18 September 2007

Time for the mitten to bite the hand

It's time for the state of Michigan to bite the hand that ostensibly feeds it; that hand being the one-trick pony called the auto industry. I myself have lived in the metro Detroit area since the day I was born, so the "analysis" which follows is largely Detroit-based. Nevertheless, the same basic set of problems seems endemic to much if not most of America, and I'm not in the mood to wait even more decades for transportation policy to somehow materialize somewhere between the local and state levels. So I'll frame it as a state-level issue. So sue me.

Michigan needs a transportation policy whose primary goal is to make the (a?) car-free lifestyle feasible, without major inconvenience. Minor inconvenience is no small nuisance, but I vowed once never to promise anyone a rose garden. Obstacles to this desperately-needed public policy focus are numerous and seem intractable:

* Middle class attitudes

The mainstream kulture of the metro Detroit area seems to have a handful of preconceived notions about who is (or should be) in the market for mass transit. Demographic groups for whom mass transit is socially acceptable include the elderly, people of ability and perhaps the occasional high school student. This mainstream constituency does, of course, realize that there are other sorts of folx in the market for a bus ride, such as people too poor to afford a car, or people who have lost their license to DWI (driving while impaired or driving without insurance, take your pick). There seems to be an esteem gap between the "deserving carless" and the "undeserving carless." It is reasoned that with so many civic and philanthropic programs offering rides around town to the elderly and differently-abled, there should be no need for an "expensive" overhaul of what passes for mass transit.

* Prevailing human resources praxis

It never hurts to dress conservative for a J.O.B. interview, and in the Motor City, your car, like your wardrobe, tells the world who you are. Currently standing precedent has it that you can be fired for having an Air America bumper sticker on your car, at least in Colorado. It would stand to reason that arriving at a job interview in a transportation special makes about as much sense as wearing a dirty shirt for the occasion. The concept certainly isn't lost on the automotive segment of downmarket TV advertising around here; specifically used cars and the financing thereof. You see it in help wanted advertising, too--"must have reliable transportation," or even "must have own transportation." Some claim "articulate," in a help-wanted context, is a "code word." I have often wondered aloud whether, in de facto terms, "reliable transportation" is a code word for "late model transportation."

It's said that in the steak business, the role of salescrittership applies to the sizzle, not the steak. It's a very well-known fact that in the dealer-based segment of the used car market, the fast pitch is for the loan, not the car. The really vicious think about borrowed money in general is that it raises the lower limit on "stay afloat" income. This has several very profound implications for the employer-employee relationship. One is that the more money one needs for debt service, the less money one has available to squirrel away as "go to hell money." The more hand-to-mouth one's cash flow picture, the less "luxury" one has to take one's job and shove it, or more importantly, to take any kind of career-strategy risk. This is very important in an economic climate in which people are expected to be much more tolerant of both competition and risk than the previous few generations. The main$tream media describe the automobile as an instrument of personal freedom. For the lower middle class, the automobile is an (expletive deleted) albatross. In addition to car payments, gasoline and insurance are burdens that amount to a sizeable percentage of a below-average paycheck. To add injury to insult, insurance premiums tend to be inversely proportional to the ability to pay, thanks to redlining and "credlining."

* Michigan Vehicle Code

You know you're po' when your car gets orange-tagged.

The poor tax has gone up here in Michigan. The so-called "Driver Responsibility Law" broadens the criteria for police stops for DWI (driving without insurance). In addition to the $175 fine for DWI, there is a "Driver Responsibility Law" "fee" of $500 in three annual installments. Additionally, the in$urance industry assigns you to the so-called "risk pool," so of course what the public sector milks you for is just the tip of the iceberg. Let me make it absolutely clear that I do not advocate DWI. It's a question of whether the punishment fits the crime, and more importantly, a case study in political cowardice. The sad fact (as I see it) is that Governor Granholm is too DLC to have the stones to finance state government with (gasp!) taxes. Other auto-related de facto tax hikes of Granholm's first term include punitively high late fees on fees for driver's licenses, vehicle titles and registrations, etc. Perhaps the state shouldn't have to let its accounts receivable use it as a doormat. But who's really being trodden upon here?

It could be worse. Other states burden car owners, and disproportionately owners of older cars, with such things as emissions tests (and subsequent repair$) and $afety in$pection$.

* Metro-Detroit infrastructure

The Motor City is literally designed around the needs of the Motor. More to the point, it's built around certain assumptions about the good life. We've already discussed the assumption that car ownership or leasing is within reach of anyone who's not a total loser. One assumption underlying North American suburban communities in general is the assumption that high quality of life coincides with low population density.

The infrastructure implications of the automotive lifestyle as a prescriptive social norm are not limited to mass transit. Another casualty is sidewalks. Others include storefronts, public space, front porches as social space, destinations within walking distance, bicycling without serious head protection plus nerves of steel, etc. etc. etc.

* Possible worker displacements

Change never seems to happen without both winners and losers. One can speculate that mass transit that actually works might decrease demand for used car salescritters, repo-critters, carjackers and perhaps others. Hopefully the governor's No Worker Left Behind bill will pass, and will provide sufficient educational benefits to allow them to re-train for other lines of work.

* Entry and exit costs

This arcane jargon comes from the dismal world of economic theory. One of the key difference between a monopoly market and a competitive market is the fact that in a monopoly market entry and exit costs are high, while in a competitive market they are low. By entry costs they mean how much it costs to set oneself up in a certain line of business. Exit costs, I think, have something to do with closing shop, selling or tearing down plant and facilities, environmental cleanup, and the like. Here, I am applying the concept not to entering or exiting being in business for oneself, but to exiting or entering the automotive lifestyle, which is to say entering or exiting the car-free lifestyle. Let's say you attempt to pro-rate (per daily commute, say) the multiple financial burdens of the automotive lifestyle--car price, loan interest, loan gotcha clauses, insurance premiums, insurance deductibles (probabilistically pro-rated, I guess), tax, title, registration, part$, $ervice, police $itations, turtle wax--the whole ball of whacks. Let's say for the sake of argument that your best guesstimate turns out to be more than bus fare. At first glance, it would appear to be a no-brainer. But there's a catch. If you stop driving your car you stop paying for gas and probably most of wear-and-tear (since you have an unstuffed garage). You should also qualify for one of the lower mileage brackets for insurance purposes. But you still need to keep your plates etc. current; the lion's share of that cost, of course, being that insurance is a prerequisite for registration. The obvious solution is simply to sell your car. The catch this time is that now you've taken the plunge and committed yourself to a 100% car-free lifestyle. By forking out $ on keeping your car "legal" you "keep your options open" for eventualities ranging from road trips to bus driver strikes to J.O.B. interviews not within walking distance of a bus stop. Once we're talking about keeping our options open, the math gets intractably hairy, but there's hope. One strategy people have devised for this conundrum is so-called "car sharing." From what I've heard, it sounds like a cooperative economics version of a rental car agency.

* Knee-jerk antisocialism

Part of the reason "public transportation" is a dirty word is because "public" is a dirty word. That's why, for example, the Michigan Department of Public Health was re-christened the Department of Community Health. That's also why, until this point in the present essay, I have used the nomenclature "mass transit." Another dirty word is "subsidy." There seems to be a blanket assumption that public transportation is paid for by taxpayers as well as fare-payers. It is hard to refute this claim when funding for the SMART bus system faces periodic millage renewal votes in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

The fact of knee-jerk reaction against public subsidy can be attacked from several angles. One is to explore the question of whether subsidies for public transportation are more than offset by statutory impediments to its development or use. Another is to expose and document the role of government subsidy in putatively private transportation such as the personal automobile. I plan to start by reading verdant.net's essay Conspiracy to Destroy America's Streetcar Systems. A third approach, of course, is to question the conventional wisdom that the mixed economy (or subsidy in general) is inherently inefficient, bureaucratic or even anti-freedom. The conventional wisdom is that this is a public opinion non-starter in post-Reagan America, but there do seem to be some signs of a pendulum swing. At any rate, I'm only throwing ideas out there. Readers (if any) clearly have their own world-views, and it is simply hoped that an ideologically diverse coalition of citizens can form around a shared belief that mass transit is currently too small a slice of the transportation pie.

* The so-called "on-demand economy"

Conventional wisdom has it that certain traits are (in the aggregate) inherent in American culture (and hence economic behavior). It's unthinkable that car consumers will choose fuel economy over "performance" (except of course as a passing fad in reaction to gasoline price spikes). It's common knowledge that no middle class American will choose to take the bus to work. It's assumed that commuting in America will always be done in private automobiles, most often one person per car. A similar logic is deployed around more generic questions of energy policy. Solar and wind power will never catch on because American's will never accept energy sources that are not available "on demand." The idea that people may once again schedule economic and leisure activities around the day/night cycle, the wind, the tides, etc. is unthinkable.

Perhaps the best way to counteract stereotypes about what things Americans will or will not do is to do the things we're not supposed to, and make a point of being seen doing them. When the number of people seen at bus stops gets noticeably larger and larger, the things we have been told about ourselves so many times by the ma$$ media that we start to believe them, will start to lose their power.

There are many people calling on Michigan to develop a mass-transit-feasible lifestyle. There always have been. We must refuse to be relegated to the margins or dismissed as a fringe element in public opinion. We must insist that the main$tream media present mass transit as mainstream transit, not a charitable gesture by society to the deserving carless. We must not allow the continuation of current cultural norms that hold carlessness in lower esteem than homelessness (not, of course, that bigotry against the homeless is OK). Another future is possible. There is an annual political tradition in Michigan called the Mackinac [sp?] Conference, in which the state's political class goes to Mackinaw [sp?] Island to kiss up to its bu$ine$$ cla$$; traditionally understood to consist largely of the so-called Big 3 (now called the "traditional Big 3"). Now the business community is understood to be more functionally diverse, and more economic diversity is sought. The "Big 3" no longer employ a large portion of the local population. They are making a very conscious and obvious effort to engineer the "legacy" of "generous motors" out of their business models. In times like these, it would not be biting the hand that feeds us to make a studied effort at deep "cutbacks" in our consumption of automobiles.