Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Streetcar Named Desire

Would Blanch Dubois ride
a Cincinnati streetcar?
We Sons of Cincinnatus chose a rather eventful time to begin our site. Not long after we entered this world of blogging, the Supreme Court issued what we think will prove to be a dubious, controversial, and ultimately infamous ruling to uphold Obamacare. That has provided us with much posting fodder; indeed, nearly all of our posts so far have related in one way or another to the still-unpopular legislation.

But there are many other subjects worthy of discussion today. Some of them even have local implications. Take the Cincinnati streetcar, for example. For years, a measure bringing the streetcar into existence has been on referenda. It lost every time, until last November, when voters finally approved it, perhaps more out of sheer exhaustion or annoyance than anything else.

Unfortunately for streetcar supporters, even democracy has a rather well-defined limit: money. The city of Cincinnati, much like many cities in America right now (including some that have gone bankrupt), is dealing with onerous pension obligations that clearly outstrip available revenues. Cities, you see, can neither print their own money nor buy their own debt, so they have to be much more accountable for what they spent, unlike the Federal government.

Cincinnati's last major attempt at mass public transit.
Leaving aside the supposed merits of a streetcar--though the main argument I hear in favor of it, that businesses on its fixed route will prosper, rather circularly presupposes the streetcar's success in the first place--the money to pay for it must come first. But streetcar proponents--including the Mayor, which certainly helps--are nothing if not persistent. And so, with Cincinnati unable to provide money, Governor Kasich denying Cincinnati the money, they have turned to the Feds, our era's lender of last resort. But even here, they were denied, as Steve Chabot, a congressman whose district includes much of downtown Cincinnati, refuses to bring home the goods.
Naturally, this thwarting of the people's will has streetcar proponents furious. After all, if politicians can't bring federal money back to their home districts, darn it, then what are they for?

This has been the assumption of politics for a while, but especially since World War II. Voters and politicians alike have enjoyed the fruits of a relentlessly expanding economy, allowing politicians to give away a lot of free stuff, and allowing voters to enjoy it, sort of like how the Roman Empire had plenty of money as long as it was expanding.

 The money that streetcar proponents claimed Chabot robbed them of would essentially have been an earmark--business as usual in Washington for the past few decades. For the uninitiated: an earmark is a slice of federal spending that Congressional leaders use claim to use to convince legislators to sign onto bills--"greasing the wheels" is the common phrase. The process, though occupying a small portion of the Federal budget, is so notorious that lawmakers actually banned it. So why didn't Chabot just slip in a provision to fund the streetcar? Everybody else does it, and has been for years. Why not he?

Because conformity is always a
good argument (pictured: Chabot)
But Chabot has actually done Cincinnati, and perhaps even the country, a great service, whether he realizes it or not: he has signaled that "business as usual" may no longer possible, that not only are the wheels now made of grease, but Greece.

In other words, there are signs that the era of free stuff is coming to an end. The 2008-2009 recession played a huge part in this, as it did in Europe (though it is still in denial). The statistics about our national debt, though often-repeated, are an argument onto themselves.

Other thinkers have put it far more aptly than I. Here's Jay Cost, an editor for the Weekly Standard:
Sooner or later, America's bondholders are going to demand a serious deficit-reduction plan. When that day comes, Democrats will demand higher taxes to keep social-welfare benefits constant, and Republicans will insist on reforming social-welfare programs to keep taxes low. There will also be sharp disagreements over the level of military spending (with Democrats calling for substantially deeper cuts than the GOP will ever allow), as well as disputes about domestic discretionary spending (with the GOP similarly demanding greater cuts than the Democrats will ever accept). As each fiscal proposal attacks some sacred cow of the left or the right, Democrats and Republicans will eschew grand compromises and ratchet up the partisan rhetoric.

Indeed, the gridlock of the current Congress over budgeting is a preview of what is to come. Quite simply, the two sides have not reached a grand bargain because no such bargain between them is possible. It should therefore come as no surprise that President Obama and Speaker Boehner have all but stopped speaking to each other, both having resolved instead to take the question to the voters at the end of the year.
And James Piereson, president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute:
The financial crisis and the long recession, with the strains they have placed upon national income and public budgets, are only the proximate causes of the political crisis now unfolding in the United States. The deeper causes lie in the exhaustion of the post-war system of political economy that took shape in the 1930s and 1940s. One pillar of that system emerged out of the New Deal with its emphasis upon national regulation of the economy, social insurance, expanding personal consumption, and public debt; the second emerged out of World War II with the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the U.S. military as the protector of the international trading system. The post-war system created the basis for unprecedented prosperity in the United States and the Western world. That system is now unwinding for several reasons, not least because the American economy can no longer underwrite the debt and public promises that have piled up over the decades. The urgent need to cancel or renegotiate these debts and public promises on short notice will ignite the upheaval referred to here as “the fourth revolution.” There will follow an extended period of conflict in the United States between the two political parties as they compete for support either to maintain the post-war system or to identify a successor to it.
In short, both of these pundits argue that we are entering a new political era, but politicians, unsurprisingly, have not yet realized it. This new political era, in these pundits' understanding, will entail a government not limited by choice but by necessity, because there is simply not enough money to pay for everything.

No, something will have to give. Perhaps voters want the high-tax, high spend economy that President Obama truly desires, and which Europe has "perfected." But math has a very rude way of intruding on these things. We may all want a free lunch, but there is ultimately no such thing. Eventually, we shall have to inhabit a political climate in which politicians do not argue over what to give, but rather over what to take; our streetcar, also named desire, cannot last forever. And if recent political crises, such as the debate over raising the debt ceiling (the maximum of the government's credit card) foreshadow what this will be like, then God help us.

Remember how the Roman Empire fell? It wasn't pretty.
To end this somewhat gloomy post on an amusing note, below is a clip from "Marge vs. the Monorail," an episode of "The Simpsons" that tells you everything you need to know about public rail-based transportation where it's not needed:


  1. Many of your facts are incorrect. Most conspicuously, you write that Chabot has rescinded federal funding for the Cincinnati Streetcar -- in fact Chabot's actions in no way affect the $50~ million in federal funds that have already been awarded. His amendment only affects awards during the upcoming year funded by the transportation bill. If there is another round of stimulus funding, Cincinnati could receive additional funding.

    #2, the streetcar has actually been the object of two referenda, Issue 9 in 2009 and Issue 48 in 2011. In both cases Cincinnati voters shot down charter amendments that would have stopped work on the streetcar and nearly any other kind of rail project. Both charter amendments were written by Chris Finney, who designed the amendments to create work for his law firm. In fact the bulk of his legal practice involves suing cities around Ohio on legal matters he himself created with charter amendments elsewhere.

    #3, any thought that Cincinnati is not in need of major improvements to public transportation is that of someone who has not familiarized themselves with the issue. We have mediocre public transportation in this region because we are taxed much less for it than elsewhere. New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, etc. all pay 1-cent sales taxes or more toward local public transportation -- if low taxes were such a motivator, businesses and young people would be moving in droves to Cincinnati. Instead, Cincinnati's young people are moving to NYC, LA, Atlanta, and so on.

    1. Jacob,

      1. While I didn’t state it as specifically as you did, I did link to a press release from Chabot’s website that at least made the point that no federal funds will come from the transportation bill specifically. I also don’t think saying that Chabot “failed to bring home the goods” precludes the possibility that he could succeed at some future date, or that someone/something else might. This blog is less than a month old, however, and I should be more careful in the future; I shall take your comments into consideration moving forward. As for “another round of stimulus funding," that was the main point of my post: too many people assume that the Federal government not only should be involved in local transportation projects (which means, in effect, that other states subsidize unrelated local interests), but that it has sufficient wherewithal to do so. In my view, that is either no longer true, or not far from being so.

      2. I’ll admit that I may have misstated how many times this issue has been on the ballot. I can probably attribute this to my warped perception of this streetcar debate resulting from its being an issue during much of my adult life (which hasn’t been very long to a lot of people, but seems longer to me). Again, though, this blog is young; I should be more careful. I had never heard of Chris Finney's involvement in this; even so, with all the nuances you present, the basic narrative I related here--voters previously voted down the streetcar, then voted for it, now there's not enough money--still holds.

      3. I fear that you have me confused for an anti-public transportation absolutist. The video I tacked onto the end of my post was not meant to disparage any and all efforts to create public transportation; rather, it was to demonstrate that all of these projects ought to be considered carefully, weighing costs and benefits in a fair fashion. Such projects also ought to be paid for by the city, and if Cincinnatians want to move in that direction, then a transportation tax ought to find its way onto a ballot in the future. That would just go to reinforce another point this post tries to make: there’s no free stuff. As for the comparisons to other cities: Cincinnati is most assuredly NOT New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. All are, to put it plainly, bigger. Now, you might argue that Cincinnati's failure to get on the streetcar, if you will, is one of the main reasons it did not become one of those cities, though I think to single out one reason out of the surely hundreds that brought Cincinnati to the point where it is today would be a bit unfair to history. Furthermore, as one of these “young people” of whom you speak, I can say personally that Cincinnati’s having a streetcar will basically be a non-factor concerning where I decide where to start my post-collegiate life. Obviously, you might have expected that, given that I wrote this post in the first place, but the idea that the streetcar is some sort of ultra-powerful youth-magnet doesn’t strike me as very convincing. Finally, I don’t think young people are leaving Cincinnati in such droves as you claim; I have seen several surveys that suggest Cincinnati is among the best places to begin a career.

      As a final note, Jacob, thank you for commenting. I may disagree with you, but you presented your thoughts in a very calm, reasoned fashion, which is in accord with one of the goals of this blog. How you found us, I do not know, but I am glad that you did. You may not be aware of it, but you are actually the first external commenter to Sons of Cincinnatus. Whether you agree or disagree with future posts, we would surely appreciate your continued readership and feedback.


    2. I also am one of the young people to whom you refer, and though you may discount this statistic (based on the location of my University in Southwestern Ohio), a very substantial percentage of my graduating class has moved to Cincinnati post-grad.

      Being one of the people in that statistic, I highly doubt that I will ever take any sort of street car through Cincinnati. I am far more comfortable walking the few square miles that make up our city (which I can accomplish during my one hour lunch break). And I believe it to be much faster than the alternative of waiting for the car, being caught in downtown traffic on one way streets, etc.

      I have discussed the matter with several other yp's, who feel the same.