In apology to the Transport Politic, and more public choice theory

I heard from Yonah Freemark yesterday and he took me to task for being too sarcastic yesterday, too dismissive with how I represented his writing and arguments, and not reading his points carefully enough.

He’s right. I am often too sarcastic, and I am sorry that I let my incredible frustration with the HSR politics in this state fall on Freemark. He is, in general, a fantastic writer and his blog, the Transport Politic, is a great resource.

I still think he is a) making the wrong argument here and b) being a bit of diplomatic enabler for the pro-HSR world with the points he emphasizes in the piece. And I’m still annoyed by circle graphics. He told me his representation is accurate, and I believe him, of course, but I still hate circle graphics, bubble charts, etc, etc in general.

But I was too bombastic, which means he himself didn’t get a fair read and I made him into a whipping boy for people who just line up behind CalHSR no matter what that agency does. I shouldn’t have done so, and he was right to be annoyed with me.

So let’s see if I can do this without being as grouchy or sarcastic as I was yesterday (it’s going to be hard because I’m grouchy every day.)

1. Freemark’s first point was that $98/74.5 billion is a small fraction of total GDP and a (roughly) third of what we spend on Caltrans.

My point about why this is bad liberal logic: The conservative response to such statements is not “oh, HSR doesn’t really cost that much.” Their response, and perhaps it is the right one, is likely to be “Holy cow, we need to cut Caltrans!”

When liberals bring up relative spending amounts, they are trying to get people to see the priorities implicit in the budget numbers.

SO while Freemark is trying to help people make sense of the sticker shock from the new business plan, there’s a “preaching to the choir” aspect to it. People who have supported this project from the beginning just think it’s worth it. They see it as the future of infrastructure, they see it as trying to build for the next 100 years.

For those of us who do not think this project should be the priority, the relative spending argument falls flat. What we hear in this discussion is: we spend too much on Caltrans, so you want us to go ahead and spend too much on HSR, too. Huh?

(I’m not actually convinced we spend too much on Caltrans, btw. I’d need to think that through more, but it’s what the relative spending arguments translate to.)

And as long as we’re talking about this: imagine what we’d have for public transit if we’d spent what we’ve spent on DARPA all these years. We’d have Wallace and Grommit style transit that picks you out of bed in the morning, dresses you, fixes you a healthy breakfast, props your news reader in front of you, glides you into the bathroom, and whisks you away to your work with nary a stop, transfer, or fare.

But if you value the military and don’t value transit, there’s no problem here, right?

2. Gabriel Rossman points out in the comments: to me the really interesting public choice model of CA HSR is how they’re deliberately building a commitment trap, both in terms of laughably low cost projections just long enough to get the plebiscite through and in terms of how they’re building the easiest (and most useless) leg first.

I didn’t talk about this because I’ve talked about it here before, but Rossman hits the nail on the head with public choice.

This is the major reason why there was so much heat in my tone yesterday. I am very annoyed, even with well-intended writers I genuinely respect like Freemark, and with the train advocacy world in general, given their response to the new business plan.

The California HSR political machine doesn’t deserve their fidelity at this point. The politics have been deeply cynical and self-serving. CalHSR advocates may say that this project is “for all of us,” but that agency’s leadership has schilled the project for years with a deliberately low price-tag. They pooh-pooh’d critics who pointed out there’s no way that such a large project is going to cost less than $90 billion, only to turn around and finally admit it—but, of course, those critics were only right because not enough money has fallen from the sky for us to get started faster. People who are generally supportive of transit and rail investment like Freemark have spent years in good faith discussing the project as a clear public good based on diddled cost estimates. They should have had chance to make a case for the project on solid ground from the beginning instead of constantly having to do backflips and contortion acts with every new dodge and sleight-of-hand from the agency.

This is one reason why I think all of us–even those of us who might support such a project–should be furious at this point. They have undermined our ability to thoughtfully and ethically deliberate the role we want for HSR–if any–in our state. They have behaved exactly the way critics of government predict government agents behave when they serve themselves rather than us. And I don’t buy the excuse that the public can’t handle the truth or has to be gulled into doing what’s right.

Watching CalHSR over the years, and their diplomatic enablers in the blogosphere, has been galling to me because it’s been like watching a comedy skit where there is a person dancing to the music and then the musicians start playing faster and faster and faster and while the dancer tries heroically hard to keep up. At some point, it’s obvious to everybody, the dancer should mutiny. The dancer tried to do his job; he tried to participate in the activity in good faith, and the musicians made his job impossible through their bad behavior.

Here’s the reality.

A) There will be no private investors willing to put money into the project until the taxpayers have eaten most of the construction costs. The private sector would love to help us build it (construction contracts, yay!) and they would love to run it once it’s built. That’s the private sector interest. Funding it? Not so much.

B) Building anything in California is expensive. It may be relatively less expensive to build in the Central Valley than along the coast, but it is still not cheap, not compared to places like Iowa where a Federal dollar goes a long way.

C) The Feds are not going to fund a significant portion of this project unless something radically changes. That means Californians are going to pay for almost all of the construction costs.

D) The price tag for construction is somewhere between $90 to $105 billion.

E) If we want it, Californians will have to forego $100 billion of other things. We could cut $100 billion out of highway funding. Or $100 billion out of education. Or $100 billion out of social programs. But that’s the price tag, and Californians have to face up to it. We could ask taxpayers to go without $100 billion of their own purchasing power and propose a new tax to pay for it. All of the above are possibilities, real possibilities, and that’s where the discussion should be.

There’s the choice. No sugar-coating. No contortions. No obfuscating. Do we want it enough or not? It’s not “oh, we can have this and private sector/the Feds will give it to us.” Nope. It’s just Californians, having to decide what they want. Do we want it or not?

(It’s still reasonable to say “yes” if I say “no.” But let’s give people the ability to say yes or no in an ethical deliberative process.)

4 thoughts on “In apology to the Transport Politic, and more public choice theory

  1. Concentrated benefits, diffuse costs. What is in the “public interest” is actually in a few people’s particular interests, since they will become rich building a train. And we know where California will find most of its $100 billion: the remains of its social safety net.

    The Caltrans comparison is a classic mistake, in that it tells us the opportunity cost of CalTrans, not the opportunity cost of HSR. When I teach it I call it the Afghanistan fallacy, since almost every investment can be justified by saying “it’s only x months in Iraq!” But one terrible decision doesn’t justify another.

    • Actually, Mike, now that the world has 7 billion people in, all we have to do is collect $15 from each of them and we’re there!

  2. Whoops, meant “afghanistan” when I wrote “Iraq”. But you get the idea.

  3. Also, I just looked at the new CBA for HSR. WTF? Triple convergence apparently doesn’t exist? How do justify high ridership in part by talking about how much the state’s economy is going to grow, and then pretend drivers won’t converge onto road space freed up by train patrons? Aaaaarrggghhhh.

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