Friday, May 29, 2009

Things I Like About Liberals, Transportation Policy Smackdown Edition

The focus of this blog is the contradictions and failures of liberalism: how liberals see themselves as supporters of social justice and international cooperation, but how in reality they support both capitalism, the structure of which guarantees massive inequality and crushing poverty, and imperialism almost as much as conservatives.

But there are some things I like about liberal blogs, or else I wouldn't read them. Take this post from Matthew Yglesias, one of my favorite liberal bloggers:

Randall O’Toole is a relentless advocate for highways and automobile dependency in the United States. Consequently, I don’t agree with him about very much. But the thing I consistently find most bizarre about him, is that the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have both agreed to agree with O’Toole that his support for highways and automobile dependency is a species of libertarianism. For example, O’Toole whines a bunch about how Ray LaHood wants to spend less money on highways and more on transportation alternatives before denouncing this agenda as “central planning.”

Central planning, of course, is the reverse of libertarianism. So if promoting alternative transportation is central planning, then building highways everywhere must be freedom! But of course in the real world building highways is also central planning.
This is a brilliant 30-second smackdown of a really stupid conservative argument. But I do have to disagree with Yglesias about one thing. Explaining the history of transportation policy in the US, Yglesias says that
beyond the interstates, American cities made a collective decision in the early part of the twentieth century to totally reconfigure their streets so as to become more convenient for car traffic—they’d be paved in an auto-friendly way, and the streets divided into a (larger) cars-only portion and a (smaller) people-only portion.
What Yglesias calls a "collective decision" was in fact a decision made for Americans by automobile manufacturers:

In a 1922 memo that will live in infamy, GM President Alfred P. Sloan established a unit aimed at dumping electrified mass transit in favor of gas-burning cars, trucks and buses.

Just one American family in 10 then owned an automobile. Instead, we loved our 44,000 miles of passenger rail routes managed by 1,200 companies employing 300,000 Americans who ran 15 billion annual trips generating an income of $1 billion. According to Snell, "virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system."

But GM lost $65 million in 1921. So Sloan enlisted Standard Oil (now Exxon), Philips Petroleum, glass and rubber companies and an army of financiers and politicians to kill mass transit.

The campaigns varied, as did the economic and technical health of many of the systems themselves. Some now argue that buses would have transcended many of the rail lines anyway. More likely, they would have hybridized and complemented each other.

But with a varied arsenal of political and financial subterfuges, GM helped gut the core of America's train and trolley systems. It was the murder of our rail systems that made our "love affair" with the car a tragedy of necessity.

This is a classic liberal move: describing a decision that was actually made by capitalist class interests as a democratic, consensual choice.
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