This post continues from my last comment under my previous post about democracy (which nobody talked about!) and public transit. It provides an opportunity for me to make a point I’ve been wanting to make for a while.


“I guess the idea that I want to get across here is that I don’t think we should be providing everything they WANT but should rather be ensuring that they receive what they NEED.”

I would like to propose that need is not a basis for action, either in private affairs or in public policy. When I say “I need food,” what do I mean? Of course, I need food to survive, but it does not follow necessarily that I am going to get food. I will get food only if I want to. And my wanting food is contingent on my wanting to stay alive (or perhaps on my wanting to taste something or wanting to socialize with others over a meal). I don’t really “need” food. I want food, for various reasons.

So the idea I want to get across is that, when we decide to pursue lower inequality, we need to think carefully about what kind of inequality we’re trying to reduce. What we are concerned with redistributing is not transportation, food, access to healthcare, or any number of other seemingly important “needs” — it is the happiness people derive from these things that we are interested in. This is why I would prefer cash handouts instead of specific subsidies for things like food, housing, medicine, childcare, education, or transportation. If your goal is to give somebody who is less wealthy a higher standard of living, the most cost effective way to do it is to just give them cash. Then they will spend it (or save it and spend it later) in the way that makes them happiest. If someone would prefer ten pairs of shoes to some quantity of food, who are you to say that they don’t know what makes them happy? To look at it differently, why give someone the food and make them a little happier when you could give the shoes, at the same cost to you, and make them a lot happier?

One objection you would probably bring up is that, in your view, people cannot be trusted to make the best decisions about their own welfare. You say:

“One of the valuable roles that a government can play is to force people to do something that is against their short-term interests (e.g. raising taxes), in order to provide a long-term benefit (e.g. extensive free public transit).”

Wow, Jeff. Do you really want to live by your words? Perhaps people are impatient, spending too much now and not saving enough to spend in the future. How do we differentiate between the impatient person who is somehow falling victim to themselves and someone who really just values having less things now instead of more things later? And beyond that, even if people have some kind of bias such that they don’t think enough about the future, why do you think the government will do a better job? One could argue that government actually causes society to be more near-sighted, since the benefits people receive from government programs are immediate and tangible and the costs are abstract (and debt can be put off into the indefinite future).

And I don’t quite understand why it requires incredible strength of character, beyond that of the average lowly consumer, to be willing to pay for bus service. It’s really pretty simple. An entrepreneur judges what the demand is like in an area for particular runs at particular times, and then runs buses on the routes at the times when he or she can expect to turn a profit. No great foresight on the part of consumers is needed. They just have to be willing to pay to ride a bus.

“The people who can afford to make this kind of system [light rail] worthwhile aren’t the people who are going to need it and push for it.”

In the case of a line heading from the suburbs into downtown (like the MAX in Portland), what about commuters?

“if a private company runs into snags getting the system up then there is a good chance that the venture capital will run out, the program will crumble and then in the future, private companies will be much less willing to even try to get a system set up.”

What kinds of snags do you have in mind? If a project fails, it might be bad luck, but on the average it is because the project can’t produce enough value to justify the cost. Where you fear private ventures crumbling, I fear government-run systems persisting even while they lose money and produce too little value for society.

“in Denmark they have an expansive public transit system that is so good that most people don’t see any reason to have cars, you can just grab a bus and get wherever you are going almost as fast. The best part? It’s all free, you just get on and go wherever you need to.”

No, it is not free. Someone is paying for it. And why do you care whether people have fewer or more cars? If you are concerned about externalities like pollution, you have a point. Perhaps we could take a stab at that with an increase in the gas tax. If you just think driving cars is bad, then you can make a personal choice to try to switch from a car to another form of transportation in the future. But we shouldn’t penalize others for liking things we dislike.

‘But I wonder, if these people can’t afford transit and our far from possible employment, how did they end in this predicament in the first place?’ Well maybe they had a decent job and then either lost the job or had to take a pay cut like when the economy tanked post-9/11. Or how about this, a poor person is living in the middle of the city in a very dense area, but they can’t find a job within a reasonable distance for walking or riding a bike, consider Eli (remember him?) he can’t find a job in Washougal (apparently), but he can take the bus into Vancouver and expand his job search significantly (he doesn’t but that’s another topic).”

So Eli can’t find a job in Washougal, isn’t willing to use the bus system to look for jobs farther away in Vancouver, and yet still eats and has shelter? Still has time for some DnD now and then? To think that migrant workers in China leave friends and family in the countryside and travel long distances to the big cities to find better jobs. People with far fewer resources than most unemployed Americans have been able to go to great lengths to find work. Eli may be a fringe case, being young and given his, uh, other circumstances, all of which probably put him far down the income distribution and make it especially hard to find a job.