Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Kind of Problem Transportation Is

It is ironic, in discussions of transportation, that liberals have seized upon fuel as the primary issue: from public transportation to energy policy to Detroit bailouts, they calculate everything in terms of how to limit the use of gas, and how to limit emissions.

But fuel and emissions are fungible: they can be moved from place to place, so that I can get from place to place using dozens of different fuel sources from thousands of different sources; and someone else can use the same fuel that I might use. Ditto with emissions: we do indeed need to worry about how many pollutants we put into our atmosphere (for the health of the air we breathe, if not more stratospheric concerns), but we don't need to worry who pollutes. We just need to limit the overall amount. Emissions are fungible.

And fungible resources are precisely what the market is designed to deal with. If we're worried about a limited amount of petroleum, the answer is very simple: supply and demand. As petroleum runs out, it will become more expensive, and people will limit their use of it, either by limiting their fuel consumption overall, or by shifting to other fuels. The cost mechanism is designed for precisely this problem; there is nothing it does better than allocate limited resources, and nothing handles this problem better than simple supply and demand.

There are, of course, a couple side issues here. There's the very silly idea of peak oil, which, in case you're worried, I will simply dismiss thus: there are various sources of oil (the ocean bottom, shale, etc.) each increasingly expensive, so it's not as if we'll "run out" all of a sudden; there are other kinds of fuel (nuclear, solar, wind, water, biofuels, etc.), which are more expensive, but which can incrementally replace petroleum (for example, natural-gas heat, nuclear electricity, electric cars, without wholesale replacing petroleum all at once); and in any case, this is what the price mechanism is all about. The Arabs (and Canadians, and Mexicans, and all the others who control oil) want as much money as they can get out of those wells, and will incrementally raise prices as oil supplies diminish. Peak oil is not the problem.

Nor is economic inequality the problem. If you're concerned about people being priced out of the gas market, give them money, either through largesse or through job creation. Economic inequality is a problem, but it isn't solved by rationing fuel.

Finally, emissions are more complicated than fuel, since they are not something people purchase. But because they are nonetheless fungible, the solution is not to dictate individual decisions (through mandated forms of transportation, or whatever), but to put a surcharge on emissions. This is not rocket science: do an emissions check, and tax the vehicle accordingly (perhaps with a multiplier for mileage). Emissions are a problem, but they are not solved by rationing fuel. Liberals have it all wrong when they focus on fuel as the problem in transportation.

But it is similarly ironic that conservatives focus only on freedom. They say people should be able to go where they please, so we should build roads wherever people want to go. What this answer misses, however, is a bedrock of conservative thought: property rights.

Transportation is a property issue, because it fundamentally involves passing through someone else's yard -- if you don't need to traverse a third-party territory to get where you're going, you are not involved in transportation. To go from St. Paul to Chicago means going through Wisconsin. To go from my house to the mall means getting past what is in between; if I didn't have to pass through anything, it wouldn't be transportation.

Conservatives notice this problem when it's used as a criticism of public transportation. The city is building a light-rail line here in St. Paul. Supposedly it's going to be great for business along the Midway. But it will take five years to build, during which time traffic on University Ave. will be blocked. What happens to the businesses there in the meantime -- the Target and the Walmart, the used bookstore and the little Vietnamese bakery? For five long years it will be easier for customers to go somewhere else.

The government recognizes this, and is planning to subsidize these businesses for the duration of the project, as part of the cost of building. Of course, the question remains open whether the light rail itself will help or hurt traffic. We all hope it will just add more customer flow. But if it blocks car traffic and doesn't attract train traffic, these five years are the beginning of many years of much worse. Conservatives notice this.

They notice, too, when the President of Minnesota Public Radio comes on the air and says, "we support the light rail, but as planned it will pass too close to our studies, making our business impossible." I support the light rail -- in someone else's front yard. Because trains are very noisy, and transportation effects the neighbors.

Conservatives see this. But do they see the parallel with roads? St. Paul's University Ave.-Midway has long been blighted. From storefront to storefront, it is about 170 feet across the street; at a normal walking pace, that's almost a minute. At best -- when there's no traffic -- that means pedestrians (that is, people) have a pretty long walk, across empty concrete, to get between adjacent businesses. At worst -- when there is traffic -- it means that there are only businesses on one side of the street: half as many places for people to go, after they've parked their automobile, and thus half as many reasons for people to visit University Ave. businesses. (Light rail is not going to help this.) That used bookstore is a lot less attractive when you can't get a cup of coffee next door.

But even worse, because things are so spread apart, people must drive to get places, and that means parking lots. To get from the sidewalk in front of Target to the door is 375 feet: a minute and a half. (I'm using Google maps.) To get to the store on the other side of the street is two and a half minutes. The effect on business is perfectly obvious: no one walks from business to business on University Ave. That may be aesthetically displeasing, and aesthetics do matter, but even more important, it impacts the choices people make: the likelihood that they will visit other businesses on the street, the likelihood that they will visit that area at all, the safety of people walking in the neighborhood, who are vulnerable not only to cars, but to criminals, who prefer to do what they do where there are fewer bystanders. Target's 375- x 465-foot parking lot is not just a matter of personal liberty, but also of neighborhood effects. It changes the world around it. It effects business at the Vietnamese bakery, and it changes who wants to live in the apartment building around the block.

Four blocks away is I-94, the lifeline of the Twin Cities. To get from a storefront or home on one side of the freeway to one on the other side is about 500 feet: two minutes on foot. If you're lucky, there's a bridge every quarter mile (five minutes). Does this effect the neighborhoods on either side? Of course.

A home in a neighborhood without freeways is surrounded by other homes and businesses -- places to go; people to watch, and to watch out for you; room to wander, and to be outside, and to be in your neighborhood. A home abutting a freeway has effectively nothing in 50% of its environs. And then there's the noise. There's a reason that the neighborhoods abutting freeways are almost always slums. It isn't a nice place to live, or even to do business.

All of this is simply to say: transportation is a property-rights issue. If I want to get from a house in the suburbs to a business downtown, the question is not only where I want to go, how I want to get there, and who will pay. (Though those are important issues, and must also be considered.) But in every act of transportation there is also the property being traversed: transportation always goes past something.

There are good reasons for people to demand a freeway through my neighborhood. It is important for people and things to be able to get from a to b, and they have to go somewhere. But the noise and the interference with pedestrian travel -- that is, travel by human beings, since we can't drive our cars into stores, or into houses, and we can't talk to people in other cars: we always end up on foot -- these things also affect the neighborhood.

In the classic libertarian formulations of Milton Friedman, the primary reason for government intervention is what he calls "neighborhood effects": when people outside a transaction benefit or pay from the result. If I burn tires in my backyard, my neighbors pay. If I build a public park across the street, my neighbors benefit. There is a fundamental injustice -- indeed, a violation of individual freedom, and of contract -- if the neighbors aren't involved in these decisions.

But transportation always has a neighborhood effect, because transportation always, necessarily, goes past someone else's property. (Even airplanes: they make noise, especially on takeoff; they release pollution; they go through the airspace we all look at.) That's not to say the neighborhood effect is always bad, or significant: I really don't mind seeing airplanes in the sky, at least when they are high up. It is to say that we can never have an honest discussion about transportation without considering the people we're driving past.

It is reasonable for conservatives to demand liberty in transportation. The economy, and human relations, depend on the ability of people to get from a to b based on their own intelligence, not based on the "plan" of a bureaucrat (or special interest). Conservatives are therefore right to be wary of public-transportation schemes that involve a bureaucrat's intelligence being substituted for the intelligence of the people he claims to serve. They are right to insist on the market.

But conservatives must recognize that there is no free lunch on transportation. They must consider the neighborhoods effected by cars: the noise, the physical separation, the parking. These are not matters of individual choice, but of neighborhoods, and this is the kind of problem that transcends the market. They are matters that essentially depend on governmental involvement.

I am not proposing a simple solution. I am, rather, denying the overly simple solution of pretending cars and roads are simply issues of individual choice. Transportation is always a neighborhood issue.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Renaissance, Part II

In the previous post I treated of renaissance, of moving forward through rediscovering the past, and through the example of Biblical revelation, I introduced the problem of privilege: the Bible is more important than any other historical text, because it comes from God. In this post, however, we will explore how privileged texts are at the heart of the issue of renaissance.

Here's the problem: many people say, who cares about Thomas Aquinas, or Aristotle? They were so long ago! In fact, estimates claim that at least 6% of all the people who have ever lived are alive right now. Certainly an even larger proportion of all people have lived in the last couple centuries. And we have the advantage of all the ages that have gone before, and of so much new technology. Doesn't it seem (many people say) that there ought to be better guides in modernity? Why on earth would we look for guidance to Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century -- or even worse, to some Greek from 2300 years ago?! In fact, those of us who still read these ancient characters are often accused of denying human reason. Haven't we come a long way since 1274?

Well, yes and no. But the point is, there are privileged periods in history. Why was it that, in the Quatrocento, the place to look for great sculpture was thirteen hundred years back, instead of just the last generation? The answer is that ancient Rome was a great time for sculpture, for a variety of reasons, including the advanced state of their culture (lots was lost with the collapse of Rome in the fifth century), the prolonged peace in which they lived, and even the philosophical climate, which was frankly more open to the exaltation of human beauty than was, say, eighth century Byzantium. When Michaelangelo, around the year 1500, was looking for guides in the way of sculpture, there was more to learn from in the second century -- and even fourth-century B.C. Greece -- than in the thirteenth century (great though it was). Those were privileged times. The greatest examples were not from the time immediately before him.

Aristotle was not just some smart guy, to be matched by another smart guy in twentieth-century Seattle. Aristotle lived in a privileged time. I am no historian of ancient Greece, but it's clear there was a ferment there that is very rare in human history. Aristotle did not appear out of nowhere, but was himself the student of Plato, who was himself the student of Socrates, who was himself born into a fruitful time without parallel for philosophy, in a republic that allowed him to last a lot longer before getting killed off than has happened almost any other time in history. Aristotle was very smart himself. But his real significance is not as an individual, but as the culmination of a privileged time.

The same is true of Thomas Aquinas. He can seem to stand out as just a brilliant individual. But Thomas stood at the culmination of a couple centuries of unparalleled peace, in a culture permeated by Christian faith as has never happened before or since, at an ideal point in relation to the rediscovery of Aristotle, long enough after to give Thomas great teachers (such as Albert the Great and Alexander of Hales, both of whom Thomas knew personally, as well as many others), but not long enough that the study of Aristotle had grown stale. Meanwhile, Thomas was a member of the Dominican order at the height of its first blossoming, still drawing from the brilliant sanctity of St. Dominic, just at the point when the Dominicans were fully discovering the unity of Scriptural and philosophic knowledge. Much more could be said -- indeed, books have been and should be written on the perfect historical circumstances of St. Thomas. Thomas is important not only because of his own personal brilliance -- though he was uncommonly sharp -- but also because he is the fruit of a privileged time.

Men like Hobbes and Kant, meanwhile, were born at the wrong time. They are tainted by polemics that are quite destructive. To some extent that is the fault of their own lack of virtue, and intellectual failure to see beyond the petty debates of their own times. But it is also a product of their circumstances. They did not have the intellectual space, so to speak, in which to do great philosophy -- any more than a brilliant mind could achieve much philosophically during the barbarian invasions of the tenth century, or a sculptor could do what Michaelangelo did without ever having seen the products of ancient Rome, or a stained-glass artist could create Chartres in a cathedral with solid walls.

In fact, the importance of privileged times is part and parcel of the nature of renaissance in the first place. Renaissance means the human mind works not in pure individuality, but makes greatest progress in good environments. We can think more clearly ourselves when we have good guides -- we can see further, as they used to say, sitting on the shoulders of giants. That means, for one thing, that the true way to progress includes study of the past. But it also means that not all periods in the past are the same. There are privileged times, and some authors who are more helpful than others.

Renaissance does not, of course, mean that we simply parrot what previous authors have said, or previous artists have made. It does not mean that Aristotle, Thomas, or Roman art is the last word. It does mean that if we wish to make real progress, we do well to seek out the greatest minds of the past.

Renaissance, Part I

There's a standard line of argument in our culture that opposes tradition to progress. There's obvious truth to that opposition. Surely those who are unwilling to try new things can't make things better. But the opposition is generally clumsily made, and cuts off far more than it should.

Consider the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century. The very term "renaissance" (though only popularized centuries later) describes very well what happened. Renaissance, of course, means "re-birth." And the Renaissance -- any renaissance -- was in part a new birth, a new beginning, a great step forward. But it was also a return, a "re"-awakening of things that had long laid dormant.

The Quattrocento itself was in part a restoration of Roman art. It really is striking, in the study of art, to see the beautiful human images, especially in sculpture, of ancient Rome -- and the sudden reappearance of these images in the 1400s. The Italian Renaissance rediscovered both Roman techniques (an especially fun one is the technique required to sculpt a horse, with its massive weight supported by four, or usually three, spindly legs) as well as Roman subjects: for over a millenium, the human figure itself was not taken as an object of art. Suddenly it reappears! And it reappears, not through a coincidence, but precisely through the Italians taking notice of the ruins that lay around them.

The Quattrocento is not the only Renaissance. There's a classic book of pre-Conciliar Catholicism entitled "13th, Greatest of Centuries," and any Catholic who knows his history knows that the 12th and 13th centuries saw their own fantastic renaissance. Gothic architecture, that fabulous new creation of the high middle ages -- dubbed "gothic" by a later age that wanted to cast off that supposedly barbaric period -- is in fact rooted in Roman technique.

The heart of Gothic archtiecture is the ogive (OH-jive). As medieval architects worked to build bigger churches, they moved from flat ceilings to archs -- rediscovering, through study of the past, the structural strength of the arch. Romanesque architecture (roughly 11th-12th centuries) created the barrel vault: essentialy a long, drawn-out arch. But Gothic begins when arches are made to intersect, forming x's on the ceiling. These intersecting arches -- ogives, or groins -- carry thin webbing in between. Thus, whereas in the Romanesque barrel vault every part of the ceiling is held up by the walls directly outside of it, in the Gothic groin vault, an entire section of ceiling is held up by only four pillars. The result is the structural characteristics of Gothic architecture: enormous height and breadth, since the ceiling can now weigh far less; and lots of light: since the weight is carried by just a few pillars, the space between them can now be filled with glass. (The flying buttress only extends this dynamic to the outside: on the one hand, the buttresses are holding up only the pillars, not the rest of the wall; and on the other hand, the flying buttresses are themselves arches, holding the walls up with a minimum of material.) The rest of Gothic art develops from the ability to now decorate pillars and glass, and to paint, as it were, on a far greater canvas. But the ogive itself was a gift from Roman antiquity.

Meanwhile, the 12th and 13th centuries saw a parallel renaissance on the intellectual level, progressing through the greatness of Anselm, through Bernard, and up to the high scholasticism of Bonaventure and Thomas (both died 1274), with parallels in philosophy, law, and medicine. Partly, this was the result of greater leisure, allowed by a sounder economy. But it also arose from study of the past. The signal intellectual stimulus was the rediscovery of Aristotle. His works had been lost to the West (for reasons that need not detain us now) for over a thousand years, but were rediscovered through the military reconquest of part of Muslim Spain. Thomas advanced, not through casting off the past, but by digging into it. Aristotle was a master both of logic and of observation. Learning from this master gave Thomas the leisure, in a sense, to take a step further. He didn't have to rediscover all that Aristotle had discovered, but could build on previous genius.

The gothic ogive gives us a good metaphor for the nature of renaissance. The structural achievement of the intersecting archs creates a space in which to play. Only when the roof is safely held up can you begin to experiment with light and sculpture. Aristotle does for Thomas something parallel to those arches. Thomas can think through new topics, and think better through old topics, because Aristotle gives him a solid foundation, holds the roof high above his head so he can fill in the little details. (This goes, incidentally, both for the economic achievements, which gave Thomas time to work, and the rediscovery of the past, which gave Thomas the intellectual tools.)

The same thing happens with the great St. Bernard of Clairvaux. On one side, Bernard was a great student of the classics of Roman rhetoric, especially (if memory serves me) Cicero. That might seem trifling. But Cicero taught Bernard to express himself. Bernard has the freedom to plumb the poetic depths of theology precisely because he has mastered his language. A dim parallel for us might be Strunk and White: rather than recreating language, I can move on to explore other topics better when I let Professor Strunk and his loyal disciple remind me how to keep things clear. I don't need to recreate the wheel -- or the arch. By using what the past provides me, I can move forward.

Even more important, on the other side, Bernard leans on Scripture. Now, here we step into a new realm, the realm of Revelation. Scripture is different, because whereas Aristotle just used a mind like mine to discover things that I (in theory) could discover myself, St. John receives wisdom from above that I can only receive through contact with the source -- and, in fact, through the mediation of John and his fellows.

But setting that aside for a minute, Bernard -- like Thomas, Anselm, and all the Christian greats -- can reach into the heights precisely because his feet are on the solid ground of Scripture. Learning what God has revealed does not constrain him, but gives him the leisure to press deeper into human wisdom. In fact, theology, rightly construed, is an achievement of human reason -- doing what human reason can do -- beginning with the revelation of things that reason could not attain on its own (and some things that it could attain on its own, but only rarely, after great study, and with considerable admixture of error). Theology, in a sense, is like the stained-glass artist, who does his job well, but can only do it when the architect has given him space in which to play.

I bring theology into this consideration of renaissance for two reasons. First, because we do indeed live within a dispensation of revelation. The Bible is there -- and the Church's mediation of its authentic interpretation -- and we would be foolish to try to understand the world without its aid. Renaissance means moving forward through a return to the sources. It means there is no opposition between learning from others and discovering new things ourselves. And for us, it means above all that we will be most truly men of the future by being deeply imbued with the infallible teaching of the past, in God's revelation.

But I bring the element of revelation into my consideration of renaissance even for the human level, because it highlights the problem of privilege. The next post will explain how the problem of privilege is not unique to revelation. In fact, privileged authors are at the heart of the issue of renaissance.