Is there a moral case for free transit for students?

Student MetroCard March: “This Is What Democracy Looks Likes” – Gothamist:

From the students:

We all came out because we can’t make it without our MetroCards. We cannot afford it, we cannot pay. Some of us are on food stamps,” and “A lot of us don’t live around here and this school helps us a lot because we don’t have good schools around us.”

From one of the instructors at one of the protesting schools:

“I don’t know why they want to cut the metrocards now, when we’re in a recession and times are so tough on everyone.”

Here’s why: “they” have a name, the New York MTA, not the “the gummint”, and “they” have an $800 million dollar budget deficit, recessions are hard on everybody, including and especially transit companies, and transit service, like all public services, cost money to provide, except in the Goodship Lollypop land of American’s brains. So we’ve refused to raise the federal gas tax since 1993, which was 17 years ago, studiously avoided increasing the tax during boom times, and states didn’t exactly race to make up the gap caused by inflation (though New York has tried; it’s a pretty high-tax state, for fuels anyway.) So the money has to come from somewhere or the service has to go away, and transit companies are looking at their patrons. You want transit, you pay. Welcome to the neoliberal hangover, kids.

We can compare this to a story reported via CNBC on German Millionaires who have volunteered to close Germany’s deficit by paying 10 percent of their income over the next 10 years. (Via the TaxProf). There are a number of appealing things about this story, like the apparent altruism of rich people who seemingly get their obligations to society. And it’s reasonable that the wealthy can and should pay more. But I am also not sure that such an approach is just. It’s probably more expedient. German millionaires are not fools, and they know that their glittering cities and spotless transit and decent schools are part of the capital that drives economic growth. This approach should bother us to. It indulges the neoliberal’s attitude about taxation which can be described as “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the guy behind the tree.”

Why should millionaires foot the entire bill? What if they paid 9/10ths and everybody else increased their expectations of themselves by 1/10th? Or 99/100s to 1/100? Redistribution via taxes does have a well-established moral theory behind it (Nancy Fraser and John Rawls), but it’s a bad idea to let the citizenry at large, even those not well off, pay nothing for services they use or deficits incurred by governments they should feel represent them. Of course, that latter statement is contestable, but if your democratic institutions do not represent you, it’s your fault in some ways, even if it is not your fault in other ways (e.g., the power of elites; however, if elites take on more of the tax bill, how does that break the disproportionate influence elites have over institutions?). Free-riding should not be encouraged even if somebody who can well afford it foots the bill for the ride because our democratic obligations should have some level of reciprocity, to each other and to our institutions.

So, going back, is there an ethical rationale for free transit for students? Free transit for students has generally been expedient politics for transit companies. Transit companies want to fill seats and be relevant, and students are a likely a patron group: they are in general are younger, have fewer children, have pretty flexible schedules, have low value of time and thus get less annoyed by the occasional transit fail, and if they are poor, are too poor or too young to have cars at all or if they do, they own crappy and unreliable cars anyway. And, in general, they are cash poor. However, most of these university programs simply tack on a student fee; students pay anyway, indirectly. I don’t know how this works for New York public schools. There is, in general, a greater tolerance for providing free service and deep discounts to students due to their financial straits than there is for providing discounts and service to people based on poverty in general: students’ poverty is considered temporary, and perhaps, even laudable as they sacrifice monetarily in order to invest in themselves. There is an intergenerational aspect to it. Students will graduate someday and then in turn pay higher amounts later in life so that other students can benefit.

Free transit passes most of the tests for reasoned public ethics. You could also make this argument in terms of fewer painful absolutes: instead of letting it be free, offer a steep discount. Instead the unsustainable transit politics gets us to where we are: it’s my way or the highway: I’m entitled to free transit; well, you can chant about your right to mobility until your head falls off, I can’t pay my unionized drivers with promises, so you’re going to pay because we’re out of money. Zero-sum. Boo-yah.

2 thoughts on “Is there a moral case for free transit for students?

  1. Ethics? Ha ha ha. Let’s hear about the ethics of the $trillions spent on autosprawl subsidy. Let’s start with cleaning up the mess caused by stronger storms, commerce losses in traffic congestion, oil wars, gas pipeline wars, “free” parking costs, road funding “stimulus”, tax money handouts to oil companies, oil leak destruction to business and the environment, higher medical costs due to auto collisions, drainage problems from over paving, bailing out banks that finance housing that is reachable only by car and thus unaffordable suddenly when gasoline prices spike. And let us end this partial list with: destruction of the biosphere.

  2. Yeah, because what the world needs–and what transit needs–is yet another screed about the evils of the car–instead of how to formulate sustainable ways to fund public transit.

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