by Lindy Davies
I once introduced a paper at a conference with the laugh line, “Many of the papers you’ll hear this week make extensive use of mathematics, but mine is a bit different: it makes extensive use of arithmetic.” The economists in the audience knew what I was getting at: minutiae can be examined in fascinating (sometimes Nobel-winning) detail, but often the really important points are made by keeping track of the relevant orders of magnitude — in other words, by counting the zeros.
Here’s an example, to get us started. How many days, months, whatever, does it take for a million seconds to go by? I whipped out my calculator and discovered that a million seconds equals about 11.6 days. Surprised? Well, then, how about a billion seconds? That’s a thousand times longer: 31.7 years. The next one is easier, because we’re sticking with the same unit, but it boggles the mind nevertheless: a trillion seconds equals 31,709 years.
Let’s explore the wonders of zero-counting by comparing and contrasting a couple of lines in the budget of the United States.
|Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor Passenger Rail Service||The F35 “Lightning” Joint Strike Fighter|
|— relatively inexpensive; mildly profitable||— most expensive weapon in history|
|— deeply maligned, desperately underfunded||— despite criticism, lavishly funded|
|— used by over 11 million passengers annually||— appropriations shared by contractors in 46 states|
|— ridership increasing as highway congestion worsens||— not yet cleared to fly in inclement weather|
Dear reader, you can probably see where I’m going with this, but please bear with me: the numbers involved are noteworthy.
The F35 is, in terms of its design parameters, one seriously groovy airplane. It is a “fifth-generation” fighter jet, intended to supersede a number of the fighter jets that are now in use. It is called “joint strike” because the basic plane would be used, with some modifications, by various branches of the military in different missions: fly from carriers for the Navy, take off and land vertically for the Marines, evade radar detection, and locate enemy fighters long before they’re able to locate it. Its pilot will wear a helmet designed to make the plane an extension of his brain; all manner of information will be displayed right before his eyes; next-level optics will allow the pilot to see through the plane as if it were transparent. This is majorly awesome, sci-fi stuff. Lockheed Martin puts it this way:
The supersonic, multi-role F-35 represents a quantum leap in air dominance capability with enhanced lethality and survivability in hostile, anti-access airspace environments…. Missions traditionally performed by specialized aircraft — air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, electronic attack, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — can now be executed by a squadron of F-35s.
However, alas, the F35 is also far behind schedule, and way over budget. “A single Air Force F-35A costs a whopping $148 million.” writes Winslow Wheeler, for the Project on Government Oversight. “One Marine Corps F-35B costs an unbelievable $251 million. A lone Navy F-35C costs a mind-boggling $337 million. Average the three models together, and a ‘generic’ F-35 costs $178 million.” That’s per plane — and, because the F35 is being tested as it is produced, and faulty systems must be retrofitted on planes that are already being flown, the per-plane cost is likely to increase.
The following cost figures for the F35 program were reported by CBS news: $400 billion will be spent to buy 2,400 aircraft — twice as much, in constant dollars, as the Apollo program. To date, the F35 program is $163 billion over budget. It will cost approximately $1.5 trillion over the life of the program. In 2014 we spent approximately $6 billion on the F35.
Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said: twice the cost of the Apollo Program.
Reasonable people can disagree about the urgency of the United States’s need for this airplane. The stated mission is to assert overwhelming superiority, in any aerial combat mission, over any plane the Russians or Chinese might plan to build in the foreseeable future. The US already has a fifth-generation fighter in service, the F22A Raptor — which itself costs some $150 million per unit and, according to the US Air Force, “cannot be matched by any known or projected fighter aircraft.” Only Russia has any plane that is even remotely comparable, and Russia is obviously throwing much less money at the problem than the US is.
The thing about the F35, though, it that its development and manufacture is distributed with great skill through a multiplicity of key Congressional districts. “Lockheed takes every opportunity to remind politicians that the airplane is manufactured in 46 states and is responsible for more than 125,000 jobs and $16.8 billion in “economic impact” to the US economy….” wrote Adam Ciralsky in Vanity Fair. “Political engineering has foiled any meaningful opposition on Capitol Hill, in the White House, or in the defense establishment.”
To make a long story short: it is virtually certain that — whether we need it, or can afford it, or not — we’re going to have the F35 “Lightning” Joint Strike Fighter. That nickname, by the way, is ironic, because the F35 has not yet been cleared to fly within twenty miles of a thunderstorm.
Fixing Our Trains
Amtrak, the US’s much-maligned passenger rail system, operates 21,300 miles of routes. But, for the purpose of our present comparison, we’ll concentrate on the 471-mile segment that actually turns a profit: the Northeast Corridor. This is the rail service between Washington, DC and Boston, on which Amtrak carried 11.4 million passengers last year. It is only on this route that Amtrak operates its Acela express trains, which can go over 150 mph — they can, at least, on the few sections of track that are in good enough repair. Amtrak owns and maintains these tracks, which are also used by commuter-rail systems in DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston — and some of them have gotten quite rickety over the years.
To pick one of many examples, the Portal Bridge over the Hackensack River in New Jersey is 100 years old and carries 450 trains a day — if things stay on schedule. The old swinging drawbridge causes many delays. It would cost $900 million to replace it with fixed bridge. Republicans have harshly criticized Amtrak for many years — and they can’t all be wrong; it’s likely that there is some significant degree of inefficiency and inertia in Amtrak’s program. The House of Representatives recently voted to cut Amtrak funding for the coming year to the tune of one and two-thirds F35s ($260 million) — the very day after a deadly derailment outside of Philadelphia.
This seemed an exceptionally spiteful move, even for Congress. This particular accident was probably caused by human error. But it could have been prevented, had a “Positive Train Control” system been in place; a 2008 law requires it to be implemented by the end of this year. Such systems are routinely used across Europe. Amtrak, however, is strapped for funds. Its “Vision Statement for the Northeast Corridor” laments:
In the New York vicinity, some areas are operating at 100% capacity, resulting in significant delays from even minor operating disturbances. The [Northeast Corridor] consists of a mix of aging infrastructure, much of it built 80-150 years ago, that will require extensive repair for safe and efficient operations at current traffic levels.
Folks, that’s like commuting to work every day at 70 mph. in an old VW beetle that only goes that fast (and has a tendency to overheat). Nothing against the beetle, but — how long could you count on that?
Reasonable people can disagree about the efficacy of subsidized passenger rail service in the megalopolis between DC and Boston. I don’t think anyone disputes, however, that the highways in that region are getting more congested all the time, and that reliable, reasonably-priced intercity rail service wouldn’t be a bad thing. But, can we trust Amtrak to provide that? Not according to Rep. John Mica (R-FL), who said this on the day of the budget vote: “The problem is you give Amtrak the money and they blow the improvements or squander it. Congress does not trust Amtrak. They’ve given them the money before.” Mica’s largest campaign contributor is the air travel industry.
Let’s talk numbers
Amtrak’s overall operation was $329 million in the red for 2014, but its Northeast Corridor service made a profit of $286 million. You heard that right: that means that the 20,829 miles of non-NEC Amtrak routes are subsidized by over half a billion dollars a year! That’s fully ten percent of what we spend annually on the F35 “Lightning” Joint Strike Fighter! (And, it’s eight percent of what the British government spends annually on passenger rail.)
Amtrak’s “Vision for the Northeast Corridor,” offers various proposals for improving service and reliability, which are echoed in somewhat greater detail in a report by the by the Federal Railroad Administration. The proposals are graded, A through D, in escalating wish-lists. The ones in section A amount to simply maintaining existing capacity (which nevertheless calls for some rather expensive catching up). The suggestions in section D, though, are the stuff of Republican apoplexy; they propose to:
transform the role of rail, so that the rail system would accommodate a significantly higher percentage of travelers and passengers, enabling new travel patterns and new markets to be served… positioning rail as a dominant mode. This would be accomplished through a major increase in the capacity of the NEC along its entire length, service to new markets, and a dramatic reduction in trip times.
What the heck, you might as well ask for what you want. This dramatic vision (including such luxuries as replacing the Portal Bridge in Hackensack), this pie-in-the-sky wish list, way more than Congress would ever appropriate, this tremendous infrastructure enhancement that would make life so much more efficient and convenient in the Northeast (not to mention conferring significant environmental benefits) — this commie-liberal subsidized rail boondoggle — would be gradually implemented between now and 2040, at a projected cost of $151 billion. That would amount to about $6 billion per year. Does that figure sound familiar? It’s the amount that we spent in 2014 on the F35 “Lightning” Joint Strike Fighter.
To reiterate: the total projected cost of the most ambitious plan for a long-term upgrade of Northeast Corridor Rail infrastructure is $151 billion. The amount by which the F35 program is over budget, so far, is $163 billion. It really helps to count the zeros.
Two P. S.’s
1) It is widely known by economists and smart people everywhere that quality public transportation facilities increase real estate values. The city of London has capitalized on this obvious fact to fund rail improvements with levies on the windfall gains that the railroads have created. In Florida, a private concern, Florida East Coast Industries, has bought up lots of land around the terminals of a passenger rail service it plans to introduce between Miami and Orlando. Indeed, this is exactly the way the transcontinental railroads in the US were financed. Financing passenger rail improvements with taxes on land values is an easy, sensible and fair policy; we should start doing it immediately!
2) By the way: If you really want to get your mind boggled, you gotta check out Wikipedia’s page on Orders of Magnitude!