I have an excellent job at a great university. I have a home that I love in a community I’ve lived in for two decades where I have deep ties of family and friendship. Unfortunately, that university and that hometown are about 250 kilometers from one another. And so, I’ve become an extreme commuter, traveling three or four hours each way once or twice a week so I can spend time with my students 3-4 days a week and with my wife and young son the rest of the time.
America is a commuter culture. Averaged out over a week, my commute is near the median American experience. Spend forty minutes driving each way to your job and you’ve got a longer commute than I in the weeks I make one trip to Cambridge. But, of course, I don’t get to go home every night. I stay two to three nights a week at a bed and breakfast in Cambridge, where my “ludicrously frequent guest” status gets me a break on a room. I spend less this way than I did my first year at MIT, when I rented an apartment that I never used on weekends or during school vacations.
This is not how I would choose to live if I could bend space and time, and I spend a decent amount of time trying to optimise my travel through audiobooks, podcasts, and phone calls made while driving. I also gripe about the commute probably far too often to my friends, who are considerate if not entirely sympathetic. (It’s hard to be sympathetic to a guy who has the job he wants, lives in a beautiful place, and simply has a long drive a few times a week.)
Hearing my predicament, one friend prescribed a solution: “You need a Google self-driving car!” The friend in question is a top programmer for a world-leading game company, and her enthusiasm for a technical solution parallels advice I’ve gotten from my technically oriented friends, who offer cutting edge technology that is either highly unlikely to materially affect my circumstances, or would improve some aspect of my commute rather than change its core nature. (Lots of friends forwarded me Elon Musk’s hyperloop proposal. And lots more have suggested tools I can use on my iPhone so that a synthetic voice will read my students’ assignments aloud while I drive.)
“I don’t want a Google car,” I tell her. “I want a train.”
In much of the world, a train wouldn’t be an unreasonable thing to ask for. New England has a population density comparable to parts of Europe where commuting by train is commonplace. I live ten kilometers north of downtown Pittsfield, MA, which lies on a rail line that connects Albany, NY with Boston. There is, in fact, one train per day from Pittsfield to Boston. It takes almost six hours to make a journey that can take me as little as 2.5 hours (if there’s no traffic) to drive, and operates at a time that makes it impossible for me to use it for business travel. I want a European train, a Japanese train, not necessarily a bullet train, but something that could get me from the county seat of Berkshire county to the state capitol in under two hours.
Such a train exists on some of the proposed maps for high speed rail service in New England. But given the current government shutdown, and more broadly, a sense that government services are contracting rather than expanding, it’s very hard to imagine such a line ever being built. In fact, it’s much easier for me to imagine my semi-autonomous car speeding down the Mass Pike as part of a computer-controlled platoon than boarding a train in my little city and disembarking in a bigger one.
There’s something very odd about a world in which it’s easier to imagine a futuristic technology that doesn’t exist outside of lab tests than to envision expansion of a technology that’s in wide use around the world. How did we reach a state in America where highly speculative technologies, backed by private companies, are seen as a plausible future while routine, ordinary technologies backed by governments are seen as unrealistic and impossible?
The irony of the Google car for my circumstances is that it would be inferior in every way to a train. A semi-autonomous car might let me read or relax behind the wheel, but it would be little faster than my existing commute and as sensitive to traffic, which is the main factor that makes some trips 2.5 hours and some 4 hours. Even if my Google car is a gas-sipping Prius or a plug-in hybrid, it will be less energy efficient than a train, which achieves giant economies of scale in fuel usage even at higher speeds than individual vehicles. It keeps me sealed in my private compartment, rather than giving me an opportunity to see friends who make the same trip or meet new people.
There’s a logical response to my whiny demands for an easier commute: if there were a market for such a service, surely such a thing would exist. And if train service can’t be profitably provided between Pittsfield and Boston, why should Massachusetts taxpayers foot the bill for making my life marginally easier?
This line of reasoning became popular in the US during the Reagan/Thatcher revolution and has remained influential ever since. What government services can be privatized should be, and government dollars should go only towards services, like defense, that we can’t pay for in private markets. As the US postal service has reminded us recently, they remain open during the government shutdown because they are mandated by Congress to be revenue neutral. Ditto for Amtrak, which subsidizes money-losing long distance routes with profitable New England services and covers 88% of expenses through revenue, not through government support. Our obsession with privatization is so thorough in the US that we had no meaningful debate in the US about single payer healthcare, a system that would likely be far cheaper and more efficient than the commercial health insurance mandated under the Affordable Care Act – even when governments provide services more efficiently than private markets, the current orthodoxy dictates that private market solutions are the way to go.
The problem with private market solutions is that they often achieve a lower level of efficiency than public solutions. Medicare has tremendous power to negotiate with drug manufacturers, which brings down healthcare costs. Private insurers have less leverage, and we all pay higher prices for drugs as a result, especially those whose healthcare isn’t paid for my a government or private organization and who have no negotiating power. The current system works very well for drug companies, but poorly for anyone who needs and uses healthcare (which is to say, for virtually everyone.)
It’s possible that the same argument applies to transportation, though the argument is less direct. It’s not that a federal or state government can provide train service to western MA at a cost that’s substantially lower than a private company (though they might – Medicare’s aggressive audit process helps keep costs down by minimizing waste.) It’s more that transportation has ancillary financial benefits that are hard for anyone other than a state to claim.
Real estate in Boston is insanely expensive, either to buy or to rent. That’s because lots of people want to live and work in Boston and the supply of real estate is relatively scarce compared to demand. In much of the rest of Massachusetts (let’s say, anywhere west of I-495), jobs are relatively scare and real estate is plentiful. Cities like Worcester, Holyoke, Springfield, Greenfield and Pittsfield experienced peak population decades ago and have been on the decline ever since. These cities and their surrounding communities are nice places to live, though they suffer from a shrinking population and tax base.
If there were a high-speed rail corridor from Boston to Albany, through Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield, we would expect real estate in those cities to become more valuable as people fed up with Boston rents moved to smaller cities and the countryside, using high speed rail to commute to schools and jobs. This would have the salubrious effect of increasing the tax base for the most vulnerable communities in MA, though it might decrease the tax base in the most densely settled parts of Massachusetts. Then again, lowered density might be a good thing – few people stuck on I-90 or I-93 on their way into Boston on a Monday morning think the city and its suburbs works especially well at current density.
This model of rail turning undesirable land into desirable land is basically the model that enabled westward expansion during the 19th century – the US government and rail companies struck a deal that shared ownership of land along the new rail lines. Railroad companies sold land to new immigrants and to those willing to trade urban density for rural opportunity to finance their construction, and the government used revenues from land sales to fill public coffers.
But western MA is not unclaimed land. High speed rail will make some landowners wealthy while leaving others relatively untouched. The only entity that can capture the value generated by an infrastructural improvement like high speed rail is a government – local, state or federal – which can claim a share of those increased property values through taxation. If high speed rail makes it possible to live in Springfield and work in Boston, it might – over time – generate enough traffic to make running the service profitable. In the short term, however, we’d see Springfield better able to pay for schools and public services, a not insignificant development for a community that’s facing severe economic problems.
Who loses? Residents of Boston and surrounding suburbs. We’d expect rents and property values to decrease somewhat as demand lessens. And we’d be generating public debt through a bond issue, much as when citizens throughout Massachusetts subsidized the Big Dig, despite the fact that the massive infrastructure project did little to benefit residents of Pittsfield, on the other side of the state. We would be engaged in a transfer or wealth from the wealthiest part of our state to some of the poorest, hoping that, in the long run, our poorer communities would become more self-sufficient and sustainable, and would do a better job of supporting the state as a whole.
Is such an investment worthwhile? I don’t know – it’s the sort of issue one would expect to debate, trying to determine whether future spending is likely to generate significant enough economic gains that a long term investment is worthwhile. But we seem to be losing the ability to have these long-term debates. Experts warn of crumbling infrastructure throughout the US, as exemplified by broken bridges and collapsing freeways. A quick trip to any city in the Middle East or Asia is a stark reminder of how antiquated most of our public transit systems are, in those places where they exist.
The US has a problem with public goods. After thirty years of hearing that government can do nothing right and that the private sector is inevitably more efficient, my generation and those younger tend not to look towards the government to solve problems. Instead, we look to the private sector, sometimes towards social ventures that promise to turn a profit while doing good, more often towards fast-growth private companies, where we hope their services will make the world a better place. Google can feel like a public good – like a library, it’s free for everyone to use, and it may have social benefits by increasing access to information. But it’s not a public good – we don’t have influence over what services Google does and doesn’t provide, and our investment is an investment of attention as recipients of ads, not taxation.
It’s unthinkable for most Americans to posit a government-built Google, as the French government proposed some years ago. But it’s likely that long established parts of our civic landscape, like libraries and universities, would be similarly unthinkable as public ventures if we were to start them today. (You want to lend intellectual property at zero cost to consumers who might copy and redistribute it, and you’d like local government to pay for it? What sort of socialist are you?!)
This unwillingness to consider the creation of new public goods restricts the solution space we consider. We look for solutions to the crisis in journalism but aren’t willing to consider national license models like the one that supports the BBC, or strong, funded national broadcasters like NHK or Deutsche Welle. We build markets to match consumers with health insurance but won’t consider expanding Medicare into a single-payer health system. We look towards MOOCs and underpaid lecturers rather than considering fundamental reforms to the structure of state universities. We consider a narrow range of options and complain when we find only lousy solutions.
My student Rodrigo Davies has been writing about civic crowdfunding, looking at cases where people join together online and raise money for projects we’d expect a government to otherwise provide. On the one hand, this is an exciting development, allowing neighbors to raise money and turn a vacant lot into a community garden quickly and efficiently. But we’re also starting to see cases where civic crowdfunding challenges services we expect governments to provide, like security. Three comparatively wealthy neighborhoods in Oakland have used crowdfunding to raise money for private security patrols to respond to concerns about crime in their communities. Oakland undoubtably has problems with crime, in part due to significant budget cuts in the past decade that have shrunk the police force.
It’s reasonable that communities that feel threatened would take steps to increase their safety. But if those steps focus only on communities wealthy enough to pay for their own security and don’t consider broader issues of security in the community, they are likely to have corrosive effects in the long term. Oakland as a whole may become more dangerous as select communities become safer. And people paying for private security are likely to feel less obligation to paying for high-quality policing for the city as a whole if they feel that private security is keeping them safe – look at the resentment people without kids and people whose kids are homeschooled or in private school express towards funding public schools.
On the one hand, I appreciate the innovation of crowdfunding, and think it’s done remarkable things for some artists and designers. On the other hand, looking towards crowdfunding to solve civic problems seems like a woefully unimaginative solution to an interesting set of problems. It’s the sort of solution we’d expect at a moment where we’ve given up on the ability to influence our government and demand creative, large-scale solutions to pressing problems, where we look to new technologies for solutions or pool our funds to hire someone to do the work we once expected our governments to do.