A little interlude in this crazy season of work and travel to meditate on the chance to take time out from everyday life. Traveling by train always has a calming effect on me. It is as if I hit “pause” on my life. I am content to watch the world pass from the windows and let my thoughts wander. On a one-day work trip to Providence last week I got to pass my favorite part of the Amtrak journey between New York and points north: Connecticut’s marches and water ways, which are always full of dazzling light and views.
It’s been a long time since there’s been anything “political” on this blog. I’ve honestly stayed away from it, letting my politics play out in my real life and letting the blog be for posting pictures of pretty things that I find and snapshots and reflections from my adventures near and far. But these past few weeks I’ve found myself the maddest I’ve been about politics since George W. Bush was in office! There’s a few big issues that are sticking in my craw, but I feel that they can all be understood via the prism of economic analysis.
First, the issues:
The lawsuit against NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan over the (amazing!) bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn and general backlash against bike lanes, bikers, and traffic calming measures in New York in general. Never mind that traffic accidents are down, speeding is down on Prospect Park West, bike ridership is up, and business has increased in areas where traffic calming measures have been put into place, such as Broadway.
The backlash against NPR and the move by the federal government to remove all federal funding from NPR and PBS. Despite Republicans constant whining that NPR does not represent them fairly or give them enough air time, NPR often features more republican interviews than democrats and is really one of the few truly balanced news options available for the US. And never mind that PBS is the only channel on television that offers intelligent, non-hyperbolic analysis of the evolving situation in the Middle East (thank you, Charlie Rose).
The move to severely reduce funding for the National Endowment for the Arts on the federal level, and the New York State Council on the Arts on the state level. Yes, we have a deficit, but is cutting funding to the arts, which provides jobs and enriches our culture (in fact, defines it) worth the benefit and savings? I say no.
The move by the federal government to remove all funding from Planned Parenthood. Barefoot and in the kitchen, here we come.
Excuse my sarcasm, but others have done a much better job outlining the situation than I. The question on my mind lately has been, “Where is the coordinated, energetic movement to support and protect these important public assets?” Yes, there’s been campaigns to write your representatives, and some nifty protests, but not widespread, public support. “Why?” I asked myself, “When many people benefit from these resources.” Fortunately, there’s economics.
Basically, it goes back to the theory of public goods versus private goods. A good is public when anyone can access it (as in they are “not excludable”) and one persons use does not diminish another person’s use. Rival goods are when anyone can access it, but a person’s use of that good takes away from another person’s enjoyment of that good. Economist Jonathan Gruber states that most goods we think of as “public goods” are really “impure public goods,” because they are not fully non-excludable or non-rival. ANYWAY… economic theory goes that people undervalue what they can get for free or don’t have to directly pay for. While we all pay for public services like roads, parks, and libraries via our taxes, we tend to undervalue them because we are not directly paying for that service.
Then there’s the problem of a “free rider,” someone who doesn’t pay at all for these services (as in “public goods”) and enjoys their benefits. NPR is a good example. I’m a total free rider. I haven’t given to WNYC in about 4 years, but I listen everyday! Bike lanes are another example. I have absolutely benefited from the work of Janet Sadik-Khan and the Department of Transportation to make the city a more bike and pedestrian friendly place. I just joined Transportation Alternatives last year to put my money where my wheels and feet are, but mostly I just took for granted that things would get “better” for those of us non-drivers.
So my theory is that most people who enjoy services that tend to be championed by the democrats (but really cross party lines and have nothing to do with political parties really) are free riders who enjoy the benefits without thinking about the cost. In addition, people like drivers who are angry that their parking has been reduced by a bike lane and that they can no longer drive 50 miles an hour down a city street are not thinking about the fact that public resources like city streets can be rival in consumption and that their use of streets takes away from the ability of others to use it. In addition, drivers and parkers are “free riders” because they don’t think of cost of streets and parking and when they are asked to bear even a little bit of it (such as in Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal for downtown Manhattan) they freak out and bring a lawsuit.
This also relates to theories of positive and negatives “externalities”- the additional social benefit (positive) or cost (negative) generated by a good or activity. I would say that bike lanes are a positive externality and thus undervalued, and driving is a negative externality, which means that society bears a cost for driving (through air pollution, dangerous and congested streets, etc.) that is not borne by the drivers themselves.
I was totally vindicated because a writer for the Economist came up with almost the exact same theory in respect to the bike lanes! I am so grateful for the Economist I will certainly renew my subscription!
But my message is this: Think about the benefit you receive from the things you value, whether it be safe streets, quality news coverage, reproductive health and choice, and a vibrant arts community, and think about how you can support those. It need not be with money, but think about the opportunity cost here: when we are talking about public goods, whatever we give up, be it our time, money or energy, we get back even more than we could possibly put a price on.