Alykhan Velshi: Let Them Eat Carbon

Canada isn’t France. Nor is it Japan.

In a country like Canada, explains Mr. Sinclair, “populations are too dispersed and railways can’t compete with the flexibility of cars.” Not only is high-speed rail, using current technology, expensive and impractical in a vast country like Canada, there is ample evidence showing that “demand [for high-speed rail is often] overstated. Danish researchers have looked at the issue and found that nine out of ten rail projects overestimated demand and the average overestimation is 106 per cent.”

Additionally, the massive government “investments” any high-speed rail project requires also represent a pernicious cross-subsidy from the working poor to the upper-middle class. High-speed rail is, according to the book’s research, “a rich man’s train paid for with poor people’s taxes. Long distance trains are overwhelmingly used by people on high incomes.”

The relevance of class to transit policy debates doesn’t end there. For example, those who demand that the government pay for their high-speed train travel also tend to want the government to fund light-rail transit projects to move them within the city. Yet these train enthusiasts are loathe to ride the bus. Why? Well, to put it in the language of Paul Fussell’s still-excellent Class: A Guide Through the American Status Symbol, bus travel is “prole” travel. Buses are unfashionable. Taking the bus instead of the train is, to these modern-day Frognalites, like eating iceberg lettuce instead of arugula, reading the Toronto Sun instead of the Toronto Star, or having legible sentences on one’s t-shirt.

Yet, for the purposes of mass transit, buses are both cheaper to build and, unlike trains, their routes can be easily changed along existing road networks to accommodate shifts in demand, including those spurred on by rapid population growth. In fact, depending on the public’s appetite for reserved bus lanes, greater distances between stops, and traffic signals priority, buses can actually move large numbers of people within a city very fast — faster even than cars. The flexibility and scalability of buses are true both for travel within cities and for travel between them — illustrated by the rapid, private-sector-led expansion of inter-city bus service in the United States as an inexpensive alternative to unreliable and expensive train travel.

Unfortunately, in debates about where to spend the incremental transit dollar, style and status-signaling seem destined to overtake substance and common sense.

A Permanent Tax on Everything

The book also discusses carbon tax policy and politics in the Canadian context through what I think is a very sophisticated analysis of the 2008 federal election campaign. The book even reproduces a picture of the Permanent Tax on Everything ad the Conservative Party used to brand the Liberal Party’s carbon tax in voters’ minds prior to and during that election campaign. The book’s author also interviews Patrick Muttart, one of the main architects of the branding strategy.

“The strategy was two-fold”, the book quotes Mr. Muttart as saying, “attack the Liberals’ motives and drive the economic consequences. Attacking their motives meant leveraging the public’s tremendous skepticism about ‘good cause’ taxes (e.g. road taxes never seem to improve roads, income tax was a temporary measure to pay for WWI, the GST was supposed to be revenue-neutral, etc…) Driving consequences meant focusing like a laser on real world expenses: petrol, electricity, home heating fuel, groceries, etc… The Green Shift was initially very popular but it didn’t take long to move public opinion. Quite simply nobody believed in the capacity of Government to actually deliver. But they did believe they would pay more.”

This great book has very accessible charts and graphs — as well as other evidence the book marshals — do an excellent job showing the Canadian public was right to be skeptical that a carbon tax would efficiently allocate the costs of pollution without doing significant damage to the economy. Indeed, as Mr. Sinclair shows using examples from Britain and Europe, politicians and bureaucrats are not above cynically employing the language of market failure to transfer taxpayers’ hard-earned money to well-connected special interests while doing very little to help the environment.

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