Why NYT Scribe Tom Friedman is Wrong. Again.
Once again, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has addressed automotive issues. This time, Friedman weighs-in on the ultra-cheap car being posited for the rapidly-growing Indian market. The gist of Friedman’s proposal: tax the stuffing out of the cheap car and put the money into mass-transit. Like most of Friedman’s auto-related rants, this one combines a handful of valid points, a couple of keen observations, a soupcon of knee-jerk utopianism and enough muddled thinking to make it impossible to support his views.
Like most Western intellectuals familiar with (if not actual users of) their home town public transportation systems, Friedman believes government has a right (if not an obligation) to manipulate urban transportation patterns for its citizen’s well-being. If these pro-mass transit thinkers harbored any doubts about the costs or consequences of this intercession, the prospect of automotive pollution and global warming removed them.
And so the New York Times scribe surveys India’s chaotic conurbations, imagines adding millions of private vehicles, and concludes that the Indian government should heavily tax cars to prevent this eventuality.
Never mind that taxing cars beyond the reach of the middle class is a fundamentally elitist proposition, reserving personal transportation for the small percentage of India’s “haves.” Preventing India’s urban areas from generating even MORE pollution serves the greater good. Besides, Friedman says that the money will (should?) get plowed back into mass transit, which is better for the middle class– and everyone else– than owning a car.
Have a look at the picture. Why would any member of India’s middle class want to spend their hard-earned money on a car for commuting? Immobility would limit their ability to earn enough money to pay for the car. So unless a car aids an Indian consumer’s ability to commute, they won’t buy it for that purpose. In other words, congestion creates a natural limit to car ownership. An extra tax is both discriminatory and unnecessary.
Of course, Friedman is presuming that cars = commuting. Given gridlock, perhaps Indians will buy the new, cheaper car for something other than slogging back and forth to employment: commerce, shopping, trips to distant relatives, etc. For these tasks, mass transit is not the ideal solution. If mass transit WAS the answer, people wouldn’t buy a car. This is especially true at the economic margins, where India’s new, inexpensive car will find favor. Would Friedman discourage these sorts of trips for the greater good? Apparently so.
Whether or not you agree with that consequence of Friedman’s call for draconian private automobile taxation, Friedman’s argument fails to consider a key reason why a middle class Indian WOULD opt for a cheap car over mass transit (gridlock be damned).
To assure sufficient rider volumes and maintain political equilibrium, India’s mass transit network is widely affordable. Over six million commuters use the Mumbai Suburban Railway every day; it has the highest passenger density in the world. In a country with an entire class of people called “untouchables,” middle class Indians who have the means to buy the new inexpensive car do not now, nor will they ever, prefer to share mass-transit with tens of thousands of less fortunate souls.
It's not PC to say it, but Friedman’s plan for more Indian mass transit wouldn't keep India’s middle class off the roads. Increasing mass transit will simply increase the number of less wealthy people flooding into urban centers– exponentially. The consequences of this increase are unknown, but given that there are many types of pollution (including human waste), it’s entirely possible that a larger mass transportation system may not be in the environment’s best interest.
It may pain a writer living in a "first world" country to admit it, but environmental concerns must be always be balanced against economic prosperity– if only because most citizens value the latter more than the former (sorry, that’s the way it is). In that sense it’s worth asking if traffic congestion actually HELPS India. The more urban congestion, the more business and people move away to outlying areas, where prices are cheaper and transportation more efficient. If it works for Atlanta, Houston, LA, London, Paris and Moscow, why wouldn’t– doesn’t it work in India?
Anyway, the whole frame of reference for this debate is seriously off-kilter.
Intellectuals who learned their history in the big city tend to forget that inexpensive personal transportation has the greatest impact outside urban areas. Out past city limits, cars open up an entire world of possibilities and, thus, raise the quality of life. For America’s vast rural population, Henry Ford’s Model T created new economic markets for labor and goods, fostered social mobility, improved public health and increased genetic diversity. By shrinking distances, a cheap Indian car would liberate time that the rural poor could use for more efficient economic endeavor and/or education.
Any government looking to improve the well-being of its citizenry should think long and hard about raising the “floor” to automobile ownership. As should Tom Friedman.
[You can read Mr. Friedman's column here.]
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