Trouble, Traffic, And Taxes

Commenter “truth=freedom” writes in to comment on yesterday’s screed in favor of congestion pricing of roads in major metropolitan areas.

This (so far as I know) was actually initiated by London. There’s a certain amount displeasure with the whole idea, to be sure, but I believe the consensus is that it works. I think the biggest complaints have more to do with where the money gets spent (aside from the expected “I should be able to drive where ever/whenever I like” bitching).

It would be nice to try here, but without doing this “globally” as opposed to in a small portion of a state/metro area, you’ll be back to that Econ 101 problem– only the cities without congestion pricing will be selling themselves. Or maybe that’s giving their stuff away for free…

Firstly, yes, London was, to my knowledge, the first major area to implement a pure congestion pricing program, with a fee of 8 pounds (about $14 by today’s exchange rate) to drive into the central downtown areas.  And, so far as I can tell, it has worked pretty well.  Tube and bus ridership is up, traffic is down, and the central government is making tons of cash from those for whom $14 a day is a trivial amount to pay for the privelege of getting to work a little faster.  Good stuff.  Plenty of complaints, but really – any more complaints than the traffic caused?

More to the point, truth=freedom’s second point is much more important, and is one of those things which liberals really have to learn to internalize about taxes.  I’ll get to that in a second, but first, a slight non-sequitur.  I can no longer find the post, but Yglesias was once involved in a little spat with some Cornerites about the general desirability of living in cities.  Now, I’ve criticized Matt before for his metro-centric view of the world, and his basic belief that the way he has lived his life is clearly superior than the way anyone else does, and if they only knew how awesome cities are, everyone would flock to cities by the billions.  But, he had a strong point in this particular discussion.

One of the Cornerites said something along the lines of “nobody wants to live in cities, because they’re so damn expensive”.  Which is, of course, asinine to the extreme, along the same lines and Yogi Berra’s quip that “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”  The fact that Yogi’s restaurant was crowded means lots of people go there, and Yglesias pointed out that the fact that cities are expensive means, in fact, that lots of people want to live there, otherwise prices would drop.

Now, getting back to the issue at hand, the question of whether changes like congestion pricing have to be universally applied, or whether they could be tested in a state-by-state or, more likely, city-by-city fashion.  The fact is that the money would not be spent on nothing.  If done wisely, this sort of system could be used to create a very approachable city, where it was fairly easy to get around without having to drive your car during peak driving times.  And the best thing is, once the infrastructure for a real comprehensive transit system is in place, it can run all week long, not just during rush hour periods.

Therefore, while residents of those cities will be giving something up on the one hand, they’ll be getting something back, on the other.  Less sitting in traffic.  Maybe you can use those funds to implement city-wide wireless, or routers on your buses and in the subway, so that e-commuters can actually work from the train or the bus.

And this, in turn, leads to a wider discussion of the way that liberals and Democrats should be fighting to frame the issue of taxes.  I believe I remember Joe Biden saying something along these lines during his debate last week, but it should be said often, and loudly.  We all love the idea of low taxes – clearly, in an ideal world, everyone would get to take home every dollar that they earned.  At the same time, we all (except for the Ron Paulites, anyhow) agree that there are certain services that are best offered up by centralized governments.

These services have to be paid for, and since the government is generally not in the business of producing products, only consuming products and providing services, the only way it can bring in the money to pay for those services is through taxes.  So, the question the Democrats discuss should not be ‘high taxes or low taxes’, it should be ‘good services or bad services.’  The George Wills of the world can say it until they’re blue in the face, but when it comes to a question of services provided, this country is not center-right.  Americans are in favor of providing adequate services to the elderly, the poor, and those in need, and it’s up to the Dems to make sure that it’s understood that, in order for this to happen, taxes will have to be paid and, yes, sometimes even raised, to make sure that it is all covered.

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2 Responses to Trouble, Traffic, And Taxes

  1. I’m glad one of us had the time to explore this topic to the extent that it deserves. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s words (“Ilike paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”) are getting a lot of electrons (and even some old fashioned newsprint) these past few days. And transportation infrastructure is definitely one of the things that we would be wise to buy with those taxes. Even more wise than a new stadium.

    I think you’ll get wide agreement here in Colorado that we need more transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, many of those people would prefer another lane or two to Vail (or where ever) than a solution that forces them to compete with the unwashed for space. I see it on people’s faces every day (well, every day I take the bus, which is most days).

    My concern (not that I think you actually missed the point) is that should, say, Denver, try to implement a sort of congestion pricing, you would see the outlying counties agressively courting the businesses currently based there. With tax incentives. You’d probably even have the Legislature seriously considering the idea of leaving Denver, and I’d bet Colorado Springs would start the bidding war for it. This would get ugly.

    It would take basically every county on the Front Range of Colorado (all the way down to Pueblo) instituting a tax per mile of operation on the roads. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which this could end up being regressive. It could alter the geographical distribution of real-estate prices in ways that drive the poor to the fringes (much as in many Latin American cities). It could drive up the costs of basic goods and services beyond the reach of many, which would definitely argue for attention to a more regular adjustment of the minimum wage.

    In no way do I suggest the current situation is even close to optimal. And I am confident that the only way we’ll get where we need to be is to drastically change what we’re doing today. I just think if we do it without acknowledging the possible pitfalls, we’ll be bitten by the failure to meet expectations, and be the targets of demagogues.

    Oh, wait. That’s already happening….

  2. I’m glad one of us had the time to explore this topic to the extent that it deserves. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s words (“Ilike paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”) are getting a lot of electrons (and even some old fashioned newsprint) these past few days. And transportation infrastructure is definitely one of the things that we would be wise to buy with those taxes. Even more wise than a new stadium.

    I think you’ll get wide agreement here in Colorado that we need more transportation infrastructure. Unfortunately, many of those people would prefer another lane or two to Vail (or where ever) than a solution that forces them to compete with the unwashed for space. I see it on people’s faces every day (well, every day I take the bus, which is most days).

    My concern (not that I think you actually missed the point) is that should, say, Denver, try to implement a sort of congestion pricing, you would see the outlying counties agressively courting the businesses currently based there. With tax incentives. You’d probably even have the Legislature seriously considering the idea of leaving Denver, and I’d bet Colorado Springs would start the bidding war for it. This would get ugly.

    It would take basically every county on the Front Range of Colorado (all the way down to Pueblo) instituting a tax per mile of operation on the roads. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which this could end up being regressive. It could alter the geographical distribution of real-estate prices in ways that drive the poor to the fringes (much as in many Latin American cities). It could drive up the costs of basic goods and services beyond the reach of many, which would definitely argue for attention to a more regular adjustment of the minimum wage.

    In no way do I suggest the current situation is even close to optimal. And I am confident that the only way we’ll get where we need to be is to drastically change what we’re doing today. I just think if we do it without acknowledging the possible pitfalls, we’ll be bitten by the failure to meet expectations, and be the targets of demagogues.

    Oh, wait. That’s already happening….

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