Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Government: creating problems it says only it can fix

The transportation bill has been both hailed and decried as allowing each member of Congress to fund pet projects. I'm again reproducing the full AP article, because every part is worth reading.

Highway Bill Has $100M for Pedestrians

WASHINGTON - Four communities will soon share $100 million in federal funds to develop bicycle and pedestrian trails aimed at enticing commuters to give up their cars to get to work, thanks to lawmakers involved in the final negotiations on the recently passed highway bill.

The four pilot projects at $25 million each were the brainchild of Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, an avid cyclist and, more importantly, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.

"A lot of trails have been built for recreational purposes," said Keith Laughlin, president of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, an advocacy for turning abandoned railroad rights of way into bike and hiking trails. "This is for transportation. There will be an emphasis on connecting destinations, getting to work, getting kids to school."

At Oberstar's request, Laughlin's group proposed a dozen communities for the pilot grants. Oberstar and other key lawmakers narrowed that list to four — the Minneapolis-St. Paul area; Sheboygan County, Wis.; Columbia, Mo.; and Marin County, Calif.

Minnesota wasn't the only state with a well-placed lawmaker. Wisconsin got an assist from Rep. Tom Petri, a Republican who chairs the committee's highway subcommittee; and Missouri was aided by Sen. Kit Bond, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee's transportation and infrastructure subcommittee.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (news, bio, voting record), a Democrat from California's Marin County, doesn't have a leadership role on transportation, but she served on the conference committee that ironed out the six-year, $286.4 billion transportation bill. So did Oberstar, Petri and Bond.

Keith Ashdown, a vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, questioned why two of the pilot projects would be in a northern climate where year-round bicycling is difficult.

"The selection was based on who was on the conference committee and not where the money is best served," Ashdown said. "It doesn't seem like you'll get the lion's share of getting people off the roads."

Laughlin, however, said Minnesota's Twin Cities have among the highest use of bicycles in the country.

"A northern climate can be a positive," he said. "If you can show these are places where you can cycle year-round, you can do it anywhere."

Oberstar was vacationing this week and was unavailable for comment, but his spokeswoman, Mary Kerr, said the communities were chosen based on merit.

"They were selected as the most bicycle-friendly, and they had the human infrastructure in place — people and groups that would be interested in getting it going," Kerr said.

Shannon Haydin, Sheboygan County's director of planning and resources, said her office got a call from Petri's office two days before the House passed the bill, asking if the county could come up with a plan for the money.

"We said yes," Haydin said. "There are a lot of projects that have been on hold because of lack of funding. I think we can be a role model for the country."

Ashdown, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said his group didn't have a problem with the federal government funding bike trails.

"The highway bill is about more than roads, and it should be," he said. "But when you're suffering from record congestion in some of our biggest metropolitan areas, and alleviating that is considered the No. 1 priority, I'm not sure how effective these provisions are."

Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who specializes in Congress, said that it was no accident that the four projects wound up in the home states of the four well-placed lawmakers.

"Very little that happens in Congress happens by coincidence," Baker said. "Earmarking is a political payoff to constituents. This is the bread-and-butter of politics."
This article might as well be the intro to Pork Barrel Politics for Dummies.

The first question is obvious. How long are these bicycle and pedestrial trails that they should cost $100 million?

To the rest of us who think rationally, or at least aren't so gullible as to take the word of a pork barrel spender, high bicycle use of course does not mean year-round cycling. Minnesota is renowned for being snowy, icy and extremely cold during wintertime. If anyone doubts that, I'm sure I can refer you to my favorite junior high school teacher, who hails from the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." So how can any honest person claim that Minnesota winters' infamous conditions are conducive to "year-round" bicycling? But don't take my word for it: 45 inches of snowfall per year, and winter temperatures from 2 to 37 degrees? Sounds like year-round cycling weather to me.

Ah, perhaps the great expense is because the Minnesota trails are heated. You know, I'd better be careful suggesting absurd things before some member of Congress gets wind of them. Congress doesn't just think it can solve every problem with money: it creates new non-problem problems when it feels it hasn't spent enough. It's easy enough to do when armed with the full faith and credit of the taxpayer's wallet.

We shouldn't be surprised at the transportation bill's pork, even at this practically unheard-of level. This is all part of the Great Congressional Race: each Senator and Representative is trying to grab as much as he or she can of the federal budget pie. Robert Byrd is consistently one of the front-runners, never far behind the leader, Ted Stevens, who can get $1.5 million for only one bus stop.

"Congestion" -- doesn't that have such a bad connotation? Like "trade deficit" and other terms that sound really bad, "congestion" is one of many abstract concepts that big government has made Pavlovian: our conditioned reaction to them is that they're problems we must solve, and now. With increasing frequency we erroneously believe that only government has the resources to plan and implement solution -- and Americans don't realize that these "problems" are mythical, if not created by government itself. For a great example, see my entry on Thomas Friedman, who believes that the federal government must do certain things to solve the "energy crisis."

"Congestion" will take care of itself: it's a law of nature, not merely free-market economics, that creatures will leave an area that is too densely populated for the limited resources available, or they will die. Now, humans don't have to die because of our exceptional physical mobility (even during the Depression, "Okies" went to California, and a few even made it to New York), and cities don't really "run out" of resources. If there's no housing for people to afford, if food is prohibitively expensive for them, they will leave. People in "congested" areas want to be there. They may not like it completely, but it's not bad enough that they want to leave. They are also capable of remaining there, by definition. This includes an ability to pay higher rent and food prices, the ability to tolerate the level of crime, and the inconvenience of not owning a car.

Discussing of how cities form is beyond the scope of this entry, but suffice it to say that popular cities will naturally become "congested" for the basic reason that they're loci of human activity. After all, if there were sufficiently high demand for goods and services outside big cities, the cities' businesses wouldn't have concentrated there in the first place. Simply, businesses start up in cities and not elsewhere because, preferably via the free market, they're a balance between lower transportation costs and higher resource costs (particularly housing). If people are to learn any principle of economics, it's that there are always trade-offs. For this reason you can trust the economics that Thomas Sowell teaches, because he said there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Clearly he'd never have made it as a politician.

Manhattan is a famous example of "congestion," but it's less well-known for how people naturally deal with it sans any need for government intervention. Since the 1990s, countless tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, have forsaken Manhattan and moved up here to Westchester. It's not always because they couldn't afford surging rents. Many decided that instead of renting an apartment in the city, they'd rather pay the same amount to own a real house in some Westchester village; they consider the more spacious living conditions as worth more than the inconvenience of traveling into the city. "Congestion" took care of itself. Those who stay in the city implicitly put up with the dirty streets, noise, higher crime, etc. They value the convenience of being close to Manhattan jobs, Central Park, high-end shops, Broadway shows, and so on, more than any perceived shortcomings of city life.

A while back I wrote how New York City politicians have worsened Manhattan's real estate market by rent stabilization policies. One thing I should have mentioned is that the housing shortage and resulting high prices encourage real estate developers (including Donald Trump) to construct new buildings to satisfy the high demand for non-stabilized apartments. There's only so much space, so that creates more "congestion." Again, that's assuming it's even a problem, but it's another example of government creating the problem to begin with, politicians claiming it's a problem and that "government's gotta do something," and people believing that lie.

If any level of government truly wishes to relieve "congestion," it can start by eliminating the ridiculous regulations on building new homes. Thomas Sowell in "Housing Hurdles: part II" detailed a couple's near-futile attempts to build a home on their 18-acre land, most likely so they can get out of an expensive, overcrowded city. In "Housing Hurdles: part I" he discussed the reverse. Many municipal governments, particularly in California, place restrictions on building height and how many can be built. That doesn't cause "congestion" but forces another government-created problem: urban sprawl.

We can't win either way. Government has decided it knows what's best for us, and its solution over the last several decades has degenerated into throwing more money at whatever it deems a problem. Rarely, if ever today, does government elect to let the free market work things out, particularly in letting supply and demand allocate resources optimally. As Ronald Reagan said, which applies to so many situations today, "In our present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." In no wise am I advocating a complete elimination of government, but like any good Jeffersonian, I believe government ought to be as limited as possible. If anything, tightly constrained government minimizes the chance that it'll create problems that, of course, it might think only it can remedy.

"It is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work -- work with us, not over us; stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it." - Ronald Reagan, first inaugural address, January 20, 1981

But I must disagree with the "provide opportunity" phrasing. Government shouldn't provide opportunity. Its proper place regarding opportunity is to stop and punish those who deny us the freedom to make our own opportunities.


Blogger TKC said...

I'm one of those avid cyclists and let me tell you, some of the things in this article really don't add up.
1) Avid cyclists generally despise bike paths. Basically, they are two crowded and because of this you are very prone to accidents on them. A cyclist is the fastest moving thing on a bike path. Every time you come across someone walking the dog, jogging, playing with their kids, or whatever, you have to slow down (twice as much if the have headphones on). It is practially as annoying as stop-n-go traffic. Since most of the non-cyclists on the bike paths are not paying a lick of attention it is WAY to easy to get tangled up with them.
2) I know lots of avid cyclists. Maybe 25% ride year around. Maybe 10% commute to work. I work in a company with about 1800 employees. I can count the number of bicycle commuters on one hand. Somebody who takes their K-mart Special down the bike path once a month is not an avid cyclist. When you get over 1,000 miles/year, come talk to me.
3) Bicycle commuting is fun. I'd recommend it to certain people but it is definitely not for everyone. If you live more than 20 miles from work using back roads then bike commuting is probably not for you. If you are not at least in some sort of shape then bike commuting is probably not for you. If you are scared of riding in traffic then bike commuting is not for you. Have you ever played leap frog with a city bus? This game sucks. If you don't know what this game is, it is not for the faint of heart, and you probably shouldn't be bike commutting.
4) Considering all of the above, I can't lay my finger on that part of the Constitution that says dollar one should be spent convincing someone to ride a bike to work. Do it if you want/can do it but you'll have to do it on your own dime.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005 4:49:00 PM  
Blogger TKC said...

"two crowded" arrrrgh!!!! mY grammah bee reel gude.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005 4:53:00 PM  
Blogger Perry Eidelbus said...

Boom! Thank you for the thorough explanation. (I should have remembered from your coverage of the Tour de France that you'd be able to set the record straight.) Never having been a serious cyclist, I had no idea about the numbers regarding commuting cyclists.

Madison ought to know more than anyone what's in the Constitution, and what it truly intended. If an alternative method is more efficient in and of itself, people will use it. What the bicycle trails do is make it cheaper and/or more convenient for some, and more expensive for everyone else.

But the problem with the transportation and energy bills is that special interests don't have to compete with each other anymore. Tax dollars are being doled out to just about every member of Congress and special interest group that asks.

Thursday, August 11, 2005 9:02:00 PM  
Blogger TDM said...

45 inches of snowfall per year, and winter temperatures from 2 to 37 degrees? Sounds like year-round cycling weather to me.

You don't know midwesterners. I used to bicycle year round to school. Snow and cold can be dealt with, they plow the streets quickly. Bicycling was still better than taking the bus. And you never have to deal with winter and road construction at the same time. This is no worse than all the other pork in the bill.

Ride fast, hog the road, act like traffic.

Saturday, August 13, 2005 2:28:00 AM  
Blogger Perry Eidelbus said...

Granted it worked for you, but it's not that efficient for everyone. It's like vegetable oil, which some farmers can use efficiently. Jane Fonda's bus likely cannot.

So what it still amounts to is government spending a great deal of money -- too much money -- to benefit too few. Or it artificially skews consumer preferences by subsidizing activities that are less efficient.

Saturday, August 13, 2005 5:42:00 PM  

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