We could save a lot of money by getting rid of Oklahoma

In another instance of an opportunistic politician going after small money and getting in the NYT, Republican Senator Tom Coburn is riding high on his brilliant plan to get rid of government waste by going after political science funding in NSF. We’ll leave aside the fact that this is really really small money we’re talking here–we might as well just not fund 20 box culverts–and just go after the heart of this: we need to not fund political science research at the Federal level because this senator wants to claim a ‘win’ and lots of people resent professors, particularly those associated with the humanities or social sciences because we supposedly aren’t curing cancer or, in Coburn’s case, coming up with the newest, most profit-enhancing ranch or oil technology, or since he’s a doctor, a new technology that would allow doctors to spend on average 5 minutes with patients instead that lengthy 7 minutes they spend now. It could save lives.

I also think it is imperative that scholars do relevant work. But the decision rule at NSF or any funder should be about ideas–not disciplines, necessarily–and what seems on its surface less useful sometimes proves over the long term to be immensely useful. So those early experiments in behavioral economics were not particularly well-received. But I’d say they look pretty useful now, don’t you think? Nash’s early work on game theory went unrecognized for years, and now it’s one of the most valuable tools in the anti-terrorism toolkit I suspect Coburn approves of highly. Lots of computer science things absolutely necessary to military and industry began with little abstractions in math or philosophy. Knowledge and human capital are like quicksilver to forecast, and yet the consequences of them are all around us, all the time.

So let’s turn this issue on its head and go after some big money. Do we really need Oklahoma? Is it relevant for anything? Now, we can’t afford to go indulging in jingoistic arguments about how Oklahoma is significant to Oklahoman’s identities and whatnot; that’s just like the “life of the mind” arguments Coburn wouldn’t want us to listen to about political science. Let’s actually look at whether the state of Oklahoma is a worthy and efficient usage of public funds. Couldn’t most of the administrative functions of the state be absorbed rather easily into those of its neighboring states? Couldn’t its universities just close down and send their students elsewhere? Or couldn’t they simply get renamed the University of Texas-Stillwater or the University of Texas–Oklahoma City?** Wouldn’t that save a lot of money? Let’s go at it hard and faster: in two generations, I suspect we will be able to govern most of the US population via mayors’ offices and metropolitan planning organizations. Aren’t states struggling financially? States still wield a lot of political and financial capital because of past political decisions, not because of efficiency criteria, and now that we are an urban country in an urban world, aren’t states by and large redundant? Shouldn’t we be thinking about dismantling them?

I think the answer is no largely because states, like universities, are major employers and provide a lot of economic development for their surrounding cities more so. Maybe some political scientists can apply to NSF for some grant funding to prove me wrong here–to establish a compelling rationale for state-level governance over local or regional administration…

**I’m pretty sure just by writing that, I probably caused a Sooners fan to burst a blood vessel in his temple.

Distributive justice research in transport finance

Most of the research in transportation and social welfare concerns distributional outcomes, or more prosaically, the question of who gets what out of transport finance policy. The research on distributive social justice in transportation occurs primarily in three, largely separate fields: social inclusion, environmental justice, and the major topic of this manuscript, tax incidence. The research on social inclusion addresses the extent to which mobility limitations—either physical or financial—affect the distribution of individuals’ access to social and economic opportunity. Because taxes and user charges can raise the costs of gasoline or transit fares, they can create (or lower) financial barriers to mobility, and by extension, to social inclusion (1). The research on social inclusion in the US is perhaps best represented by the enormous amount of research on spatial mismatch.

Environmental justice research and activism has raised awareness about the distributive consequences, particularly for impoverished communities of color within metropolitan regions, of the external costs from transportation-related pollutants and environmental health costs associated with auto usage (3-9). Other types of external costs, like noise and pedestrian crashes, have also been shown to be higher in low-income communities than in more affluent neighborhoods (12). These costs can be measured by additional sick days or expenditures on things like air conditioner or air filters. Because of these types of costs, the social equity question arises from failing to expect motorists, low and high-income alike, to consider the external costs of their choices and enabling travel over and above a social optimum in a way that decreases the welfare of others.

The tax incidence research, by contrast, asks how much individuals and groups pay under different finance methods relative to other groups. This research examines the regressivity or progressivity of tax payments and revenue allocations (2). Regressive taxes or fees ask low-income individuals to sacrifice a comparatively larger percentage of their resources, usually measured in income, to pay for taxes than is required of those with higher incomes. Progressive taxes, like a graduated income tax, take an increasing percentage of income as income increases overall. These definitions are inverted in the case of tax allocations rather than costs. Incidence research tends to ask a very different question than social inclusion research: do socially marginalized groups, particularly class minorities, pay a disproportionate amount of their income for a tax? Most taxes, save for graduated income, are regressive in terms of out-of-pocket costs. It is possible for a tax to be regressive, while revenue distribution may be progressive, so that low-income individuals may pay in disproportionately and benefit disproportionately. It is important to maintain the distinction between social exclusion and tax incidence because regressivity and progressivity are general measures of tax fairness, not proxies for whether mobility is affordable. Gas taxes have been found to be regressive, in general, but with an out-of-pocket cost estimate of $25 to $28 a year per household per car, the Federal gas tax is hardly a prohibitive sum.

However, tax and finance structures affect relative prices among modes and thus can influence both the overall affordability of mobility—the social inclusion concern—and the amount/type of driving going on—the environmental justice concern. The policy goals surrounding all of these issues can and do conflict, depending on the context and the policy design. Among the most significant equity concerns over congestion pricing is that low-income motorists will have to forego trips. With tolls, mobility on congested roadways would become less affordable, creating a barrier to social inclusion for low-income motorists and their families. But by protecting low-income motorists from financial barriers to mobility by undercharging everybody, policy may burden communities with excess emissions and surface traffic. The results from the environmental justice research suggest that that these costs are born unequally as well, so that by not pricing trips off the road, policy burdens low-income communities and families within them.

Though most of the studies in tax incidence examine the distribution of the out-of-pocket costs associated with pricing, the very best studies acknowledge the role that prices play in altering both the distribution mobility overall and the external costs associated with that mobility. Unfortunately, there are very few studies that take such a comprehensive view.

1. Lucas K. Locating transport as a social policy problem. In: Transport, Social Exlusion, and Environmental Justice. 2004. p. 7-14.

2. Due JF, Mikesell JC. Sales Taxation. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 1994.

3. Schweitzer L, Valenzuela Jr A. Environmental Justice and Transportation: The Claims and the Evidence. Journal of Planning Literature. 2004 ;18(4):383-398.

4. Schweitzer L, Stephenson M. Right Answers, Wrong Questions: Environmental Justice as Urban Research. Urban Studies. 2007 ;44(2):319-350.

5. Houston D, Wu J, Ong P, Winer A. Proximity of Licensed Childcare to Near-Roadway Vehicle Pollution. American Journal of Public Health. 2004 ;96(9):1611-1617.

6. Houston D, Wu J, Ong P, Winer A. Structural disparities of urban traffic in southern California: Implications for vehicle related-air pollution exposure in minority and high-poverty neighborhoods. Journal of Urban Affairs. 2004 ;26(5):565-592.

7. Jerrett M, Finkelstein M. Geographies of risk in studies linking chronic air pollution exposure to health outcomes. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A. 2005;68: 1207-1242.

8. Jerrett M, Burnett RT, Kanaroglou P, Eyles J, Finkelstein N, Giovis C, et al. A GIS-environmental justice analysis of particulate air pollution in Hamilton, Canada. Environment and Planning A. 2001 ;33955-973.

9. Loh P, Sugerman-Brozan J, Wiggins S, Noiles D, Archibald C. From asthma to AirBeat: Community-driven monitoring of fine particles and black carbon in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2002 ;110297-301, Suppl. 2.

10. Marshall JD. Environmental inequality: Air pollution exposures in California’s South Coast Air Basin. Atmos.Environ. 2008 7;42(21):5499-5503.

11. Bachman W, Sarasua W, Hallmark S, Guensler R. Modeling regional mobile source emissions in a geographic information system framework. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies. Feb ;8(1-6):205-229.

12. Chakraborty J, Schweitzer L, Forkenbrock DJ. Using GIS to assess the environmental justice impacts of transportation system changes. Transactions in GIS. 1999 ;3(3):329-258.

13. Crane R, Schweitzer L. Sustainability, transport, and the built environment. Built Environment. 2003 ;29(3):238-252.