That's the question Ryan Avent is asking in the wake of the Times' blog attacks on HSR:
The New York Times has now turned loose writers at two of its economics blogs to make weak arguments against the construction of high-speed rail lines.
I have been following Ed Glaeser's attempt to do a back-of-the-envelope assessment of the costs and benefits of a hypothetical rail line (catch up here and here). Now, Freakonomics' Eric Morris seems to want to get in on the act, via a lame post comparing the effects of high-speed rail with the fruits of "cash for clunkers."
Let me just begin by pointing out how utterly ridiculous this comparison is. The Obama administration's vision for high-speed rail essentially involves a multi-decade effort to significantly upgrade transportation infrastructure along several of the country's most economically important metropolitan corridors.
"Cash for clunkers," on the other hand, is a $3 billion, roughly two-month program of automobile purchase incentives.
Avent goes on to explain his quite sound reasoning as to why it is totally absurd to compare these two programs. "Cash for clunkers" is a program that is designed to produce immediate economic stimulus through the sales of a few thousand cars, offering the possibility of some extremely minor environmental benefits. HSR is a long-term restructuring of intercity and interregional passenger transportation, a permanent piece of infrastructure whose benefits will be with us for many decades to come - just as the Golden Gate Bridge and Shasta Dam are still providing us with economic activity 70 years later.
Both programs are valuable, but for utterly different reasons. To compare them is to confuse them - and to confuse the reader.
Avent also pointed out that both Glaeser and Morris's anti-HSR work consistently downplays the impact of global warming on the US economy:
I'm led by this to believe that Morris does not actually understand how global warming works -- that it is due to the slow accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over time. The only way we'll ever feel any greenhouse savings from any policy is over a considerable amount of time, which is why wonks discuss carbon reductions in terms of what we might be able to accomplish by 2020 or 2050.
Does Morris think that next year will be cooler thanks to "cash for clunkers"? I certainly hope not.
What Avent is identifying here is that these two economists, Glaeser and Morris, are not offering an assessment of the long-term needs of the US economy and transportation system. Economics as a field of study particularly suffers from a belief that acting on global warming is of less importance than providing economic growth. It's a false dichotomy - HSR is a perfect example of how one can do both at the same time - but it is what the New York Times has given its blogs over to promoting in recent weeks.
American economic policy, and much of American economic thinking, have become dominated by near-term concerns. The next month, the next quarter, the next year. Maybe the next four years if you're lucky. Longer-term policy is rarely discussed in the economic press and while it may get some ink among academic economists, the writing we see many economists offer for public consumption treats long-term infrastructure spending as wasteful, unnecessary, or both.
Hence the ingrown biases and flawed methodologies of both the Glaeser and Morris posts. HSR doesn't make sense in a short-term time frame. We all know that. Keynes may have noted that in the long run we're all dead, but many of us have quite a long way to continue running. It makes sense that we will want to secure sustainable economic prosperity and work to solve those broader forces that challenge that, such as global warming.
For the last 30 years US economic policy has emphasized the short over the long, the next few years over the next few decades. Even though the New Deal provided the basis for long-term growth and unprecedented national prosperity, that kind of big-picture economic policy work has been eschewed for a debate over how to best float the next asset bubble. 30 years of short-term fixes and neglect of the long-term strategy has produced a series of ever greater bubbles and successively more catastrophic results of that bubble's inevitable burst.
HSR pencils out when the full context is assessed. The fact that the NYT bloggers so persistently refuse to provide that context suggests they believe it is important to ensure HSR does not come out well in their writing. Avent again:
This exercise is, as best I can tell, an effort to show that investments in high-speed rail are not worthwhile, from an economic or environmental standpoint, based on extremely pared down models and faulty assumptions, with the goal of influencing how their readers view the high-speed rail initiative.
It's simply irresponsible. Times readers deserve to be better informed.
I have no idea why the Times has chosen to not provide better information to its readers. But that is what they have done. As we in California know, this is par for the course. In 2008 reporters frequently repeated the largely baseless criticisms of HSR and ignored or downplayed its more proven benefits. They share the right's skepticism of government programs, and while we all want government to be closely watchdogged - including those governments involved with the HSR project - there's a difference between honest oversight and a stacked deck.
The New York Times, when it comes to HSR, is playing with a stacked deck. But at least we in the blogs know how to identify which are the marked cards.