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Tuesday March 8th 2011
American politics
Trains again
All countries with passenger trains also have highways
Mar 4th 2011, 18:17 by M.S.
BECAUSE I wanted to have an all-transportation blogging day, I'm just going to note Ezra Klein's sensible response to George Will's weird column a few days ago arguing that people who like trains hate individualism and freedom:
I come from Southern California. We have a lot of cars down there and not much in the way of alternative transit options. Driving is a nightmare, as the streets are overloaded. Living in Washington has been a vast improvement for me: The subways and Amtrak take me where my car has trouble going, and I use my car for the errands and travels that suit its strengths. And as long as my tax dollars are going to subsidize transportation networks, I’d like them to subsidize a sensible transportation network such as Washington’s, not the endless traffic that I escaped when I moved away from Los Angeles.
Conversely, I come from Washington, DC, and I'd just like to add a couple of things. First, countries that have fantastic rail transportation networks also have roads and highways, and people there value their cars a lot. The Netherlands is blanketed with intercity rail, high-speed rail, trams, and a couple of subway systems, not to mention buses, probably the world's most extensive bike lane system, and the odd ferry and canal barge. Yet car-ownership rates are high as well, highways are not noticeably less extensive than in the northeastern United States, and the country is not full of anti-car conformists who hate freedom; indeed it just had provincial elections in which the Christian Democrats (CDA) ran on a highway-building platform under the slogan "The more CDA, the fewer traffic jams." Also, speed limits are frequently 120 kph, which is near 80 mph and thus higher than limits on most American highways. My experience driving in France is that highways there these days are also newer, better, less crowded and faster than those in the northeastern United States. China is another example of a country that both loves trains and is rapidly losing its mind in a newfound love affair with cars. Highways and railways don't come free, you have to pay taxes and tolls for them, but the assumption that train lovers hate cars is just not borne out by people in train-loving, car-loving countries.
The second point is that Washington, DC's rail network is still nowhere near extensive enough. Outside of a few downtown neighbourhoods, you really can't get around the city without a car, and even there the density (in terms of how close stations are to each other, and in terms of how much stuff can be packed in close to the stations due to height-density restrictions) is too low. The plan to bring in trams is a good sign, but the fact that traffic jams in upper Northwest have gotten vastly worse since my youth testifies to the need for a subway spur along upper Connecticut Avenue, even at the risk of turning some residents of Chevy Chase into mindless totalitarian peons.
The final point is that American car owners are not, in this century, individualistic in their driving or car-owning behaviour. Indian and Israeli car owners are individualistic in their driving behaviour. And there was a period when many Americans were individualistic in their car-owning behaviour. It looked like this:

But the people who owned cars in that fashion probably don't share George Will's political predilections, and may even be train-loving socialists.
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Tzimisces wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 6:26 GMT
I always get a bit confused when someone advocating for less choices stands for individuality and freedom while someone advocating for more choices is some kind of totalitarian socialist, or at least hates individuality and freedom. Is it really freedom when only some choices make you free and other choices make you a totalitarian socialist?
I don't understand. Reminds of high school goths all sitting around telling each other how individualistic and non-conformist they are.
My individual choice to like trains is no more or less individualistic than George Will's love of cars. George Will's ideas are no more collectivist than mine, since there is a basic equivalence to him imposing the collective will to not build a train as there would be to me imposing a collective will to build one. It's just a false inequivalency rooted in status quo bias.
forsize wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 6:28 GMT
I know ezra klein is a really popular leftist and he's cuddly and probably smiles in ways that reduce carbon emmisions. but DIA can do better than being the ezra klein reblogging blog.
OneAegis wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 6:46 GMT
Tzimisces,
I think it would come from the fact that an individual can purchase a car with their own funds, and can make that choice.
Whereas a train system costs billions and you are taxed for it whether you use it or not.
I'm highly in favor of building more trains, but I do see some of where they are coming from.
OneAegis wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 6:50 GMT
Also, I appreciate a blog post cleverly written so MS can have an excuse to show off his sweet new ride. Judging from how the rear end is sagging you might be smuggling imigrants across the border.
Gwaihir wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:00 GMT
You claim that trains don't turn us into collectivists or socialists, but then you give the examples of the Netherlands, France, and China. Clearly unconvincing.
On a side note, I live in DC without a car and do alright. And I am not overweight, since I have to walk a mile a day, at minimum. DC's inadequate transit system is just looking out for my health. (That is, they're trampling on my individual freedoms by shaping my behavior such that I walk more)
Dan112 wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:13 GMT
OneAegis, smuggling immigrants isn't the contraband that comes to mind when looking at that van.
g cross wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:14 GMT
@ Gwaihir: "You claim that trains don't turn us into collectivists or socialists, but then you give the examples of the Netherlands, France, and China. Clearly unconvincing."
Indeed, if only they hadn't built their trains they would have been able to save themselves from falling into a despicable socialist state!
Let this be a lesson to us all!!!
Mar 4th 2011 7:21 GMT
Granted George Will went overboard with the "liberals hate freedom" bit at the end but he's absolutely right that liberals hate cars. Read Michael Moore's plan to save America: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-moore/goodbye-gm_b_209603.html
MS, take comfort in the fact that you aren't as left-wing as Moore. But still you too have a weird way of evaluating rail. "There's too much traffic, therefore we need trains" isn't convincing. No wonder liberals support all sorts of crazy projects. They don't bother doing a cost-benefit analysis.
tfw wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:21 GMT
OneAegis,
Correct, you can purchase a car with your own funds. But you can't build a highway with your own funds, and that's why this train-loving crypto-fascist socialist smirks when he hears a rugged freedom-loving individualist complain about socialist trains.
Vaguely related to that, I was in Texas a couple months ago and I asked someone about that planned north-south highway through the state. I was told it was close to dead because, among other things, they were planning to make it a privately-operated toll road. Cold stares all around when I said it surprised me that Texans preferred more government control in their daily lives and were opposed to private ownership.
Tzimisces wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:34 GMT
OneA,
Since transportation necessarily requires the use of public lands, or at least private markets have thus far been unable to build the desired level of transportation infrastructure, I continue to be somewhat befuddled. I never complained about how socialist roads were when I went for a few years without a car and walked everywhere. And if buying the car makes the difference, would things changed if only the tracks were built publicly and we had to invest in private owned rail cars?
Now, if we were talking about the Soviet Union subsidizing food served in restaurants more than food bought at the market to cook at home (one of the weirder things they tried), then I'd agree this is socialist totalitarianism. However, with either cars or trains, the good under discussion is to a large extent public in nature no matter how it gets done. Few of us own enough land to get much utility out of our car without public roads, which is why I think there is a basic equivalency between different desired levels of funding for public infrastructure. There simply isn't a purely private alternative for transportation (even if you own a private jet and private airport, you'd still be using public airspace).
This discussion also reminds me of the nanny-state argument about putting up calorie counts on menus. For some reason, it's framed as individualistic to not want the information and socialistic for government to require its posting. Yet, many individuals, myself included, like having that information and tend to want it at point of order, since we enjoy eating out too much and know that sometimes dishes that sound healthy in fact, aren't. Yet, I don't have the bargaining power to make most restaurants post this so that I have more information to decide between the salad or sandwich. When I use government as a tool to express my preferences to coordinate with other individuals who want the same thing, I get branded as a socialist. Doesn't make sense to me. Why is prefering one institutional arrangement more individualistic than the other? I want more choices, and more knowledge to make those choices, and I know from experience that coordination outside of government is usually too expensive and difficult to get what I want so I am forced to rely on government.
Why is the basket of goods that someone wants that doesn't suffer from these coordination problems and is more in line with the status quo more individualistic than the basket of goods I want that happens to not be the status quo and thus suffers from coordination problems? I really don't understand the perspective. I individually want something, but lack power relative to already coordinated groups, such as those wanting roads or corporations not wanting to post calorie counts, so I use the institution I have available to leverage my bargaining power through coordination with other individuals who want the same thing to get the goods I want. How is this more socialistic than the person that doesn't want the goods I want but is better served by the status quo so coordinates to prevent my basket of goods becoming available?
Pacer wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:34 GMT
Even a car-loving person should be psyched up for more trains, as they enable others to get off the congested roads they all share. I'm enamored with public transit--passenger rail in particular--and might actually use it if it were reasonably convenient. But more importantly I know that politically we can't get a sufficient gas tax increase to knock the non-essential drivers off of 'my roads' unless there is an alternative for them to get where they think they need to go. Buses are OK, but they impede my commute too while trains would not.
jomiku wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:45 GMT
If you're arguing facts, great. If you're arguing against a view that government can in some way direct investment, then good luck because the people you're arguing against aren't particularly rational. As in, subsidies for ethanol, for big oil are good because ... you can always construct a rationale but the truth is that's an ideology that makes little to no practical sense.
forsize wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 7:46 GMT
ya pacer, the problem with roads is there's too many poor people on them.
Mar 4th 2011 7:57 GMT
Mozambique?
I could guess at others.
I heard India has great highways.
Regards
g cross wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 8:58 GMT
@ forsize: "ya pacer, the problem with roads is there's too many poor people on them."
forsize actually makes a really good point here. A serious problem with raising taxes to discourage a behaviour is that instead of discouraging the people who have the greatest flexibility to change to a different behaviour (i.e., those to whom making such a change poses the least cost) they can often instead prevent those who have the *least means* and therefore likely have the *least flexibility* to switch to a different behaviour.
So if we increase taxes on gas, though we might imagine that what will happen is that those who can most conveniently switch to other modes of transportation will do so, what could actually append is that those who *can't* conveniently switch will be *forced* to because they will essentially be priced out their means entirely.
This doesn't mean that I'm against doing this kind of thing, just that the unequal way that the burden can get placed on people with the least resources to adapt bothers me and is a concern that should be taken into account when crafting such a policy. For example, it might be that we need to both raise taxes on gas and also provide means-tested fuel subsidies for the poor so that the net burden relative to means ends up being the same on all income classes.
g cross wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 9:04 GMT
@ g cross: "@ forsize: "ya pacer, the problem with roads is there's too many poor people on them.""
Whoa, am I the only one who noticed that flying pig outside?
Weird.
g cross wrote:
Mar 4th 2011 9:05 GMT
CORRECTION:
@ g cross: "forsize actually makes a really good point here."
Whoa, am I the only one who noticed that flying pig outside?
Weird.
Mar 4th 2011 10:25 GMT
I also think that the "individual freedom" aspect of cars in the American mindset means something else compared to people in other countries, and institutions have played a significant role in it.
I'm going to consider Germany, because I'm more familiar with it (I'm an American who married a German). Germans love their cars, no question. I've watched my father-in-law baby his car, have lots of vocal opinions about the status conveyed by one car and model over another, etc. And a lot of effort is placed in maintaining the purity of the driving experience.
But driving is still clearly felt in Germany to be a luxury. It increases convenience greatly, yes. But you're expected to be able to get around and get stuff done without a car.
In America, the fact that we've got zoning regulations and poor mass transit and whole cities built solely after the invention of the automobile has changed all that. For most Americans, having a car and driving isn't just a luxury, it's a necessity. If you can't drive, you can't get to work. You can't go grocery shopping. You can't ferry the kids between school and activities. Thus, you can't earn money. You can't raise your kids.
In most of the US, your car IS your adulthood. Take it away, and you're a child again, dependent on the world. The driver's license is the initiation rite into adulthood.
Thus, the car symbolizes independence, but not just privilege. A person without a car is okay to ignore. A person who loses their driver's license isn't just giving up the right to drive, but the right to be taken seriously.
Certainly, that's the skewed, over-the-top feeling, but can the Americans among us deny that there's just a little bit of that in the back of our head when we hear about it?
So, to many Americans, losing the ability to drive is losing your adulthood. When gas prices rise, we fear losing our rights, our say.
This is silly, yes. Most of us would agree that the best solution is to change our mindset, welcome more mass transit, and rearrange our lives. But this is why it's hard to get Americans to embrace it--our ids are saying we're regressing if we do so.
Mar 4th 2011 10:31 GMT
Let's ask the Economist to do some research and prepare a daily chart showing how much American governments and individuals spend on building, maintaining, and utilizing public roads versus public transit in absolute terms and per passenger mile (ppm).
For the sake of expediency, let's say that relatively speaking, American government spends 1 trillion and 12 cents ppm on roads and 100 billion and 10 cents ppm on public transit. Let's say American citizens spend 2 trillion and 20 cents ppm on cars, gas, insurance, etc (to use private cars on public roads) and 10 billion and 8 cents ppm on public transit (for fares/tickets).
If true, this would tell us several things:
1 - public transit is more efficient and cost effective than private cars and public roads, both for citizens and for government.
2 - the private car/public road paradigm necessitates greater absolute and relative government expenditure, and is, hence, the more subsidized, socialist, big government option. In other words, paint your car whatever color you like, but the roads themselves are all fiscally and politically red (red like Mao, not Gingrich).
And given our irrationally low gas taxes and inefficient sprawl, we may be steering into a future of Venezuelan-style budget-busting terror-funding traffic-jamming socialist petro-dependency. Might as well hire Hugo Chavez to be the transportation secretary for the next Republican administration.
Mar 4th 2011 10:47 GMT
@typingmonkey, we can just make up numbers like that and use them as arguments? Cool. Then I say the Iraq War cost $5.14 and provided $76 quadrillion in benefits.
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