Wednesday, September 06, 2006

No Free Ride!

Back-to-back articles in the IDS highlight some pork transportation spending at IU.

The first is a staff editorial, i.e. normally not the kind of thing I would take seriously. And indeed, their argument misses the point by about a light-year. Apparently there is a some kind of shuttle service to Wal-Mart for students just moving in that IU pays for. My complaint is that IU pays for it; IDS only cares that the line ends at Wal-Mart. The point is this: if busing cartloads of new students in to Wal-Mart is really profitable for Wal-Mart (and how could it fail to be?), then shouldn't Wal-Mart foot the bill for the shuttle? Why is this IU's concern? What kind of administrator represents his institution by giving away money to a corporation that could easily be convinced to foot the bill itself? It's either colossally stupid or criminally corrupt - not IUAdmin's finest hour.

The other is a news article about the "drunk bus." According to the article, IU pays Bloomington Transit more than $150,000 a year (which at 56,000 rides comes out to $2.70 a ride - which IDS claims BT makes in profit, clearly not understanding the difference between profits and fees, or the concepts of profit margin and overhead) to run a late-night weekend shuttle from Kirkwood to various places. The point is to cart home drunks who can't drive themselves - or, in IU Administrator Language, "provide a safe and legal alternative to driving home while intoxicated." Excuse me? Since when is it my responsibilty to foot the bill for these idiots' emotional problems? Stories like this do nothing but hurt the case for a return to the 18-year drinking age. Responsible drinking means planning ahead. Now, fair enough, sometimes lines get crossed before you know it - but there again, responsibility means using your own money to hire a cab - or else sucking it up and hoofing it. There is nothing whatever about the fact that I go to school with these people that requires me to care how they get their useless asses home on weekends. But more importantly, why doesn't BT just take it upon itself to provide this service? Clearly there's a demand for it if 56,000 use it each year. It's doubtful it would be that many if they charged $3 a pop, but insofar as that's cheaper than a cab ride, they'd get takers. Again, why the hell did any administrator agree to use university money to pay for something that could easily pay for itself???

I'm very much in favor of making the core curriculum more practical. Throw out the lit crit, bring on the stats classes! It probably wouldn't hurt to make some IU Administrators take basic business classes while we're at it...

Capitalism works, people. Things that have a value get paid for. If there is a demand for something, it's virtually guaranteed to be profitable to supply it. It's obnoxious enough when we have to pay for things that have no demonstrable use (like the GLBT Center). But it's twice as galling to be asked to foot the bill for things that people actually need and are willing to pay for themselves.

In fact, I think this is generally true of transportation policies. For the most part, roads can be made to pay for themselves. It's not at all clear that we need the government buying them for us. This is especially obvious in the case of the Interstate system. The Interstate system has been of enormous economic benefit in terms of saved transportation costs. What that means is that it creates surplus wealth in the form of efficiency gains. Why shouldn't the people who most directly benefit from this - the shippers - pay more to maintain it? Indeed, why do people who don't use the highways need to pay for them at all? Yes, yes, I've heard the argument that everyone benefits in terms of cost savings, blah blah. But that's actually a faulty view of how economics works. It's true that the consumer benefits when the shipping industry runs a tighter ship - but this is a side benefit. Efficiency is not the consumer's responsibility. His responsibility starts and ends and demanding the best goods for the lowest price. Stores that best meet his needs are rewarded with higher profits. If lowering shipping costs helps them do so, then that's something they're motivated to take on. It's like arguing that because everyone benefits when Apple puts more money into research and makes a better generation of computers, we should all pay a "computer tax" to support research that private industry would do on its own anyway. Nonsense!

And this argument, I believe, extends to most city roads as well. Look, shops can't function without some way to get goods to their consumers. Neither can people reasonably own homes without a way to reach them. There is no reason why neighborhood associations can't foot the cost of maintaining the local roads, and likewise no reason why businesses and retailers can't pay for the roads in front of them. Shopkeepers typically sweep the sidewalks in front of their shops to improve the appearance. Paying for the pavement on that small stretch of sidewalk (and road) operates, when you think about it, under the same principle. Whatever company owns the road can simply charge the shopkeepers fixed rates based on how much streetfront they take up. Shopkeepers that don't like the rates (or the service) are free to move. It's the same principle that governs whether a businessman chooses to set up shop in one shopping mall or another, only with roads. The shopping malls don't charge people entrance fees, and there's no reason the road companies would need to either.

There would be huge benefits from such a system. For one thing, the companies that maintain the roads would be under competitive pressure to keep them clean and efficient. For another, local neighborhood associations wouldn't have to go through politicking to work their will on city council since they would literally own access to their property (and why not, it is their property, after all). Most importantly, the gas taxes we currently pay to maintain the roads could go away. Consumers would probably reap a net benefit from this. Though it would be an even trade at first, the efficiency improvements that a privately-maintained transportation system would offer would end up costing the system less than we currently pay in gas taxes - an overall gain in terms of prices for consumers.

The best argument against such a system concerns thoroughfares within cities. However, I see no cause for concern here either. Larger companies could be responsible for connecting their local roads (and sell this to shopkeepers in the form of advertised greater access) - and roads that aren't associated with these companies but want connection could simply pay a fee for a through-street.

In short, I don't see any reason why we can't have something like the road system we have now without the government doing it all for us. In fact, I would fully expect a private system to be cleaner, more efficient, and less wasteful (I'm thinking here specifically about the roads allow people to live way out in the country on our bill. Living on large estates away from the city is a luxury and the cost should reflect that - including transportation costs.).

A pipe dream, maybe. But fixing the busing problems at IU is not. I'll settle for Wal-Mart paying for its own shuttle service and drunks paying their own cab fees as a good place to start.

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