Quick Review: The overriding value of economic growth is the foundation of America’s whole socio-political ideology; if there is anything approaching dogma in our national belief system, it is the idea that economic growth is the key to solving all problems. Every municipality (ostensibly, of course) forms and functions to provide infrastructural investments and thus increase said municipality’s exchange value. Elected officials (at least those who want to be reelected) endeavor to (again, ostensibly) do what’s good for the tax base such that use value and/or non-use value is also increased so that their constituents won’t up and move elsewhere. According to Logan and Molotch, “all capitalist places are the creations of activists who push hard to alter how markets function, how prices are set, and how lives are affected,” and campaign contributions by lobbyists make sure the governmental entity that oversees their activity and/or industry understands “oversight” means “failure to notice” financial shenanigans that are not truly in the public’s best interest. Their endeavor is expedited by the fact that, as The 14th Amendment dictates, corporations, in and of themselves? Are in fact considered to be inviduals and the amount of money you have? Dictates the amount of votes you have. Furthermore, by establishing a system of incentives and subsidies, markets are guaranteeing that the rest of society cannot be relied upon to safeguard a certain individual’s welfare, thus establishing an incentive to pursue so-called “individual” interest at the expense of the Greater Good.
In other words, The Man’s, if you will, GDP-based System (wherein even oil spills can be considered economic benefits!) systematically establishes divergences between individual and societal well-being. How so? According to the fundamental economic maxim in effect from the Enlightenment up to right now, the only object an individual should pursue is his or her very own pleasure and that individuals are autonomous entities except at those points at which they come together for a financial exchange. If you take into consideration the happiness of others, it is only to keep your own happiness from being interfered with by the sanctions of society. By solely pursuing your own pleasure, it is considered that you are adding to the general happiness of society and, by pursuing this, you are once again adding to your own pleasure. Following this rationale, a motive is only considered to be “good” if it brings happiness to the person directly involved. Compounding the ramifications of this, alas, individual consumers have been increasingly essentially, oh I don’t, Walmart-ized from birth to care about Prices and Exchange Value rather than Costs and the Paradox of Value.
A zero-sum system predicated on human selfishness such as this not only recognizes but encourages a selfish element in human nature and, as we are all aware by now, there are those who have embraced the exploitation sanctified by the aforementioned marriage of so-called laissez faire economics and utilitarian pleasure principles. They have helped fray the fabric of our society, which of course we as individuals comprise. And there may be no better example of the consequences of their mentality than the Central Texas Region’s disarrayed and unaligned land-use and transportation systems. Because, despite all the facts presented in our previous Occupy Central Texas Land-use and Transportation essays?
Certain individuals hereabouts, they continue persisting believing we, as a regional society, must concentrate solely upon constructing more and more suburban subdivisions connected by highways, each longer and larger than the last, sprawling us farther and farther away from ourselves and our urban cores, exacerbating our extreme auto-centricity in the process. Even as the facts change their opinions remain the same. And they have collectivized themselves into a cranky self-interested political action faction in order to better convince other individuals into embracing unsustainable land-use sprawling willy-nilly throughout our region despite their mentality’s most obviously odious ramifications not only to general society but each of us as individually individual self-interested individuals. How do they do so?
They divert arguments by perpetuating the most illogical of fallacies and operating on the assumption that, if they say it often enough, loud enough, and long enough people will believe them. Period. Arguments like theirs constitute nothing less than an attack on free enterprise in order to maximize their own bank accounts and whatever reputational status they believe they may gain in our community. Period. A lie, as they say, is not in the words, or lack of words; it’s in the intention of the deceiver. Period. With that being said, here are some more facts:
- A conservative study from the Environmental Law Institute found that from 2002-2008, oil companies received $72 billion of taxpayer’s hard-earned cash. Another report from Management Information Systems, Inc found that between 1950 and 2010, $594 billion was spent directly subsidizing fossil fuels — and the lion’s share of that, almost two-thirds, went to the oil industry.
- Mining, transporting, and burning oil, gas, and coal also inflicts major damage to the environment and public health — and we pick up the tab. A 2009 report from the National Research Council showed that fossil fuels impose $120 billion of annual costs on the public every year. Air pollution takes a massive toll on public health — it causes respiratory problems, widespread illness and death, and leads to a huge number of missed work days.
Ben Bernanke: “Recent declines in housing wealth may be reducing consumer spending between $200 billion and $375 billion per year. That reduction corresponds to lower living standards for many Americans. Low or negative equity creates additional problems for households…Homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages cannot tap home equity to pay for emergency health expenses or their children’s college educations.”
Neal Pierce: “Research shows that for every dollar the average American family has to spend, 52 cents is taken up right away for housing and transportation. That means everything else gets squeezed, sometimes dangerously. And not the least, such essentials as food and clothing.”
According to this here report, 43 percent of households in America – some 127.5 million people – are liquid-asset poor. If one of these households experiences a sudden loss of income, caused, for example, by a layoff or a medical emergency, it will fall below the poverty line within three months.
- Most of the media pays remarkably little attention to what’s happening. Coverage of global warming has dipped 40 percent over the last two years. When, say, there’s a rare outbreak of January tornadoes, TV anchors politely discuss “extreme weather,” but climate change is the disaster that dare not speak its name.
- And when they do break their silence, some of our elite organs are happy to indulge in outright denial. Last month, for instance, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by “16 scientists and engineers” headlined “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.” The article was easily debunked.
- If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn.
- Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil.
- So instead, we simply charge ahead. To take just one example, last month the boss of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, called for burning all the country’s newly discovered coal, gas, and oil — believed to be 1,800 gigatons worth of carbon from our nation alone.
In other words, one of the more extreme examples of the subsidized cost of uncontrolled markets is the fossil fuel industry. Not content to rake in mountains more governmental incentives and tax breaks than anybody else does, oil-based corporations refuse to pay the full costs of their actions then stick the public with the tab – And that means me and you, dear reader. Including the costs in the price will show how costly fossil fuels really are. What price do you put on global warming? Will you add the cost of the homes destroyed in Bastrop? Or the cost of crop failure in Texas from the drought? How much will it cost to relocate Galveston when the sea level gets too high? What about the health costs related to congestion? If we live in a free market, why are there subsidies for such an overwhelmingly profitable industry anyways? If something’s so good for us, why do they see fit to grant incentives to consume it anyways? Don’t we need a massive shift from the last decade’s growth model, based as it was on a housing bubble, credit-fueled consumption and a deregulated financial industry, to one that’s more positive-sum/win-win for all involved? Or are we still willing to sacrifice another and yet another generation upon future generations even when staring at the End Game of this un-sustainably contrived, heavily subsidized contrivance our society calls “sprawl?” Shouldn’t we all be hoping for a brighter future? Or is it going to continue being more like I‘ve got mine and I’m damn sure you ain’t gonna get any?
I myself believe equity is the superior growth model because, the more we invest both in ourselves and each other, the better off we as a society will be. Momentum is building toward creating a network of connected, convenient transit options linking together appropriately dense housing cores located throughout our region. Success will mean a huge and sustained injection of vitality to downtowns and hundreds of thousands of residents for whom alternatives to personal vehicle ownership are limited. Success will promote health, equity and opportunity. It will mean a higher quality of life by connecting people to jobs, housing, neighborhoods and marketplaces.
By dispersing housing and economic activity willy-nilly across our region and gutting our urban centers that once served as major engines; by putting access to jobs and, say, affordable housing out of reach for those with limited resources; by leaving us highly dependent on fossil fuels and their resulting economic, environmental and health impacts; and by leaving us hostage to fluctuations in fuel prices, our historic transportation and land-use policies have contributed to many of the serious challenges our Greater Austin Metropolitan Region faces today. They are failing the individuals who rely on them. Transformative change to those policies will play a major role in building a prosperous, sustainable and equitable society for ourselves as well as future generations.
After coming to an understanding of the rationality that has underpinned America’s tremendously unsustainably ravening economic growth model over these past few decades, it should be no surprise that there is a crisis looming. Distressing signs of desertification and environmental and social breakdown as a consequence of sprawl are unfortunate realities in our region today. And these consequences may, in fact, be quantifiable; I think now may be as good a time as any to start trying:
While over the past 50 years prices for pretty much everything across the board have increased even after being adjusted for inflation, the price of gasoline, which is needless to say an increasingly finite product that consequently should be becoming increasingly costlier has, in fact, been kept artificially devalued by what can only be termed a high rate of subsidization.
Indur Goklany (US Department of the Interior): “This figure shows that…relative to 1978, the price of regular gasoline has increased by 260 percent in nominal terms and 47 percent in real terms. However the price-to-income ratio has declined by 17 percent, i.e., it is more affordable today.”
InflationData.com: “If we look at the average annual Inflation Adjusted Gasoline Prices (from 1958 to 2009)…the long term average price is $2.37.”
Gregg Laskoski (senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy.com): “On Dec. 31, 2008, average gas prices were around $1.61 per gallon. On the same date in 2009, they were up to $2.64. Flash forward to last month, and prices hit $3.25 going into 2012. On average, the spread between prices from Dec. 31 to peak are around 93 cents, he says. Adding that to $1.61 per gallon might not feel too bad to consumers, but when tacking it on to $3.25, consumers can start to feel squeezed.”
According to the basic Law of Supply and Demand and consensus estimates, regarding commodities there are divergences between societal expectations and reality, which essentially means that, the longer we continue our tremendous subsidization of gas, the greater the subsequent negative impact will be. Let’s now take a look at the True Opportunity Cost of gasoline (via Emily Messner): “Estimates on the ‘true’ or ‘real’ cost of gasoline vary by study and by year — I’ve seen numbers ranging from $5 per gallon to $10 per gallon to $14 per gallon and higher. Over at the liberal opinion site AlterNet, Jason Mark notes that it is a conservative think tank whose research put real gas prices above $5.”
Clifford W. Cobb: “There are essentially two types of subsidies to driving: (1) private services that are paid for with public funds, and (2) social costs that do not involve and exchange of money. A private cost is one that involves only those directly involved in a transaction, such as the costs of operating a vehicle or access to roads, while social costs include the costs of pollution and congestion…(The basic finding) is that the social costs of driving amount to at least $184 billion per year – not including the $50 to $100 billion subsidy in free parking and or the cross-subsidy caused by congestion.”
Now, taking all that into consideration, let’s just try applying the inflation adjusted long-term average cost of $2.37 as well as the various true costs of gasoline and perform a quick regression analysis on the Texas Transportation Institute’s national congestion costs (439 area average) for wasted gasoline:
Now let’s see what happens when we apply those figures just to the Greater Austin Metropolitan Region:
To me, these graphs speak for themselves: “The current state of our collective society is not much of a recommendation for following that much-traveled path of subsidizing with such obscene sums for such negative returns – Especially when considering said subsidies are intended solely to manufacture demand. We can and must learn from our historical experience in order to overcome our transportation/land-use obstacles and flourish, and the individual citizen must be brought to the fore in the debate over sprawl.” And, at this point, arguing ourselves blue in the face about such things as which mode of transportation is better at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, should we have a gas-based tax or a VMT-based tax or congestion pricing or even free public transit for all may be becoming moot. Much sooner rather than later we the people are going to have no choice but more compact development more efficiently served by a transportation system that provides us with more options; the longer we wait endeavoring to do so, the greater the eventual cost to us as individuals, and the society we comprise as individuals, will be. And now here is where we maybe can?
Start definining ourselves.
About four or so years ago, the very first thing I wrote after getting interested in studying myself up on transportation and land-use was that I was bringing several preconceived notions to the table, among them being: that transportation systems and land use patterns should be inextricably entwined if they are to maximize performance; that, especially after World War II, at the very least misguided, often bigoted government highway and lending policies subsidized suburbs at the expense of cities by propagating myths about how suburbs are where one can best manifest their destiny; that throughout America our arterials are clogging, our downtowns are for all intents and purposes decaying, and we as a society are choking and congesting, figuratively and literally – especially here in Central Texas; that something must be done about something if this civilization that we call America can flourish once again instead of being bloviated beyond such abject mediocrity; and that, as the facts change, my mind changes.
So I started to inform myself about the topic, in the process discovering such entities as the Heritage Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Wendell Cox’ The Public Purpose who are of the absolutely positively certain opinion that we should be driving more; that increasing urban density will only increase the amount of vehicle miles driven per capita; that Smart Growth, not financial shenanigans driven by the outright avaricious pecuniary greed of those nattering Babbitts (nabobs who, deregulated by Reagan, can and will do pretty much anything to anyone in order to fulfill their American Dream® of forever living beyond the business cycle), is to blame for the most recent market failure; and that we as a society, at this moment in our civilization’s epoch, must now solely focus upon building more and more highways, each bigger than the last one, in order to relieve congestion, mitigate smog and, thus, provide an anecdote to a lot of our societal illth.
“Huh?” I asked of myself, “Wait a second, come on, those people can’t be right. Can they? Or is it like what Doris Lessing said when she observed that ‘when principles are invoked, common sense goes out the window?’”(“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on,” in an aside Mark Twain then whispered in my ear, “Or by imbeciles who really mean it.”) My interest thusly piqued I furthered my research, wherein I learned that pro-road and anti-choice mentalities such as those cited above largely rely upon the statistical universe of the Texas Transportation Institute in order to perpetuate their arguments. So, in order to answer my own questions and satisfy my own curiosity, I began delving forthwith and, today, you have been reading the ultimate results, all of which can summarized by one question:
Should the so-called “basic God-given Americanized right to have the biggest lawn and drive the biggest vehicle one can afford on an increasingly extensive roadway system” myth that has been inculcated into and perpetuated by us virtually from birth, a myth that only benefits a few at the expense of many, supersede our basic human right to live our lives in a healthy manner? And then just the other day I came across the following passage:
Alex Krieger: “The benefits of sprawl—for example, more housing for less cost with higher eventual appreciation—still tend to accrue to Americans individually, while sprawl’s cost in infrastructure building, energy generation, pollution mitigation, tends to be borne by society overall. Understanding this imbalance is essential, and seeking ways to adjust to whom and how the costs and benefits of sprawl accrue remains the real challenge. Yes, continuing to find new arguments against sprawl is valuable, but the campaign to create a more diverse, rewarding, and environmentally sound urban future will ultimately depend on Americans finding ways to calibrate short-term self-interest with long-term social value.”
Which got me to thinking about what/why I’ve been studying these issues these past four years as well as about where do I, as an individual, and we, as a society, go from here. After some more thought, I realized that I’ve come across a handful of figures and resources that are relevant to where we are now, in our present discussion.
Edmunds’ Vehicle Miles per Gallon database
US Department of Energy’s Gasoline Price database
The True Cost of Gas (video)
Natural Resources Defense Council’s Why Worry About a Pound of Carbon Dioxide?
Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator
And then I got to thinking if the information above can somehow be intertwined such that they become even more relevant. So I’ve been going through quite a few online calculators (including Measuring Worth, Individual Emissions Calculator, Carbon Footprint Calculator, and The Real Costs of Car Ownership Calculator). My underlying intent was to see if I could find a path to calculate a link between our own personal land-use choices and the consequent transportation ramifications; and my overriding goal was to see how us individuals can help densify our region while also densifying our very own wallets in the process. By this I mean that, if you the individual moves 10 miles closer from where you presently live to where you spend most of your time, you will save yourself W amount of time in traffic and X gallons of gas, which would save you Y dollars, all while benefiting the environment Z greenhouse gas emissions – Thus hopefully helping turn this zero-sum world we live in today into one that’s more positive-sum, wherein everyone benefits.
Next time we meet we’ll see what I’ve come up with.