Markets and Traffic Congestion

As an advocate for working families my wife frequently finds herself called upon to testify before the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. And inevitably she is forced to contend with a seemingly endless line of Tea Party members decrying public intervention in city planning.

For a moment we can leave to one side whether these “citizens’ advocates” have the least idea what, in fact, the citizen of a republic might actually look like. Assuming any of them has even the faintest idea, their protest is still without ground. The congestion on our roadways and the inefficient location of housing for working families are themselves a direct consequence of private intervention in republican institutions. Let me explain.

Congestion in the United States in general and in the Bay Area in particular is a direct consequence of three related factors: (1) the tax-payer funded, federally subsidized interstate system; (2) private automobile and oil lobbying in Sacramento and Washington; and (3) tax-payer subsidies for oil in the United States. All three together have led to  incalculable dead-weight loss, resource misallocation, and hence inefficiency throughout the transportation system. Yet, when Tea Party members show up at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission meetings — which they consider illegitimate because composed of unelected members — it is not these tax-payer subsidies and this rent-seeking lobbying to which they are objecting. No. The object of their ire is public attempts to counteract these market distortions. In effect the Tea Party, however unwittingly, has been made an advocate of the second-biggest government intervention in U.S. history. (The biggest, of course, is the so-called “defense” industry.)

When the Federal Government pours millions in tax-payer dollars into regional and interstate highways, it is responding to pressure from lobbyists in the oil and private transportation industries; in effect, these lobbyists are demanding that tax-payers pay for the “rails” along which their vehicles travel. We can think of it this way: what if the government not only made the Internet free and available for all, but then specified that it was free and available only for patrons who used Microsoft Office, and not for those who used Linux. When the government pours tax-payer money into the Interstate system it is in effect saying: “We are all for supporting ease of transport, so long as you are using a private vehicle.”

But that is not all. Tax-payers also grant incalculable subsidies in the U.S. to private oil companies, subsidies that allow them to offer gasoline at prices far under market value. Absent this lobby-driven government intervention, U.S. drivers would be paying close to $10/gallon for their “freedom” to drive. Is there any doubt but that cheap and efficient — private or public — alternatives would quickly fill the gap? Yet, so powerful is the auto and oil lobby in Washington and Sacramento that so-called “representatives” are not about to deprive auto and oil of their incalculable subsidies. When Tea Party advocates show up at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, they are, in effect, shills for massive government intervention.

So, what might consumers choose in the absence of such massive government intervention? What might congestion look like were consumers really offered a choice?

Neoliberals such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul behave as though the market were neutral, as though the thousands of lobbyists the market fields every season in Washington or Sacramento were inconsequential. In fact, these lobbyists and the billions of dollars they pour into elections is the value-added that consumers must bear in order to do business in the U.S. It explains the congestion each of us must bear traveling from San Francisco to San Jose, or from San Francisco to Sacramento to conduct our lobbying.

The outrage, of course, is that these shills for market distortion count themselves “republicans,” which, of course, is the very opposite of what they are. Res publica is the term all educated public actors have given to deliberation and decision-making conducted outside of the private market place. What these shills have done is turned the very meaning of these words on their head. They are conducting business not for the public, but strictly for private interest. Thus the dead-weight loss, the misallocation of resources, and the inefficiencies.

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