Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why do we care about Joel Kotkin?

In my last post I introduced Joel Kotkin, self-appointed Defender of Suburbia against the Urban Elites, and gave you a taste of some of the misinformation he spreads. I linked to critiques of him by the Most Senior Fellow, by Yonah Freemark, and most recently by Jarrett Walker. To this I would like to add the DC Streetsblog crew and DMI John.

So why do all these people get so worked up over the hyperventilations of an architecture professor in the San Fernando Valley? Why is your Cap'n spending two posts (and more) on this guy? It's because Kotkin speaks the language of the left. Many pundits argue against transit in right-wing terms: conformity, progress, low taxes, property rights. When Patrick McHenry mocks cycling as "a 19th century solution," liberals tune him out as just another wingnut. John McCain's stance against Amtrak helped me and others to think of him less as a "maverick" and more as simply a reactionary. That said, it's nice that we have people continuing in the tradition of Paul Weyrich, countering these attacks and promoting transit in conservative terms. And of course people like Adron Hall in libertarian terms.

In contrast to McHenry and McCain, Kotkin speaks of oppression and social justice. In fact, in a great takedown five years ago, Jeremy Reff pointed out Kotkin's frequent use of Marxist terminology. Kotkin and Cox also throw a bit of environmental disinformation in there, drawing disproportionate attention to the pollution caused by reducing road space allocated to cars. When one academic liberal hears another academic liberal talk about the elites (he used to call us "Euro-Americans") imposing their plans on the common folk, they take notice, and it absolves them of guilt for driving their Subaru wagon to the transition workshop.

A significant portion of the support for transit comes from car-dependent liberals who are prepared to sacrifice their own short-term interests for issues of social justice and pollution reduction. Someone like Kotkin doesn't even need to refute these arguments, only to introduce enough fear, uncertainty and doubt to make these people question whether their sacrifice is working.

There are also quite a few conservatives who think in terms of standing up for the little guy against the elitists; this is a common refrain here in Queens. Because of this, it is important for transit advocates to be familiar with Kotkin's arguments and prepared to rebut them point for point. This will allow us to confront new versions of the arguments as they pop up in our local media. I therefore encourage all transit advocates to subscribe to Kotkin's RSS feed and respond to any anti-transit argument you see. Do it until you've had enough practice that you can do it in your sleep. If you let me know, I'll link to it.


saosebastiao said...

Sorry Capn, but your praise for conservatives that embrace transit is just lip service. There are plenty of conservatives who embrace transit...but they rarely have a voice because they get drowned out by ideologies.

Transit has pretty solid success in European countries because it is an issue that both liberals and conservatives can agree on. There isn't a consensus about how things should be done, but there is a pretty large consensus that it should at least be there.

I am a conservative transit advocate. I work with a fully private company that provides mass transportation. I have advocated for publicly owned mass transportation in the past, and I personally have had some success in areas where a liberal advocate would have been laughed out of town. UTA TRAX probably never would have made it to a second vote if I hadn't personally spoken to some of the most conservative politicians who initially wanted it to die a quiet death.

But when I voice these same arguments in transit blogs, I get shouted down by liberals who only speak the liberal language. They aren't constructive criticisms...they are almost always strictly ideological...and completely pointless as far as their actual transit-related content.

When I talk about how insane labor costs strangle the cost competitiveness and sustainability of transit (two issues that conservatives will most definitely care about), I get non-transit-related arguments about social equity, wanting people to be poor, and how awesome France is because they choose to let people earn a living wage.

When I talk about how zoning regulations strangle density and lock people into their cars by making it easier for them, and how in a free market there would be quite a bit less car dependence (not a large amount less, but enough to make a real difference in transit ridership), I get shouted down by liberals with liberal non-transit-related arguments like how zoning was instituted for good reasons (very few of which exist or are even relevant today). Nobody ever wants to talk about how restrictions most often impede density, but at best they can merely allow density if private developers (the few left after zoning excludes most of them) decide that density is profitable. No, the arguments I present to increase density and transit competitiveness are drowned out by liberal foofoo paternalistic and controlling non-transit arguments.

Sorry Capn...I'm gonna have to disagree with you about the threat of an anti-transit advocate who speaks the language of liberalism. He is nothing more than a threat to transit advocates. The real threat to transit comes in the form of transit advocates that refuse to speak the language of conservatism. They will never be as persuasive to a conservative city council member, governor, or citizens...and at the end of the day, we still will be living in a conservative country.

Cap'n Transit said...

Hm. First of all, let me say that I am not going to shout (or shut) anyone down for a serious pro-transit argument, from whatever point of view. I may ultimately decide that giving up labor protections to promote transit is not worthwhile, but I will certainly entertain the idea.

In most of the US, the support for transit is so narrow that insisting on ideological purity is just stupid. We have to build coalitions with anyone who shares our priorities in this area. We can fight with them about other issues when those come up.

I don't agree with you that "the real threat to transit" is liberals. There are many ways to win a transit fight, and nobody knows for sure what will win and what will lose until the fight is over.

saosebastiao said...

Even if you personally don't shout them down, other transit advocates do. And even if nobody shouted them down, they still drown out the persuasive arguments that actually build systems.

I have been thoroughly amazed at how distorted conservative's views are about transit. Its almost like they see every pro-transit argument the exact way a liberal would...which by default means that they won't support it.

You see, most conservative politicians (the kinds that are actually capable of pulling strings) don't care about livability and sustainability...but those are the arguments being presented in favor of higher densities.

But if you have a conservative politician who wants to lower taxes, you can still frame an argument to fit his ideals.

For example: Higher densities packing more people within city limits can make lower taxes possible. Because more people live within the city limits, the tax base can be distributed amongst more people, lowering individual requirements. If you double your city's density, you can almost halve the tax rate and still come out ahead. Oh and by the way, this will make our existing bus system more palatable to users, raising ridership and lowering the taxpayers contribution towards its operation.

What about an argument for a conservative businessman/politician? An example: A light rail line, if constructed and operated properly, can increase the utilization of our streets at a much lower cost. Can you imagine being able to transport 20 times the amount of people we currently do, but only have to rehabilitate this extremely important road once every 40 years, instead of once every 8 years?

What about a cost-conscious city treasurer? I have a favorite example to use with them...its like the ultimate money shot for someone who knows their accounting: Replacing this bus line with a light rail system, even at its current ridership, will make this line transition from cash flow negative to cash flow positive. And if we work with zoning officials to increase densities along this line, this line may actually produce so much positive cash flow that it could make our transit system as a whole cash flow neutral.

Capn... I dare you to find me an outspoken and well respected transit advocacy group that consistently makes arguments like these. These types of arguments are quite seriously drowned out by the arguments that conservatives won't give the time of day.

I agree...insisting on ideological purity is stupid. But it is alive and dominant within transit advocacy circles. You should notice that I'm not saying that liberals are the threat to transit...But rather transit advocates are the threat to transit if they refuse to speak the language of conservatism. It is no different than trying to sell Woodstock concert tickets door-to-door in the Upper East Side.

CityLights said...

saosebastiao's comment made me try to remember if I've ever read in any (liberal or conservative) transit blog a defense of public employee unions or standard zoning requirements. I'd have to say the answer is no. Maybe some will say the necessity of good transit trumps high labor costs, but I can't imagine anyone being in favor of TWU's pension plans, for example.

As for zoning, I don't think one can be a transit advocate and support the zoning laws that exist in most of the country. These two things are mutually exclusive.

saosebastiao said...

lol...some of those discussions have taken place on this blog!!

I distinctly remember a conversation about how government transportation employees make nearly 30% more than private market transportation employees. There are numerous systems throughout the country (MUNI being one I have personally advocated for), where if the labor unions could take even a 3-4% pay cut, that service cuts would not need to happen.

Of course as soon as I suggested paying less, I was refuted by an obscure (teaching at a community college) development economist (new-age colonial officer) who claimed that I wanted people to be poor (despite the fact that private market transportation wages are still in middle class territory and still better than what is a common "living wage" in Europe). To him, the idea of cutting wages to promote transit sustainability was complete heresy, because it violated one of his dogmas to support another.

I have also commented on numerous blogs about the extent of zoning and how it cripples density. Every once in a while I get someone in agreement that zoning systems need to be done better (nevermind the fact that even if you find someone who can do it better, they rarely can do it as well as no zoning at all), but most of the time it devolves into a conversation about how we need zoning to prevent child-labor sweatshops and oil refineries from popping up next to residential housing, and away from how zoning laws are a huge impediment to transit sustainability.

The attitude I get from transit advocacy groups is almost always the same: "Sure, support transit however you want...just don't offend our liberal sensibilities." What they don't realize is that I am a hundred times more effective than they are at persuading politicians because I offend their delicate sensibilities. At least with UTA TRAX, the liberal politicians never needed was the conservatives that did.

saosebastiao said...

Oh, BTW...this shift of perspective would probably be the most useful tool for transit advocates in the debate about congestion pricing in New York City.

I can guarantee you that there are hundreds...maybe even thousands of very influential businessmen in Midtown and Lower Manhattan that would LOVE for congestion pricing to pass. And why? Because 1) It will profoundly reduce congestion, and 2) They can afford it.

But transit advocacy groups don't ever try to consult with these guys. They might even be intimidated by them. But I can guarantee you that nobody will be a better spokesman for the cause of congestion pricing than someone who loves to drive their car in Manhattan.

CityLights said...


Don't listen to blog commenters. (I realize the paradox inherent in this statement). I wouldn't call most commenters "transit advocates"; I thought you were talking about actual blog entries, not comments.

I'll be the first to agree with you about overpaid public employees and rich businessmen. There have been many times when I've waited in traffic on the Gowanus Expressway wishing they would toll the whole thing, rather than just the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, just so I could get faster to Manhattan, "poor small business owners" be damned. Paying more for better service should be a basic right.

But I'm afraid that the problem is that there are not enough true fiscal conservatives who will understand your message. Many Republicans these days practice, like Kotkin, a form of Marxism where the poor and the middle class are brainwashed into believing that convenience and comfort are not linked to income, and that they deserve expensive things like cars instead of public transit.

Although in New York the two parties are basically indistinguishable in their conservatism; they just cater to different special interests.

Alon Levy said...

Actually, transit advocates relied a lot on Bloomberg's framework in the CP debate. It wasn't quite talking to rich businessmen, but it was taking cues from one rich businessman.

As for the part about "obscure development economists," right now the person I'm reading arguing against deflation is Paul Krugman.

Finally, the point about high wages is, I'm sorry, a crock. If you're blocked on France, then think of any other developed country, where wages are high and transit still works. Some of the reasons transit costs less are related to union cooperation on matters like OPTO, but none of them ever involves paying workers low wages.

The reason you feel you get lip service is that you don't engage in much transit advocacy. At least on this blog, most of your comments are conservative talking points related to transit. It's not the equivalent of a liberal suggesting ways to improve the bus system; it's the equivalent of a liberal ranting about the need to respect every union plank. Those people are unpopular, too - just look at the reaction on Second Avenue Sagas to the various posters who assert that if multi-conductor trains were good enough for their grandfathers, they're good enough for them.

saosebastiao said...

The CP debate is one that needs way more than just one really rich businessman. It needs a lot of businessmen, and it needs a lot that aren't really rich but well off enough to afford it.

The thing with wages is, private market transportation wages aren't low! Private market wages here are still higher than the average wage in France. It is just that public sector transportation wages are still well beyond those...and they are mostly unwarranted. Even when the wage itself is reasonable, unions block hiring new employees so well that overtime can raise bus driver salaries into the six figure range.

This isn't the only blog/forum I frequent. All of them are the same. They complain about transit cuts, but respond with ideologies (and "France does it fine!" statements) that have little to do with the reality of the situation. It is pretty obvious that we aren't France, don't have the political situation that France has, and never will be willing to let the public sector take over 50% of our economy like France does. Stating that France does it fine ignores the fact that in order for transit to work in the US, it needs to appeal to American conservatives...not French conservatives. Anybody who thinks it should be easy to advocate for a French style government in the US simply because the French system works well for their standards needs to wake up and smell the Apple pie. We don't have the same standards as the French.

Alon Levy said...

Well, the main figures who opposed CP were pseudo-populist types. If you'd told them, "It'll be good for the mobility of the rich," they'd use it as an argument against, not as an argument for. The Midtown corporate types don't have too much pull in those arguments, because everyone loves to hate them. That's one reason bridge tolls were more popular in the legislature than CP.

The "France does it fine" (though it's really "any other developed country does it fine") argument isn't as stupid as you make it look - it shows that the union problem in the US isn't high wages, but too many employees. So the question then is what it is about US unions that makes them more intransigent about this issue than German or Swedish unions. Similarly, it shows that the problem with environmental regulations and lawsuits isn't that they exist, but that they encourage the wrong things.

Conversely, the "Let's just cut wages" argument isn't as smart as you make it look. If it were 2000, a year of record employment and income, you might be right. But it's 2010, a year of liquidity trap and potential deflation. If transit cuts wages 4% and everyone else stays the same, then we win. If everyone cuts wages 4%, then real debts go up 4%, the economy gets into a Japanese-style deflationary spiral, and everyone loses.

saosebastiao said...

The US problem with unions isn't that they have too many workers. It might be that way with some of the transit agencies, and most definitely New York's subway is one of them, along with Boston. But sometimes the problem is too few workers. It is this way in BART, Minneapolis, Houston...even the LIRR. In those systems, overtime costs can be so high that unskilled grunt labor can still claim six figures. And in these cases, the unions still are the culprit. You see, unions can be just as effective in blocking new employment as they can be in stopping eminent reductions in obsolete employment.

No, the problem is paying too much. Whether it is because you pay too many people or whether you pay too few, the unions raise the cost of the provision of services, thereby making them less sustainable. Maybe the difference between the US and France is that our unions have less of a culture of responsibility to the public than those of France, but the problem is the unions regardless.

The really unfortunate part about all of this is that transit is an inferior good when compared to the status quo: When wealth and income decrease, more people take transit and less people drive. This makes transit more efficient in times of recession. But since transit systems are so addicted to their wage structures and employment levels, they become dependent on subsidies...and if the subsidies go away, transit gets cut.

There are numerous systems in the US that could be recording operating profits right now, or at least positive cash flow, negating the necessity for transit cuts, if they just had more sustainable wage structures. BART (a system that has never been close to sustainable funding) is one that could be cash flow positive right now, and with the combination of better procurement practices, could be recording operating profits.

And the funny part about it is that the wages structures don't even need that much reform. They merely need to be average...a level still higher than average French GDP per capita, higher than dutch "living wages". They just need to be reasonable.

The issue about the deflationary spiral is a real one, even though I think the current threat of a liquidity trap is overblown by Krugman (really the only deflation alarmist out there still). At least from a keynesian macro perspective, it would be a bad idea to cut wages in the middle of a liquidity trap. But that is just the thing...if unions can't accept wage cuts in the middle of a recession, when everybody knows that times are tough, how are they ever going to cut their wages in the middle of a bust, when there is no apparent reason to do so? Transit wages needed to be lower before the recession hit, but there is no way to do it! I think you are simply being blind to the reality of the situation that transit managers face with the unions.

Cap'n Transit said...

"The really unfortunate part about all of this is that transit is an inferior good when compared to the status quo: When wealth and income decrease, more people take transit and less people drive."

I think you meant, "transit is an inferior good when compared to driving under the status quo." As I've been trying to say, if it's done right transit can be superior to driving.

saosebastiao said...

Just for rhetorical support.

saosebastiao said...

"I think you meant, "transit is an inferior good when compared to driving under the status quo." As I've been trying to say, if it's done right transit can be superior to driving."

No, I never meant that. I was talking specifically using the economic definition of the word:

It isn't a value judgment. It is an observation. Even in places where transit is thoroughly awesome, it still increases in demand when income falls.

Cap'n Transit said...

Okay, please provide (or link to) a definition for all technical terms!

As the Wikipedia entry says, "inferior good" is a relative, context-dependent term. In some communities, transit is a superior good compared with bicycles: someone will take the bus if they can afford it, but will ride their bike if they don't.

I can imagine a context where driving would be an inferior good by comparison with transit, but I have to admit it's a pretty fanciful scenario at this point.

saosebastiao said...

lol...yeah, I have to admit I daydream about the awesomeness of a system I could create in the right working conditions. The context is important...I think making it difficult to drive would be the most important step to doing so...but I think transit sustainability doesn't depend on making it difficult to drive. For example, the C-train: Driving ease stayed relatively the same over time, but transit became much faster and easier.

Right now, I'm trying to author a piece about transit sustainability (specifically cost sustainability) and its relation to transit access. Maybe I'll send it your way for a look, to see what you think about it.

Alon Levy said...

Parking ease declined in Calgary, to my understanding.

By the way, when I say the problem is too many workers, I don't just mean payrolls. I mean too many workers doing a task. For example, LIRR trains run with an operator and 3-6 conductors. RER trains run with an operator and one conductor; S-Bahn and JR trains run with an operator and zero conductors. Germany and Japan are more unionized than the US, but their unions tend to be more amenable to labor-saving technological advancements.

saosebastiao said...

I wouldn't disagree. In fact, I have long held the belief that European labor unions have always acted more reasonably in the face of change, and have done a much better job of not demanding wages that destroy the competitiveness of the industry. Oh, and they seem to take pride in productivity, an attitude that is almost the opposite of American labor unions.