In spite of my best efforts, I still think like an economist. Don’t ask me whether that thing is too expensive. Ask me whether it’s worth the price, or whether spending a dollar on that thing is better than spending it on that other thing. During this *unusual* time, the spenders among us are probably thinking a little more like this. Maybe we don’t need 12 pairs of jeans and 30 pairs of shoes. Maybe we don’t need to spend $160 on hair color every month. Maybe we should use the money to plant a garden or support the local food bank. Maybe we should put it away in case one of us gets laid off….
Hopefully, it’s not just us as individuals rethinking, but also us as communities. Americans spend a lot of money on government decisions that can’t possibly reflect our priorities.
Here are a few examples that most of us probably don’t think about much, but increasingly look really dumb:
Traffic Signals — About 20 years ago, local governments lost their minds over traffic signals. The quieter streets these days highlight how ridiculous “traffic engineering” has become in some places. Are you waiting to turn left on a quiet street? The left turn signal will turn green as soon as you see a car coming toward you. Are you creeping along a freeway on-ramp with ten other drivers waiting for the signal that permits one car at a time to enter the freeway? Someone thinks you don’t know how to merge. Oh wait–you still have to merge. Ever sat at a red light for two minutes under an abandoned freeway overpass at 11pm? I haven’t — I run those red lights. A single traffic signal costs $300,000-500,000 and the annual cost to maintain one is $10,000, not including the cost of wasted gas, pollution and drive time. Meanwhile, not enough money in the city budget for housing, pot holes, public transportation….
Glad to see others are noticing this, and using similar language.
Heart Defibrillators — During this crisis, our national community has experienced a shortage of basic, essential medical equipment. But we have a bazillion heart defibrillators in public buildings waiting for someone to have a heart attack. Let’s walk through this. The stranger next to you in the post office is gasping for air. If he’s having a heart attack, you have 5 minutes to make a difference while you hope someone else is calling 911. Are you confident that it’s a heart attack? Are you willing to operate unfamiliar equipment that pumps electricity through a stranger’s body? Probably not. The National Institutes for Health says these machines aren’t making a significant difference but the industry says there are still billions to be made. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1767991/ You might say “ok, it’s a few billion dollars, but if they save some lives, aren’t those lives worth it?” And the answer is “it depends what you care about.” Most people who have heart attacks are over the age of 65 (like me) and survive the time it takes for the ambulance to arrive. More than 4 million children in the US don’t have adequate health care because we, as a society, have decided to buy other things. Like heart defibrillators.
Public Golf Courses — During this “en casa” period, many public golf courses have been closed for golfing but open to the general public for walking. As background and not to put to fine a point on it, public golf courses are welfare for rich people at the expense of, er, common sense. A typical golf course uses 200 acres of land, and they are often in communities that don’t have “room” for adequate housing, like the City of San Francisco, which owns 6 golf courses. That’s right. The City of San Francisco, with 8,000 homeless residents and 1BR apartments renting for $4,000 a month, uses 5% of its total land mass for the exclusive use of a few golfers. https://www.sfexaminer.com/news-columnists/constructive-criticism-keep-sf-golf-courses-closed/ In addition to being subsidized by our tax dollars, golf courses use enormous amounts of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And now as they relax the rules, cities are reopening the golf courses to wealthy golfers and telling the public to stay out. On May 4, the City of San Francisco opened its public golf courses for golfing, but left all other outdoor recreation places closed. WTF?
We could all come up with more examples of ways government spends money that should instead fund real priorities, like schools, health care, environmental protection, and public transportation.
OK, yeah, we have a long way to go.
Agree, as civic budgets take a huge hit due to lost tax revenue, it’s time to rethink priorities, and golf courses for a few rich folks don’t rank high on my list.
Thanks Henry, for letting me vent. 🙂
You think that traffic rules should be discretionary?
I respectfully disagree.
I would say it differently. I won’t put my safety at risk for a two minute red light in a high-crime neighborhood where there isn’t a car in sight. Did you think drug laws should be discretionary? 🙂
Great post with lots to discuss! A few points: – there is a good reason for those freeway entry lights – it’s not about merging but about improving the flow on the freeway. I believe there are rates of occupancy of the freeway above which the *throughput* of the freeway – total cars/minute crossing a line – goes down, because they interfere with each other too much – kind of like fluid turbulence. So reducing the entry rate and making it as even as possible actually improves the overall throughput. So I think those are actually pretty important as a relatively cheap way to construct more freeway (this is my intuition – I’ve not seen the analysis).
– it is ridiculous that traffic lights cost 500k to install and 10k/year to maintain. They are basically 3 leds with some simple logic. They have to be wind resistant and have some backup power maybe (I don’t think most of them have backup power) – but that’s more than the cost of building a modest house/apartment in much of the country. Like the smart carts at airports, I suspect there is some kind of weird government/private company monopoly going on here.
– they could be much smarter than they are – I never run red lights – but there is no reason the traffic can’t detect if a car is present without giant coils of wire in the ground (by using a camera to detect the car – today this is a very simple task.
– But most importantly – I think in many places traffic lights should be replaced by round-abouts. It’s been long known that roundabouts save lives – they prevent the side collisions that are particularly deadly and are more effective at saving lives than stop signs (since they are a physical barrier preventing speeding). Americans are not used to them and the rules are different than stop signs. Where they are used, they get combined with stop signs in ways that make the rule confusing.
– Completely agree with you about golf courses – they need to be turned into parks. There is a great video somewhere of how Bob Hope helped set up california tax laws to advantage golf courses (they are taxed based on actual usage, not on ‘best possible/reasonable use’ of the land). Most other land is taxed, to some extent, based on what it *could* be used for – building, agriculture etc. A vacant lot is still taxed, to some extent, based on the fact that a house could be built there. Just changing that rule would eliminate many private golf courses and, with proper accounting, make the cost of the public golf courses more apparent as a subsidy of a tiny minority of golfers.
Thanks for all of these thoughts Ben! And yes, most countries use roundabouts very effectively, including Mexico, Scotland, England, France, Spain, and on and on. They look better. They are safer. They are good for the environment.
Coupla so reactions –
1 I guess you learned to think like an economist in grad school – didn’t you study Public Policy?
Anyhow, I’m not so impressed with what economics has yielded during its whole history. they haven’t figured out how to regulate business very successfully, they’ve been at each other’s throats since Malthus or Adam Smith over whether or not you can trust the market to self-regulate or not and how big government should be, and policy makers can pick and choose “sound” economic principles to justify just about any policies, even polar opposite ones. Plus, a couple of years ago, a rigorous study came out to say economics as a whole has basically no predictive power. Krugman and Stiglitz are my favorites, but that and a few bucks gets me on a bus, and then, someone else worries about the traffic lights and the fuel consumption etc.
All that said, though, opportunity cost seems like a useful concept.
2. I’m surprised you have taken on things like parking space and excess traffic lights, rather than the driver of _all_ of it, our dependence on very heavily subsidized internal combustion automobile, . The number of cars _has_ to be decreased, as close to zero as possible, and the sooner the better. So much results from that. Like if you’re putting up an apartment building, you can’t get a permit unless you provide parking space. I guess that’s changed some recently, but what about attracting tenants who don’t own cars? Cars is too big a topic. though. My little part of the solution has been to get an electric bike and it gives me an alternative for 90%+ of my rides. With no electric, I just couldn’t get up these hills.
3. With respect to things like traffic lights, I try to go by the categorical imperative – if everybody behaved in a certain way, what harm or good would result in reality? I feel I can say with absolute certainty that Vic has, in his driving career, gone more than 55 in a 55 mile zone. Even more than once, maybe. There’s _relative_ compliance. So your own choice in bad neighborhoods cannot reasonably be criticized. About stop signs, not lights, in Idaho the law says bicyclists should regard a stop sign as equivalent to a yield sign. They talked about doing that in San Francisco; the press discussion quoted an Oregon study, in which it was learned that, I think it was 7% of bicyclists, and 22% of cars came to a full stop – the categorical imperative in action. I follow some simple rules when pulling either from a stop sign pr a stop light – a) make damn sure there’s no traffic and no risk: b) make equally sure there’s no cops around. I do that when bicycling. I mostly don’t pull from red lights in a car, but I kind of regard stop signs as advisory. I know full well that I can be cited, but I’m willing to pay the price.
I hate roundabouts, and if they really do save lives, maybe I better revise my thinking. In southern new Jersey when I lived in Philadelphia, there were roundabouts at virtually every corner until they were all removed at once. I suspect the state wasn’t being guided by throwing the i-ching or something, but by some other rigorous science.
‘fraid I agree with Ben about the freeway onramp traffic lights. The answer to your question is yes, motorists don’t know how to merge. That simple.
3. Seems a no-brainer that you’re right about defibrillators. But I’m afraid you can’t do much to fix health care in this country by spending the defibrillator money on other things. I hope that this crisis might help us rethink our priorities in health and so many other elements of our very backward society – but I’m not counting on it. You’re also dead right about golf courses.
My generation has failed in all the general goals we had, say, back in 1960. Time for my children to keep the seats of policy warm till my grandchildren can begin fixing things in earnest. We haven’t really had to fix things; they really do. I mean, really.
Thanks for all of these great comments, Steve! I picked these things because they are trivial in the grander scheme of things but representative. I will leave the cars,and the military spending and the opioid epidemic to better educated writers with a bigger audience. I do think we owe a lot to people like Krugman, who just keep speaking truth to power and the rest of us. Abrazos.
Great post 😁
Thanks so much 🙂