Friday, August 13, 2010

Friendlier language for "social" considerations and costs

One of my clients is the Midwest High Speed Rail Association (join us!) and we advocate for building bullet trains and expanding Amtrak. It's a great investment for our country to make, as it is among the most efficient methods of travel for trips between 100-750 miles that humans have invented.

One of our challenges is that high speed rail is more efficient than all other modes (mainly driving or flying) when comparing *all* costs, not just government costs. So think of 1000 people deciding to travel between Ann Arbor and Chicago. If they each drive, think of each of them at a gas station, filling up their tank, spending $50 or $75, and exporting their wealth from their pockets to Saudi Arabia. Then they depreciate 1000 different vehicles for 200-some miles. And then there are the costs of maintaining and financing the parking spots on both ends. We normally don't think of those as costs born by society. Instead we tend to compare the costs of a building and maintaining a highway to the costs of building and maintaining a high speed rail line and end up with the conclusion: "jeez, high speed rail is expensive."

But if they each get in the same one train that sits more than 1000 people and take the same train to Chicago that lets them off in a very compact train station (compared to an airport or a 1000-car parking lot), using a relatively tiny amount of energy to move the train compared to moving a plane or moving 1000 separate cars, then the total cost is much cheaper.

We need better language to convey the total costs to all of society and encourage voters to 'zoom out' their perspective on how we run our country. Usually, government-run or -financed investments make a lot of sense from the perspective of the total costs paid by everyone in the country or state, but they don't make as much sense without that crucial perspective. Public transportation is a great example. One of the major benefits of public transportation is the reduction in time-wasting traffic congestion for drivers. If everyone on a train got in a car, traffic would be much, much worse. And that would impose a real cost on everyone else. But if we don't 'zoom out' and consider the costs born by everyone as a cost that each of us should care about, then we miss the point of making our country more efficient and economical through government-financed initiatives like public transportation. We just focus on the tax to maintain public transportation and think of that as the only cost we are all paying.

It's hard not to consider this a type of socialistic thinking, because after all, we're thinking about everyone in society. Socialism is still considered a taboo term, even though most government-investments that are really socialist institutions like highways or or high schools or fire departments are as mainstream as the military. What language can we use that avoids the taboo term of 'social' costs and benefits? (And hopefully the taboo is wearing off so we can have pragmatic and accurate discussions and debates about the best way to run our country in the most efficient, economical way).

I'm growing fond of the term 'wasteful' to describe how we run things without sufficient government investment (if, in fact, the costs born by society are higher than they would be with more government involvements -- of course, that isn't always the case). In transportation, we rely too much on roads and cars for our mobility, and that is inherently costly and wasteful. We spend far too much on gasoline, which is exporting our wealth to the oil-producing states (funding the other side of the war on terror) and the costs of transportation in the aggregate are way too high compared to what they could be with far more public transportation and high speed rail.

So as a way to get people to start zooming out and to accurately calculate the costs and benefits of different transportation investments (auto-heavy, or more government-investment in public transportation), I'm going to use the terms 'wasteful' and 'productive' as the two metrics to consider. Because ultimately, our economy needs to be more productive and less wasteful if we're going to raise our standard of living. It's a shift for lots of voters to think of their personal economic well-being as fundamentally connected to the economic well-being of their neighbors and fellow Americans, but it happens to be true. That means if our neighbors spend less money on transportation out of their personal budgets (because they have access to public transportation), we are better off because of it. And the more people who see their world in that accurate, interdependent way, the more people will vote for policies that make all of us better off. Otherwise, we're stuck with voters and politicians who believe that it doesn't really matter what makes all of us better off, it's that they are against the very idea of a government reducing costs for everyone. That idea of opposition to government generally takes our eyes off the ball of what works to improve all of our standard of living.

And so ultimately, to reduce voters' opposition to government generally, we should be encouraging citizens to think about all the costs that all Americans spend in transportation or education or health care or business. Because if government can save all of us money -- and it absolutely does -- it is economically self-defeating for Americans to continue to be wasteful because of a rejection of the idea of government.

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