Monday, January 8, 2007

Transit links

News this week of the LTC's ambitious plans to increase public transit ridership and inhibit private automobile use in London reveals the willingness of public institutions to use the taxes and regulatory powers to which they have access to influence citizens' behaviour in support of environmentalist causes such as climate change, peak oil and urban sprawl. Policies like the one proposed by the LTC receive the reliable approval of vocal and media-connected community activists and organizations because they purport to advance conformity with their own standards of communal behaviour, objectives that, once internalized, become more important and easier to deal with than examination of the means and rationales by which they are achieved. In turn, agencies such as the LTC treat the claims of environmentalists absolutely without reserve — as fundamental truths upon which they are not only empowered but obliged to act, at least in part because those actions simultaneously expand their authority and the dependency of the electorate on their services.

The complete lack of reserve with which the claims of environmentalists are accepted by those who stand to benefit from them should by itself awaken at least some suspicion about the merits of those claims; to take but the one example of long-term energy crises associated with the peak oil agenda, Leonardo Maugeri of Newsweek (link via Billy Beck) finds that predictions of impending oil depletion have been around since at least 1919. In the wake of every scare, however, new exploration methods have continued to expand the volume of known reserves and new extraction techniques have boosted the production rate of those reserves, often astoundingly so. Maugeri makes no attempt to avoid any conclusion except that simply not much more is known today than was known 87 years ago about the capacity of the world's oil resources… and, I would add, certainly not enough to make extravagant demands to compel legislated constraints on people. Maugeri's informative article demonstrates that the depth of human ignorance is matched only by the human ability to overcome it… as long as that ability is not fettered by the artificial political devices. The most incisive line in the article:

the oil problem is not beneath the surface but above it.
As demonstration, Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine points out that world oil production is already almost entirely subject to political control designed to manage output for political purposes:
…77 percent of the world’s known oil reserves are in the hands of state-owned oil companies. Such “companies” do not respond with alacrity to market signals and so are under-investing in new production technologies and even in maintaining the production facilities that they currently have.
Those countries, like Iran, Mexico, Russia and Venezuela, use oil revenues to pay off supportive constituencies and exert monopolistic control over production to maximize the payoff. Moreover, private investment in exploration and extraction techniques is strongly discouraged by the threat of expropriation in nationalized economies, leading again to artificially low yields and reserve estimations. Even in freer markets, regulatory demands and counter-productive tax and subsidy regimes jeopardize the supply of oil production, especially in the U.S. Although 70% of exploration activity now occurs in North America, political obstructions such as outright bans — most notably in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico — as well as foreign investment restrictions deter recovery and inflate both prices and fears of shortage. Production and capacity of oil are fatefully obscured by political machinations across the globe, with the result that perceived shortages are much more likely the product of artificial obstructions to the application of enterprising techniques and demand-driven supply mechanisms.

Nevertheless, even more political controls are precisely what are suggested by both activists and political agencies as the response to these problems, and the LTC's proposals will undoubtedly be adopted by council to at least some extent. The lack of critical reserve in judgment on the alarmist scenarios of environmentalism is not, however, necessarily only a public show to quickly and peremptorily obtain policies by which activists and institutions benefit — it is also the product of a long-term strategy. As Arnold Kling argues in an excellent article in TCS Daily (via L. Graham Smith), the beneficiaries of and competitors for political power — whom he refers to as the "elites" — habitually make high strategic investments in time and effort to "avoid truth" and "selectively [choose] which facts and arguments to emphasize or ignore" to support their prior beliefs. Conversely, most other people make a very small investment in "avoiding truths," an understandable product of being "unable to keep track of more than a tiny fraction of all … government activity." The investment strategy of political elites therefore pays off in suppressing investment by voters who tend instead to take their cues from political actors and underestimate conflicting evidence of those prior beliefs. In other words, democratic politics becomes a "very poor information-processing mechanism."
One of my strongly-held beliefs, for which I tend to attract supporting evidence and repel contrary arguments, is that markets process information more effectively than does the political process. Perhaps it as an exaggeration to refer to the market as the "world of truth" … However, it strikes me that it is easier for market forces to drive a bad firm out of business than it is for political forces to extinguish a policy that fails to meet the objectives that purportedly drive its enactment.

Those who believe in the wisdom of the political process might argue that the competition between political elites … promotes reasonable outcomes. However, I suspect that the net result of this competition is to lead to greater accretion of government power, giving the elites more to fight over. Politics ultimately becomes a competition to promise the undeliverable, whether it be better public education, inexpensive health care, or government suppression of drug abuse or sexual immorality.
Or stopping global warming by fostering dependency on public transit…


Anonymous said...

"In turn, agencies such as the LTC treat the claims of environmentalists absolutely without reserve — as fundamental truths upon which they are not only empowered but obliged to act, at least in part because those actions simultaneously expand their authority and the dependency of the electorate on their services."

...and public transit systems are worse than private, corporate made cars/gas in this respect? Keep some perspective.

Anonymous said...

My brother's father-in-law, a Hybernia oil scientist, recommends this reading:

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

...and public transit systems are worse than private, corporate made cars/gas in this respect?

A public transit system is far more wasteful, inefficient, ineffective and polluting compared any private, free-market alternative. It's a Tragedy of the Commons.

Driving home late from work one evening last summer, I ended up behind a giant, 40-foot-long public bus which was toodling through my neighborhood with maybe 3 people on it. Every 100m or when it came to a stop sign and then accelerated again it spewed a giant, brown cloud of diesel exhaust. Each of those clouds of noxious gas represented far more pollution than my car would make on my entire 30km-plus commute. And the bus emits a cloud like that roughly every minute that it is operating, for the entire 6 hours or so of post-rush-hour toodling around the suburbs - during which time it probably carries no more than 50 or so people. Every one of those people could've taken a taxi, or even driven their own SUV, fer cryin' out loud, and would have emitted far less pollution than the bus spewed. And they would've caused me, the taxpayer, to waste far less money on overpaid, redundant, unfireable bureaucrats and "planners".

There's no way a private bus company would waste money and fuel driving around huge, honking, polluting buses with hardly anyone riding them. The free market would take care of making everyone happy, with private cars, taxis, minibuses, deferred trips, whatever. There would be less air pollution and best of all, less noise pollution from whining welfare queens about how the world owes them subsidized bus rides and from smug government socialists about how, "If you don't spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public transit then the planet gets it!"

Anonymous said...

> with maybe 3 people on it.

The more we get people out of private automobiles, the more cost-efficient public transit will become. What's hard to understand?

> it spewed a giant, brown cloud

They never should have gotten rid of streetcars. But that doesn't mean that we couldn't get them back again.

Anonymous said...

When you say, "we should do this or that", I assume that what you mean is, "government should force people to do this or that". That's a great way to create bloated bureaucracies and welfare entitlements, but a lousy way for people to get what they actually want or need. People prefer not to pollute because it saves them money. Leave them alone and watch them improve their lives.