Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Fear And Loathing In New Jersey

So--whatcha doin' next Tuesday? As the campaign trail has unfurled before us, we have seen an unforgiving landscape of potholes, twisted guardrails, unkempt weeds, and week-old fast food detritus. But let's face it--we live in a representative democracy. This election is our mirror, folks, and we've let it get this way.

Tell me, as you read this, has your hedge fund manager called to tell you that your multi-thousand-dollar investment is now your multi-million-dollar investment? Has your local police chief called you to not to worry about that speeding ticket you got last week?

Here's something scary--I've got nothing to pick on Daggett about. I don't know if that's good or bad, actually.

In delis, in diners, in bars, the talk has been the same these past few months: ABTE--Anything But The Election. For something that's going to affect all of us for at least the next four years, it's almost like we couldn't give a damn--and maybe we'd couldn't.

Have we reached that critical point in our society where apathy has become the accepted norm? Government has already proven that it doesn't understand the concept of vox populi, vox Dei, at least on an intermittent basis. Is it our fervent hope that government can join the white noise, the incessant hum of commerce that forms the backdrop of so many of our lives? Do we not care about what happens to us?

From the absence of clamor, one thing is apparent--this election isn't so much about electing someone as it is about making sure somebody else isn't the person in the driver's seat. But when you stand in that booth on Tuesday, ask yourself one question:

"Was this trip really necessary?"

Yes? Well, then--welcome to the Revolution.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Congestion Pricing?

Eric A. Morris, a researcher at U.C.L.A.’s Institute of Transportation Studies and a regular contributor to the Freakonomics blog points out the results of a new study on the effect of Congestion Pricing in London.

Since most of the current members of the 108Warren Commission live in the fine state of New Jersey, arguably home to more congestion per mile of paved roads than any other state, there is a great deal of interest in any economic solution to the scourge that is traffic congestion.

Now as Mr. Morris points out, the study (which found that the benefits DID outweigh the cost) was conducted by the entity that manages the congestion pricing scheme in London, so this information should be viewed with some skepticism. Yet in the overall analysis, the numbers do seem to support the use of a congestion pricing system to reduce traffic (and generate revenue).

Folks that live anywhere near New York City will recall that Mayor Bloomberg tried to implement a similar system in NYC and was soundly defeated. Philadelphia has never even considered it, and not surprisingly, people in London are wildly NOT in favor of the system either -- so, even though it appears to achieve the goals set out for it, it may not be long for this world. The current Mayor of London is already talking about making the area where it is charged smaller.

The Commission is not surprised. The positive impact is measured at the Macro level, while the cost is felt on a Micro level. In other words, people don't notice a 2% reduction in their travel time, even thought it does add up to considerable savings overall, but they certainly notice a £8 charge in their own wallets.

The challenge is that traffic congestion is what Economists call a negative Externality -- a cost that is imposed on others, rather than the individual who makes his choice. Managing externalities like this is one of the functions that some people feel should be the role of the Government. Congestion Prices are essentially a Pigovian Tax to try and discourage those additional drivers at the margins whose presence on the roads leads to extreme traffic.

The Commission is torn when it comes to Pigovian Taxes. In general we agree that they can be effective in reducing behavior that produces negative externalities. The issue is in determining which "Public Good" should be addressed. There are days when the Commission would sell their souls to remove congestion at the Turnpike Merge @ Exit 8...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I Heard America Singing...Slightly Off Key

Just when you wonder whether or not it makes sense to take out a second mortgage to send your kid to a private school, along comes a gem like we saw in Burlington Township just recently--a flock of uneasy elementary school students singing the praises of our sitting President as part of a celebration of Black History Month during February 2009.

It's great that we want kids to know who their President is--and to take pride in the fact that said President was elected courtesy of a democracy that has persevered through more than two centuries of change. There is nothing wrong with that--but I don't remember any paeans to Gerry Ford when I was growing up.

If you want to teach civics, teach the office, not the man. Let's try this same scenario in the opening days of the Clinton Administration--same schoolkids, same song. Now flash forward to that teacher, six years later, trying to teach that song while her students are asking her why the President was on TV last night saying he didn't have sex with somebody.

There's a reason you laud the office and not the man. The same democracy that gave us Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Adams also gave us Taft, Garfield, Pierce, and Harding--the latter four being as potent an argument for term limitations as you can find. The ideal of a presidency is pristine; the reality is that those who occupy the chair are human, and fallible.

Let's focus on the things that are going to make our kids leaders in the next generation: good values (taught at home), strong knowledge bases (built in schools), and the drive to creatively solve any problem they may encounter. It's a recipe that worked in 1809; surely it can succeed in 2009.