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June 09, 2008

Comments

The carbon paradigm is doomed. I expect John McCain to change his tune about climate change before the election. Skepticism has reached a tipping point.

We are cooling, folks. For how long even I don't know.
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For how long even I don't know.

Your modesty is your best quality, kim.

I think I've never heard so loud
The quiet message in a cloud.

This is where the climate models got it desperately wrong. All of them make a positive feedback out of water vapor and clouds, and it is really a negative feedback. The climate's sensitivity to CO2 is unknown, but the IPCC probably exaggerates it badly. Negative feedbacks also don't lead to catastrophic tipping points, and positive ones do.
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"[McCain] wants to privatize Amtrak" -- more precisely, he wanted to do that in 2002, and hasn't (as far as I can determine) taken a position since then.

Ah, JakeB, what you said. In late August of last year I wrote to everyone I knew that the War in Iraq was over and the globe was cooling and they were to tell everyone they met that with a big smile on their faces. I did so at that time because of Steve McIntyre's Y2K corrections of NASA's temperature data, and because Iraq's Anglican canon had just brokered an agreement among Iraq religious leaders to place a fatwah on violence.

I don't know whether we are cooling for 30 years because of the flipped PDO or even longer because of a quiet sun. I hope it is not severe cooling nor prolonged because many people will die if it is. Encumbering carbon is exactly the wrong thing to do at this time, because CO2 fertilizing effect will feed, and whatever warming effect it has will warm those living on the margin. With any luck, when we start warming again in 30-50 years we will know the true sensitivity of climate to CO2 and we can regulate it if necessary then. Besides, fossil fuel will probably be priced out of the energy market by then. We need all those lovingly created hydrocarbon bonds for structure, and feedstock for plastic, to clothe and house the teeming billions.

Hey, thirteen months ago I spent several days trying to convince the birds at Belgravia Dispatch that the Anbar Awakening was for real. Now I read that one of the Anbar sheiks wants to take the fight against al-Qaeda to Afghanistan and the Northwest Territories. Also, jihadists all over the Muslim diaspora are slamming bin Laden and al Qaeda.

So when I say even I don't know something, there is meaning and humility, there. Get it?
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One suggestion to clear a lot of pollution out of the debate would be to talk about 'energy footprint' rather than 'carbon footprint'. Carbon dioxide is a red herring, and as we cool, an increasingly dangerous red herring.

They bet on the carbon.
They bet on the fear.
If they'd bet on Old Soleil,
They'd be free men today.
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kim,

You're doing it all wrong. If you want to make any money trolling, you can just show up and write a million comments on your first day. You've got to ramp up gradually. And instead of writing random comments unconnected to the post, you have to make at least a token effort at relevancy. Also, try adding in some personal details so you sound human as opposed to a trolling machine sitting in a call center converting cash into comments while you're not making cold calls for some boiler room scam.

I'm not trolling, I'm counting coup. But, I've had a few interesting conversations, here. Don't worry, the infestation is temporary. My answer to your Turing Test is 'Milles Bores'.
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Hilzoy, in all honesty I think this is really the extent of McCain's policies for just about everything:

a) cut taxes
b) ???
c) prosper

Seriously, his "plans" are more just wish lists. I'm not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with that, and sometimes he's honest about it. But it probably won't fly.

kim: I'm not sure why I should listen to someone that mixes both water vapor (which everyone under the sun agrees adds to the greenhouse effect) and clouds (which again, everyone under the sun agrees reflects heat and diminishes the effect) as negative feedback loops. At least argue that the cloud negative feedback loop is greater than the positive water vapor one.

"Everyone agrees" sounds like 'the science is settled'. Clouds at night warm the earth, during the day, they cool it. Water vapor is also not so simple as you'd like to believe. How the models treat water vapor and clouds is their big downfall. Their parameterizations of the processes are ludicrously inadequate.

The analogy I see
Is the precise locality
Of mass particle e
Yes, yessiree.
It's the great uncertainty
In Optical Path Length T.
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3 non-kim comments, all addressing kim. Stop, eh?

Ohmygod, Mikkel, is McCain the king of the underpants gnomes?

Time to go to work! Work all night!
search for underpants hey!
We won't stop until we have underpants!
Yum tum yummy tum hey!

Kim, I'm going to have to ask you for your credentials. Whether you've got any real background and study in the subject of climate modelling, and if not what your sources are.

Because any scientist would love nothing more than to overturn the current best models - it would give them enough of an instant reputation to push them right to the top of the profession and bring them instant fame and fortune. And the models are certainly complex enough to take account of something as basic as night and day. So you really think you've uncovered something that all the climate scientists in the world haven't (and would update fast if they did - they want accurate models)?

We aren't in troll territory here - we're in lunatic conspiracy theorist territory. And for the record, there are problems with most existing models - they don't predict enough warming when compared to the real world.

(Disclaimer: I don't have any credentials other than an ability to follow the maths - most of my knowledge is either from layman's stuff or from my ex-housemate (who finished her PhD in climate change modelling while we were housemates) and friends of hers).

Now, now. If you have the experience and judgement that McCain has, you'd know that there is no need to think hard and make meaningful proposals about things.

Naw, Francis D, I just used the night/day thing to show mikkel the error in his 'everyone agrees'.

And for the record, there are problems with most existing models-they predict more warming than is being found in the real world.

You are looking at my credentials; it's what I write.
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DNFTT

Once again from the posting rules: Don't disrupt or destroy meaningful conversation for its own sake.

The globe is cooling, folks. Carbon dioxide was not the reason it warmed for the last quarter of the last century. You are not going to get anywhere with meaningful conversations if you don't understand that. Look at Francis D claiming the globe is still warming. The most reliable thermometers, the UAH and RSS satellite tropospheric ones, show cooling for the last few years. The Argos buoys show slight cooling of the oceans since 2004. The PDO has now flipped to a 30 year cooling phase which will be La Nina dominant. The sun is unusually, not quite extraordinarily quiescent. There is little chance we will see warming anytime soon. This will call into even greater question than it is today what the real climate sensitivity to CO2 is. A cooling globe makes no sense in the anthropogenic through CO2 global warming theory.

Face it, they were wrong. Real scientists re-evaluate assumptions in the face of falsification of their hypotheses. This crowd just screams louder "The science is settled". It ain't; not by a long shot.
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Um, global warming doesn't deny the existence of El Nino/La Nina, which explains the 1998 peak, and also the immediate recent cool period. And El Nino/La Nina has nothing to do with the sun, and the sun being quiet now is just as significant as it was during 1998 - i.e. not at all.

Also, I'll point out that RSS and UAH are two groups using the *same data* from the *same satellites*. The disagreement between them should give us some reason to doubt the suggestion that they are the 'most reliable thermometers'.

Just how the sun effects the PDO and the other oscillations is unknown. Look, the PDO is poorly understood but it runs in approximately 30 year cycles. The globe warmed from around 1900 to the mid-thirties, then cooled to the mid-seventies, then warmed to the end of the century, and are now cooling again. All this oceanic effect overlays an underlying warming trend emerging from the Little Ice Age. A big question is whether or not the quiescent sun will reverse that underlying warming trend and send us toward a new Grand Minimum.

The La Nina dominant phase is cooling and the El Nino dominant phase is warming. And these oceanic oscillations probably are driven by the sun, just how no one knows for sure, but Erl Happ at climateaudit.org on the Svalgaard threads is thinking hard about it.
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The UAH and RSS pretty much agree, FhnuZoag. They use different algorithms to interpret the same data. What they differ from is Hansen's GISS temps which are subject to such arcane adjustments as to be unreliable. These three, plus HadCrut, tend to show the same peaks and valleys of temperature; GISS still has a positive slope to the curve of temperature since the turn of the century, the other three have a negative slope, that is, they show cooling.
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I'm just trying to show you guys why the Energy and Climate bill collapsed so precipitously and unexpectedly. Or, you could read Rohrabacher's long and eloquent speech. He lays it out pretty well, complete with buffalo farts, and 'Do they think we are all morons out here'? This business of climate change is going to get more and more acute politically. Great Britain is in the throes of a taxpayer revolt over mistaken anti-carbon legislation. Coming soon to a venue near you.

The carbon paradigm is collapsing. Come on along and search for truth, the facts can't really hurt you, now.
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Oh, heck. My cat knows your cat and says it is time to lay off. The poor little kitten is out of ammo.

I would like to thank most of you for some excellent conversation. Glasater, too, says you've been mostly polite. In my experience you are unique among leftie blogs that way.

I remember, not long ago, Tom Maguire was tickled pink that Hilzoy got credentialed to the convention. I can't speak for him, but I think he has a lot of respect for her. She just spoke pretty ignorantly about something he's expert about. Can't speak for myself, either, because she's kinda hung around the shadows, reloading.
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This is a disappointing post: despite its apparent detail, it conveys very little substantive information. I'll focus on one aspect for purposes of discussion:

He [McCain] seems to be confused about whether he supports subsidies for nuclear power and "clean coal".

That's not an accurate characterization of the linked material. In the linked piece -- an excerpt from a blogger conference call -- McCain states:

1. He supports eliminating regulations on nuclear power.

2. He supports "pure science" R&D for clean coal technology.

Both positions are consistent with his view that nuclear power and clean coal should not be "subsidized." There is no "confusion" (well, at least not on McCain's part). Worse, calling McCain "confused" where he has been perfectly clear suggests that you're trying to advance the ongoing whispering campaign about McCain's age. Intentional or know, you're falsely implying that McCain had a "senior moment."

It would be more interesting if you would respond to McCain's policies, rather than mischaracterize those policies.


von: from the linked piece:

"McCain's "advocacy" and "support" for nuclear power have him calling for a lot more than just R&D funding. The climate plan he unveiled this week includes "loan guarantees for the construction of new [nuclear] plants and a program to assist with the first-of-its-kind engineering needs," plus "measures to further encourage investor confidence [in the nuclear industry] through improved safety, expanded manufacturing base, and waste disposal solutions."

So he's against "subsidies," except when they are "support." Even when "support" means tons of taxpayer cash."

-- Do you think that loan guarantees are nothing but removal of restrictions or support for R&D? I don't.

Kim is correct that water droplets in the atmosphere very likely have a cooling effect, and also that current models do not capture this effect well. The impact of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however, is very well modeled.

This article gives a useful introduction: "Although the even the sign of the current [greenhouse-effect plus Kim's cloud-effect] is in question, the sign of the [total effect] by the middle of the 21st century will certainly be positive."

Carbon is definitely a problem. That another factor has (probably) reduced the impact so far does not recommend complacency.

And for the record: I don't think this is an age thing. I think it's a reflection of the fact that McCain often seems to be unclear about what his own policies are, which I tend to put down to the fact that he doesn't seem all that interested in policy details, and doesn't seem to have much of a sense of how different policies interlink.

Details: see cap and trade, his confusion about his own Social Security policy, etc. Interlinking policies: see his nonproliferation speech, in which he seemed to be unaware of how his plan to kick Russia off the G8 might possibly undercut his plans, which relied a lot on Russian cooperation (as you'd expect, given that a chunk of nonproliferation policy, his and others', has to involve securing Russian loose nukes.)

The social-change-through-environmentalism (SCTE) environmentalists, not to be confused with true environmentalists, who I support, have gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle.

This peak oil thing appears to be real and the laws of economics may just start pricing people out of things that they, gasp, need. The laws on the books largely prevent new energy projects, regardless of who is President, or what tax breaks he offers. Any prospective new energy project would require years of advance permitting, perhaps decades. Time which we may not have if things keep going the way they are going.

Some good comes out of all things. I hate SCTE environmentalists. Justice can be a bitch.

I predict a bright future for those in the nuclear power industry. Not the permitting queens though, the brightest future belongs to people who know how to build stuff.

I know virtually nothing about the power grid, but I do know a lot about another vital utility: water.

And by far (all caps, lots of exclamation points, etc.) the cheapest source of water in the West is, quite simply, conservation. Ag. is getting much better at using water (the amount of water used to grow rice in California has dropped dramatically in recent years); industrial users are doing much better too. Municipal users, though, lag way behind.

The second cheapest source of water, which doesn't apply to electricity directly, is reclaimed water (turning sewer water into potable water). The application to the energy grid would be increasing co-gen projects, which is certainly something worthy of a tax credit or two.

von: Worse, calling McCain "confused" where he has been perfectly clear suggests that you're trying to advance the ongoing whispering campaign about McCain's age. Intentional or know, you're falsely implying that McCain had a "senior moment."

Waitaminnit. You can't see the sexism against Hillary, but this is somehow an assault on McCain's age? Good lord.

(hit post too soon)

The point being that a lot of the environmentalists (not all) are right. We don't need to build more coal plants or dams or nuke plants. We need, instead, to create serious financial incentives in favor of conservation. See, eg, negawatts.

"And by far (all caps, lots of exclamation points, etc.) the cheapest source of water in the West is, quite simply, conservation. Ag. is getting much better at using water (the amount of water used to grow rice in California has dropped dramatically in recent years); industrial users are doing much better too. Municipal users, though, lag way behind."

A huge part of that is low hanging fruit. Municipal users, especially in Northern California have been conserving water for decades. Ag users, especially in Northern California, have been wasting it for decades.

Your rice example is especially telling. It isn't difficult to see large savings in water usage when you started out with rice-paddie farming--the most water inefficient method possible. It is as if you are praising the gas savings in going from a Hummer limo to a mid-sized car while castigating people who have been using midsized-cars their whole lives for not reducing their personal consumption as much as the person who just today abandoned his limo. Yes it is true that the mid-sized car people couldn't get a similar savings without going to a moped. But it is also true that the limo people were wasting gas for 50 years and that today's switch isn't going to make up for that.

Yes Ag has gotten much better. Yes people in all areas waste it. But consumers of water are price sensitive. Let the price be free and people will make much wiser decisions than they do now--both in agriculture and in home use. You saw that in the drought years in Northern California for home users.

The same is true of electricity. The main current problem is that people don't see that electricity use in peak hours is much more expensive than use in off hours. They get it all smoothed out on the bill. Technology for hour to hour tracking isn't complicated any more. Price it by usage time and watch people work more energy usage into off-peak hours.

Hilzoy -

You're not addressing the substance of my post, and you're again mischaracterizing McCain's position.

First, on nuclear power, I wrote "1. He [McCain] supports eliminating regulations on nuclear power." You do not respond to this point, but state instead: "McCain's 'advocacy' and 'support' for nuclear power have him calling for a lot more than just R&D funding." Yes, fine, but I said point blank that McCain's "advocacy" and "support" for nuclear power "have him calling for a lot more than just R&D funding." Indeed, in the linked blogger conference call, McCain didn't mention R&D support at all but stated that he wanted to "eliminat[e] regulations" for nuclear power.

Second, it is true that McCain's climate control plan includes "loan guarantees for the construction of new [nuclear] plants and a program to assist with the first-of-its-kind engineering needs" -- along with a great many other things (most of which you and MY ignore). I would not call this a "subsidy" -- given its evident limitations -- but, if you'd like to argue that it is, go for it. Just be clear exactly what you claim is a subsidy.

Third, I do not think that "measures to further encourage investor confidence [in the nuclear industry] through improved safety, expanded manufacturing base, and waste disposal solutions" constitutes a subsidy. The first two are regulatory changes, and I find it difficult to see how you could argue otherwise. The third is a public policy determination regarding how and where to store nuclear waste, which I also would not call a subsidy. Again, however, you seem to feel differently -- and that's fine. Just be precise as to what you're calling a subsidy.

Fourth, you write:

So he's against "subsidies," except when they are "support." Even when "support" means tons of taxpayer cash.

"Subsidy" is not synonymous with "support." "Subsidy" is also not synonymous with "paying tons of taxpayer cash." You can support without subsidizing and your can pay tons of taxpayer cash to something (or someone) without subsidizing. Thus, even if I could agree with your conclusions, I have to disagree with your methods of dodging the policy.

Fifth:

Do you think that loan guarantees are nothing but removal of restrictions or support for R&D? I don't.

Obviously I don't, since I didn't say that McCain supported only R&D research for nuclear power -- but said something quite different.

Sixth, you apparently have no defense for your mischaracterization of McCain's views on "clean coal."

Finally:

And for the record: I don't think this is an age thing. I think it's a reflection of the fact that McCain often seems to be unclear about what his own policies are, which I tend to put down to the fact that he doesn't seem all that interested in policy details, and doesn't seem to have much of a sense of how different policies interlink.

This criticism would be a lot more credible if you focused on McCain's actual policies and proposals.

Anarch:

Waitaminnit. You can't see the sexism against Hillary, but this is somehow an assault on McCain's age? Good lord.

I thought that I was quite precise in saying that I thought many, many attacks on Hillary were framed in sexist and misogynistic terms. What I said that I didn't recall seeing attacks on Hillary motivated by Hillary's status as a woman* -- although Fr. Pf's attack was close. But that thread identified some evidence of attacks on Hillary that I missed, like the "nutcracker" doll.

*As contrasted to attacks that I did see made against Obama that seemed to be motivated by Obama's status as a black man or his cultural background, e.g., "secret Muslim."

Sebastian: In many places in California, including much of the rice farming areas, the farmer owns the right to receive the water. Why should he bill himself?

That water rights ownership is an incredibly convoluted government subsidy construction that was largely created to incentivize movement to the West in pioneer times. If you are going to go on and on about the need for urban 'conservation' I wouldn't hang too much on that particular form of subsidy as insulating the farming industrial-complex.

Francis,

As a side question to Sebastian's point, is there any legal way that agricultural users who are currently getting free water can be made to pay something like market rates? For example, could the government impose an equivalent tax on the right to receive such water?

I know less than nothing about this topic, so I'm hoping you might enlighten me.

Sebastian, I'm out to a meeting so I won't be able to continue this exchange until late today, but here's my next round:

1. It's really quite astonishing that a libertarian like yourself would consider demolishing a system of private property rights established in the California constitution since the founding of the state. As I understood it, the protection of private prooperty rights was the sine qua non of libertarianism.

2. All water rights in California are limited to reasonable beneficial uses. If you and a bunch of other San Diegans want to hire me to challenge ag. practices in the Central Valley, send me an e-mail. Attorney and expert fees should probably run no less than $500,000. But I do know my way around the SWRCB, which not many California lawyers do.

3. On a purely economic basis, first in time, first in right is a perfectly appropriate way to divvy up water rights, so long as those rights are later transferable.

4. Oh look, they are! See Water Code section 1700 et seq regarding changes in points of diversion. Please note, however, that reallocating water around California is a pain in the ass due to limitations on infrastructure. The no-harm to downstream rights holders has real teeth.

okay, i've run far enough afield from hilzoy's original post. my apologies.

A larger problem that I have with this post is that it follows a line of attack on McCain's environmental policy that (I think) MY started about two months ago. MY has pioneered the approach of:

"I'm not really going to address this policy or that policy on its merits. I'm going to take the position that this general statement here conflicts with that policy there. McCain may sound like he means well on the environment, but, unfortunately, he is a hopelessly confused fuddy-duddy and you can't trust him to do the right thing."

Usually, however, there's no true conflict between the two proffered statements because some important caveat or limitation has been left out. But the point is made.

It's not a bad strategy, given that McCain's record on the environment is a lot more difficult for a Democrat to assail than the average Republican's. But, fundamentally, it is a strategy that involves obscuring, rather than debating, the issues.

Also, to correct myself. I write above:

I thought that I was quite precise in saying that I thought many, many attacks on Hillary were framed in sexist and misogynistic terms.

"Many, many" is an exaggeration. I hope I wrote back then that "several attacks on Hillary were framed in sexist and misogynistic terms."

Sebastian @ 12:52: Property is subsidy.

Hang around a little longer, and you'll be quoting Proudhon.

I don't suppose the California Constitution has an analogue to Montana's art. IX, sec. 3(1).

von: First, I retract (and will correct, as soon as I finish this comment) the part about clean coal.

Second, you write: "on nuclear power, I wrote "1. He [McCain] supports eliminating regulations on nuclear power." You do not respond to this point..." That's because I didn't see that there was a point there to be responded to. You were questioning my claim that "He seems to be confused about whether he supports subsidies for nuclear power and "clean coal"." You then summarized (part of) the page I linked to. That summary included the claim about eliminating regs.

As you say, that's in no way inconsistent with anything about subsidies: his favoring them, his opposing them. If I had meant to adduce the fact that he supports eliminating regs on nuclear power to show that he favors subsidies, I would indeed have been very confused. But that wasn't the part of the page I cited that I took to show that he was confused. So I pointed you to the part I did mean to refer to, which was this:

"Except that McCain's "advocacy" and "support" for nuclear power have him calling for a lot more than just R&D funding. The climate plan he unveiled this week includes "loan guarantees for the construction of new [nuclear] plants and a program to assist with the first-of-its-kind engineering needs," plus "measures to further encourage investor confidence [in the nuclear industry] through improved safety, expanded manufacturing base, and waste disposal solutions."

So he's against "subsidies," except when they are "support." Even when "support" means tons of taxpayer cash."

I wasn't aware that there was a further point to be responded to. If you think that McCain's proposal to eliminate regulations is relevant to the question whether McCain proposes to provide subsidies to the nuclear industry (beyond R&D), just explain how, and I'll be glad to answer.

Third, I agree with you that it's possible to support without subsidizing, and to shell out tons of taxpayer money on something without subsidizing. And there are lots of cases in which it would be silly to confuse the two. (E.g., we are not "subsidizing" Afghanistan, though we spend a ton of money there.)

In the specific case at hand, though, the shelling out of money goes to reduce costs for a particular industry. It lowers loan costs for the construction of new power plants, thereby helping to make nuclear energy stack up better against other sources of energy (since, of course, plant construction is a huge part of the cost.)

For specifics on what loan guarantees that McCain found acceptable in Jan. 2007 look like, see this bill, which he co-sponsored with Lieberman. (This is the best I can do, since as far as I can tell, he has given very few specifics after that.)

The CBO describes (pdf) a similar loan guarantee program thus:

The loan guarantee program reduces the private cost of financing construction by transferring financial risk from investors to taxpayers; but the program increases the amount of up-front private costs because the utility pays the subsidy cost.12 The addition of the loan guarantee to the reference scenario leads to specific changes in the terms for debt and equity (see Table A-5).

The loan guarantee program is assumed to have three direct effects on the assumptions from the reference scenario:

1) The utility finances construction by issuing 80 percent debt—the maximum amount of guaranteed debt allowed under the program—and 20 percent equity,13

2) The interest rate for guaranteed debt is equal to the projected Treasury-bill rate plus a margin intended to cover administrative costs, and

3) The utility uses equity to finance the subsidy cost of the guarantee.

The loan guarantee indirectly affects the required return to equity, which increases to account for the decrease in the share of equity financing. (...)

Based on this methodology, the rates of return to equity increase by about 2 percentage points under the loan guarantee program.

So I guess I should ask: what do you take subsidies to the nuclear power industry to be? Why doesn't this count? ("The utility pays the subsidy cost" isn't an answer, I think: the "taxpayer dollars" in question would be whatever we paid out if nuclear power plants defaulted on loans we had guaranteed.)

And von: "A larger problem that I have with this post is that it follows a line of attack on McCain's environmental policy that (I think) MY started about two months ago. MY has pioneered the approach of:

"I'm not really going to address this policy or that policy on its merits. I'm going to take the position that this general statement here conflicts with that policy there. McCain may sound like he means well on the environment, but, unfortunately, he is a hopelessly confused fuddy-duddy and you can't trust him to do the right thing.""

-- I notice that people are saying that McCain has no energy policy. I check out that claim, reading through McCain's entire issues section, and about half of the speeches on his website. I discover that the claim is partly wrong, and say so, giving enough links to make it easy for anyone to check out what McCain actually says.

But I'm not engaging with specifics.

Whatever.

Then there's the Price-Anderson act, without which no commercial nuclear power plant ever would have been built. A "potential subsidy" running into very large numbers.

"Sebastian @ 12:52: Property is subsidy."

Water rights aren't classic property rights in the way you are talking about. They are more like intellectual property rights, which is to say important but that doesn't mean that the exact method we have of protecting them is ideal.

But hey sarcasm is great.

Plus (one last thing to von): I don't see that most of what I said counts as "McCain may sound like he means well on the environment, but, unfortunately, he is a hopelessly confused fuddy-duddy and you can't trust him to do the right thing."

Consider his desire to privatize Amtrak. The problem here isn't that it conflicts with, say, some very good transportation policy position paper. It's that he has no transportation policy in any of the sources I checked, other than privatizing Amtrak. So I'm not discounting stuff he said, I'm pointing out that this is it.

I then say: look, it's very hard to be serious about energy policy without a transportation policy. It really is. Do you favor continued disproportionate subsidies for driving (highway construction being just the beginning), or not? If you do, that just hugely undercuts whatever else you say.

Even with energy policy, I'm reduced to scrounging through old speeches, rather than being able to consider some finished document. Transportation policy -- there, there's nothing at all. So it's not like "oh, he says these nice things, but I don't trust him", it's more like "what he says (privatize Amtrak) is just bad policy, and moreover the fact that that seems to be it as far as one large chunk of energy policy goes -- well, that's a real problem.

What's so nonclassic about water rights?

All property requires state sanction. And as for the method of protecting them not being ideal -- you can say the same about real property, what with the regulatory and Kelo takings, and all.

I looked: the California Constitution also precludes taking away an appropriator's lawful right of use.

Hilzoy:

Although unintentional, you're still obscuring the key issues.

I'm going to move on from the first and second points of your primary response (at June 10, 2008 at 01:55 PM). To the extent substantive, the substance seems merely to show that we're talking past each other. If there's a point in those two sections that you think is relevant to the following discussion, however, please direct me to it.

Regarding your third point:

In the specific case at hand, though, the shelling out of money goes to reduce costs for a particular industry. It lowers loan costs for the construction of new power plants, thereby helping to make nuclear energy stack up better against other sources of energy (since, of course, plant construction is a huge part of the cost.)

For specifics on what loan guarantees that McCain found acceptable in Jan. 2007 look like, see this bill, which he co-sponsored with Lieberman. (This is the best I can do, since as far as I can tell, he has given very few specifics after that.)

First, it's somewhat incredible that you characterize an fully-fleshed out bill from January 2007 as "the best you can do" to figure out McCain's position. Contrary to your suggestion, a nonbinding, generalist whitepaper from Obama is not better than an actual bill from McCain for determining the kinds of laws that a candidate would support.

Second, this bill concerns a comprehensive approach to pollution control, including national and international cap-and-trade systems, a series of restricted loan guarantees, a new public corporation, and R&D support. It is not exclusively, or even primarily, addressed to the nuclear industry.

Third, regarding the loan guarantees, you elide the critical fact: These are not loan guarantees for the "nuclear industry." They are loan guarantees for zero emisson pollution technologies, including solar, nuclear, and numerous others. Moreover, the loan guarantees are limited in that only a certain number of plants from any one category are permitted to use them. I wouldn't call this a true subsidy (particularly as compared to the subsidy discussed in the CBO study), but, to the extent that it is a subsidy it isn't one for the nuclear industry.

As for the two further aside:

-- I notice that people are saying that McCain has no energy policy. I check out that claim, reading through McCain's entire issues section, and about half of the speeches on his website. I discover that the claim is partly wrong, and say so, giving enough links to make it easy for anyone to check out what McCain actually says.

All of which is irrelevant, since you don't actually present what McCain actually says.

I then say: look, it's very hard to be serious about energy policy without a transportation policy. It really is. Do you favor continued disproportionate subsidies for driving (highway construction being just the beginning), or not? If you do, that just hugely undercuts whatever else you say.

Even with energy policy, I'm reduced to scrounging through old speeches, rather than being able to consider some finished document. Transportation policy -- there, there's nothing at all. So it's not like "oh, he says these nice things, but I don't trust him", it's more like "what he says (privatize Amtrak) is just bad policy, and moreover the fact that that seems to be it as far as one large chunk of energy policy goes -- well, that's a real problem.

Boy howdy it is. Why, if only we had a detailed bill from McCain from, say, January 2007, that set forth his energy policy in detail -- well, then we'd be getting somewhere.

Oh, wait .....

"What's so nonclassic about water rights? "

The fact that river flows can't really be subject to exclusive rights because of downstream use while land use can be subject to almost 100% exclusive use.

Regarding McCain's transportation policy:

Consider his desire to privatize Amtrak. The problem here isn't that it conflicts with, say, some very good transportation policy position paper. It's that he has no transportation policy in any of the sources I checked, other than privatizing Amtrak. So I'm not discounting stuff he said, I'm pointing out that this is it.

Privatizing Amtrak seems to be a pretty good idea from an environmentalist standpoint: why subsidize empty trains in hope that, contrary to the evidence of the last 30 years, people will begin riding them? I agree with you, however, that McCain doesn't have a position paper on transportation policy issues like Obama does and that one can identify a clear policy from his votes. One can say that he wants a gas tax holiday -- which I agree is quite stupid -- and opposes further gasoline taxes and what he views as pork on roads.

That should be:

I agree with you, however, that McCain doesn't have a position paper on transportation policy issues like Obama does and that one cannot identify a clear policy from his votes.

von: I was thinking that a bill he co-sponsored, from a year and a half ago, might not be a perfect guide to his present thinking. At any rate, someone might think it wasn't, noting that his positions on some of the relevant issues have evolved since then, and that since he was not solely responsible for the bill's final form, picking some part and using it as evidence might turn out to mean: picking a part that he had grudgingly allowed in for the sake of some other part that he valued.

But if you're not inclined to make that argument, fine. And if you don't think I actually talked about what McCain said, also fine. Diff'rent strokes, and all.

...he doesn't seem all that interested in policy details, and doesn't seem to have much of a sense of how different policies interlink.

Details: see cap and trade, [etc.]

One is tempted to expand this statement to him not being too interested in details, period, or at least foreign policy details, and cite such things as his assertions of Ahmadinejad's role in Iran, whether al-Qaeda is Sunni or Shiite, etc.

He seems like a "big picture" kind of person. I don't mean that in a particularly good way, either, given the sort of people he's surrounded himself with to fuss over the details he's not minding.

Privatizing Amtrak seems to be a pretty good idea from an environmentalist standpoint: why subsidize empty trains in hope that, contrary to the evidence of the last 30 years, people will begin riding them? I agree with you, however, that McCain doesn't have a position paper on transportation policy issues like Obama does and that one can identify a clear policy from his votes. One can say that he wants a gas tax holiday -- which I agree is quite stupid -- and opposes further gasoline taxes and what he views as pork on roads.

It doesn't sound like a very good idea to me. Amtrak overall had ridership and revenue gains of over 10% last year. On its Acela line, the high speed service between Boston, New York and Washington DC, those numbers increased by 20%. Having done various trips between those cities using both Amtrak and various airlines, I can tell you that Amtrak is far preferable to even the best carriers. The seats are enormous and each one has a 110 volt power outlet suitable for working. Moreover, the environmental costs are significantly lower: Acela trains are much more energy efficient.

Raw energy savings understate the differential environmental impact: in terms of global warming, H20 produced by aircraft at cruising altitude have a much greater greenhouse effect than the same gases produced by surface transport. For surface generation, we usually ignore the H20 because it returns to the water cycle in short order, but H20 produced by aircraft at cruising altitude persists in the atmosphere for a very long time (several decades) before returning to the water cycle.

If you want to argue that privatizing Amtrak will produce serious environmental benefits, I'm open to the argument, but you'd have to address how and why. Also, it would help if you coupled policies to end Amtrak subsidies with policies to end air travel and highway subsidies.

"It doesn't sound like a very good idea to me. Amtrak overall had ridership and revenue gains of over 10% last year. On its Acela line, the high speed service between Boston, New York and Washington DC, those numbers increased by 20%. Having done various trips between those cities using both Amtrak and various airlines, I can tell you that Amtrak is far preferable to even the best carriers. The seats are enormous and each one has a 110 volt power outlet suitable for working. Moreover, the environmental costs are significantly lower: Acela trains are much more energy efficient."

Which is why the Boston-NY-DC lines would stick around under privatization while the nearly empty California to Texas passenger lines wouldn't.

Picking one of the only lines that seems to work as representative of Amtrak doesn't really make sense when analyzing how Amtrak as a whole operates (or for the most part doesn't).

Sebastian hits on the key point.

The problem with Amtrak is that, outside the Northeast corridor, it's hugely inefficient. But the Northeast is exactly the region that would be attractive to a private developer. The fact that Amtrak makes sense between Boston and New York does not support the proposition that Amtrak's New York to Cleveland run is anything but a disaster for the environment and taxpayers.

If you want to argue that privatizing Amtrak will produce serious environmental benefits, I'm open to the argument, but you'd have to address how and why. Also, it would help if you coupled policies to end Amtrak subsidies with policies to end air travel and highway subsidies.

That's an interesting point. I presume that you know that Obama supports subsidizing not only inefficient Amtrak lines, but also inefficient rural air service and has made strengthening roads and bridges a top priority (http://www.barackobama.com/issues/additional/Obama_FactSheet_Transportation.pdf).

It strikes me that Obama's transportation plan is, boiled down, more roads, more trains, and more planes. Although the devil is of course in the details, it seems more likely that this plan will increase, rather than reduce, any harm to the environment.

I think privatizing Amtrak is a bad idea. Right now, we're rather obviously in the middle of an oil shock, which was predictable in advance. We could have spent this time trying to make sure that when it came, people found the changes they need to make as non-dreadful as possible. One way to do this would be by expanding various forms of efficient mass transport, so that more people would be able to make a relatively painful decision to drive less.

That would take some real investment, but there are places where (I would think) it would absolutely be worth it. High speed rail from San Diego to LA to SF would be an obvious example.

I also second the point about reducing various kinds of transportation subsidies equally. It's one thing to be against subsidies generally, and quite another to be fine with highway subsidies, subsidies for aviation, subsidies for for-flung subdivisions that obviously rely on cheap gas, but somehow not OK with subsidies for rail.

von: again, I think it matters whether you think that these various forms of transport would remain inefficient with $5/gallon gas.

Which is why the Boston-NY-DC lines would stick around under privatization while the nearly empty California to Texas passenger lines wouldn't.

Why should we believe that? Before Accela service was introduced, there was no private competition, so why do you think private rail could do the same job absent subsidies? I mean, Amtrak doesn't own the rails. And why should rail service get fewer subsidies than air transport?

Picking one of the only lines that seems to work as representative of Amtrak doesn't really make sense when analyzing how Amtrak as a whole operates (or for the most part doesn't).

Does it make any less sense that insisting that Amtrak should be privatized simply because some cars between CA and TX are empty?

Look, if you or von would like to argue that Amtrak must be privatized because some lines run on less than full capacity some of the time, that's fine, but in order to make that argument, you have to actually characterize to what extent trains are underutilized, how that compares with alternative systems, and why you think privatization would change that. Please note that all transport systems are inefficient on some routes, including private ones. Every major airline regularly flies jets that are either empty or woefully underutilized in order to get them where they need to be.

One way to do this would be by expanding various forms of efficient mass transport, so that more people would be able to make a relatively painful decision to drive less.

That would take some real investment, but there are places where (I would think) it would absolutely be worth it. High speed rail from San Diego to LA to SF would be an obvious example.

My impression is that the real problem is commuter traffic -- not intercity traffic. Amtrak really doesn't address that.

On your second point, I agree that high speed between SD and LA may make sense, although I'd defer to Sebastian on the issue. (I travel to San Diego a bunch, but Sebastian lives there.) But if it does make sense, there is every reason to expect that a private company would want to provide the service.

I also second the point about reducing various kinds of transportation subsidies equally. It's one thing to be against subsidies generally, and quite another to be fine with highway subsidies, subsidies for aviation, subsidies for for-flung subdivisions that obviously rely on cheap gas, but somehow not OK with subsidies for rail.

Here, McCain's record is on balance positive. McCain has repeatedly opposed new road construction projects on the grounds that it's pork. Unlike Obama, McCain is not championing rural air service. McCain also generally opposes ethanol subsidies -- a truly foolish endeavor that creates more problems than it solves -- although he's (unfortunately) moderated his view recently. But it's still better than Obama, who offers full support for ethanol subsidies.

Look, if you or von would like to argue that Amtrak must be privatized because some lines run on less than full capacity some of the time, that's fine, but in order to make that argument, you have to actually characterize to what extent trains are underutilized, how that compares with alternative systems, and why you think privatization would change that. Please note that all transport systems are inefficient on some routes, including private ones. Every major airline regularly flies jets that are either empty or woefully underutilized in order to get them where they need to be.

Yes, but airlines and bus lines that have decaded after decade operated at a loss and have consistently low ridership go bankrupt. Amtrak is the only transportation company that gets subsidized year-in-and-year-out and (SFAIK) has never once made an overall profit.

At some point, one needs to save the good bits of Amtrak from the (terrible) rest and stop throwing good money after bad. All we're doing is promoting inefficieny and pollution.

The problem with Amtrak is that, outside the Northeast corridor, it's hugely inefficient. But the Northeast is exactly the region that would be attractive to a private developer. The fact that Amtrak makes sense between Boston and New York does not support the proposition that Amtrak's New York to Cleveland run is anything but a disaster for the environment and taxpayers.

A disaster? It might be. It is impossible to say unless you can provide some numbers indicating load factors and engine miles traveled on a regional basis. In all seriousness, is there some well known conservative critique of Amtrak that actually contains real numbers which you and Sebastian are familiar with? I'm assuming you've seen such an analysis, because otherwise your claims make no sense: how could you possibly state that something is a disaster as opposed to a mild irritant if you haven't seen the numbers at some point?

And yes, I agree, it is terrible that non-sensical routes continue to exist for purely political reasons. On the other hand, I don't think we should dismantle DHS and the FBI simply because they're used to route pork to towns in Alaska. Do you? Moreover, every transport system, even privatized ones suffer from the same problems. Governments demand certain service levels on behalf of their constituents; whether the service providers are privatized or not, governments tend to get their way on these issues.

Finally, given highway and air transport subsidies, I have difficulty imagining that a purely private rail system could compete with air service even in only the northeast. Why do you think it could? Do you believe that those subsidies are insignificant?

Yes, but airlines and bus lines that have decaded after decade operated at a loss and have consistently low ridership go bankrupt. Amtrak is the only transportation company that gets subsidized year-in-and-year-out and (SFAIK) has never once made an overall profit.

Are you arguing that Amtrak operates at a loss including or excluding subsidies? How can you compare that performance to, for example, Greyhound or United where the subsidies don't appear on those companies' books but nevertheless exist?

Furthermore, in the real world, large companies can go one being unprofitable for a long long time. Do you know how many times companies like Sears or K-Mart have gone into bankruptcy?

At some point, one needs to save the good bits of Amtrak from the (terrible) rest and stop throwing good money after bad. All we're doing is promoting inefficieny and pollution.

How much inefficiency and pollution? Do you even know?

I mean, all systems are inefficient. We don't usually start to care about the inefficiencies until they exceed some peer benchmark. Sometimes I get the sense that your desire to privatize Amtrak is based more on the platonic ideal of how government should function than an actual analysis with numbers demonstrating excessive inefficiencies. But that's just a hunch. Your refusal to provide even very rough numbers is suggestive though.

I would feel more comfortable with energy managementin the hands of Obama than Mccain.

I would feel more comfortable with energy managementin the hands of Obama than Mccain.

"Look, if you or von would like to argue that Amtrak must be privatized because some lines run on less than full capacity some of the time, that's fine, but in order to make that argument, you have to actually characterize to what extent trains are underutilized, how that compares with alternative systems, and why you think privatization would change that."

Your characterization of the argument is deeply misleading. 'Some lines', 'less than full capacity' and 'some of them time'? Where do you get your impressions of Amtrak ridership? Are you wholly basing them on your anecdotal experience in the NorthEast Corridor?

Can I counter-anecdote with California experience to 'most lines', 'less than half ridership' and 'even during rush hour'?

Amtrak in the NorthEast is almost break-even. Everywhere else it is a disaster.

What I don't understand is what privatizing or not has to with energy efficiency anyway. Rail's energy efficiency has very little to do with Amtrak as a government institution. And if gas prices are going to make rail profitable vs. driving for many routes, that is going to happen Amtrak or not. Private rail services did great in the pre-automobile years--Amtrak didn't even exist before 1971 and the private system built huge amounts of the infrastructure then (with government help mostly coming in the form of eminent domain for right of ways).

I don't really have strong opinions about privatizing Amtrak or not. But it certainly isn't a paragon of government efficiency.

"Are you arguing that Amtrak operates at a loss including or excluding subsidies? How can you compare that performance to, for example, Greyhound or United where the subsidies don't appear on those companies' books but nevertheless exist?"

I'm not even sure this makes sense as a statement. What would 'including or excluding subsidies' mean in this case? Amtrak operates almost wholly out of the government purse and it doesn't charge enough to cover operating expenses much less capital expenses. Further, the subsidy is exclusive to Amtrak, unlike classifying roads as a 'subsidy' to say Greyhound. Greyhound uses roads that regular citizens also drive on with some degree of frequency. In fact Greyhound might be considered an incidental user of such roads, while I think it would be rather difficult to classify Amtrak that way.

"I mean, all systems are inefficient. We don't usually start to care about the inefficiencies until they exceed some peer benchmark. Sometimes I get the sense that your desire to privatize Amtrak is based more on the platonic ideal of how government should function than an actual analysis with numbers demonstrating excessive inefficiencies. But that's just a hunch. Your refusal to provide even very rough numbers is suggestive though."

Whee, Turbulence goes to his regular ploy. Assertions made by Turbulence don't need rough numbers. Assertions made by von of course do.

How about this. You tell us what a good benchmark FOR YOU would be. (Airline empty seats vs. rail perhaps)? Don't ask us to do research when we don't even know what you want.

Then we can decide if doing the research is worth it to us or we can otherwise discuss if it would be a reasonable benchmark. It would be sad but typcial if von did research only to find that it doesn't address what you really think is important. It would be sad if he found that Amtrak operated at say 40% capacity per run less than an airline only to find out that such a shocking to me number is trivial to you.

A disaster? It might be. It is impossible to say unless you can provide some numbers indicating load factors and engine miles traveled on a regional basis. In all seriousness, is there some well known conservative critique of Amtrak that actually contains real numbers which you and Sebastian are familiar with? I'm assuming you've seen such an analysis, because otherwise your claims make no sense: how could you possibly state that something is a disaster as opposed to a mild irritant if you haven't seen the numbers at some point?

I don't have a "conservative critique of Amtrak" at hand; perhaps you'll accept the Washington Post and Amtrak's own figures?

The diesal trains that provide the power for the majority of Amtrak's service are highly polluting. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/13/AR2006081300530.html)

The Cardinal -- a main Cleveland to NYC route -- also posts very low ridership (see http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=Amtrak/am2Copy/News_Release_Page&c=am2Copy&cid=1178294057347).

Now, whether this amounts to a "disaster" is certainly open to debate. After several decades of unprofitability, I'm not sure what else you would call it.

Your characterization of the argument is deeply misleading. 'Some lines', 'less than full capacity' and 'some of them time'? Where do you get your impressions of Amtrak ridership? Are you wholly basing them on your anecdotal experience in the NorthEast Corridor?

I am not claiming that Amtrak should or should not be privatized. von is. I thought you were as well, but perhaps I was mistaken. What I am saying is that, to the extent that von wants to argue for privatization, he needs to provide some numbers rather than just blithely claiming this or that is a disaster. I'm not looking for a cite necessarily, just some ballpark figures.

As for how misleading my characterization is, I apologize for any implication as to system wide utilization. I don't know how well utilized Amtrak is. I've been quite explicit about that. But I've also not been making policy proposals regarding Amtrak. I think the onus is on those making policy proposals to provide some data to substantiate their arguments. Does that seem unreasonable to you?

To say another way: von made an explicit statement about environmental tradeoffs. There is literally no way to analyze whether that statement is correct without know some numbers. Assuming that von's statement was data driven rather than ideology driven, he could not have honestly reached his position without knowing that data at some point. Therefore, I think he should share it with us so that we can evaluate his claim.

Can I counter-anecdote with California experience to 'most lines', 'less than half ridership' and 'even during rush hour'?

You can write whatever you want. Why do you think you need my permission?

Amtrak in the NorthEast is almost break-even. Everywhere else it is a disaster.

That's great. Can I ask where that information comes from? I don't know what the term disaster means in a quantitative sense, so I'd like to dig into it if you don't mind.

What I don't understand is what privatizing or not has to with energy efficiency anyway.

Perhaps you should ask von since he raised the issue.


von: Yes, but airlines and bus lines that have decaded after decade operated at a loss and have consistently low ridership go bankrupt. Amtrak is the only transportation company that gets subsidized year-in-and-year-out and (SFAIK) has never once made an overall profit.

Please see figures 3 and 4 here. Over the last 20 years of operations, it appears that US carriers do not have a positive profit. That analysis does not factor in government subsidies. It would seem that large private transportation companies can operate at a loss for years and years, limping along with successive corporate and government bailouts. Of course, if you counted government subsidies, the picture would look far more bleak, but those don't count unless we're talking about Amtrak.

If I may be so stupid as to step into the middle of this argument, I'd like to say that I'd like to see the numbers, too. Those numbers will provide us with a much stronger basis on which to determine the desirability of privatizing Amtrak.

I am generally well-disposed towards privatization schemes, but I also believe that markets with poor competition must be either run by the government or tightly regulated. Utilities work on this system and overall, it seems to work acceptably well in their case.

In general, I'm willing to accept the claim that passenger train service is kept honest by competition from airlines and automobiles. This argues for privatization. My concern is that the transition from government operation to privatization is fraught with problems. The new owners would want to slash costs, and the anticipation of this could by itself lead to the collapse of sales.

Turbulence, the arguments in your post on June 10, 2008 at 05:20 p.m. are addressed above and in Sebastian's posts. The fact that large companies sometimes go under does not mean that it's wise to continue to support Amtrak in its current form.

Regarding subsidies to Amtrak, the issue has been well known and reported for more than a decade. Here is USA Today from 1997:

In 1970, Congress created Amtrak, the National Passenger Railroad, as a publicly owned for-profit company. A quarter-century later, Amtrak remains heavily dependent on public subsidy. Taxpayers contributed more than $1,000,000,000 to Amtrak in 1995 and, between 1970 and 1995, provided more than $13,000,000,000 in Federal capital and operating support of the passenger rail system. States have contributed additional funds. More than two decades after Congress intended it to become financially solvent, Amtrak commercial revenues cover less than two-thirds of total costs.

Amtrak is unique among forms of intercity transportation -- including airlines, buses, and private vehicles -- in several respects. First and foremost, it is the only publicly owned form of intercity transportation. It has by far the highest unit costs per passenger mile of any intercity mode, carrying the smallest number of passengers and serving a disproportionately high percentage of affluent riders. Moreover, Amtrak is the only intercity mode that requires net public subsidies.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1272/is_n2626_v125/ai_19622623

The story had not changed by 2005:

Talk about bad timing. Just as Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York was introducing a bill to spend $12 billion over six years subsidizing Amtrak and as the railroad's executives were asking Congress for an increased annual subsidy to $1.8 billion from $1.2 billion, the federal rail monopoly was canceling its Acela high-speed service between Boston and Washington, citing broken brakes. The Acela project itself has cost $2 billion.

We're sympathetic to the view that if Congress is going to subsidize interstate highways and air traffic control, rail should get its share, too. But the air system is at least set up so that different passenger carriers can compete using the same federal air traffic controllers. That competition means that when an innovative low-cost entrant such as Southwest or Jet Blue comes on the scene, the benefits get passed along to passengers. And their capital investment is private. Even the bus lines plying the highway compete, as travelers between Chinatowns in New York and Boston well know.

For New York travelers, Amtrak is often not a competitive alternative. A train from Penn Station in Manhattan to South Station in Boston this Saturday will take four hours and cost $66, while a Peter Pan or Greyhound bus takes four hours and 20 minutes and costs $28. Delta will get you from La Guardia to Logan in an hour for $103.70. If either time or money are your primary considerations, it's hard to see how the train comes out ahead.

http://www.nysun.com/editorials/amtrak-subsidy/13043/

Hmm.

End blockquote.

"Please see figures 3 and 4 here. Over the last 20 years of operations, it appears that US carriers do not have a positive profit."

I'm not sure what this means. My understanding is that with most market segments if you count up all the bankruptcies and losses and stack them against the ones that are doing well you typically get to about zero. In fact I think there is an economics theorm to that effect but I'm not sure what it is called. The good news is that along the way the companies end up doing lots of good for consumers on the way to making total market segment non-profit/non-loss while spurring the innovations of the successful companies along the way. (See by example semiconductor manufacturing).

My word, Turbulence, this is some of the worst goal-post-shifting and Google-fu that I've seen in a long time.

First, the point is that privatization would allow profitable, efficient parts of Amtrak to survive, thrive, and, yes, perhaps even expand while eliminating the direct costs (subsidies) and externalities (pollution) of Amtrak's inefficient parts.

Second, a study on the airline industry in the wake of 9-11 that shows that the industry as a whole was (slightly) unprofitable over the last 20 years is bringing an apple to this orange party. Of course the airline industry has been troubled. Unlike Amtrak, when an airline is very troubled, it gets acquired or goes out of business. Pan Am, anyone? TWA?

What's so nonclassic about water rights? "

The fact that river flows can't really be subject to exclusive rights because of downstream use while land use can be subject to almost 100% exclusive use.

um, what? An upstream user with senior priority can in theory run a river stone dry. See, eg, Mono Lake. Yes, the public trust doctrine kicks in to keep some water in the river, but that water is not subject to appropriation.

And like property rights in land, water rights have deep roots (pun intended) in common law.

Turbulence, figuring out the true cost of water in California is well beyond a comment in a post about energy. The simple version is that some farmers in California get water below the transport cost (google Westlands Water District and Central Valley Project) and many farmers get water at cost (google State Water Project [SWP]). While ag users of SWP water pay less than Sebastian (who as a San Diegan drinks entirely SWP water), ag gets cut back before municipal in times of shortage. Their discount reflects their risk.

(Avocado growers are cutting down their orchards in north San Diego County while the City of San Diego continues to dump perfectly usable recycled water into the Pacific.)

Once more and with feeling: many farmers own the right to receive the water they get every year. Seizing the water from them to give it to Sebastian is essentially what happened in Kelo -- favoring one constituent over another.

"An upstream user with senior priority can in theory run a river stone dry. See, eg, Mono Lake. Yes, the public trust doctrine kicks in to keep some water in the river, but that water is not subject to appropriation."

Actually we would probably be best off if the most senior one just owned it all outright because the price for everyone else would rise high enough that they would be very unlikely to just waste it on rice paddy farming--assuming they could sell to everyone else. The economic problem with water 'rights' is that it is difficult for the owner to sell them in a productive manner because they flow down to other people who then temporarily 'own' it as it passes through their land. If you let the water flow downstream to the next user you don't get as much out of it as if you *almost* completely waste the water on rice paddies.

It isn't problem that exists in more static property.

"Once more and with feeling: many farmers own the right to receive the water they get every year."

If it comes to them. Which it doesn't have to. Which is why it isn't just a normal, everday, I have this piece of land or I own this cow, kind of 'property.

(Part of the problem is that the common law was developed in a country that had very adequate rainfall all over the place).

I don't have a "conservative critique of Amtrak" at hand; perhaps you'll accept the Washington Post and Amtrak's own figures?

Sure, I'd be happy to accept them. In service to what point am I accepting them? I mean, I'll happily stipulate the WAPO and Amtrak wrote those documents, but: how do they prove that privatizing Amtrak would be environmentally beneficial? For the record, you were the one who wrote "Privatizing Amtrak seems to be a pretty good idea from an environmentalist standpoint" and I still don't understand why you believe that.

The diesal trains that provide the power for the majority of Amtrak's service are highly polluting. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/13/AR2006081300530.html)

No. The engines produce more soot and NOx than the EPA had previously thought. That is not the same as highly polluting. If you want to argue that they're highly polluting, you need to compare quantity of soot or NOx produced per passenger mile for Amtrak's trains, the median automobile, and commercial aircraft.

I've done the math for CO2 generation in the past and I can tell you that aircraft perform very poorly compared to cars and even more so compared to trains. NOx production will be similar but not identical to CO2 production, however, if I had to guess, I'd say rail would outperform air in that regard since jet engine combustion chambers run significantly hotter and are thus more likely to oxidize N2. These analyses are highly contingent on what kind of assumptions you make: is the car full or empty, do the aircraft have first class or all coach, is your flight broken into several legs (takeoffs and landings are very costly in terms of energy and pollution). Nevertheless, population wide averages can give you a decent idea: the US DOT publishes data on passenger miles driven and mean vehicle occupancy for example.

I really don't see what this has to with your argument that privatizing Amtrak would help the environment. Do you think there are better diesel engines that a private company would use that the government won't? Or is the argument here that running low utilization trains is a waste of energy? If so, can you explain why a privatized company would not be forced to offer the same low utilization service that Amtrak provides right now?

The Cardinal -- a main Cleveland to NYC route -- also posts very low ridership (see http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=Amtrak/am2Copy/News_Release_Page&c=am2Copy&cid=1178294057347).

Why does low ridership matter instead of low utilization? I mean, if there were lots of trains running on this line mostly empty, that would be a problem, but nothing in the data you've pointed to suggests that's the case. It might be, but the data you pointed to doesn't say that.

Again, I don't see how this data connects with your argument that privatizing Amtrak would bring environmental benefits.

Now, whether this amounts to a "disaster" is certainly open to debate. After several decades of unprofitability, I'm not sure what else you would call it.

You're the one calling it a disaster, and yet you seem unable to substantiate that in a quantitative sense. I might claim that OW is a disaster -- and maybe it is -- but absent some sort of metric and data, that's a pretty useless claim.

My word, Turbulence, this is some of the worst goal-post-shifting and Google-fu that I've seen in a long time.

What goalpost moving are you talking about? Are you complaining about my inability to substantiate your claims?

First, the point is that privatization would allow profitable, efficient parts of Amtrak to survive, thrive, and, yes, perhaps even expand while eliminating the direct costs (subsidies) and externalities (pollution) of Amtrak's inefficient parts.

That's wonderful. Now, can you explain how I was supposed to infer this statement from your original statement where you claimed that privatizing Amtrak would help the environment? Or do you assume mind readers?

Now, for the third or fourth time, can you explain to me why you think it is possible or likely for Congress to privatize Amtrak without imposing on the newly privatized entity substantial burdens for servicing unprofitable communities?

By way of example, many flag carrier airlines have been privatized over the years, but pretty much all of them are forced to fly unprofitable routes to support politically powerful constituencies. The precise mechanism by which these corporations are "encouraged" varies, but governments have many many tools at their disposal in this regard.

Second, a study on the airline industry in the wake of 9-11 that shows that the industry as a whole was (slightly) unprofitable over the last 20 years is bringing an apple to this orange party. Of course the airline industry has been troubled. Unlike Amtrak, when an airline is very troubled, it gets acquired or goes out of business. Pan Am, anyone? TWA?

I'm sorry, but what is the problem with including data post 9/11? 9/11 happened. The air transport industry was severely affected. Airline profits were decimated. There's no reason to believe that another attack against air transport infrastructure is less likely today than it was on 2001/9/10. After all, man portable anti aircraft missiles get cheaper and more pervasive every year.

Note that after the Madrid train bombings, we did not see an equivalent drop in Amtrak ridership.

Finally, after 9/11, there was a small government bailout to major airlines. My point is that when airlines are in trouble, sometimes they go bankrupt and sometimes they get massive subsidies from the federal government. That would seem to contradict your claim that troubled airlines get bought out or go out of business.

"My point is that when airlines are in trouble, sometimes they go bankrupt and sometimes they get massive subsidies from the federal government. That would seem to contradict your claim that troubled airlines get bought out or go out of business."

But when Amtrack is bankrupt it gets bailed out by the government 30 years in a row?

Sounds like a perfect is the enemy of the good argument.

The economic problem with water 'rights' is that it is difficult for the owner to sell them in a productive manner because they flow down to other people who then temporarily 'own' it as it passes through their land.

That's simply false. Sebastian, if you want to argue with me about California water rights, you've got to start getting your law right. If the State Water Resources Control Board approves a change in the point of diversion from some point way north on the Feather River to the Banks Pumping Plant south of the Delta, the water subject to the SWRCB's order is not available for appropriation nor the exercise of a riparian right. The only person who gets to exercise dominion over the transferred flow (rights are almost always computed in flows -- xx cubic feet per second per day in the summer months, for example) is the recipient.

The real problem with water rights in California is that there still isn't a good way to move most of the stuff from where it starts, in the mountains of Northern California, to where it's most wanted, in the farms and cities south of the Bay-Delta.

What I am saying is that, to the extent that von wants to argue for privatization, he needs to provide some numbers rather than just blithely claiming this or that is a disaster. I'm not looking for a cite necessarily, just some ballpark figures.


Here’s a ballpark. ;)

Year after year, decade upon decade, the U.S. Senate's network of restaurants has lost staggering amounts of money -- more than $18 million since 1993, according to one report, and an estimated $2 million this year alone, according to another.

So, based on this, if Amtrak has lost money year after year, decade upon decade, $2 million this year and at least $18 million since 1993 – then according to Dianne Feinstein and the Senate vote on this – Amtrak should be privatized.

Yes I’m being a smartass – but only partly so. ;)

I don't really have strong opinions about privatizing Amtrak or not. But it certainly isn't a paragon of government efficiency.

I don't think anyone here has argued that it was. Am I mistaken? I'd be interested in seeing a case made for privatization; but one can't claim benefits without so much as gesturing at the mechanism by which those benefits would accrue.

On the other hand, government efficiency has a lot to recommend it. I understand the US Army is rather more cost effective than Blackwater.

I'm not even sure this makes sense as a statement. What would 'including or excluding subsidies' mean in this case? Amtrak operates almost wholly out of the government purse and it doesn't charge enough to cover operating expenses much less capital expenses. Further, the subsidy is exclusive to Amtrak, unlike classifying roads as a 'subsidy' to say Greyhound. Greyhound uses roads that regular citizens also drive on with some degree of frequency. In fact Greyhound might be considered an incidental user of such roads, while I think it would be rather difficult to classify Amtrak that way.

You're right, that was poorly written. Nevertheless, it seems that one can't make a fair comparison without attempting to model government subsidies to other transport networks.

Also, you would have to take into consideration to what extent Congress forces Amtrak to give commercial freight carriers sweetheart deals that no private corporation would countenance. Some of the subsidy that Amtrak receives directly benefits private corporations like CSX. For example, indemnity agreements that compel Amtrak to pay millions of dollars for errors caused by CSX...

Whee, Turbulence goes to his regular ploy. Assertions made by Turbulence don't need rough numbers. Assertions made by von of course do.

One day, perhaps I'll be able to participate in a thread with you where you don't resort to childish name calling. I'd suggest that you observe how conservatives like von or OCSteve behave and strive to follow their example. They seem much better at holding civil discourse than you are.

Can you point to assertions that I've made for which you'd like to see numbers? I'd be happy to offer something but you have to tell me which of my claims you want substantiated. Alternatively, you could just make random unsubstantiated accusations to tar my name because...well I'm not sure why exactly you'd do that, but I'm sure you've got a good reason.

How about this. You tell us what a good benchmark FOR YOU would be. (Airline empty seats vs. rail perhaps)? Don't ask us to do research when we don't even know what you want.

Then we can decide if doing the research is worth it to us or we can otherwise discuss if it would be a reasonable benchmark. It would be sad but typcial if von did research only to find that it doesn't address what you really think is important. It would be sad if he found that Amtrak operated at say 40% capacity per run less than an airline only to find out that such a shocking to me number is trivial to you.

von's original claim dealt in the environmental benefits; my primary environmental concern is AGW, so this is the metric I'd propose: cumulative radiative forcing generated per passenger mile comparing Amtrak with commercial air transit in the US. More specifically, for each passenger mile, determine the quantity of greenhouse gases produced, multiply by the radiative forcing estimates provided in the IPCC WG1 AR4 report to get radiative forcing and integrate over the expected atmospheric duration. When calculating greenhouse gas production, be sure to include trips on which few or no passengers fly but which are nonetheless necessary for system operation: i.e., be sure to include all the flights needed to ensure that aircraft complete their maintenance rotations and meet schedule requirements.

Alternatively, one could compare load factors for Amtrak and the equivalent rail or air transit systems in Canada or China (or other nations with population density distributions comparable to the US). These load factors would be calculated as the ratio of passenger miles traveled to the total quantity of seat miles (i.e. the total number of passenger miles that would have been traveled has every seat been filled).

However, von's primary interest may not be in AGW. I don't know precisely what he meant by environmental benefits, so I'd be open to alternative metrics. I can't tell you what von meant, so demanding metrics from me seems kind of pointless, but if it makes you happy, I'm happy to help.

@von:
First, the point is that privatization would allow profitable, efficient parts of Amtrak to survive, thrive, and, yes, perhaps even expand while eliminating the direct costs (subsidies) and externalities (pollution) of Amtrak's inefficient parts.

Um... so I'm confused. You're arguing that we can plainly identify which portions of Amtrak's service are inefficient and wasteful, and hence should die at the invisible hand of the market. Right? That these exist under the non-privatized scheme is justification for privatizing, yes? I so shouldn't ask this, but... why?

How is this actually an argument for privatizing (i.e., indirectly eliminating underused and inefficient portions of Amtrak's service) and not an argument for adjusting non-privatized Amtrak service (i.e., directly eliminating underused and inefficient portions of Amtrak's service)?

It's true that California water law is a hybrid mess. Montana or Colorado -- that's how you do a real western system. Appropriation law is all about scarcity.

Current rail ridership in California is meaningless from a policymaking perspective. The starting point for energy, environmental, and transportation debates is and has to be that the current way of life in California is not sustainable. Pace BOB, I take no pleasure in the observation.

The starting point for energy, environmental, and transportation debates is and has to be that the current way of life in California is not sustainable.

Would you care to elaborate? I'm not disagreeing with you, just confused about what exactly you're talking about. Are you talking about water shortages or communities that can't survive when gas gets to $8/gallon or what?

I'm with CharleyCarp here. I might put it slightly differently -- that rail has social benefits not captured by the market, ranging from decreasing the amount of pain caused to ordinary people by the rise in fuel prices to lowering greenhouse gases to doing its little bit to reduce dependence on hateful countries. (Its effects on the last would probably not make me think we should undertake subsidies in isolation, since I suspect the effect would be small, but if we're already going that route, it should be considered.)

So since I start from the premiss that rail has significant market failures, I'm less impressed by claims about whether it's self-sufficient under present conditions.

Yes, but airlines and bus lines that have decaded after decade operated at a loss and have consistently low ridership go bankrupt.

I think you fail to understand the point of the word "public" in "public transportation." The point of public subsidization of a transit system isn't to make a profit; most mass transit systems around the world operate at a loss. They're designed to operate at a loss, because they provide gains to the public that can't be strictly monetized.

Amtrak may not be the best managed public transportation system, but that doesn't imply scrapping; it implies overhaul.

CCarp: I'll take issue with that comment. The LA basin is one of the most densely populated areas in the country, and is the center of a key US export -- movies. The SF basin is similarly highly dense and is the source of another key US export -- software. The Central Valley and Imperial County are the source of a multi-billion dollar agriculture export industry.

California's estimated 2006 population was 36.5 million. Looking to your cites to other Western states: Montana, 950K & Colorado, 4.75 MM.

Yah, the Inland Empire and Antelope Valley residential developments are going to get crushed in the downturn, but that's a small part of the state.

This Federal Railroad Administration report from 1997 might be of interest, if anyone wants to bring the discussion back down to earth.

It's modeling the costs/benefits of investments to modernize and/or construct new rail in various high traffic corridors. It appears to come to fairly favorable conclusions. And, as near as I can tell, that's without really considering positive network effects, modeling fares for maximum social benefit (rather than maximum short-term profit), AGW costs, or the very recent developments in oil and gasoline prices.

So, it'd be nice to have a more detailed 2008 update on these results, but it certainly seems to me that a lot of new investment in rail is in order. On the order of at least a couple hundred billion dollars over the next decade or two.

Now, it's not impossible, but somehow I doubt that's really what McCain has in mind when he talks about privatizing Amtrak...

"I'd suggest that you observe how conservatives like von or OCSteve behave and strive to follow their example. They seem much better at holding civil discourse than you are."

Heh, you haven't been around here long have you? You might want to read the archives a little before try that one.

My problem with you is that you appear to be the 'cite please' version of a concern troll quite often. (Complete with your 'if you really wanted to convince people you would submit to my endless request for cites' argument which you employ in many threads in which you appear). And if information is provided, you quickly hop to your next cite request without particularly considering the information provided. Witness for example this thread where after von has provided the beginning of the data you request, you ignore it entirely--not even bothering to mention it at all but instead hopping to the next topic with further 'requests' for information.

I don't believe you will use the information you request in the conversation, so I don't think it is worth my time looking for it. That is why if you want to convince me to look for information for you instead of perhaps you looking for it, you should make more than vague gestures in the direction of want you want and make definitive statements instead. (Like: "I'm skeptical about Amtrak's alleged inefficiency, but if you could show that it has 30-40% more empty seats per capacity than your average airplane I might be open to the idea".) The problem I have with your actual statements is that you make vague gestures in the direction of the evidence you claim to want, but when we try to follow them up you aren't interested in talking about them if the evidence isn't going your way.

I'd suggest that you observe how liberals like hilzoy make an argument. She tends to have concrete objections that can be directly talked about. She is much better at civil discourse than you are. But then again, she tries.

Jeebus, Turbulence, these debates with you are a waste.

Here's how you characterize my argument:

That's wonderful. Now, can you explain how I was supposed to infer this statement from your original statement where you claimed that privatizing Amtrak would help the environment? Or do you assume mind readers?

Here's all I actually, originally said:

Privatizing Amtrak seems to be a pretty good idea from an environmentalist standpoint: why subsidize empty trains in hope that, contrary to the evidence of the last 30 years, people will begin riding them?

I would hope that you'd infer from this that running nearly empty trains is not an efficient means of transportation -- either from the perspective of economics or the evironment.

Now, here's your demand:

Now, for the third or fourth time, can you explain to me why you think it is possible or likely for Congress to privatize Amtrak without imposing on the newly privatized entity substantial burdens for servicing unprofitable communities?

And here are the three or four times that you allegedly asked me how Congress could privatize Amtrak "without imposing on the newly privatized entity substantial burdens for servicing unprofitable communities":

[Crickets.]

Sheesh. I have better things to do.

One more point, I suppose. Turbulence asks:

I'm sorry, but what is the problem with including data post 9/11? 9/11 happened. The air transport industry was severely affected. Airline profits were decimated.

Exactly, Turbulence: Airlines profits were are their lowest in 2001 by a substantial margin and, IIRC, they were at their second lowest in 2002. These two data points skew the entire study, and are the reason that the study found that the airline "industry" had slightly negative profitability over the preceeding 20 years (IIRC, 1982-2002). Thus, assuming that profits made by the airline "industry" are even relevant debate -- and, as I argued, they are not -- this is not a very useful study.

I think you fail to understand the point of the word "public" in "public transportation." The point of public subsidization of a transit system isn't to make a profit; most mass transit systems around the world operate at a loss. They're designed to operate at a loss, because they provide gains to the public that can't be strictly monetized.

Intracity, sure. But Amtrak is unique among intercity services (in the US, at least) in that it has always operated at a substantial loss.

Francis, all I meant about California water law is this weird inclusion of ripuarian doctrine which, as Sebastian suggests, arose in a different climate. Appropriation without ripuarianism -- it would have worked fine for California if they'd made that choice in the beginning. Water's well past the bridge for that, though.

Turbulence, I think Californians are going to have to accept less in the way of driving, and, over time, less in the way of sprawl. For all the obvious reasons. It's not a particularly deep point -- it's just dumb to look at current rail usage and extrapolate to what usage would or wouldn't be if we had $8 gas, a carbon tax, and less money for highway maintenance.

You do have to add in the externalities for Amtrak (outside the NE Corridor, where it owns the rails, and I think turns a profit). Everyone on a train is one less person on a plane or in a car, which has some small theoretical effect of infrastructure costs of both (which are pretty substantially subsidized).

And here are the three or four times that you allegedly asked me how Congress could privatize Amtrak "without imposing on the newly privatized entity substantial burdens for servicing unprofitable communities":

[Crickets.]

I read the above comment as suggesting that I never raised the issue with you, let alone that I did so three or four times. That assertion would be false. I raised the issue here when I wrote:

Look, if you or von would like to argue that Amtrak must be privatized because some lines run on less than full capacity some of the time, that's fine, but in order to make that argument, you have to actually characterize to what extent trains are underutilized, how that compares with alternative systems, and why you think privatization would change that.

I also raised the issue here:

And yes, I agree, it is terrible that non-sensical routes continue to exist for purely political reasons. On the other hand, I don't think we should dismantle DHS and the FBI simply because they're used to route pork to towns in Alaska. Do you? Moreover, every transport system, even privatized ones suffer from the same problems. Governments demand certain service levels on behalf of their constituents; whether the service providers are privatized or not, governments tend to get their way on these issues.

Yet again, I raised the issue with you here:

I really don't see what this has to with your argument that privatizing Amtrak would help the environment. Do you think there are better diesel engines that a private company would use that the government won't? Or is the argument here that running low utilization trains is a waste of energy? If so, can you explain why a privatized company would not be forced to offer the same low utilization service that Amtrak provides right now?

Finally, I raised the issue here:

Now, for the third or fourth time, can you explain to me why you think it is possible or likely for Congress to privatize Amtrak without imposing on the newly privatized entity substantial burdens for servicing unprofitable communities?


You can quibble about some of these since they lack question marks; I certainly could have been clearer and more explicit in the earlier cases. Nevertheless, your characterization is both a complete lie and insulting to boot. Please withdraw it.

I would hope that you'd infer from this that running nearly empty trains is not an efficient means of transportation -- either from the perspective of economics or the evironment.

But every transport system on earth is not efficient in that sense. So the issue isn't whether Amtrak is efficient or not but how efficient is it compared to other systems. I mean, if the only criteria you're using is that some Amtrak lines (for the sake of argument) consistently run nearly empty, then you should also argue for an end to subsidization of airlines. If you said "Amtrak is particularly inefficient because its load factor is 50% higher than Canada Rail's load factor" I could agree with that but you never introduce numbers. Yes, you point to some Amtrak data that tells me the total ridership on various lines, but that seems useless to your point since it doesn't tell us how many seats went unfilled on those lines. You also point to an article about the EPA misestimating NOx and soot production for large diesel engines. Again, I have no idea what point you're trying to make there.

Exactly, Turbulence: Airlines profits were are their lowest in 2001 by a substantial margin and, IIRC, they were at their second lowest in 2002. These two data points skew the entire study, and are the reason that the study found that the airline "industry" had slightly negative profitability over the preceeding 20 years (IIRC, 1982-2002). Thus, assuming that profits made by the airline "industry" are even relevant debate -- and, as I argued, they are not -- this is not a very useful study.

The drop begin in 2000 and had major causes beyond 9/11. In particular, starting around 2000 the public gained access to services that allowed them to compare prices in a way that they could not do before. The industry believes this had a major effect on the continuing revenue slump (as opposed to the initial transient revenue slump). Also, if you discount entirely the years 2001 and 2002 or 2002 and 2003, the industry is still not profitable. Are we to believe that 9/11 made very large numbers of people afraid to fly five years later? That the loss of 4 aircraft was financially unrecoverable for UA and AA?

As for relevancy, I think the existence of a very large ostensibly privatized transportation network in the US that can continue for decades without being profitable counters your assertion that "airlines and bus lines that have decaded after decade operated at a loss and have consistently low ridership go bankrupt".

"Are we to believe that 9/11 made very large numbers of people afraid to fly five years later?"

I personally know 6 people who have told me that they won't ever fly again. And I'm not really that social. You don't need 'very large numbers'. Probably just 0.5%-1% of people who used to fly regularly deciding that they won't. I don't know if it strikes you as unlikely that about 1% of previous fliers might have stopped, but it doesn't seem like a surprising idea to me at all.

And again I'm not sure why you think total sector near non-profitability is a particularly great benchmark. When you add all the bankrupticies and winners in a sector that can happen, as competition drives out worse competitors, spurs innovation, and along the way provides service to customers. That doesn't really happen as easily with otherwise identical government monopolies unless the profit to be made is enormous and the government doesn't provide barriers to entry. (The profit has to be enormous because the private company must be able to substantially outperform the government in order to overcome the large subsidies--or they have to lobby for large subsidies themselves which tends to lock out other competitors.) It also has to be legal to compete with the government, and in some cases it might not be.

You seem to be saying that the passenger airline industry as a whole (counting bankruptcies) is operating at a short term slight loss or maybe a long term zero level. That is quite possible. But on that same kind of analysis, Amtrak has been operating on a $1,000,000,000 loss every year for the past ten years. That is around $10 billion dollars. The airline industry on the other hand (eyballing from your charts) seems to have lost about 0.5 billion over those same ten years. And they serve a MUCH larger passenger base so Amtraks loss per passenger is enormous compared to the airlines. [Easiest numbers I could come up with for number of passengers was 745 million for airlines here and 25 million for Amtrak at the wikipedia page (no link because I'm trying to avoid the filter).

If you look at passenger miles (which may or may not be appropriate depending on whether you want to look at behaviour, or want to try to discourage travel with higher prices) it looks much worse with Amtrak (and all other Intercity passenger rail for whatever amount that is worth) servicing less than 1/100th of airlines.

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