Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Who's Policing Amtrak Joe Biden's Rail Boondoggles?

Who's Policing Amtrak Joe Biden's Rail Boondoggles?
By Michelle Malkin

At Philadelphia's 30th Street Station on Tuesday, lifelong government rail promoter Vice President Joe Biden unveiled a $53 billion high-speed train initiative and half-joked: "I'm like the ombudsman for Amtrak." As with most gaffetastic Biden-isms, the remark should prompt more heartburn than hilarity. Just who exactly is looking out for taxpayers when it comes to federal rail spending?

Vigorous independent oversight of public infrastructure binges is especially critical given the nation's long history of mass transit slush funds, cost overruns and union-monopolized construction projects to nowhere. Among the new projects championed by the Obama administration: a $10 billion New Jersey-to-New York commuter rail tunnel pushed by Senate Democrats that state officials won't pay for but believe everyone else in the nation should be forced to subsidize. When Biden talks about "seizing the future," he's talking about seizing your wallets for his party's electoral security.

Alas, the White House hostility toward vigilant taxpayer watchdogs rivals Michael Vick's. And the Obama administration's political abuse of the Amtrak inspector general's office, still under congressional investigation, is a recipe for yet more porkulus-style waste.

In June 2009, longtime veteran Amtrak inspector general Fred Weiderhold was abruptly "retired" -- just as the government-subsidized rail service faced mounting complaints about its meddling in financial audits and probes. He had blown the whistle on overzealous intrusion by the agency's Law Department into his investigations of $1.3 billion in rail stimulus money and exposed how Amtrak's legal counsel had usurped the watchdog's $5 million portion of federal stimulus dollars to hamstring his probes. Even more threatening to the Democratic attorneys' cabal, Weiderhold discovered that the federal rail bureaucracy was retaining outside law firms beyond the independent watchdog's reach and obstructing subpoenas issued to an outside financial adviser.

In September 2010, GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa released a report concluding that the Amtrak board removed the agency inspector general without required prior notice to Congress and despite the inspector general's effective track record of "exposing waste, fraud and abuse at the highest levels within Amtrak."

The Transportation Department's inspector general is now conducting its own independent probe of Weiderhold's removal. And two weeks ago, Issa revealed that the new Amtrak IG, Ted Alves, is risking his own neck by probing into whether Amtrak bureaucrats on a fishing expedition misused the e-mail system by searching for communiques between his office and Congress regarding the Weiderhold scandal.

Grassley is right: "Independence is the most important element for making the inspector general system work. If independence is compromised, either by an inspector general or by agency leaders, then taxpayers are left without a watchdog and a major opportunity for accountability in government is lost. When the system gets compromised, there need to be consequences in order to try to prevent it from happening again."

Amtrak's notorious book-cooking, however, has gone unabated. The agency was reprimanded during the Bush administration for misleading Congress about its solvency. But former employees faced no criminal charges for fudging the agency's profit-and-loss statements.

Compounding matters now, cronyism runs rampant in the federal rail bureaucracy. Biden's lobbyist son, Hunter, sits on the Amtrak board of directors. Amtrak Vice President Eleanor Acheson is a close pal of -- you guessed it -- Joe Biden. She oversees the very Law Department accused of interfering repeatedly with the taxpayer advocates in the inspector general's office. Acheson hired Biden's former Senate staffer Jonathan Meyer as her deputy general counsel. Meyer called it a "happy coincidence."

In another such fortuitous coincidence, one of the top beneficiaries of the new White House rail bailout is GE Transportation -- the leading manufacturer of diesel-electric locomotives. President Obama recently named GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head the new White House jobs council.

With Team Obama's social engineers and legal fixers steering the federal gravy train, the light at the end of the spending tunnel seems grimly dim.

To read another article by Michelle Malkin, click here.

Passenger Trains: Clearly the Change We've Been Waiting For
By John Stossel

You are our Ruler. An entrepreneur tells you he wants to create something he calls a "skating rink." Young and old will strap blades to their feet and speed through an oval arena, weaving patterns as moods strike them.

You'd probably say, "We need regulation -- skating stoplights, speed limits, turn signals -- and a rink director to police the skaters. You can't expect skaters to navigate the rink on their own."

And yet they do. They spontaneously create their own order.

At last month's State of the Union, President Obama said America needs more passenger trains. How does he know? For years, politicians promised that more of us will want to commute by train, but it doesn't happen. People like their cars. Some subsidized trains cost so much per commuter that it would be cheaper to buy them taxi rides.

The grand schemes of the politicians fail and fail again.

By contrast, the private sector, despite harassment from government, gives us better stuff for less money -- without central planning. It's called a spontaneous order.

Lawrence Reed, of the Foundation for Economic Education, explains it this way:

"Spontaneous order is what happens when you leave people alone -- when entrepreneurs ... see the desires of people ... and then provide for them.

"They respond to market signals, to prices. Prices tell them what's needed and how urgently and where. And it's infinitely better and more productive than relying on a handful of elites in some distant bureaucracy."

This idea is not intuitive. Good things will happen if we leave people alone? Some of us are stupid -- Obama and his advisers are smart. It's intuitive to think they should make decisions for the wider group.

"No," Reed responded. "In a market society, the bits of information that are needed to make things work -- to result in the production of things that people want -- are interspersed throughout the economy. What brings them together are forces of supply and demand, of changing prices."

Prices are information.

The personal-computer revolution is a great example of spontaneous order.

"No politician, no bureaucrat, no central planner, no academic sat behind a desk before that happened, before Silicon Valley emerged and planned it," Reed added. "It happened because of private entrepreneurs responding to market opportunities. And one of the great virtues of that is if they don't get it right, they lose their shirts. The market sends a signal to do something else. When politicians get it wrong, you and I pay the price.

"We have this engrained habit of thinking that if somebody plans it, if somebody lays down the law and writes the rules, order will follow," he continued. "And the absence of those things will somehow lead to chaos. But what you often get when you try to enforce mandates and restrictions from a distant bureaucracy is planned chaos, as the great economist Ludwig on Mises once said. We have to rely more upon what emerges spontaneously because it represents individuals' personal tastes and choices, not those of distant politicians."

Another way to understand spontaneous order is to think about the simple pencil. Leonard Read, who established the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote an essay titled, "I, Pencil," which began, "(N)o single person on the face of this earth knows how to make (a pencil)."

That sounds absurd -- but think about it. No one person can make a pencil. Vast numbers of people participate in making the materials that become a pencil: the wood, the brass, the graphite, the rubber for the eraser, the paint and so on. Then go back another step, to the people who make the saws and machinery that are used to make the materials that go into a pencil. And before that, people mine iron to make the steel that makes the machines that make the materials that go into a pencil. It's all without central direction, without these people even knowing they are all working ultimately to make pencils. Thousands of people mining, melting, cutting, assembling, packing, selling, shipping -- and yet you can buy pencils for a few pennies each.

That's spontaneous order, and it's replicated with every product we buy, no matter how complex.

The mind boggles.

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