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April 09, 2015

The Boston Globe’s Evan Horowitz isn’t too happy with Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to make the MBTA cover more of its own costs (see Breaking Down Baker’s Three-part Plan to Fix the MBTA). Horowitz found the governor’s approach “weird” because it fails to recognize that the MBTA is one of those “public goods” we should expect to subsidize.

Horowitz is wrong though.

He does make a very attractive argument. I’d guess that many progressives cheered this paragraph:

In some ways, this is a weird way to look at things. Nobody says that the police department is insolvent because speeding tickets don’t cover the cost of salaries, or that the library is insolvent because late fees don’t cover the cost of book purchases. We recognize that these things are public goods and we subsidize them as needed.

To understand why Horowitz is wrong, let’s consider an influential theory by the late political scientist James Q. Wilson, about the four kinds of politics a given policy might fall within. In Wilson’s view costs and benefits of a policy could either be widely dispersed or concentrated.  Here are the four kinds of politics:

Majoritarian: distributed benefits, distributed costs

Interest Group: concentrated benefits, concentrated costs

Client Politics: concentrated benefits, distributed costs

Entrepreneurial: distributed benefits, concentrated costs

Horowitz seems to think the politics of the MBTA are Majoritarian politics – costs are (or should be) widely distributed throughout the commonwealth, and benefits are likewise widely distributed. But that’s wrong. In fact what Horowitz describes is really Client politics: benefits are concentrated on riders within the geographically defined MBTA service area, and costs are widely distributed throughout the commonwealth, including to many residents who don’t enjoy MBTA service.   What the administration seems to be arguing is the MBTA politics are Interest group politics – benefits are concentrated and so should the costs be (mostly).

As attractive as Horowitz’s examples are, they are off base. Yes we subsidize the police and libraries rather than run them on speeding tickets and late fees, but that is because we all expect to rely upon the local police or library in our home town. It is majoritarian politics, within each locality. Tell me you’d like me to pay taxes for the Fitchburg public library or Pittsfield police and I’d be less willing to subsidize them.

Which brings us back to the old question of those mean state legislators from outside the MBTA service area who won’t pony up for first class Redline service for the likes of me (I use the T to get to work).

Yes I know there are other possible arguments for subsidizing the MBTA – externalities like the environment, traffic congestion, meeting the needs of the young and less well off, etc. Those may be appealing arguments but don’t lose sight of the (Wilsonian) politics of the MBTA.

Charlie Baker, Evan Horowitz, MBTA

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