Choo choo!

Only days before we arrived for the Federation of State Humanities Councils’ national conference in Omaha, Nebraska, in November, the city’s famed “oracle,” investor Warren Buffett, announced that he was buying Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. I don’t know whether Buffett, from his Berkshire Hathaway offices, can see either the BNSF tracks or those of the Union-Pacific also headquartered downtown. But the railroad has been a defining feature of Omaha since its post-Civil War beginnings, and I’m sure Buffett understands the historical connections. (Of course he didn’t buy the railroad out of nostalgia. Burlington Northern is a profitable enterprise, which he purchased at a fair price, and it promises even greater returns in the future.)

…I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” Paul Theroux, writer

Does Buffett’s investment have anything to do with the humanities—other than the presence of 300+ humanists in his hometown the same week, or the history and romance of railroads? Moreover, is it of any relevance to Alabamians?

I would answer the first question by pointing out that Buffett is known as a long-term value investor, an approach not unlike those of us who work in the humanities. Understanding deeply the value of our mission, we don’t expect quick profits but instead long-term gain from the study and appreciation of history, literature and the like.

Most important of all…it’s an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States. I love these bets.” Warren Buffett, billionaire.

As for the relevance of this news to Alabamians, I can only suggest that business, government and civic leaders in Birmingham should note:

  • Buffett spent $34 billion on something that runs on steel rails, instead of fiber-optic cable, and carries stuff like coal and corn, instead of tweets and blogs. With all due appreciation for Birmingham’s diversified economy, based on finance, education and healthcare, we shouldn’t forget that many workers here still make and transport actual products.
  • Railroads—including passenger trains—still have a vital place in our national transportation network. Why can’t we invest in efficient public transportation systems in Alabama, even if they are only reliable bus systems?
  • Two Birmingham parks and cultural institutions, the Railroad Reservation Park currently under development, and Sloss Furnaces, which is nearly 30 years old as an industrial museum, need greater public support. Planners hope eventually to link these two open spaces and icons of our past via a pedestrian corridor alongside the rail lines that bisect the city. Let’s hope that dream becomes reality.

Written by: Bob S.