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Why It's Time for Sheldon Whitehouse to Wake Up Too.

Look, I really respect and admire our U.S. Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse. I especially like him because I grew up in Pennsylvania, and my idea of the Senate growing up was at best Arlen Specter, and at worse, the famed frothy homophobe and big-pharma money whore Rick Santorum. Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the few strong voices we have in the Senate talking consistently about climate change, and god bless 'im.

Whitehouse just tweeted his most recent weekly climate change speech. Our dear senator has been trying his best each week for over a year to get the upper house of our bicameral legislature to do something about climate. Again, good for him.

But this is as good a time as any to highlight something I find lacking in progressive politics. It seems to me that a lot of progressives don't understand the nature of various government programs and how they fit together.

This might be why Whitehouse had this to say about the "Viaduct" near the Providence Place Mall:

Hmm. Anyone think this is a bit odd?

Now, look, the Viaduct is in bad shape, and the expensive overhaul is probably a necessary evil in light of the fact that there's no plan to remove the huge cloverleaf from our city anytime soon. But what does the Viaduct do for our city? It cuts the city apart in pieces, makes cars a necessary way to get around between certain neighborhoods, and adds greatly to our climate footprint.

There's an understanding among economists that some spending we do will undermine other spending, even if the two programs might seem to be a good thing to the average citizen. A price floor for food to protect farmers will also make the same food more expensive than it might otherwise be. Then a program will be designed to subsidize the cost of food for poor people (Full disclosure: I use food stamps and support the program). It's not to say that supporting farmers and supporting poor people are not both admirable goals, and there may be some degree of importance to have the government involved in both, but if you asked most people if there was a contradiction between chasing good money after bad to re-adjust what has already been adjusted with a subsidy, they just wouldn't see the problem.

With highway spending--especially the kind to cuts a city in half, and then in half again, like in Providence--you're talking about a very expensive subsidy to cars that makes walking or biking to certain places almost impossible. You're also looking at a subsidy that undermines transit. I'm certain that Sheldon Whitehouse thinks that supporting RIPTA and the MBTA are vital, but doesn't see how spending he supports on one thing completely undermines the other.

One can fall back on the idea of "choice".  Isn't it okay to support the highway and transit? It's just "balanced", right? But the whole point, again, is that if we were just going to leave projects like this up to market choices that people freely make, then the highway would be a toll turnpike without public support, and would have probably never been built (especially because eminent domain was necessary to create a path for it in many places). Transit appears to be this program that liberals can come to the rescue with funding for, but if their goal is to do that and maintain fiscal responsibility, they should start to look at how expensive boondoggles like I-95 (yes, like I-95) undermine this.

Around 5:00 in the Time to Wake Up video Sheldon Whitehouse goes into a very interesting talk about how much money the country has, and how it's not taking care of its basic infrastructure. He says, why in a country like the U.S. can we not deal with our most basic problems (I would recommend listening to his exact wording, because I'm not going to quote it here). Well, I agree, and our country should spare not expense when it has to to solve problems. But sometimes less is more. Sometimes not spending on a boondoggle will not only leave money for more important things, but it will stop undermining those important things with counter-subsidies.

With due respect to Whitehouse, who I think is a true statesman and an admirable man, it's time for him to wake up too.


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