or: Trains = Hitler!!!
or: Driving is dumb. Seriously, driving is dumb.
A Friday or so ago, I found myself bellied up talking family, politics, and work woes with my old buddy Discomustachio. When our mutually lapsed blogs came up I said there comes a point when screaming into the abyss feels like pissing in the wind and we immediately knew how I would start my next post. I went on, “The catharsis that comes with thinking aloud in the nameless, faceless void of cyberspace begins to lose its appeal when time to do so becomes less and less and thoughts can’t be fully thought because for the first time in seven+ years you’re no longer on a job accessible via public transit…” – I went on some more – “…so instead of blogging you’re channeling your creative energy into reasoning why you shouldn’t punch yourself in the face which would clearly be more pleasurable than being stuck in traffic behind three buses on Western Ave because school just got out or being gridlocked on the Kennedy because, well, it’s the fucking Kennedy or driving 15.6 miles out of your way to get home in seventy minutes instead of seventy-five on a good day”. (I’m aware that makes for quite the run-on sentence, but like I said, we were bellied up and I’m embellishing a bit.)
But to be perfectly honest, I can’t blame my absence from the JobsiteLiberal solely on being stuck in traffic two-and-half to three hours a day (much that I would like to). At least some of my absence from blogging can be blamed on something entirely different but equally petty. Plain and simple, I didn’t want to be on record with all three of my regular readers saying something dumb in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Sure that may seem contradictory to some – after all, what would a blog be that didn’t at least occasionally venture into the Realm of the Dumb? I guess I just felt there was a enough collective Dumb swirling around the social and “news” networks that I didn’t need to make my contribution to the pile. And what a steaming pile it was. But now that I’m back on a job accessible via public trans I’ve decided – at the risk of saying something dumb – that it’s time to fire up the JobsiteLiberal again – even if the only noticeable result is a urine soaked collection of denim.
So what to write about in my much anticipated return? One of the many scandal-less scandals* in the news lately?
Nah – I think Colbert‘s got that covered.
How about Boston now that I’ve had time to gather my thoughts?
Nope – not that either. Still feels like tragedy porn and I’m not yet recovered from the bombing’s ensuing barrage of Facebook idiocy or, for that matter, the it’s myriad conspiracy theories – Jesus Christ the fucking conspiracy theories. (On a related note, why oh why do so many people confuse conspiracy theorizing with critical thinking?)
Ok – so maybe the factory explosion on West, Texas from the same week? Seems ripe with potential extrapolations for a blog called JobsiteLiberal.
Maybe next post.
Alright, I think I’m onto something – how about, to mark my humble return to the glories of the CTA, public transportation? Seems safe enough. Boring, even, and definitely not a post that might cause a rift between friends. Sounds like a nice way to ease back in this assumed virtual identity. (After all, I don’t want to soak my jeans after just one post.)
Well that settles it – public trans it is.
Let me start by saying I love the CTA – buses and rail alike. Metra too. Pretty much any method of transit that allows me to focus on something other than getting somewhere for the entire time I’m getting there is fine by me. The Metro, the MARTA, the MTA, the CTA, the RTA, I love ‘em all. The Orange Line to MDW, the Blue Line to ORD, the ‘A’ Train to JFK (now up and running again), the South Line to ATL – all good stuff. Anytime a blue collar worker such as myself can have the effective luxury of ‘a driver‘ or at bare minimum be relieved of the cost of parking or the hassle of finding a spot, I’m in.
“But wouldn’t you prefer to be on your own schedule?” you ask.
But aren’t I? It’s not our mode of transit that determines our schedules, it’s work and other obligations that determine our schedules.
“But… but… Freedom!” you insist.
Freedom indeed. I can’t imagine many behaviors more slavish (2nd definition) than subjecting myself to the unnecessary abuse of traffic jams and gas price volatility when with a little hustle and ingenuity I could be reading what I want (sci-fi as of late), browsing the web, reading the paper, digging into my RSS, zoning out entirely, or catching up on some much needed sleep all while getting where I need to go. Now what are my options when I’m driving? They’re pretty much limited to listening to the radio. But as long as I brought my walkman/discman/mp3 player/smartphone, I can do that on the train as well. What else can I do whilst driving? Punch myself in the face? Maybe. But again, I can do that on the train too though I can’t imagine I would feel the need with so many other options. And if that is my preferred extracurricular activity I’m pretty sure I could do it with that much more ferocity when I needn’t see the road before me.
Here’s my point – I’ve gone on ad nauseaum about the importance of institutions promoting the condition of freedom but let’s face it, freedom rooted in our collective institutions is slow to develop and quick to rigor. Freedom built into the space around us on the other hand is immediate and can act as a baseline for the more complicated and harder-to-quantify (try as some may) freedom that depends on a tenuous relationship of increasingly disparate institutions. And ya know, “Yay bikes!” and all that but our national infrastructure is a far cry from one that facilitates our individual agency and thus promotes freedom. Instead, a sprawling, poorly maintained highway system alongside a public transit system perpetually plagued by funding shortages limit too many of us to lead car-centric lives.
Now this may seem petty, especially with the “revelations” regarding our privacy last week. But if our concern is freedom, we shouldn’t restrain ourselves to the cyclopsian** view that the relationship between freedom and government action is a zero sum equation. We should also be asking ourselves what actions our government can take to promote freedom and individual agency. One answer that I can offer is a massive infrastructure project based in the expansion of public transportation. Stay with me here. It may feel like I’m about to go off of the proverbial tracks but, as always, I’m going somewhere – I promise.
The NBER working paper Subways, Strikes, and Slowdowns suggests that not only does public transit promote freedom by providing people with more ways of going hither and yon; it also promotes freedom by reducing the amount of time people without access to public transit spend getting themselves where the have to go. My man Paul Krugman sums up nicely: “[M]ass transit has a significant impact in reducing traffic congestion, even when it carries only a small fraction of commuters. Why? Because commuters who take mass transit are, very disproportionately, people who would otherwise be driving on the most congested routes. So even the small number of people taken off the roads has a surprisingly large effect in reducing travel delays.” In other words, when people choose public transit over private autos, not only are they free to do as they please on the train/bus/carriage but they de facto provide others with more time that they don’t have to be stuck in traffic on the fucking Kennedy in their godforsaken cars. Sounds like more freedom for all if you ask me.
Ezra Klein gets to a larger point about our national infrastructure in general which basically amounts to “Now! Now! Now!”. “Delaying either [infrastructure investment or reducing the deficit] means saddling the future with debts we declined to pay off in the present. But this is a particularly good time to invest in infrastructure and a particularly bad time to cut deep into the deficit”. Let me explain: it’s a good time to invest because, when you account for inflation, interest rates are so low that the U.S. government can borrow at negative interest rates – even with inflation as low as it has been and is projected to be. It’s a bad time to cut because the amount of money circulating through the economy is well below what it could be and taking any more out just slows things down further. So let’s borrow and spend the money now and put people back to work. As Klein also points out, “Putting them to work today would be a huge boon to the economy in a way it won’t be in, say, 10 years, when they’ll (hopefully) have work.” And let’s put ‘em back to work on public transit projects where we’ll get the most bang for our buck – or freedom for our, er, finances? You get the point.
Anyway, that’s that. A little bolierplate liberal thinking on public transportation to get the wheels turnin’ again. Not as pointed as I like but at least my jeans are still mostly dry – so I got that goin’ for me. I’ll be back later this week or early next.
* I started this post before the big NSA data mining revelations last week so cut me some slack if I don’t seem to be freaking out over it. Though if you want to know where I stand, I’m probably with Andrew Sullivan who for the time being seems to have the least knee jerk reaction to the whole deal. #underwhelmed
** Cyclopsia – the tendency to apply the same intellectual framework to a variety of social and political phenomena. Individual cases yield the cognitive bias known as ‘illusory correlation’. It is contagious and is generally spread via Internet. These collective, more extreme cases which have become more common since the Iraq war are at the root of most conspiracy theories. Sufferers tend to make a point of confusing said conspiracy theories with critical thinking. More on this later.