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When It’s Smart to Play Dumb

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

In 1993, I was in Russia to witness Boris Yeltsin’s first referendums, which was perhaps the high point of Russian democracy.

Along with the sweep of history, I also remember boarding a midnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg and being accosted by some kind of Russian gendarme. This fellow berated me in words none of which I understood. I could tell he wanted something from me (money, probably). So I stood there looking bewildered and playing dumb — my specialty — until the guy finally lapsed into frustrated silence and I could walk away. Another Russian later told me that it was indeed a shakedown attempt.

The incident came to mind when I heard about a recent attempted robbery down in Tampa. Three masked thugs spilled into a Chinese restaurant and demanded the contents of the cash register. According to a brief report, the trio “left empty-handed after the restaurant workers who only spoke Cantonese couldn’t understand what the English-speaking suspects were saying.” At one point, a gun went off when the would-be robbers banged the cash register with it.

The report states that the “botched robbery” was caused by a “failure to understand English.” Well, maybe the workers knew little English. But they knew what the robbers wanted. The workers played dumb. More basically, they refused to cooperate.

Risky. I’m not saying you should try this at home. But sometimes being too dumb to be victimized is the smartest thing you can do.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Derailing Washington’s Train Fixation

Friday, March 18th, 2011

The great age of trains — the 19th century — spawned a few amazing political careers, not excluding the railway lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. Many major railroads depended on moving politicians first, earth and iron second.

More than ever, today’s passenger rail lines are creatures of the state. Amtrak loses money, and could only be successful as a private operation were politicians able to let its unprofitable lines go.

Congress insists, instead, on putting up more money-losing railways in as many places as possible. President Obama even tried to get a bullet train put through between Tampa and Orlando, despite the fact that the two Florida cities were too close to each other for a super-fast train to make any sense.

Worse for the bullet was the politics.

In 2000, Floridians had voted in high-speed monorail; in 2004, they voted in greater numbers to kill their own project. Voters realized that, with politicians in charge, railroad projects tended to go runaway.

Perhaps that helped convince Rick Scott, the new governor, to reject the federal government’s offer to pay $2.4 billion of a $2.6 billion bullet train. The billions of “free money” that the Obama Administration promised began to seem, well, costly.

So, of course, the federal government sued. In early March, a Florida court ruled that the governor did indeed have the power to tell the feds to play with trains elsewhere.

A minor victory for railway sanity. A major victory for federalism.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.