Robert Cruickshank’s much-anticipated reply to my posts about political versus technical transit supporters and their activism says that high-speed rail is a political issue, and therefore what’s important is to just get it done.
To me, the problem comes from my unfortunate choice of the terms political and technical. The main difference is not about technical concerns; it’s about whether one trusts American transit agencies. Thus I don’t really see the point when Robert complains about neo-liberalism and the evils of financial cost-benefit calculations. The terminology I picked may have reinforced the image of technicals as heartless engineers and technocrats, but in reality the opposite is true. Technicals have a much bigger standard deviation in their political attitudes than politicals; they range from Rothbardian libertarians to free speech advocates and people who make fun of the phrase “undisclosed location” in the context of US-sponsored torture. The common thread is mistrust of agency officials; the technical arguments are there because when we disagree with officials rather than just report what they say, we need to actually rebut their claims.
In contrast with Robert’s picture of the technical as a technocrat, my technical activism comes from the opposite end: it’s a rejection of a self-justifying bureaucracy that equates “build nothing” with “continue to build highways” and that thinks progress equals megaprojects. It’s a matter of supporting consensus politics and informed citizenry rather than subservience to agency officials. US government officials spend 2-10 times more on infrastructure projects as they have to. They have agency turf battles that make transit less user-friendly, and to cover up those turf battles they propose to spend billions of dollars on gratuitous viaducts, caverns, tunnels, and what have you. They write passenger rail-hostile regulations. And when called on it, they defraud the public and even tell outright lies. Trust in government agencies is so low that when the California HSR Authority admitted to the cost overruns, the LA Times treated it as a moment of honesty.
It’s precisely this trust that people care about, and it’s eroding when HSR becomes the equivalent of $600 toilet seats. Of course there is money for transit, but it’s either wasted or not given to transit because people can’t trust that it can be used wisely. I view it as part of my goal to showcase how good transit can be done, so that it doesn’t look so expensive for the benefit provided.
A fundamental tenet of risk perception theory is that people are most concerned about risks they find morally reprehensible – and this collusion between government and government contractors offends me. Just because it’s greenwashed doesn’t mean it’s any better than subsidizing oil drilling, paying military contractors $1,000 per day, or bailing out financial companies that then use the money to pay the executives who caused the financial crisis multi-million dollar bonuses. No wonder that when Republicans talk about the ingenuity of individual business leaders, they talk about Mark Zuckerberg, the Google guys, and Steve Jobs; they have to go that far out of the industries that give money to the GOP, such as oil, to find people who’ve actually innovated rather than just sucked public money. In fact one of the impetuses for the spread of neo-liberal boosterism in popular culture is the perception that entrepreneurs who are untainted by the public sector are good, while government is inherently incompetent and corrupt. When the government doesn’t do a good job, people stop believing it’s even possible for good government to exist.
Yonah Freemark writes that it doesn’t matter if costs are high because HSR costs are a small part of the transportation budget, which is itself a tiny part of GDP. But transportation is also not the biggest priority in spending. Most of the GDP, even most government spending, is and should be things that aren’t transportation; and most transportation funding isn’t and shouldn’t be intercity.
For an order of magnitude of what other issues are involved, Robert is proposing $1 trillion in student loan forgiveness as economic stimulus. My point is not to impugn him; I agree with him there. It’s that the big-ticket items are not transportation, but instead transportation is one of many small-ticket items of spending. But pool many small expenses – a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there – and you’re starting to talk about real money.
And this is true politically, not just economically. The Democratic Party has been advocating for universal health care since the Truman administration. After early successes with Medicare and Medicaid, its efforts stalled; its empathy-based appeals went nowhere. In Politics Lost, Joe Klein writes about how Bob Shrum would insert the phrase “health care is a right, not a privilege” into the speeches of every Presidential candidate he worked for – and how every candidate he worked for lost. Meanwhile, US health care costs were ballooning faster than those of other first-world countries. By 2005-6 it was impossible to miss, and liberal pundits seized and owned the issue, portraying American health care as not only inequitable but also inefficient. Five years later, they got their universal health care bill, flawed as it is. Nowadays the people who are pooh-poohing the idea of health care cost control are Greg Mankiw and the Tea Party.
Spending is a zero sum game, but economically and politically. The Great Recession won’t last forever. Any infrastructure building plan is going to outlast the recession, triggering real tax hikes, spending cuts, or interest rate hikes in the future. It’s fine if the infrastructure is cost-effective; it’s not fine if it isn’t. (In comments on CAHSR Blog, I was told that the example of Japan shows that the recession can last forever; if it does, the US will have bigger problems than transportation.)
And this is equally true politically. The amount of government spending is controlled tightly by the political acceptability of deficits. Some deficits are more politically acceptable than others – for example, military waste is acceptable to many right-wingers – but in this political climate, HSR is at least as controversial on the right as extending jobless benefits, and far less useful as stimulus per dollar spent. The unemployed tend not to fork over much of their benefits to international consultants. If a few billion dollars are enough to showcase workable HSR then by all means the administration should spend them, but if they’d eat $20 billion out of a $50 billion jobs bill that Obama’s going to run for reelection on, there’s no point.
I think that both on transportation and on health care, there’s a political not-invented-here reasons among the partisans. Liberals owned health care cost control, so Greg Mankiw started arguing that it wouldn’t help society much and that high costs are a good thing and Sarah Palin referred to cost control as death panels. The issue with transportation is a little different; while many technicals are leftists, it’s anti-urban conservatives and Koch-libertarians who cancel transit projects, use phrases like “the money tree,” and demagogue about how no rail project is ever affordable. My instinct is to point out that those conservatives have no trouble overspending on road projects and rationalizing highway cost overruns; but if you think in terms of spending, and treat transportation as one program of many stimulus projects, there’s a real not-invented-here issue here.
Ironically, despite Robert’s claim that costs don’t matter and benefits do, much of what I rail against is exactly benefits. I personally am reminded by how awful the turf battles are every time I have to buy an MBTA ticket at the cafe since Amtrak bullied the MBTA out of the Providence station booths, and every time I take the subway to Penn Station and need to change concourses to get my Amtrak ticket. The key for me is to make transit cheap enough that it can be deployed on a large scale, and to make it convenient and pedestrian-friendly, which park-and-ride-oriented commuter rail is not.