Q&A: Politics — Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It

Q: I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the wave of ultra-conservatives (if I wanted to be rude, I’d call them reactionaries) who seem to be sweeping U.S. politics today.

There’s apparently more and more sentiment for curtailing the role of federal government in our society and in our lives. One candidate for office in a by-election in my state recently sent out a mailing saying that in his opinion the Constitution limits the federal government’s role to providing for the national defense and regulating commerce between the states, and that’s all, nothing more. Everything else, he said, should be left to the states (at least he didn’t win), and others seem to be taking the same view.

What impact will all of this have on transportation? In particular, what about infrastructure: roads, ports, airports and so on? Building and maintaining them isn't “regulating” interstate commerce, so what happens there? Can you imagine this country without an interstate highway system, for example? And how about foreign trade, if each state had its own standards and each one had to treat other countries independently?

Don’t you agree that we’re one country and we need to have national, not local, control of what’s going on?


A: An immutable policy of this column is that I don’t delve into religion or politics. It’s the same rule you’ll find at any polite dinner party, and for the same reason.

I mean, suppose I decided to use this as a forum to air my personal views on either subject. I’d be right, of course, and anyone who disagreed would be a certifiable idiot — isn’t that the unyielding standard of any discourse on these two topics? But people being people, they would naturally disagree on this or that, and my credibility would be shot. So I stay away.

You therefore won’t find me eager to express accord with the opinions you’ve offered or disparage them. You’re entitled to your views, and I’m entitled to mine; and I’m also entitled to keep the latter to myself.

That said, what I can add is that politics moves in waves, not only in the U.S. but everywhere. People change their minds — as individuals, and as a group. We’ve seen an extraordinary amount of that during my lifetime, and I’m sure we’ll see much more.

When I first came into the transportation industry in the 1960s, for example, that federal power to regulate interstate commerce was implemented to the nth degree. The Interstate Commerce Commission rigorously controlled carrier rates and restricted market entry in domestic surface transportation, as did the Civil Aeronautics Board for air service and the Federal Maritime Commission for ocean carriage.

Today, of course, the CAB is no more; the ICC has been sun-setted; and its successor, the Surface Transportation Board, has little authority and rarely acts on even what it has. Even the FMC’s role has been reduced to a very secondary one. That is, of course, full circle to where the industry was when its modern version was born.

Can you doubt that in time it’ll revolve again, that the ills of strict regulation will fade in the public mind over time, and those of an unrestricted market will become more paramount in popular thinking? One thing our legislators love to do is perpetually tinker with our economy and our lives; it shows how vigilant these ordinarily annoying folks are to those who elect them. That’s one aspect of politics that’s unchanging.

Oh, and don’t forget the news media, by whose diligent efforts we receive our information on what’s hot and what’s not. What they choose to report and not report is what gives us the “trends” that supposedly prevail in different times.

Legendary journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote how he once singlehandedly created a “crime wave” in New York City by simply reporting the entire police blotter for a few days rather than (as he usually did) writing up only unusual depredations. So you might ask, are you seeing a true “wave” of political activity or simply a transitory media focus on that side of politics?

And wave or no wave, roads are still getting built and fixed, ports are getting dredged and maintained, the airports and airways are running fine, and trade continues to move. I seriously doubt that’ll change regardless of how the uncertain political winds blow. So relax and leave the doomsday forecasts to the soothsayers.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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