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Liars and statistics Print E-mail
Written by Alan Kline (admin)   
Tuesday, June 07 2011 13:44


Many years ago, in a country far away, a propagandist mastered the concept of the "Big Lie". That is, if you tell the same lie often enough, and loudly enough, people will begin to accept it as fact. That same concept is being practiced today by those who attack passenger rail.

The most recent is by a guy named Bob Confer, who writes for a website called "NewAmerican". You can Google it; I'm not giving them the benefit of any links from our site. It's the most amazingly ignorant and deceptive article I've read recently. Confer begins by taking Amtrak's daily system ridership of 78,000, and comparing it to the total American population of over 300 million people. Stating that the ridership is 0.025 percent of the total population, Confer claims that this means that "public transportation via rail is unpopular, if not useless, in the United States." That's a blatant lie. The truth is, the vast majority of our population is not traveling between cities by any means of transportation on a given day. That's fortunate--if 307 million people tried to move from one city to another on the same day, the result would be gridlock and chaos. A better comparison would be measuring Amtrak's daily passenger count against the total number of people traveling intercity via any mode of transport on a given day. It still isn't completely valid, because such a comparison fails to take into account the fact that not every trip is the same length. Confer's thesis simply proves the old adage, "Statistics lie, and liars use statistics". I could also claim that Amtrak's 28 million annual passengers--9 percent of the total population--make Amtrak a success. But that still wouldn't paint a truly accurate picture.

Confer then trots out the tired old complaint that passenger rail is somehow a threat to Truth, Justice, Freedom, Liberty and The American Way of Life. Usually, that complaint takes the form, "Them lib'ruls are gonna take away our cars!" Another old lie. The truth is, those of us who advocate for passenger rail understand the need for a truly balanced transportation system, which uses the strengths of each form of transportation--highway, air, and rail--to offset the weaknesses of each. And we're not all "liberal"--at most, I'd consider myself to be centrist or moderate. There are also, believe it or not, conservatives who support rail. One of the best known is Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who regrettably has chosen to retire from the Senate at the end of her current term. No one who advocates for passenger rail has tried to suggest that the government should forcibly take away anyone's cars. What we're looking for is a future where people have the choice of a range of alternatives that best suits their needs for a particular trip. In our house, we try to practice what I preach--we own one car, and to the extent possible plan our schedules around that. When we can't, I use the bus, which conveniently stops in front of our house. (That's not by chance, either--that was one of our criteria in buying a house) We use our car when it makes sense, but also use public transport when we can. I don't care if someone else owns 3, 4, or a dozen cars--I just want the ability to not use mine, when another mode makes better sense. The truth is, it's people like Confer who are trying to take away our liberties. He and others of his ilk are trying to force people into a lifestyle where they have no option but to own and operate a motor vehicle--preferably, several. The only way that they can do that is to lie, cheat and deceive the public wherever possible, because there are few rational arguments in their favor.

Obviously, the premise of Confer and others of his ilk is that government has no business operating passenger rail or other forms of public transportation. They generally define "public transportation" as anything that benefits the less affluent, or transportation which doesn't run on rubber tires or wings. There's a huge bit of hypocrisy at work here--these people have never suggested that the government also get out of the business of building highways and airports--which can also be considered "public transportation" They've never suggested that publicly-owned airports, which generally are exempt from property taxes, be turned over to the private sector. By the way, that's another typical extremist comment--they claim that if American needed rail, the private sector would do it. Why don't they make that same demand for private-sector airports and highways? After all, if airports were profitable, wouldn't there be corporations fighting each other to get a piece of the action? If the extremists can somehow justify public subsidies for airports and highways, they have no rational way to oppose subsidies for rail. Confer and others like him ignore the historic fact that hundreds of billions of dollars of government money have been spent on public infrastructure--those highways, airports and the air traffic control system--which left the privately owned and operated railroads unable to compete. That's why Amtrak was created in 1971, and the situation has only worsened between 1971 and 2011. It's tough for any business to compete against subsidized competition, in transportation or any other industry.

Confer also manages to confuse, probably deliberately, the distinction between commuter rail and intercity rail (Amtrak). Absurdly, he tries to imply that the President's goal of connecting 80 percent of the population with high-speed rail won't work because most jobs today are located in suburbs, not downtown areas? Excuse me? What kind of weird logic is this? HSR connects one city to another, not suburbia to downtown. That's as idiotic as claiming that we shouldn't have airports because I can't fly to my job downtown. HSR, conventional intercity passenger rail, and commuter rail are different tools for different purposes. Again, The Big Lie at work. Confer is trying to confuse his readers.

Who are these people? As always, Google is your friend. A few seconds of searching reveals that the "NewAmerican" magazine is the mouthpiece of the John Birch Society, an extremist libertarian group that is so far to the right that it makes Rush Limbaugh look like a flaming liberal. And not surprisingly, the same Google search reveals that the John Birch Society is one of the many "astroturf" groups which was either founded, co-founded and/or bankrolled, either directly or indirectly, by the Koch family or Koch Industries, the oil and energy conglomerate--and an enemy of any form of lifestyle which involves the reduced use of petroleum. The Kochs have also bankrolled other notorious anti-rail groups--"think tanks" (an inappropriate name if ever there was) like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation. Cato and Reason both repeat the Big Lie over and over again, quoting each other in their bogus "studies" to give them a veneer of credibility, to the point where the mainstream media starts to believe them. Of course, they refuse to respond to any media inquiry about their finances or funding. Cato and Reason have both received substantial amounts of funding from other oil companies, auto builders, sprawl promoters like Wal-Mart, and many other enemies of rail. There's an irony in their practice of concealing their supporters. These are the same kind of people who decry the activity of unions, of both public and private employees, in the political arena. But the unions, at least, are proudly open about who they are and what they support. Unions don't try to hide anything, unlike the Kochs and their various astroturf groups--"Americans for Prosperity", the soul of the Tea Party, is another. Oh, one last point: Parsing the Wikipedia article on the John Birch Society indicates that at its peak, the society had around 100,000 members, or about 0.03 percent of the current American population. Using Bob Confer's "logic" and his own words, the society is "unpopular, if not useless, in the United States."

So it's no surprise, really. Confer's attack is simply another extremist attack on a form of transport which is contrary to the Kochs' vision of a Utopia where we continue to be a nation dependent on the oil they sell. The Propaganda Minister would be proud of them.

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