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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

The Allure of Car-Centric Populism


I've been reading The Allure of Order (Jal Mehta, Oxford University Press, 2013), a somewhat dry academic book that I nonetheless recommend wholeheartedly.  The book explores three separate movements--the Progressive education movement of the 1890s to 1920s, the state-based education standards movement of the 1960s-70s, and the recent No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top movement of the 1990s-present.  The criticisms of these movements themselves are not particularly novel.  What's more interesting to me is the book's analysis of how very disparate groups came to seek the same failed solution to a problem by treating the reform as a Rorschach of what they wanted to see:

The surprise is less that results have not met expectations than that we have repeatedly placed a high degree of faith in reforms promising to rationalize schools from above. After all, how many other policies were cochampioned by George W. Bush and Edward Kennedy? (page 2)

Mehta explains that while liberals have repeatedly championed the idea of standardization of education, it has been seen through the prism of wanting to eliminate racial and economic disparities in our schools, while conservatives have approached the issue as a means to discipline teachers' unions and hold state spending accountable to taxpayers' concerns.  The fact that--ideologically-speaking--nary the twain views shall meet does not matter.  It's like a perfect storm in which divergent views amplify each other.  This is what has brought about laws like NCLB.

While in education the disparate beliefs of conservatives and liberals have heightened one another towards the same end, in transportation quite the opposite has happened.  Liberals and conservatives have both had good reasons to support reform, but have been so disgusted by each other's disparate reasoning that they've canceled out their ability to take action.

Liberals, for instance, should clearly support transportation reform because to do so is vitally important to maintaining a livable planet for human habitation, and promotes cheaper, more accessible modes of transportation that benefit poor people.  Conservatives should see that transportation reform makes sense because so many of the things wrong with our transportation system come from government subsidies to driving. But conservatives hear the liberal reasons for action, and liberals only hear how reform is conservative.  A carbon tax, for example, would make cars pay their true market cost for socialized infrastructure like highways, but the dominant way of viewing such a tax--perhaps because its championed this way by liberals--is that it's not about market costs, but about altruistic collective action.  Liberals can't step away from their revulsion that someone who owns a beater might have to pay a toll to drive over a bridge, either, even though this is a romanticization of people in beat-up cars as the face of the poor, and ignores the needs of bus riders or bicyclists.  Tell a liberal that transportation reform is good for the poor, and they'll support you, but they can also easily be swayed by pro-car populism.

It's therefore sad, but not totally surprising, to hear a liberal voicing of pro-car populism expressed in Rhode Island's Future, a left-liberal blog.  Author Samuel Bell of Rhode Island Progressive Democrat Alliance states:
[A]s progressives, we should oppose tolls as a matter of principle.  Because everybody pays the same rate no matter how much you make, tolls are one of the most regressive taxes out there, hitting those who can least afford to pay the hardest. . . even raising regressive property and sales taxes makes more sense.
This statement is extremely misleading, but succeeds because it satisfied the emotional needs of the target audience.  The truth is that we don't all pay the same tolls.  Some people drive, and some people don't.  People who drive over a bridge do damage to the bridge, and also gain a benefit from the bridge's existence.  People who don't drive at all do not damage the bridge, and gain no direct benefit from its existence.  It's true that not all people who drive are rich, or even middle-class, but those who don't drive are disproportionately poor.  Moreover, poor people who drive might like to save the money and not own a car, but have no choice if our road policies are structured as they are.  Tolls are not as perfectly progressive as the progressive income tax or a tax on stock dividends, but they're much more progressive than a sales tax by a long shot.

Part of the problem is, perhaps, that we sense that there's a lack of agency on the part of drivers to change their mode of travel.  In the immediate sense, in some areas it might not be possible to stop driving entirely.  Tolls would encourage carpooling, though, as a means of saving money by splitting costs.  It's perfectly within the realm of choice for a person anywhere in Rhode Island to pick up their buddy from work and drive in together, in order to save money.  In a longer-term sense, of course, the only way that the working poor are ever going to find it affordable to get around is to change the system of road financing we have so that costs are reflected to users.  Voters who do not know how expensive a road is to upkeep cannot choose to have dedicated bus lanes, cannot choose to have better RIPTA service, and cannot choose to have better land-use policies.

In any case, my hope is that people will start to inform themselves better so that arguments like Bell's can't gain steam.

1 comment:

  1. I like to pair tolls with "justifiable" thus encouraging greater transparency and appropriateness in rate-setting. We often don't have that. Tolling authorities AND governments have the potential for become bloated with overhead and strangled with long term debt.

    Economics teaches us that to spend money on things you don't need at the expense of not investing in the things you do need constitutes a destruction of wealth. This can manifest itself so easily with bloated budgets and/or waste. But we should also point out that the road lobby has actually pushed back on rail projects. This is all very interesting to study.

    It is a complex conversation with many things to consider. Reason is directing the dialogue in many circles and that has a benefit, but there will be good and bad things that emerge from this incubator of big ideas.

    People need to be informed and also should be following both sides of the conversations. All politics are local. In the end, we need to maintain our roads, but also we need to be able to afford to drive upon them. We need good mass transit, but we need to ensure that those projects are justifiable and fully vetted. We should take advantage of P3's, but the devil is in the details.

    Thanks for the article.