This week’s tragic derailment of Amtrak Train 188 just north of downtown Philadelphia has everyone in the country wondering just how such a thing could happen.
Who is to blame?
How can we avoid such deadly accidents in the future?
Although all the facts of the crash are still unclear, we know some things for sure:
• The locomotive and all seven cars jumped the tracks while charging through a turn.
• The train’s data recorder showed it was traveling faster than 100 mph, nearly double the speed limit for the turn it was making.
• The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that the train had sped up from about 70 mph to 100+ mph in the last 65 seconds before the crash.
• Eight people died and over 200 were injured in the crash.
The horrific incident on this heavily-traveled East Coast route strikes fear into rail commuters all around the country — and for good reason.
What was the cause of the crash? Human error, as many speculate?
Was an aging railway infrastructure system responsible?
Did the train’s braking technology fail, and if so, what other trains are at risk for a similar incident?
I’m sure the complete facts of this case will all come out in due time, but my immediate reaction was less about the details and more about a book I first read many years ago.
That book is Ayn Rand’s seminal novel, Atlas Shrugged.
The novel (which I highly recommend) is a story of what happens when men of genius, ability and productive virtue — men who actually move the world and who are responsible for all great achievement — decide to go “on strike” and remove themselves from a world that condemns, punishes and usurps their genius.
One of the novel’s most compelling and philosophically important scenes involves a train disaster — one that is not merely caused by a conductor or engineer’s mistake, but by a willful evasion of reality by a bureaucrat.
The “Taggart Comet” as the train is named, is a diesel-powered engine that breaks down on a trek through the Colorado Rockies. No replacement diesel engines are available and the only engine nearby is a coal burner.
The only problem here is that a coal-burning engine is not safe for passage through a lengthy tunnel section. The tunnel’s ventilation system wasn’t designed to handle the smoke emitted by a coal-burner.
This inconvenient fact, however, doesn’t concern a prominent politician on board the Comet. Rather than respect the dictates of reality and wait for a diesel engine, the politician orders railroad employees to hook up a coal-burning engine to take the train through the tunnel.
The result is the train stalls mid-tunnel, suffocating the passengers and the crew.
Then, an Army munitions train, unaware of the Comet’s fate, barrels into the tunnel and crashes into the stalled train, detonating the armaments and causing the entire mountain to collapse from the resulting explosion.
Now, the key point of the train scene in Atlas Shrugged is to illustrate how the willful rejection of reason by those who think the rules of reality don’t apply to them can cause tragedy for everyone.
Sadly, I see this kind of thing happening in the world today on numerous fronts affecting us all.
For example …
• Do we really believe that we can get ourselves out of an economic crisis caused by too much debt, by creating even more debt?
• Do we believe the answer to stimulating real economic growth is to debase the U.S. dollar?
• Do we believe that we can make the world more peaceful and prosperous by the constant projection of vast military power to nearly every corner of the globe?
Are not these incidents of willful evasions of reality stem from those in power?
The lesson of the train scene in Atlas Shrugged is one we all know to some degree in our own lives.
In fact, right now you may be thinking of a situation in your life where someone you know made a decision that effectively ignored reality and reason, simply because the party at hand just wanted reality to be their way.
Or maybe that person making those decisions was you …
Think about it: Have you ever made an important decision that you now regret based on how you “wanted” reality to be — and not how reality actually was?
In the case of Amtrak Train 188, the reality of physics dictated that the train could not successfully make that now-infamous turn at such a high rate of speed.
Philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”
This is true for us all, and in all realms of human action including politics, economics, ethics — and of course, when dealing with nature’s physical forces.
The Amtrak crash, the legacy of Atlas Shrugged, and the decisions we observe and make in our own lives confirm Bacon’s principle each day.
The greater our awareness of reason, reality and the absolute need to obey nature — the better decisions we are likely to make.
Where do you see the willful rejection of reason and reality? I know I’ve only touched on this topic here, but I suspect you’ve seen decisions that fly in the face of reality.
If you’d like to share an anecdote about how such a decision affected your life, please send them my way.
Industrial output dropped 0.3% in April; in line with expectations, but downward revisions showed output in factories, mines and utilities dropping for the past five months. That’s the longest string of declines since the Great Recession. Here are some other headlines today as we close out this week:
• All three major U.S. indices traded near break-even, with the S&P 500 hovering near Thursday’s all-time high.
• Oil prices fell Friday, putting the brakes on the ninth straight weekly gain for crude oil.
• The House passed a $612 billion-plus bill to fund the military in fiscal 2016. The vote was 269 to 151, with mostly Democrats in opposition.
• Consumer sentiment hit a seven-month low, as the University of Michigan’s consumer-sentiment index fell to a preliminary May reading of 88.6, compared with a final April level of 95.9. Consensus estimates were for a reading of 94.5.
• Shares of Netflix (NFLX) spiked higher after reports the entertainment-streaming service is in talks with a Chinese media company to enter China’s online-video market.
• Gold held most of Thursday’s gain to end near $1,225.
Good Luck and Happy Investing,
Uncommon Wisdom Daily