A Streetcar Named Veblen

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Around the country, cities are going ahead with trolley and streetcar projects, as well as light rail. I just returned from Seattle. Capitol Hill was torn apart at huge expense — all to add a streetcar line to cover a stretch where no buses now run.

Trains are cool; trolleys are neat; streetcars have cachet. But as transportation economist and city-planning critic Randal O’Toole puts it, these are all more costly than buses. Far more costly. They rack up huge costs in infrastructure, and the ridership for them rarely increases enough to pay off even maintenance costs much less the capital outlays.

But for real transportation insanity, California’s your place. There, the bullet-train project has spiraled out of control, “forcing” the state’s pixillated pols to court the state’s employee pension funds to “invest” in their beloved boondoggle.

Why this madness? What’s going on here?

I think Thorstein Veblen explained it. Inadvertently.

Veblen was the economist of our great-grandfathers’ generation who characterized capitalism’s failures as the wastefulness of the rich, in terms of “conspicuous consumption.” He thought that there should be more government, and that this would be . . . less wasteful.

Well, we got that “more government.” It’s far more wasteful than the billionaires of old. At least they got rich providing benefits for the masses. Today, governments tax the masses to pay for vast, inefficient schemes to . . . move the masses. And the masses stay away. In droves.

The “conspicuous consumption” is in the public realm.

It turns out that spending other people’s money makes folks in government less responsible and more enticed by technological gewgaws and the strange tides of high-cost fashion.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Dec
    5
    11:59
    AM
    drrik

    With access to money and no need to make a profit (until the economy collapses) the government is free of the honest feedback of the customer to use to evaluate the efficacy of its actions. The customer is always right because he always has the option of walking away and choosing to not be the customer. The taxpayer, on the other hand, can be right, wrong, or indifferent and he will still always be the taxpayer. And should he try to walk away, the government will hunt him down.

    On the other hand, should the politicians actually collapse the economy, traditionally it has always then been the tax payers who will be doing the hunting. And woe betide the politicians who then lack a viable currency to pay for their own defense.

    Interesting times.

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