The Sovereign Consumer, Pushed Off the Train

The Sovereign Consumer, Pushed Off the Train

Establishment economists insist that they don’t second-guess consumer preferences. You are, they say, your own best judge of what’s good for you. But not if you like to travel by train.

Riders on the bus rapid transit system in Bogota, Colombia, opened in 2000 (Eli Duke / Flickr)

Establishment economists insist that they don’t second-guess consumer preferences. You are, they say, your own best judge of what’s good for you.

But not if you like to travel by train.

Markets, the prevailing doctrine holds, are the most efficient way to organize production because they compel producers to make what the “sovereign consumer” desires. Many right-wingers go even farther and hold the market economy to be morally superior. Each individual gets what he or she wants, they assert, instead of being forced to accept what someone else thinks they should want.

Yet when these same economists look at public expenditures, the consumer is summarily dethroned. Practitioners of “cost-benefit analysis” decide for themselves what has value and what does not. Impelled sometimes by technocratic indifference, and sometimes by ideological malevolence, they are prone to insist that government should furnish only a measurable minimum of value. Anything that rises above that low standard is then dismissed as waste.

In few domains is the contrast between economic principle and economists’ practice as stark as in urban transportation. Experience and polling data show that Americans, by an overwhelming majority, prefer trains to buses. The preference for rail transit has many roots. Trains give a smoother ride. They can carry far more passengers without clogging city streets. Running on electric power, they can eventually escape dependence on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. And last but not least, riding the train is associated with a higher social status than taking the bus.

Ordinarily, mainstream economics would avoid all inquiry into such motivations. The worth of anything is its market price, so an automobile bearing a prestigious brand name is valued higher than a car with the same innards and a different hood ornament. Yet economists are quick to disparage the preference for trains as emotion if not myth.

The anti-rail consensus extends from the academic establishment to the far right. The centrists insist, with varying degrees of justification, that they support mass transit. Nevertheless, their insistence on a blinkered view of costs and benefits lends respectability to those who campaign against all forms of transit. In this atmosphere even the thoroughly discredited Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute, who argued against repairing New York’s subways after Hurricane Sandy—he wanted to run buses in the tunnels instead—can be taken seriously.

New York Times economics writer Josh Barro sits at the sober end of the pro-bus spectrum, and he puts on clear display the inconsistency between his discipline’s theory and practice. The doctrine of consumer sovereignty has few followers more loyal. Christmas gifts, he wrote in December with tongue only halfway into cheek, are wasteful. It’s more efficient to spend on yourself because you know your own desires better than you know others’. On your own, surely, you could have found a better use for the money your aunt paid for that sweater.

But the respect accorded to your distaste for cashmere is denied to your dislike of bumpy buses. Building the train lines riders want, Barro asserted last month, is a “perverse outcome. Transit agencies are spending millions of dollars on new rail infrastructure that is no faster than existing bus service, simply because riders perceive a train as better than a bus.”

When consumer preference runs to better public services, it is no longer honored as a sovereign command. In the public dislike of buses, Barro sees a “shame factor” that government should counteract. Rather than spend money on new trains, he recommends a marketing campaign to make people like the buses better.

Even on its own terms, the prescription of marketing as a substitute for trains leaves much to be desired. As an example of how to save money, Barro points to the success of the “Orange Line” bus in Los Angeles. It runs every four minutes in rush hour on its own two-lane roadway, and almost 30,000 riders a day jam its extra-long vehicles.

With so many passengers, the busway is bumping up against the limits to its capacity. If the buses came more frequently, they would back up at stops and road crossings. A train, of course, can carry far more people than a bus, and Los Angeles is looking to lay down tracks along the busy route.

In any case, few American buses boast the frequent service of the Orange Line. Far more common are routes that meander infrequently through traffic-clogged suburbs. Promoting such bus lines as a substitute for trains is as likely to convince as telling teenagers that the holiday fruitcake tastes better than chocolate.

When economists turn to marketing, it’s hard to maintain even the pretense of obedience to consumer wishes. The free marketeers’ aversion to rail shows whose sovereignty their doctrine really enthrones. The supposed ruler’s command is heeded only so long as private profit is served.

Benjamin Ross is a transit activist in Maryland. His new book, Dead End, is about the politics of urbanism and transit.