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Improving Bernie's Transportation Message

For Purple Mountains' Majesty. . .
I'm a Bernie Sanders supporter, and given the field of candidates available to me, there's no doubt that I'm voting for Bernie. I find Hillary Clinton completely unacceptable, to the point that if the Republicans resurrected the corpse of Ronald Reagan and propped him against her opponent's podium as a stand-in, I'm not certain I would feel motivated to vote for her. She's voted the wrong way (or, at times, backed her husband's positions) on entirely too many issues--gay rights, criminal justice, inequality issues, and of course, her hawkish foreign policy stances. Even when she's changed her positions, it's often seemed driven by her calculating grasp for political power rather than because of any genuine change of heart (maybe that's why, to me, the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" version of Sanders is less funny than the empty, manipulative, plastic SNL impression of Clinton. I find the Clinton candidacy to be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the Trump one, because while there are many overlaps between Clinton and her opponents to the right, there's a severe danger that much of the Democratic base will just go to sleep during her years in office and let her carry on destructive plans because they're cloaked in blue (whereas, with Trump one might expect that the candidate's penchant for saying divisive, offensive things would at least keep an activist base alive to oppose his policies). I also think that the claims that Clinton is "more electable" are pretty suspect. Clinton is reviled on the right, and not well liked on the left either. Many voters who might otherwise feel left out of the voting process will turn up to vote for Bernie Sanders, and those same voters cannot be counted on to exert effort for Hillary. Polling shows Sanders outperforming Clinton against a Trump candidacy, for exactly this reason. And let's not forget the "commanding lead" that Hillary Clinton seemed to have with black voters over Barack Obama going into the South Carolina primary--Obama won the primary. The talk of the town, much like in this election, was that Hillary Clinton was the black voters' choice and (ironically, in retrospect) that Obama was somehow representative of white urban liberals. Sound familiar? Wait, who's the candidate with the deeply developed anti-racism policies again? Who's the candidate who was a member of CORE and SNCC? Who was the candidate who stood up against the 1993 Crime Bill, while the Clintons supported it? Go home, Hillary supporters.

But with that said, there are things that could be improved about the Bernie Sanders campaign. On transportation issues, I think the Sanders campaign should act aggressively to draw libertarian-leaning moderates into its camp, by highlighting the fiscal irresponsibility that has been the hallmark of our transportation bloat.

Sanders' campaign calls for increased taxation of the 1%, and this is a stance that I think he's correct to take. One bullet-point on his campaign page calls for increased funding into the country's deteriorating road system with part of that funding. It's this spending priority that I think is incorrect, or at least incomplete. We need to make our infrastructure safe to use, but we also need to address the fact that our infrastructure bloat has been a major cause of why we're in this mess in the first place. I'm not necessarily claiming that Sanders doesn't understand this (he may). But his campaign does little to articulate it, and this is a problem not only because it's the wrong progressive position, but also because there are conservatives who understand the need to address overspending on infrastructure.

I've been trying to make a version of this point to progressives for some time. Just because you like redistribution (let's call that ice cream), and ketchup (let's call that roads that don't collapse and kill you) doesn't mean that the two should be mixed on one plate. Two delicious things, just not good together. I'm as progressive as anyone, but the most efficient use of funds taken from the rich is to put those funds directly back into programs for the poor. Roads are not a program for the poor. In order to use a road, you have to have an ante-in in the form of a car, so while roads are a legitimate public infrastructure issue, they're not the optimal use of our political capital when going after wealthy people for funding. We should instead save that redistribution for other policies, and fund our roads through user fees.

Optimizing our road system so that it runs more like a market is actually very compatible with the goal of also having redistributive programs of uplift. Progressives whose base of action is mostly about class often question urbanist or environmental claims to put additional charges on gasoline, or to use tolls for revenue or to optimize traffic congestion. The argument underlying this progressive opposition is "but what if poor people don't have the money?" The answer is to give poor people the money. The trick is just not to have that money filtered through the road system. Now, poor people can certainly choose to drive somewhere if that makes sense to them, but they can also pocket the money and use it for another purpose.

When poor people can have a base of financial security, our capitalist system operates better. That's exactly the point that Sanders' campaign makes in its push to be "more like Denmark". But in the Nordic countries, user fees are high for driving. The promotion of social equality in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands is not confused for a need to make driving cheap.

You say, "alright, James, I agree. But you really think this is a good campaign pitch to Bernie Sanders? He's going to alienate Republicans even further." Well . . . 

A similar argument popped up in a Ben Carson interview with George Stephanopoulos, with Stephanopoulos asking Carson whether some of his positions were a bit "Bernie Sanders-like" and Carson arguing that aid programs should work like Food Stamps in order to give its users choice.

It's a shame that Gov. Scott Walker dropped out of the race for president, because Walker would be a great example of what's wrong with ever-expanding road spending. Walker has spent his time in office fighting spending when it's perceived to be for liberal projects, while throwing the treasury all out on road expansion projects in places that don't want them. The Milwaukee road expansion that Walker pushed not only got urbanist opposition from expected liberal quarters within the city, but was also rejected by his own party for its fiscal irresponsibility. With an increasingly cogent segment of the right understanding that fiscal responsibility can't just mean cutting aid to the poor, Sanders taking a lead on this question would put him in the position of being bipartisan, in much the same way that his visit to Liberty University and his moderate stances on gun control have.

Sanders has been one of the most strident political voices for action on climate change, and it is for this reason that I feel certain that his presidency would be good for transportation reform, much as Obama's administration has been to some extent. But the Sanders' campaign has an opportunity: it can go on the offensive and start to talk about why we're in such dire straits. That is something I'd be excited to see.


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