasts.

At play here are some fundamental issues regarding attitudes toward, and management of, the commons—those assets and resources that are of use and importance to an entire community. The original formulation of the tragedy of the commons, which Garrett Hardin put in classic form nearly 50 years ago, involved how the marginal benefits and costs of any one individual's exploitation of a collective resource leads to excessive exploitation and deterioration of the resource. Each individual owner of livestock gets a net benefit from having his animals graze on a common pasture, but multiple owners following the same logic results in overgrazing and eventual ruin of the pasture. This kind of destructive dynamic is still very much in evidence with some important resources—most notably at the global level with how the marginal benefit exceeds the marginal cost for individual emitters of carbon into the atmosphere, with an eventual collective result threatening to be ruinous for all.

But at the national and sub-national levels, there also is another destructive dynamic that leads to deterioration of the commons, especially parts of the commons that are man-made. Some such parts can be ruined not only by too much exploitation but also by not enough attention and upkeep. The deterioration of roads and railways comes partly from use, but also from time, weather, ice, and rust. Left alone and given enough time, nature can restore a pasture to life, but nature cannot repair a bridge. The need for positive attention and upkeep is all the more apparent with common resources, such as public education, that are less a matter of physical structures than are roads and bridges.

The destructive logic of the new tragedy of the commons consists of those with the wherewithal to do so ending their own reliance on the commons and relying on privately owned assets instead. This results in less of a base of support for keeping the commons in good shape. It especially means less support from those whose support is especially important because of the wealth involved. The result, as with the first kind of tragedy, is deterioration and perhaps ruin of the commons, immediately to the disadvantage of many but ultimately to the disadvantage of all.

President Obama, at a recent event at Georgetown University, remarked about this kind of withdrawal from the commons and how apparent it has become in recent years in the United States; he made particular reference to wealthy parents keeping their children out of public schools and instead using private institutions for education and extracurricular activities. Also at the event and concurring in the president's observation was Robert Putnam, whose study Bowling Alone documented the withdrawal of Americans during recent decades from many forms of community commitment and involvement. It's not just a matter of schools, tennis clubs, or bowling leagues. One's interest in maintaining mass transportation, for example, declines or disappears if one uses a private jet instead.

In the United States these trends are exacerbated by two other factors. One is growing economic inequality, with an expanding divide between the large numbers who must rely on the commons, including public schools and mass transportation, and a smaller number who have other options. The increased concentration of wealth at the very top makes the private jet option a reality and not just a theoretical discussion point. And in a post-Citizens United world, the opportunities for the very wealthy to manipulate political perceptions in a way that blurs the meaning of the divide is greater than ever.