Understanding trade-offs and public trust

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week, Prof. David M. Levinson is blogging about “Understanding the Irrational Commuter.”

I’ll start my posts this week by making some general points about how people view trade-offs when it comes to public dollars — not just for transportation, but infrastructure, more generally. This topic was the subject of recent interviews run by Chris Riback on “Conversations with Thinkers,” which you can view here.

First, we need to understand that cities and municipalities make trade-offs in different ways. We all have different priorities. Minneapolis, where I live, has just built a new baseball stadium for the Twins, a new college football stadium for the Golden Gophers, and is about to replace the Metrodome for the Vikings, for example. This shows how important sports are to us, and that there is political will to achieve this (even to the point of violating local democratic checks). At the same time, we are underfunding many other things, including maintenance of our crumbling roads.

So if the government directs money to priorities that are different from what we think they should be, there is an erosion of trust in government. Citizens think the government has priorities that are different from what they think they should be, and they think government doesn’t spend their money well. We need a mutuality of trust for citizens to understand when it’s time to spend money on some shiny new object that they want, and when it’s time to invest, say, in resurfacing roads or rehabilitating bridges.

Of course, this leads to the fundamental issue of taxes. People don’t like to pay them, even if we save much more money up front by investing in infrastructure than by paying for repairs later on. Nationally, we have lost something like 20% of the numbers of transportation construction workers since the start of the recession as federal and state dollars for investments have been pared back. So we have to address the question of what we can afford given these constraints on finances.

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