Urban[ism] Legend: Transportation is a Public Good

In a recent post, commenter Jeremy H. helped point out that the use of the term “public good” is grossly abused in the case of transportation.  Even Nobel economists refer to roads as “important examples of production of public goods,” ( Samuelson and Nordhaus 1985: 48-49).  I’d like to spend a little more time dispensing of this myth, or as I label it, an “Urban[ism] Legend.”

As Tyler Cowen wrote the entry on Public Goods at The Concise Library of Economics:

Public goods have two distinct aspects: nonexcludability and nonrivalrous consumption. “Nonexcludability” means that the cost of keeping nonpayers from enjoying the benefits of the good or service is prohibitive.

And nonrivalrous consumption means that one consumer’s use does not inhibit the consumption by others.  A clear example being that when I look at a star, it doesn’t prevent others from seeing the same star.

Back when I took Microeconomics at a respectable university in preparation for grad school, I was taught that in some cases roads are public goods.  We used Greg Mankiw’s book, “Principles of Economics” which states the following on page 234:

If a road is not congested, then one person’s use does not effect anyone else. In this case, use is not rival in consumption, and the road is a public good. Yet if a road is congested, then use of that road yields a negative externality. When one person drives on the road, it becomes more crowded, and other people must drive more slowly. In this case, the road is a common resource.

This explanation made sense, but I was skeptical – something didn’t sit right with me.  Let’s take a closer look.

First, Mankiw uses his assertion as an example of rivalrous vs nonrivalrous consumption, while not addressing the question of excludability.  Roads are easily excludable through gates or any other mechanism that could restrict access.

Furthermore, Mankiw’s assertion that an uncongested road is nonrivalrous is simply confusing rivalrousness with the fact that the road is under-utilized and/or over-supplied at certain times.

For a silly example: if the government literally manufactured mountains of marshmallows free for the taking, Mankiw would have to consider marshmallows equally as non-rivalrous and non-excludable as uncongested roads in the US.  Would he then call marshmallows a public good?

Thus we can clearly see that all roads (when done right) are neither nonrival nor non-excludable.   We can use the diagram below (from Living Economics) to see that a congested (or tolled to prevent congestion) road is a private good, and in the case that a roadway is oversupplied, it is simply a “low-congestion good”, often called a “club good.”

I found this diagram at a very helpful site: livingeconomics.com

Roads are the more commonly misused example of a public good, but we can apply the same logic to transit.  First, most transit operations in the US already use a method of exclusions: the turnstyle.  Second, we can see that non-rivalrousness is simply a function of over-supply in the case of the subway car that isn’t full to capacity.

As economist, Don Boudreaux puts it :

So I’m more than sympathetic to the claim that government provision of roads, bridges, and highways distorted Americans’ decisions over the years to drive and live in suburbs.  But my sympathy for this claim comes from my rejection of the classic, naive case for government provision of public goods — and once that case is rejected, it cannot then be used to argue for government provision of, say, light-rail transport.

Does this alone prove that roads should be privatized? No, but the fact roads are either private goods or grossly oversupplied help weaken anyone’s case that transportation is government’s business in the first place.

I should warn you, if your Microeconomics professor teaches you this misconception unchallenged (perhaps using the Mankiw book), and gives you a true/false exam question of whether an uncongested road is a Public Good, you may want to answer “true”, or else be prepared to dispute your grade.  (And feel free to send your professor a link to this post.)

Next time you catch a commenter repeating this Urban[ism] Legend (like Jeremy H. did), refer them to this post.  Here are a few other links to back you up:

Are Roads Public Goods, Club Goods, Private Goods, or Common Pools? by Bruce Benson, Floria State University

Privatizing Roads by Tim Haab, “Environmental Economics” (blog)

Public Goods and Externalities: The Case of Roads by Walter Block, Loyola University

Highways Are Not (Economic) Public Goods by Rob Pitingolo, “Extraordinary Observations” (blog)

Public Goods from an Austrian Economics perspective


Private Buses: Econtalk Takes A Second look at Santiago

Back a couple years ago, I noted an Econtalk podcast with Russell Roberts and Duke University Professor Mike Munger on the private bus system in Santiago, Chile.  This week’s episode starts with Munger’s update on the Santiago transportation system after visiting for three weeks and spending a lot of time traveling the city’s buses and transit.  This discussion comes at a perfect time to follow-up on Stephen Smith’s post on private busing in New York.

Munger and Roberts discussed the advantages and problems of the evolution of the system over the years.  In the case of the private system with over 3,000 competing private bus companies, accidents and injuries were common, and pollution was problematic.  However, the regulation and publicization of the buses led to unintended consequences that were probably far worse than the drawbacks of the private system.  Unfortunately, although the administration has apologized for the failures of the system, it would be politically impossible to revert to some of the beneficial aspects of the private system.

NY Rent Control Revival

In an act of pure legislative idiocy in the face of overwhelming consensus among economists against rent control, the New York State Assembly started the ball rolling to strengthen rent regulation. NY Times:

The Democratic-led Assembly passed a broad package of legislation designed to restrain increases on rent-regulated apartments statewide. The legislation would essentially return to regulation tens of thousands of units that were converted to market rate in recent years.

In addition, the legislation would reduce to 10 percent, from 20 percent, the amount that a landlord can increase the rent after an apartment becomes vacant; limit the owner’s ability to recover a rent-regulated apartment for personal use; and increase fines for landlords who are found to have harassed their tenants as a way of evicting them.

The legislation would also repeal the Urstadt Laws’ provision that in 1971 effectively took away most of New York City’s authority to regulate rents and transferred it to the state. Opponents of the legislation are concerned that the New York City Council, known for its pro-tenant leanings, would enact laws that are unfavorable to landlords.

Expect some amazingly ignorant quotes from legislators while this is debated:

Linda B. Rosenthal, an assemblywoman who represents the Upper West Side, said that unless rent-regulation laws were changed, middle class people were at risk of being driven out of the city.

Actually, rent control drives out the middle class, making housing only affordable to the rich and beneficiaries of subsidies and rent controls. New housing will be nearly impossible for middle class tenants to find. Plus, for those who favor one particular class of people over others, rent control increases class tensions

“Pretty soon we’re going to end up with a city of the very poor and the very rich,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “Our social fabric will have been torn apart. And that is not what we want in the city of New York.”

Well, she’s right about that, but Rosenthal is co-culprit. Let’s take a collection for her to enroll in a basic Microeconomics course. She can even take it at The New School, for all I care.

There is hope. Democrats have a slim 32-30 majority in the Assembly, so I wouldn’t expect any series regulations to pass without a fight.

Assembly Speaker Silver declared 2009, “The Year of The Tenant”. Market rents in New York are falling quickly due to the financial mess, but I don’t think that’s what he means.

As Harvard Economist Ed Glaeser so eloquently puts it, “Rent control is bad, bad, bad.”

Yes, Virginia, government roads really are government subsidized, and no, they don’t approximate freed-market outcomes

Recently, I came accross an article by Charles Johnson, who blogs at Rad Geek.  The article had linked to a Market Urbanism post about how user fees and gas taxes fall well short of funding road use in the US. Charles’ article further debunks the Urbanism Legend asserted by free-market imposters that a free-market highway system would be similar to the system we see today.
I like the post so much that I asked Charles about posting it at Market Urbanism.  Charles requested that I, “indicate that the post is freely available for reprinting and derivative use under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license.” I am happy to comply, and must admit that I haven’t taken the time to acquaint myself with Creative Commons.  So, here it is, in it’s original form, and feel free to read the comments in the link:

Yes, Virginia, government roads really are government subsidized, and no, they don’t approximate freed-market outcomes

by Charles Johnson, RadGeek.com

When left-libertarians argue with more conventionally pro-capitalist libertarians about economics, one of the issues that often comes up is government control over roads, and the ways in which state and federal government’s control over roads has acted as a large subsidy for economic centralization and national-scale production and distribution networks (and thus, to large-scale “big box” retailers, like Wal-Mart or Best Buy, dependent on the crafty arrangement of large-scale cross-country shipping as a basic part of their business model). People who have a problem with this analysis sometimes try to dispute it by arguing that government roads aren’t actually subsidized — that heavy users of government roads are actually getting something that roughly approximates a freed-market outcome, because users of government roads pay for the roads they get, in proportion to how heavily they use them, because government roads are funded by gasoline taxes, tire taxes, and government-imposed licensing fees, which all go up in cost more or less proportionally to increases in use of government roads. Thus (the argument goes), funding for government roads is more like a fee-for-service transaction on a freed market than it’s like a classic case of government subsidies. But in fact, this argument is completely bogus, for at least three reasons.

The first reason is that, contrary to popular misconception, government-imposed gasoline taxes and “user fees” on road users do not actually fully fund the costs of government road-building and maintenance; government funding of roads actually includes a substantial subsidy extracted from taxpayers independently of their usage of the roads. Government budgets for road building and maintenance in the US draw from general funds as well as from earmarked gas taxes and “user fees”, and those budgets are subsidized by state, local, and federal government to the tune of about 20–70 cents per gallon of gasoline expended.

The second reason, which ought to be obvious to libertarians given how much we have talked about the use of eminent domain over the past few years, is that government road-building is substantially subsidized by the fact that government can — and routinely does — use the power of eminent domain to seize large, contiguous stretches of land for road building at arbitrarily fixed rates below what the land-owners could have demanded in a free market land sale. Even if it were the case (as it is not) that usage-based levies like gasoline taxes and government licensing fees were enough to cover the budget for government road building and maintenance, that budget has already had a massive, unmentioned government subsidy factored into it due to the use of eminent domain.

The third reason is that a freed market is able to match the supply for roads to the demand at something like the appropriate cost not only because people pay for the roads in proportion to their use of the roads, but also because the prices for road use are set by negotiations between road users and road builders in a competitive market, and because the ownership and management patterns of roads are determined by patterns of free economic decisions to buy, sell, lease, develop, abandon, reclaim, and subdivide land. Freed markets aren’t just a matter of paying for what you get (as important as that is); they also have to do with the freedom to get what you get by alternative means, and with patterns of ownership and control based on consensual negotiation rather than on force. No matter how roads are funded, there is no way to approximate freed-market results with government monopoly on sales or politically-determined allocation of ownership. (Again, this is something that ought to be obvious; it is just the socialist calculation problem applied to the market for road transportation.)

And roads funded by government-imposed gasoline taxes will always be either noncompetitive or subsidized: if there were any significant private roads competing with roads funded by government gasoline taxes, the taxes on the gasoline that drivers burn on those roads become a subsidy to the government-controlled roads. The more users use the non-government roads, the more they would be subsidizing the government roads.

Further, the ownership and management patterns of government roads are determined by electoral horse-trading and arbitrary political jurisdictions, not by free economic actors. As a result, decisions about what roads to build, how to direct funds to those roads, how to price the use of those roads, etc. are typically made by state or federal legislatures, or state or federal executive bureaus. Governments are far more responsive to political than to economic pressure; governments generally will not, or cannot, sell off roads or spin off control over local roads to the people who use them most and can best manage them; state and federal governments exercise centralized control over far larger fiefs than it would ever be possible or profitable to amass on a free market. Thus, for example, because the building and maintenance of roads in Las Vegas is controlled, not by free market actors in Las Vegas, but rather by the Nevada state government, we have Las Vegas drivers paying in 70% of the state’s gas taxes and getting back only 61% of the state’s spending on roads (which is an increase over the 2003–07 average of 53%) — meaning that we are forced to turn tens of millions of dollars over to subsidizing highway building and maintenance in the rest of Nevada. Here’s NDOT’s reasoning as to why we should get stuck with the bill:

If NDOT based its road building program strictly on usage, [NDOT assistant director of engineering Kent] Cooper said, then no new highways would be built outside of Clark County.

He noted that freeways in Las Vegas attract 150,000 to more than 200,000 vehicles a day. No other area in the state has such high use.

Ed Vogel, Las Vegas Review-Journal (2008-11-26): Southern Nevadans get less bang for their road tax buck

Now, maybe Kent Cooper thinks that it is just and wise to force Las Vegas drivers to pay tens of millions of dollars in subsidies so that NDOT can build expensive roads that nobody wants to use.

Maybe he’s right about that, and maybe he’s wrong. But whatever the case may be, the only way to get freed market results in roads is by freeing the market. Under government ownership, government funding, and government control, roads are subsidized by taxes that are levied independently of road usage, built using a subsidy created by forced seizure of land, and users of high-volume local roads are typically forced to subsidize expensive, long-distance cross-country roads that they aren’t using. This kind of allocation of resources for long-distance, non-local highways — which further distorts an already subsidy-distorted system by distorting the flow of money within that system away from the heavily-used local roads and into the high-cost, high maintenance long-distance roads, can certainly not be called any kind of approximation of a freed market in roads.

© by Charles Johnson
This post is freely available for reprinting and derivative use under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0 license.

Market Meltdown and Bailout Videos

Wow! This market is a mess.

As a great follow up to his posts at CafeHayek on government’s intervention in the housing market, Russell Roberts discusses the situation and bailout with reason.tv:

Also…

Here’s the video from an Economics forum discussion at MIT (my Alma mater) on Wednesday: The US Financial Crisis What Happened? What’s Next?

And another forum at USC. [HT Richard's Real Estate and Urban Economics Blog]

Russell Roberts on Government Intervention in Housing

Russell Roberts of George Mason University, CafeHayek, and Econtalk wrote of series of Cafe Hayek posts on the various federal interventions in the housing market:

Housing markets without the benefit of hindsight

Fannie reaches its goals–sort of

Zero Down!

Fannie and Freddie’s other mission

Section 8

Bill cared too

Affordable equals “subprime”

Calm down

And don’t forget Andrew Cuomo

Shiller and fundamentals

The role of the CRA

It’s not the CRA

No money down, revisited

Bear Stearns, the CRA, and Freddie Mac

Stiglitz on the crisis

Skyscrapers as Economic Indicators

Ever hear of interesting economic indicators such as the correlation beween the economy and length of skirts?  Here’s one urbanists should appreciate: the skyscraper index, which shows strong correlation between the completion of world’s tallest buildings and downturns in the business cycle.  Mark Thornton discusses the skyscraper index in his article, Skyscrapers and Business Cycles [or mp3 read by the author], which was originally published in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics:
Burj Dubai, Worlds Tallest Building under construction [flickr israel_is.live]

The skyscraper is the great architectural contribution of modern capitalistic society and is even one of the yardsticks for 20th-century superheroes, but no one had ever really connected it with the quintessential feature of modern capitalistic history — the business cycle. Then in 1999, economist Andrew Lawrence created the “skyscraper index” which purported to show that the building of the tallest skyscrapers is coincidental with business cycles, in that he found that the building of world’s tallest building is a good proxy for dating the onset of major economic downturns. Lawrence described his index as an “unhealthy 100 year correlation.”

While macro business cycle theory is beyond my core strength in economics and the scope of this blog, this is a particularly interesting topic to me as I am an economics enthusiast with a passion for tall buildings.  The basic premise is that construction of worlds tallest buildings has strong corelation with economic downturns.  Construction of these buildings begin during times of economic expansion towards the peak of business cycles.  However, by the time the buildings are complete, the market has taken a turn for the worse.  Could the Burj Dubai be an indicator that tough times are ahead?

The common pattern in these four historical episodes contains the following features. First, a period of “easy money” leads to a rapid expansion of the economy and a boom in the stock market. In particular, the relatively easy availability of credit fuels a substantial increase in capital expenditures. Capital expenditures flow in the direction of new technologies that in turn creates new industries and transforms some existing industries in terms of their structure and technology. This is when the world’s tallest buildings are begun. At some point thereafter, negative information ignites panicky behavior in financial markets and there is a decline in the relative price of fixed capital goods. Finally, unemployment increases, particularly in capital- and technology-intensive industries. While this analysis concentrates on the US economy, the impact of these crises was often felt outside the domestic economy.

Thornton tells us three main effects of the business cycle on skyscrapers.  First, looking at the fundamentals of the economics of land development and interest rates:

When the rate of interest is falling, the land best suited for the production of the longer-term, more capital-intensive, and more roundabout methods of production will increase in price relative to land better suited for shorter term, more direct methods of production. …  Simplified, higher prices for land reduce the ratio of the per-floor cost of tall vs. short buildings and thus create the incentive to build buildings taller to spread the land cost over a larger number of floors. Lower rates of interest also reduce the cost of capital, which facilitates the ability to build taller. Thus, higher land cost leads to taller buildings.

Second, lower interest rates enabling larger firm sizes:

A lower cost of capital encourages firms to grow in size and to become more capital intensive and to take advantages of economies of scale. Production and distribution become more specialized and take place over a larger territory.

The third being improved technology as a result of investment in research and development of taller buildings:

Buildings that reach new heights pose numerous engineering and technological problems relating to such issues as building a sufficiently strong foundation, ventilation, heating, cooling, lighting, transportation (elevators, stairs, parking), communication, electrical power, plumbing, wind resistance, structural integrity, fire protection, and building security.

Beyond the mere technology it takes to build the world’s tallest building, every vertical beam, tube, or shaft in a building takes away from rentable space on each floor built, and the more floors in the structure, the greater the required capacity of each system in the building, whether it is plumbing, ventilation, or elevators. Hence, there is a tremendous desire to innovate with technology in order to conserve on the size of building systems or to increase the capacity of those systems. Therefore, as the height of construction rises, input suppliers must go back to the drawing board and reinvent themselves, their products, and their production processes.

 

diagram from the article

diagram from the article

An office building is a capital good that is used to bring a variety of consumer goods to market in the sense that production in the office building involves the decision-making process over all aspects of the firm. Its use is ubiquitous in “big business” and is totally absent in small businesses such as family farms, hot dog stands, plumbing services, auto body repair shops, etc. The office building is a critical capital good in very roundabout production processes that represent virtually all modern production and all cutting-edge goods and service production. The modern economy is inextricably linked with the large office building or as Carol Willis (1995, p. 181) put it: “Skyscrapers are the ultimate architecture of capitalism.”

The skyscraper is not just a large version of the office building. Skyscrapers can be used to house the offices of a single corporation, the central offices and branch offices of multiple corporations, hotel and residential living space, commercial space, convention space, a wide variety of personal service businesses, and specialized tenants such as stock exchanges, theaters, and television studios. The skyscraper can serve as a much larger and more advanced office building (being both more productive and producing a higher-quality service). It can even take on the status of a business community or specialized form of privately controlled marketplace. Naturally, greater amounts and diversity of production are possible in larger skyscrapers. The world’s tallest building, past and present, also adds the status of a distinct address.

An interesting fact to consider is that the Burj Dubai is the first world’s tallest to be residential and not office.  Does it reflect the unique market cycle we are now in where the credit bubble resulted in a world’s tallest building with a non-commercial primary use?  Is it somehow telling that the Burj Dubai is not a skyscraper directly meeting the needs of big business?

Of course, the skyscraper index is not perfect, but Thornton examines the main counterexamples to the index, such as New York’s Woolworth Building.

Glaeser on Affordability of NY vs Houston

Harvard Economist Ed Glaeser wrote an opinion piece in the New York Sun about the differences in housing affordability and other costs of living between Houston and New York.

New York is naturally more expensive than Houston because the geographical constraints force higher density development, which is more expensive to build. New York’s highly regulated land use and zoning process adds more constraints that exacerbate this problem. On the flip side, Houston has few geographical constraints and relatively loose regulation, allowing the market to allocate housing more efficiently. In conclusion, Glaeser recommends that New York could do much to improve affordability by loosening it’s many regulations.

NY Sun – Houston, New York Has a Problem

Why is it so much more expensive in New York? For one, supplying housing in New York City costs much, much more — for a 1,500-square-foot apartment, the construction cost alone is more than $500,000. Also, part of the reason is geographic: an old port on a narrow island can’t grow outward, as Houston has, and the costs of building up — New York’s fate, especially in Manhattan — will always be higher than those of building out. And the unavoidable fact is that New York makes it harder to build housing than Chicago does — and a lot harder than Houston does.

The permitting process in Manhattan is an arduous, unpredictable, multiyear odyssey involving a dizzying array of regulations, environmental, and other hosts of agencies. A further obstacle: rent control. When other municipalities dropped rent control after World War II, New York clung to it, despite the fact that artificially reduced rents discourage people from building new housing.

Houston, by contrast, has always been gung ho about development. Houston’s builders have managed — better than in any other American city — to make the case to the public that restrictions on development will make the city less affordable to the less successful.

Of course, Houston’s development isn’t costless. Like most growing places, it must struggle with water issues, sanitation, and congestion. For environmentalists who worry about carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, Houston’s rapid growth is particularly worrisome, since Houstonians are among the biggest carbon emitters in the country — all those humid 90-degree days mean a lot of electricity to cool off, and all that driving gobbles plenty of gas.

But Houston’s success shows that a relatively deregulated free-market city, with a powerful urban growth machine, can do a much better job of taking care of middle-income Americans than the more “progressive” big governments of the Northeast and the West Coast.

The right response to Houston’s growth is not to stymie it through regulation that would make the city less affordable. It’s for other areas, New York included, to cut construction costs and start beating the Sunbelt at its own game.