Posts tagged ‘PIRG’

Exaggerating Transit Use for Fun and Higher Taxes. Or How PIRG Supports the 1% over the 99%

The Arizona PIRG has a report that can be summarized as "transit is increasing fast, driving is falling, all of our future investment should be in transit".  The Valley Fever blog has the story:

Arizonans are driving less, and relying more on public transportation, according to a report from the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The shift is causing the Arizona PIRG Education Fund to recommend that public officials shift funding away from more highway projects, and more toward other transportation options."

"We recommend that transportation officials and elected leaders look at the data today, and not outdated assumptions, to make sure that any highway projects are absolutely necessary," Arizona PIRG Education Fund executive director Diane Brown tells New Times....

In the Phoenix metro area, the light rail opened in late 2008 and is already experiencing ridership numbers that weren't projected to be reached until the year 2020. In 2013, the Valley Metro transit system experienced a record high annual ridership, and between 2007-2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million - an increase of 25 percent. The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority recently saw its highest monthly ridership in October 2013. And in Yuma, ridership on Yuma County Area Transit has tripled since 2011.

The report suggests that public officials re-allocate their focus and funding, away from building new highways and toward more transportation options.

This is a fantasy.

There is an enormous amount of obfuscation going on here.  The percentage rise of public transit trips is actually the miracle of small numbers -- small changes on an even smaller base.  The point of these charts is to try to say that Arizonans use a lot of transit and we should dump more billions into these projects.  As it turns out, despite all the huge public investment, transit is still a rounding error.

Note that, from their own report, driving vehicle miles per capita are 9175 per person per year.  So lets look at transit.  They exaggerate by showing averages for Phoenix and Tucson, where transit use is higher, not for the whole state like they show vehicle miles.  The total state transit miles per person in the same year, using their numbers, turns out to be as low as 64 (if no one outside of Phoenix or Tucson uses transit) and as high as 110 (if everyone outside of Phoenix and Tucson uses transit at the same rate as in the cities).  The likely number is around 75.

This means that after all these billions and billions of transit spending, transit trips are 0.8% of vehicle trips (75 vs. 9175). That is a rounding error.  You sure wouldn't get that impression from the report.  The Public Interest Research Group has a funny view of "public interest", putting the desired transportation mode of the 0.8% over the desired choice of the 99.2%

Well, you say, I should compare the increase in transit to the decrease in driving.  OK.  Again using their numbers:  Vehicle driving miles went down 348 per capita over the study period.  In the same time, per capital transit miles went up by about 26 in Phoenix and Tucson (likely less in the state as a whole).  So, at best, transit ridership accounts for about 7% of the drop in driving.

This is not nothing, but hardly justifies the enormous increase in transit spending over the last 15 years and the billions and billions in capital investment.

Oh, and by the way, Phoenix Light Rail ridership has cannibalized bus ridership about 1 for 1.  That means all that investment in light rail has just shifted riders to a more expensive, less flexible transit mode.  But that is another story.

It's Time to End the ACA (No, a Different One)

No, not the Affordable Care Act, though we need to get rid of that, too.  In this case I am talking about the Arizona Commerce Authority.  This is one of those ubiquitous local / state "development" efforts that mainly consists of handing out corporate welfare to a few well-connected companies who threaten to leave or build their new plant somewhere else.

Dru Stevenson at the Privatization blog has been nice enough to invite me to blog from time to time over at his place, despite the fact that we do not always agree.  But we are in total agreement on this effort:

Even from a conservative, free-market perspective, government subsidies for businesses distort markets, foster monopolies, undermine competition, and reduce efficiency.  The same complaints that business advocates make about the welfare system apply to government programs to help businesses - the vicious cycle of dependence, the lack of incentive to work hard or face difficult choices, the inevitable favoritism (some businesses get taxpayer subsidies, others miss out, and those that do have an unfair advantage over competitors who might otherwise win in a free marketplace).  It has a chilling effect on market-driven innovation, improvements in efficiency, or "creative destruction." The subsidies can cause inflation as the local market prices correct for the infusion of unearned money. The inherent risks in entrepreneurship get externalized onto taxpayers rather than internalized by those who hope to reap the profits if they get lucky.  The conflict-of-interest problem is not just that the businessmen will engage in whitewashed embezzlement, diverting funds to their own businesses or friend's businesses (or to their suppliers, in hopes of getting discounted inputs).

The problem is also that other firms - firms that might be more efficient, providing better goods and services at lower cost - face higher entry barriers when the existing holders of market share are bolstered by government handouts.  In other words, I see little difference in the morality of handouts for poor individuals/families and handouts for businesses.  There is a spiritual virtue in helping the poor, of course, but also a virtue in helping those who are hard-working and who have made sacrifices to become successful.  The problem for me is the unintended consequences of government subsidies for entities that are supposed to compete and succeed in a free market.

I encourage you to check it all out.

The reason this made his privatization blog is that Arizona has actually privatized this function to an independent business group.  Though an advocate of privatization in many realms, this makes me queasy for a couple of reasons:

  • I can't get excited about privatizing an activity that should not be occurring, or is, as Stevenson so ably explains, actually detrimental
  • I am comfortable privatizing operational things -- landscaping, running buildings, cleaning bathrooms, etc -- but privatizing the handing out of political patronage is an odd one for me and I don't really know how to think about it.  On the one hand, this is essentially what the PPACA (Obamacare, the other ACA) is doing with difficult decisions like determining which procedures should be on the must-cover list for insurers by putting them in the hands of independent groups.  But I have criticized those provisions of the PPACA for lack of accountability, and I believe the same arguments apply here

The only quibble I have with the criticism of the Arizona group is that, like many criticisms of privatization, it does not actually make a comparison to government-run efforts.  Sometimes even mistake-riddled private efforts can be better than disasterous public management.  For example this criticism:

According to Arizona PIRG's report, only two of the 13 incentive programs even track how many jobs or other benefits they generate -- and none disclose that information publicly. For all its business-savvy rhetoric, the ACA can't demonstrate performance if it doesn't track results. Only one program publicly discloses what companies promise to deliver for their subsidies. Worse still, only 4 of the 13 programs even disclose which companies received subsidies or how much. And when companies that receive subsidies fail to deliver on promised economic development benefits, the ACA can reclaim taxpayer subsidies for only one program, and there is no way for the public to see if this ever happens.

None of this is good, but note that for most similar state-run development programs, the number of programs that track their results is usually less than 2 in 13, the number is usually none.  And the fact that there is some sort of clawback provision on funds is better than exists in most state relocation and other subsidy programs.  In fact, most third-party reviews of state-run corporate relocation and plant location subsidy awards show that they universally fall well short of their pr0mised benefits, though this analysis is really hard to do because there is so little transparency in state activities of this sort.

My quibble, then, is that I am not sure the bad results here are a function of privatization or just the activity itself, as state-run efforts seem to do no better.

Update:  I have written before about government corporate subsidies and attempts at venture capital investment in the context of the "big shot" effect.  Many times I have come to suspect the biggest beneficiary of these programs is to the administrators themselves, who have no money of their own and wouldn't ever be trusted to manage a private portfolio but get to act as "big shots" with other peoples' money.  They get the psychic benefit of being little junior Donald Trumps.  This seems especially evident to me with Glendale, AZ, but seems to be an element of all these schemes.

I May Offer a Libertarian Summer Internship

Over the last month, blogging has been both light and of lower-quality than I would like because I have been consumed with some growth opportunities in my business.  Frequent readers will know that much of my effort has not been business per se, but completing all the government waste paper needed to start a new business in a new state or industry.  A partial list of some of these tasks are here and here.

I am thinking next summer I may go on campus and find the strongest big government supporter I can find and hire them to do all this government paperwork -- my attempt to create one new libertarian each year.  Not sure how I would find the right person, though approaching local PIRG chapter or Campus Progressives organization might be a good start.

PS- What I would really like to do is hire one Congressman a year into that summer job.