<html> <head><style type ="text/css">body { font-family: "Bloomberg Prop Unicode I", Verdana, sans-serif; font-size:125%; letter-spacing: -0.3pt; color: #FF9F0F; background-color: #000000; text-align: left; } p {line-height: 1.25em; max-width:900px; width:expression(document.body.clientWidth > 900? "900px": "auto" );} h1, h2, h3 { text-align: left; font-weight: normal; color: #FFFFFF; } h1 { font-size: 130%; } h2 { font-size: 115%; } h3 { font-size: 100%; } #bb-style { font-size: 90%; max-width:900px; width:expression(document.body.clientWidth > 900? "900px": "auto" ); } b, strong { font-weight: bold; } i, em { color: #FEC54A; } pre { font-family: "Andale Mono", "Monaco", "Lucida Console"; letter-spacing: -0.3pt; line-height: 1.25em; } table { border: 0; font-size: 90%; width: 100%; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto; } td, tr { text-align: left; } td.numeric { text-align: right; } a:link { color:#53B2F5; text-decoration: none; } a:visited {color:#53B2F5} a:active {color:#53B2F5} a:hover {color:#53B2F5} </style> </head> <body> <p>By Josh Barro</p> <p>I live in New York City, so I've eaten my share of $16 hamburgers. If a hamburger costs that much, it's usually pretty good. It had better be!</p> <p>But that's not true if you're on Amtrak. At a <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/03/us/politics/amtrak-lost-834-million-on-food-in-last-decade-audit-finds.html?_r=1&amp;ref=us">congressional hearing yesterday</a>, we learned that the agency's on-board, microwave-in-bag hamburgers cost $16 to serve, even though the agency only charges travelers $9.50 to buy one.</p> <p>The purpose of the hearing was to examine why Amtrak's food service operations have lost $800 million over the last 10 years. The answer is, apparently, that it costs Amtrak a ton of money to serve food that is mostly pretty terrible.</p> <p>Selling edible food at a profit is not rocket science. Even the airlines have increasingly figured out how to do so. If Amtrak can't do it itself, it could outsource its food service operations to a company like Gate Gourmet that has expertise in travel catering.</p> <p>Why doesn't Amtrak do this? Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has one answer. He says Amtrak food service jobs are well-paying, and we shouldn't eliminate them, even if the food service is expensive and terrible. “It’s a whopper of an idea, trading good-paying jobs for cheaper hamburgers,” said Rahall.</p> <p>This is worth remembering. I have <a href="http://articles.boston.com/2012-07-23/opinion/32785772_1_obama-talks-president-obama-business-owners">often criticized</a> President Barack Obama and other Democrats for failing to make the case that government does valuable things that the public -- including the middle class -- should be willing to pay taxes for. But that argument assumes that the government will focus on actually doing valuable things.</p> <p>If Democrats in Congress are going to make the case that the government should keep selling $16 hamburgers at a $6.50 loss -- hamburgers that aren't even any good -- because that helps keep workers on the public payroll, then I see why they aren't prepared to make the case that taxes are worth paying.</p> <p>(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. <a href="mailto:jbarro1@bloomberg.net">E-mail</a> him and <a href="https://twitter.com/#%21/jbarro">follow</a> him on Twitter.)</p> <p>Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/view/the-ticker/">the Ticker</a>.</p> </body> </html>