Not everyone considers socialism a Cracker Jack idea

Capitalism seemed untouchable several decades ago, but not today. Many politicians aspiring to high office, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, are making the case for the inevitable and Darwinian triumph of socialism.

It is unclear what socialism means to them. It is a word that means many things to many people and has taken many forms. The modern version is different from the textbook variety of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, leaving to individuals only the free discretion over consumer goods and creating a paradise on earth. Publicly owned property is preferable to private enterprise, with everyone acting virtuously and focusing on the greater good.

Is it the ideal commonwealth in Plato’s Republic, with a ruling class that has no property of its own and shares all things in common? Or a more robust version of New Deal Liberalism, or perhaps Northern European social democracy? What about the path taken in Venezuela, North Korea, and Cuba?

Or is it a planned economy with benevolent bureaucrats taking the place of free-market capitalism and playing the omniscient busybody in economic affairs to create more opportunity for the underprivileged; open the horizons of education to all, eliminate discriminatory practices based on sex, religion, race, or social class; regulate and reorganize the economy for the benefit of the whole community; protect the environment; provide adequate Social Security and universal health care for the sick, unemployed and aged in a utopian ideal of total equality of opportunity and outcome?

The term has become a blank canvas as presidential candidates embracing some of these ideas become more outspoken about socialism as the solution to problems of social and economic equality, and embracing a political wish list that includes Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and free public college. All grand ideas if they work.

These proposals have great appeal to millennials, the term generally used to refer to people born after 1980 and before 2000. Millennials outnumber baby boomers as the largest generational cohort in American society.

Recent surveys of Americans 18 to 34 find that 45 percent have a positive view of socialism. It gets even higher marks from Hispanics, Asian- and African-Americans. This attraction may have less to do with their understanding of socialism and more to do with their discontent with the current economic system. In contrast, only 26 percent of baby boomers would prefer to live in a socialist country.

Why the generational disparity? Is it because many of these folks reached adulthood in a dismal job market with crippling student loans caused by the brutal 2007-2009 recession that left them with less disposable income than their predecessors? They end up hating their own culture, even as millions around the world dream of coming to the land of milk and honey. Many agree with Governor Cuomo’s comment that “America was never that great.”

But these proposals also create agita for many politicians. That is why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a recent interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” said socialism is “not the view” of the Democratic Party,” and that lawmakers on her side of the aisle “know that we have to hold the center.” The Republicans are trying to paint Democrats with the socialism brush, using accusations of rampant amnesia about the failures of socialism as a 2020 campaign weapon.

Former President Ronald Reagan once mocked Fidel Castro’s brand of socialism with a clever joke. He said Castro was immersed in one of his long speeches when a person in the crowd was heard shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks.” Castro continued on with his speech when a second voice was heard shouting the same thing. This time Castro became angry and screamed, “We will kick the tush of the next person I hear say that all the way to Miami Beach.” At which point the whole crowd yelled, “Peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jacks.”

 Originally Published: April 27, 2019

Congestion pricing is part of the solution to gridlock

The problem of traffic congestion is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s comment about the weather, “Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.” It is no easy matter to deal with the congestion problem in major urban centers.

New York is getting ready to address the issue with a congestion pricing plan. After many years, it may be an idea whose time has finally come, but there is even more governments can do to combat traffic bottlenecks.

Congestion pricing advocates point to an array of health, safety, and environmental benefits, including air pollution, pedestrian injuries, and unclogging city streets. They cite the success of congestion pricing plans in places like London, Stockholm and Singapore.

These cities use different methods to toll drivers in their respective congestion zones. London uses a video surveillance system to record car license plates. Singapore uses larger gantries with sensors to read license plates, or directly charges E-ZPass-like units in cars. Stockholm has installed gantries and cameras at all entry points to the tolled zone.

Some New Yorkers claim congestion pricing is an unfair tax that disproportionately hurts poor people who do not have access to public transit. While affluent motorists can pay for a quicker ride, the working class will struggle to pay the toll. Suburban commuters, of course, see the plan as benefiting the city at their expense.

After years of hesitation, New York is on the verge of becoming the first U.S. city to charge motorists for driving into a central business district. The program is expected to be implemented in 2021, once the necessary infrastructure is in place.

The congestion pricing plan will help pay for badly needed repairs to the city’s transit system and reduce gridlock. The goal is to generate $1 billion annually to secure the issuance of $15 billion in municipal bonds.

Drivers could pay $12 for cars and $25 for trucks to enter the heart of Manhattan. Prices may vary based on time of day and traffic volume, and potentially offer exemptions and credits to certain travelers, such as discounts for buses, taxis and motorcycles. For example, residents in the congestion zone who earn less than $60,000 annually will be eligible for credits.

Not surprisingly, politicians avoided making many of these difficult decisions. Instead, they will be made by a six-member Traffic Mobility Review Board.

The idea of road pricing was developed by Professor William S. Vickrey, the 1996 Noble Prize winner in economics who passed away four days after winning the prize. He argued that the consequences of not charging motorists for their rush-hour usage could be “disastrously expensive”.

Society pays a high price for congestion. When traffic flow nears maximum road capacity, each additional motorist imposes a delay on others (as density increases, speed drops and travel time lengthens). The delays increase geometrically. Vickrey argued that only peak-load pricing could solve the congestion problem in urban transportation.

Major U.S. cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston are exploring various forms of congestion pricing to unclog city streets and raise money for transportation. And the time may be right to consider tying price to performance. Money-back travel time guarantees could be offered to help customers accept higher prices for transportation services.

For instance, a turnpike a charge of 10 cents per mile during a particular time of day would be linked to a minimum average speed. If the average falls below the minimum, customers are charged progressively less. Advances in technology make it possible to put customers first and introduce a new level of accountability for public transportation providers by offering these guarantees.

This would promote customer trust and acceptance of pricing changes and provide a turnpike operator with an incentive to insure that the road is providing superior service. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local”. The same can be said for trust in government transportation agencies.

Originally Published: April 12, 2019