Showing posts with label Economic Inequality. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Economic Inequality. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Gathering Storm


We seem to be watching the slow motion creation of a dystopian plutocracy. Obfuscated by the administration’s contrived crisis of dealing with undocumented immigrants and horrific scenes of families being separated, is an alt-right agenda of dismantling the so called social net.  Stories such as a recent one in the New York Times are hidden by other events of Trump’s creation. 

Highlighted here are some salient points from the New York Times article of a few days ago, “Behind Trump’s Plan to Overhaul the Government: Scaling Back the Safety Net”.

I have depended on the Times for the Truth all my life and I see no reason to disbelieve any of this about “a small army of conservatives [who] have produced dozens of initiatives like the cabinet reshuffle proposal, with the goal of dismantling the social welfare system.”

·       *Among the most consequential ideas is a proposal to shift the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a subsistence benefit that provides aid to 42 million poor and working Americans, from the Agriculture Department to a new mega-agency that would have “welfare” in its title — a term Mr. Trump uses as a pejorative catchall for most government benefit programs
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          *Mr. Trump, for his part, joked on Thursday that the plan was “extraordinarily boring” before TV cameras in the Cabinet Room.  But being boring in an all-too-exciting White House has provided cover for a small army of conservatives and think tank veterans who have been quietly churning out dozens of initiatives like the proposal to reshuffle the cabinet, with the ultimate goal of dismantling the American social welfare system from the inside out.
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          *Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former adviser,…believes the attack on social programs will be one of Mr. Trump’s most enduring policy achievements.
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          *Philip G. Alston, a New York University professor and the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, agreed with Mr. Bannon’s assessment. “My sense is they are making very considerable progress, even though no one is paying much attention,” he said.
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      *As president, Mr. Trump would become so bored with the details of domestic policy that aides long ago stopped sharing all but the most top-line specifics of their plans — including the reorganization, according to several people who have worked closely with Mr. Trump.  If Mr. Trump is fuzzy on policy, he is acutely attuned to the perils of offending his base, especially older voters.
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      *The core of Mr. Trump’s safety net policy is an expansion of work requirements to foster self-sufficiency among recipients of food assistance, Medicaid and housing subsidies to reduce dependence on the government. “Our goal is to get people on the path to self-sufficiency,” Mr. Bremberg said. Its real purpose, advocates for poor people claim, is to kick hundreds of thousands of the needy off the federal rolls, to cut taxes for the rich
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      *By early 2017, Heritage produced a government reorganization plan that served as the initial template for Thursday’s announcement. They also drafted a list of 334 policy recommendations, about half of them aimed at domestic programs for poor people or Obama-era regulations protecting low-income consumers.

The first part of the plan, cutting taxes for the upper 1%, has already been implemented.  What remains to be seen is the long term impact of those cuts on the deficit; most economists agree that GPD growth will not offset those cuts. This leaves an ever growing national debt, something the Republicans staunchly opposed before and now seem to be content with.  When cries of deficit spending reach a crescendo in the future, their “Trump card” may be to throw the neediest 42 million Americans under the bus in the name of fiscal responsibility. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

To Tax or Not To Tax, A Question Again



It’s interesting what issues home-town papers latch onto.  The headline of today’s Palm Beach Post chose to focus on Trump’s tax cut “plan. ” Write a blog such as this long enough and like a leitmotif in a novel the same issues seem to recycle.  Here we go again, trickle-down economics in the form of tax cuts that will benefit, mostly, the rich and the uber–rich. 

I’ve touched upon economic inequality some two dozen times, including the impact of removing the so called “death tax,” notwithstanding Trump’s disingenuous “not good for me, believe me.” Removing this tax entirely encourages family dynasties, which in this competitive world leaves those who have to begin their journey at the starting line way behind.  An argument that is made for removing the tax is it is a disincentive for working hard.  Warren Buffett doesn’t think so and neither do the entrepreneurs of the world, people whose creativity and ideas drive their lives.  Did Steve Jobs do what he did with the hope there would be no estate tax?  The other argument is that some farmers who have vast land holdings upon death owe taxes on the appraised value.  So, perhaps working farms should be exempt up to a certain amount.

I explained my position in two articles in particular, both written more than six years ago.  We are back to this prestidigitation again and as they are as valid as when they were written, I reprint them here. 
 
How rich is too rich? Actually, I published a book by that title almost twenty years ago and some of its ideas are as relevant today as it was then (How Rich Is Too Rich; Income and Wealth in America by Herbert Inhaber and Sidney Carroll: Praeger, 1992). Two points from that book stuck with me. First, there is the very descriptive opening chapter of looking at income distribution as an imaginary "sixty minute grand parade," tax payers being the marchers, grouped by their height which would be representative of their incomes, the first marchers having the lowest income and the last the highest, with "height" determined by the "average" taxable income being equal to the "average" height of an individual American. The "parade" in effect is an X/Y graph, the Y axis being the income (height), and the X axis being the minutes of the "parade." The first few minutes one sees no marchers even though we can hear some noise. These are people with negative height, those who report the loss of money in that taxable year. It isn't until about ten minutes into the parade that we see marchers between 10 and 24 inches in height and it isn't until 36 minutes we see the so called "average height" taxpayer march by. With about only 20 minutes left, heights begin to rise dramatically. With the last five minutes giants appear, people whose heads are so high we can hardly make out their faces without binoculars. The marchers in the very last minute of the parade are so tall we can only see their feet. These are people of accumulated, sometimes inherited, wealth and in the last few seconds the marchers are the size of sky scrapers. In effect, the parade shows a slowly rising gradient until the far right of the curve when it begins a parabolic rise and then shoots straight up off the graph.

While the numbers might have changed over the last twenty years, the concept has not. Probably, if anything, the "parade" has become even more dramatic, more parabolic, with a steeper rise at the end. And, those at the end of the parade pay now less as a percentage of their income to the government than at any time before.

To listen to the Tea Partiers, a roll back of taxes of the very wealthiest to pre-Bush rates, is an evil, evil thing. Just think of the trickle-down effect that would be lost to the little folk who stand in line for the crumbs falling from the tables of the fabulously wealthy. It is ironic that these dire warnings of the effects of a tax increase on the wealthy are carried into battle on banners hoisted by "Joe the Plumbers" -- it shows the power of the conservative media and the most virulent impact of the Internet. It just makes no sense that the people near the middle of the parade should become pawns for the people at the very end.

Actually, I think the converse is true: it is an evil thing for people who have benefitted from being able to accumulate wealth in the greatest of all capitalist democracies, not to give back more for that opportunity. The argument goes that asking these people to pay more will remove the incentive for them to work, and maybe if we're talking about 70 percent of one's income that might be true. But in 2000, people reporting AGIs of more than $1 million paid 28% of their income as taxes vs. 23% five years later. In 2005 there were 304,000 households reporting income of more than $1 million, more than a trillion dollars of income or $3.375 million per household. And mind you of those, there are a few at the very end of the "parade" with incomes that have so many zeros they would be hard to read. The latter are sports stars, entertainers, and, of course, very, very successful entrepreneurs. Are they going to work "less hard" by paying an additional five percent overall? That five percent would mean another $50 billion going to the US Treasury, at least a beginning to address the ongoing deficit. And, of course, if you look at the $250,000 level as the cut off as suggested by President Obama, there is much more to be gleaned, but given the midterm elections, that level is probably going to be raised if it is not eliminated altogether.

The alternatives that are occasionally pushed by the Tea crowd, such as a flat tax, is, in effect, a regressive tax, with the lower income people having to pay the same taxes on necessities as the wealthy, which just further splits the great economic divide in this country. A national sales tax does the same thing and as we are now so dependent on consumer spending, that could be the death knell for the economy. No, a progressive tax structure has been this country's basis for supporting it's national programs and we have been able to grow in spite of these supposed "disincentives" of higher taxes at a higher bracket.

No doubt the current tax structure is hopelessly and needlessly complicated and THAT is where the discussion should also be focused. There are so many loopholes, that a revised graduated tax structure would not have much teeth without addressing those as well. And then there is the issue of capital gains and dividends. We certainly want to encourage taxpayers to reinvest in our equity markets.

The other point I never forgot from that book was its commentary on the estate tax, arguing against the estate tax altogether, provided there was an alternative system of "estate dispersion." Rather than taxing one's estate at death, it suggested a tax-free dispersement up to a certain level per recipient (rather than per estate). For argument's sake, call that $1 million per recipient. Amounts exceeding that would begin to be taxed on some kind of graduated basis. Those would be life time totals, so if an individual receives money from different inheritances, they would be accumulated and taxed on that scale. "No longer would the estate tax system generate an American royalty -- those freed from the need ever to be economically productive. This alternative system would generate for all the incentive that most of us have in the outcome of our own economic lives. No longer would a large part of our national wealth be beyond responsive use."

Now, the incredibly wealthy could give a million dollars each to a thousand different people, all tax free (if those recipients also received no other inheritances in their lifetimes). The point is that those thousand people would put that capital to work, rather than vesting a billion dollars in one's immediate family who might decide to simply live off the income and pass it on to the next generation, and the next. Or he/she could still leave more to the immediate family, but it would be subject to taxation, perhaps substantial taxation on a graduated basis.

"Wealth great enough to entitle one to membership in the elite comes from two sources -- enormous earnings or inheritance. Prudent public policy should allow those, who, through individual ingenuity, talent, or luck, gain a fortune to use and enjoy it for life...but if these individuals have the power to transmit immense wealth to others after death...they can write the rules controlling this wealth, possibly many generations into the future. This breaks the chain of personal effort that is tightly bound, for most of us, to personal reward. Economic resources, controlled by rules set up by the dead, are denied to those who might well be more productive."

If the Republicans and Tea Partiers interpret their gains to mean they now have carte blanche to keep the Bush tax cuts for the highest wealth tier -- people who would not be hurt by some roll back to pre-Bush tax levels -- the result will only increase the deficit further. There would seem to be no upside to such an action; in effect it is a spending initiative something they claim to condemn. Failure to make tax reforms that lead to a more graduated income tax and closing loopholes, and not having a sensible inheritance tax also just further drives a stake between the haves and the have-nots.
 
About a year ago I likened the US income distribution to a "parade," the wealthiest appearing only at the very end, demonstrating the parabolic nature of great wealth at the very extreme of the income curve. I was wondering when, finally, the middle class would wake up to this growing disparity and do something about it. Finally, the "Occupation of Wall Street" movement takes up the cause, hopefully all by non violent means.

At the time I said "to listen to the Tea Partiers, a roll back of taxes of the very wealthiest to pre-Bush rates, is an evil, evil thing. Just think of the trickle-down effect that would be lost to the little folk who stand in line for the crumbs falling from the tables of the fabulously wealthy. It is ironic that these dire warnings of the effects of a tax increase on the wealthy are carried into battle on banners hoisted by 'Joe the Plumbers' -- it shows the power of the conservative media and the most virulent impact of the Internet. It just makes no sense that the people near the middle of the parade should become pawns for the people at the very end."

It is sad that Steve Jobs should pass away at this time. I think of him not only as a visionary technology and marketing genius, but as the greatest entrepreneur the world has ever known. The grass root movements of today, such as Occupation of Wall Street, would not be possible without the mobile devices he had a key part in developing and popularizing. I feel a personal loss of his passing at such an early age, and of the same terrible disease that took my father. And I wonder, if we did have a fairer graduated tax structure, one that would have rolled back the Bush tax cuts, would he have worked any less hard? The "don't-tax-the-job-creator" crowd might so argue.

Steve Jobs worked as he did because it was his passion. Entrepreneurs work with a creative obsession that is not going to be railroaded by a higher incremental tax rate. They are the job creators, not the legions of corporate and banking types, raking it in, paying a lesser portion of their income in taxes than a dozen years ago when the US actually had a balanced budget, CEOs now being paid unspeakable multiples of the average income of workers in the same company. Are higher incremental tax rates and the closing of loopholes the only solutions to the deficit? No, but it's a beginning. And that, as well holding these people accountable for any fiscal malfeasance, is what the growing Occupation movement is all about, the middle class finally awakening to the issue of their being used as puppets by political ideologists.

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
...............Les Misérables, the musical

Monday, November 14, 2016

Blackened, Blue, Bewildered



Finally, I can sit at my keyboard with minimal pain from surgery.  Also, my head is clearer than when I wrote my last entry.

This is a two subject piece but they are related as I’ve come out of surgery pretty beaten up, dark, angry purple bruises on both legs and staples holding the pacemaker “wound” together on my chest, with limited range of my right arm, essentially a metaphor for how I feel about the election.

We all now know that if it were not for the arcane Electoral College method of electing the president, Clinton was the clear winner.  So Trump was right in saying beforehand (haven’t heard it after the election from him, wonder why?) that the system is rigged.  Can you imagine if the results were exactly opposite, Trump winning the popular but losing the EC?  Instead of the relatively peaceful protests we’ve seen spontaneously erupting around the country, we’d have Trump’s heavily armed militia in the streets.  Revolution and bloodshed.  So, in a way, for the safety of our citizens at least short term, this outcome has that one benefit.

Long term, it’s a different deal.  There are so many issues where an unrestrained Trump presidency can wreck the future of this country and the world, that it would be senseless to detail them all here. 

First, though, as much as I thought Trump’s candidacy was a joke during the initial months of the primaries, I took it quite seriously later, my fear growing in direct relation to his Teflon ability to say anything and, what used to matter, our 4th estate -- the Press -- having little effect to act as a foil.  If I was in a prolonged coma and came out of it to hear a presidential candidate talk about shooting someone on 5th Ave. with no consequences, grabbing women by their pussies, etc., I would have thought the Press would have been able to eviscerate that candidate long ago.

But cyber bullying was the factor in this campaign which made it unique.  Facebook and Twitter had more to do with the outcome of this election than all the newspapers and TV news media combined. Trump’s attention span is ideally suited to 140 character tweets and his reality TV personality gave him entrée to TV coverage whenever he wanted it, gratis.  And in spite of his racist overtone, he did carry a persuasive populist message, the forgotten plight of the white middle class male.  Whether he can make good on promises to that minority group is highly unlikely, especially with his tax cut proposals which will benefit his own economic class most.  (I don’t believe in trickle down prosperity. The “wealth effect” is to make the wealthy wealthier.)

So based mostly on anecdotal evidence, I thought Trump had a better chance than the polls reflected.  I grew up only a couple of miles from his neighborhood in Queens, NY and we’re almost the same age.  Although more than 50 years have passed since I’ve lived there, if I close my eyes when Trump speaks I hear street talk I’m familiar with.  Between his celebrity status and his strong appeal to the middle class, people were willing to overlook the big picture and especially loved the way he took down the ruling oligarchy (including the now vestigial Press and traditional mass media).  And given the unpredictability of what people do in the privacy of the voting booth (perhaps ashamed to be backing Trump publicly, but will pull the lever for him privately), I went into surgery thinking that this election was a tossup, especially with the FBI making unprecedented statements to Congress and Wiki Leak’s one sided email revelations, so ripe for Trump’s conspiracy campaign (imagine if the RNC’s emails were similarly exposed). 

Thus, nothing about election night truly surprised me.  In fact I called the outcome at 9.20 PM, turned off the TV and went to bed with the residual effects of anesthesia still in my system.  I woke up in pain throughout the night but refused to look at the TV or phone to confirm “my call.”  The next morning my heart sank, in spite of being prepared for the outcome.

So here’s the existential dilemma: how does one, as a citizen of a country he/she loves, support its new leader, while having complete disdain for that leader, his policies, his narcissistic disorders, and fearing the damage he and his administration might do?

While I could go into a long litany of all the specific issues, I’m trying to look at this from 50,000 feet so they don’t overwhelm. To me, I see a world undergoing turbulent change, hastened by a technology revolution.   The industry I came from – publishing --is just one example of the incredible forces of creative destruction that technology has fostered.  More books are being published (including e-books) using far less labor than in the past.  The majority of book titles are now printed on demand.  Warehouses are not needed for those and the process is completely automated.  The whole landscape has changed.  Robots now make the majority of heavy industry products.  This trend is only accelerating.  Capital finds the most efficient venues for its deployment.

Anyone who believes that Trump can simply bring back manufacturing jobs like we once had is self-deluded, abetted by the master manipulator himself, Donald Trump, who told the victims of disintermediation what they wanted to hear…….that things would return to the way they were. 

I do believe there is a path to expanding jobs and prosperity for the forgotten middle class, but it means abandoning the past and embracing the future.  America’s export is intellectual capital and technology.  Our educational system needs to reflect those realities and build our industries with those as a foundation.  Let the manufacturing of goods that require handwork reside in low cost labor countries, such as those which made Trump’s hats.

Going further up from a 50,000 foot overview you see a planet whose delicate atmosphere which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet light and governs the balance of glaciers, oceans, and climate – all under siege.  Can we afford to aid climate denial forces in our society, simply because it is the easy, short term answer to some of our economic ills?  Here again is both a threat and an opportunity, an opportunity to develop the alternative energy and mass transportation industries, a win-win situation, jobs and a healthier environment for future generations.  America has to lead other countries in this effort. 

We seem to be at a Malthusian tipping point in the history of the world.  Population is growing exponentially but while Malthus was concerned about the food supply keeping pace, little could he foresee the other factor, now a bigger part of the equation of whether humanity can survive changes to the environment itself because of our addiction to fossil fuels.  

So these are just some of the big picture things I’m concerned about.  I want to support my President but I fear that progressives will have to fight tooth and nail, hoping the country can hang on for four years.

If I’m around then, it will because of incredible medical technology, the kind that allowed me to survive my fourth pacemaker implantation with the removal of existing leads being the most dangerous part of the operation.  New leads then had to be implanted, these being MRI compliant which my old leads were not.  As I age, an MRI is inevitable.  First they had to connect me to a temporary pacemaker as I am 100% dependent on the ventricle pacing by threading leads through each of my legs and then to a temporary pacemaker during the operation. Then they opened my chest to remove the existing pacemaker and begin the long arduous task of removing the existing leads, an operation of great delicacy to not injure the heart.  Unfortunately, a small part of the lead in the atrium broke off and the surgeon felt it was just too dangerous to go after that last piece and thus I lost the MRI compliant feature.  Overall the operation went well and now I’m trying to rest and rehabilitate,

I’m grateful to family and friends who expressed so much care and particularly to my wife, Ann, who stayed with me in the hospital room, sleeping on an uncomfortable cot, and watched over things for me, shaving my chest, stomach and legs and helping me take the first of two antiseptic showers before the operation.   I can’t say enough positive things about the nurses at the University of Miami Hospital.  To me they are as important as the surgeon, maybe more so.

Thus, I am slowly getting back to form, but to a political landscape that has been shaped by fear and intolerance.  I have low expectations that Mr. Trump can suddenly function as the leader we all need to help us coalesce as a nation.  His narcissistic personality must be fed and that is going to be a constant obstruction to doing the right thing, such as selecting Cabinet members who are NOT just yes people or those connected to his business interests or family.  Can one imagine Sarah Palin, a climate change denier as Secretary of the Interior as rumored?  He’s already appointed a denier, Myron Ebell, as the head of the EPA transition team.   

My good friend, Artie, reminded me of H.L. Mencken’s prophetic quote from nearly 100 years ago:  “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete moron.  Perhaps that time has come.

Nonetheless I’m desperately trying to end this with something positive:  Trump is now going to become OUR President and I for one will try to give his administration a chance to do some of the right things for the nation as a whole.

After I wrote the preceding though, I read David Remnick’s incredible article from the November 9 issue of The New Yorker, “An American Tragedy,” perhaps the most important of the many I’ve read.  Highly commended.  


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Our Decaying Infrastructure


The following is such an important, well-reasoned article that I am “republishing” it in my blog (by permission), something I’ve never done before.  It encapsulates some of what I’ve written about our infrastructure over the years. How do we, as supposedly a First World country, tolerate a transportation system that is definitely Third World?  It is all part of kicking the can down the road (no pun intended), with no agreement on an overarching plan.  It has become ingrained in our politics, the one of “I got mine, you get yours.” Our transportation “system” has become an expression of individualism and class warfare.  

True, there are vast geographic differences between our country and those in Europe and much of Asia which have vastly superior public transportation.  The automobile is still part of the key in traveling in less densely populated places (nonetheless we are also allowing our bridges and roadways to crumble).  But the woeful transportation options in our cities and their adjacent environs -- and this especially true for virtually the entire Northeastern corridor -- is just inexcusable for a country of our resources.  It is also goes against the environmental grain – the need for carbon emission reduction.

It is not sufficient to merely duct tape our failing infrastructure; we need a plan and a commitment.  This would create jobs as well.  Do we have the right stuff politically?  I commend this article from the blog “The Conversation” and hat tip to Barry Ritholtz for bringing it to his readers’ attention:

Why is the U.S. unwilling to pay for good public transportation?

John Rennie Short, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Officials in Washington, D.C. said this week they may have to shut down portions of the Metro subway system for months because its piecemeal approach to maintenance is no longer sufficient.
The disclosure follows a shutdown of the entire Metro system on March 16 for 24 hours. Three-quarters of a million people use the system each weekday, so the inconvenience and cost were considerable.
The reason: frayed electrical cables discovered in at least 26 locations that posed an immediate danger. Closing the Metro was probably the safest thing to do.
Just two days previously, an electrical fire in a tunnel forced stoppages to busy commuter service. In September 2015 a train was stuck inside a tunnel, and passengers choked for over an hour as smoke from a fire was accidentally pumped into the train. One woman died. In the last six years 15 people have died in seven separate incidents.
A system that opened to such fanfare in 1976 is now crumbling. It is a depressingly familiar story that is not limited to urban public transport. The U.S. has a major and growing infrastructure gap – though chasm is a more appropriate metaphor.
The quality of a country’s infrastructure is directly linked to its competitiveness because it makes businesses more productive and improves the quality of life. Why has the U.S. let its public transit slip so far?

From First to Third World

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure a D+. Its report from 2013 depicts a woeful tale of deferred maintenance. More than 70,000 bridges are in need of repair. We need around US$1.7 trillion for our surface transportation alone.
The week that the D.C. metro was closed, I was in Zurich, Switzerland. The contrast could not have been starker. There, a ticket is good for rail, bus and tram. It is clean and efficient, a widely shared experience and a deep source of pride. Most people in the country use public transport in the cities to get around. It is a vital part of urban public life.
In international comparisons, the U.S. is falling further behind. To fly from either Seoul or Shanghai into Los Angeles airport is to make the journey from a First World to a Third World airport. To fly into New York’s JFK from Zurich or most European capitals is to fly from the future into the past.

For people coming and going to Dulles – the main arrival point for international travel – there is no Metro rail station, which would shield travelers from road traffic. Sean_Marshall/flickr, CC BY-NC

And when you arrive in Los Angeles or New York City airports, the public transport connections are often nonexistent or inadequate. If you fly into Dulles, the main international airport for D.C., you will wait in vain for a train to the city (although buses are available). The Metro has yet to link the city to the airport, 40 years after the system opened.
Now Switzerland, which ranks at the top globally for overall infrastructure, may be a reach for the U.S. But when the U.S. ranks 16th for infrastructure quality, easily outranked by countries such as France and Spain, then we should start worrying.
There are substantial costs to the decline of our public transportation system. Closures, accidents and inefficiencies cost individuals and companies and reduce the efficiency of our national economy. Poor infrastructure means Americans spend $120 billion each year in extra fuel and lost time.
To some extent, this state of affairs should be no surprise.
Our competitors are out-investing us in the vital infrastructure necessary to make our economy efficient and internationally competitive. Even when our public infrastructure spending is higher than our competitors, it is less well-targeted because decisions are more politically motivated than based on economic rationality.
We seem unwilling to pay for public services. Our declining road system, for example, is funded by the Highway Trust Fund, which is derived from a gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. It has not been raised since 1993, and more fuel-efficient vehicles means less revenue. Raising the gas tax is not considered politically feasible, even in a time of declining gas prices.

What went wrong?

At least four reasons can be cited for the decline in the quality of urban public transportation.
The first is the early and continuing embrace of the private car as a form of urban transport. In Europe, expensive gas and restrictive land use measures kept people in dense cities, and urban growth followed along the lines of mass transit, reinforcing and consolidating their use.
In the U.S. growth spread across a landscape of freeways and motorway exits, encouraged by federal investment in the national highway system in the 1950s. As low-density suburban sprawl spread, public transport became less viable. New suburbs and Sunbelt cities constructed in the last half of the 20th century were built around the private automobile.

Encouraged by the construction of the highway infrastructure, Americans moved out to the suburbs and started to rely more on cars, rather than public transit, to get into cities. www.shutterstock.com

Over time, Republican-dominated suburbs came to see mass transit as a special Democratic interest and voted accordingly. For example, the mayor of Nashville’s plans for public transport last year were blocked by state politicians and right-wing national interest groups.
Second, as cities were designed to meet the needs of the motorist, mass transit systems that had been owned by private companies were abandoned or effectively dismantled in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s because they were losing money.
As a result, many mass transit systems were taken over by municipalities. This led to a high-cost, low-revenue system dependent on the vagaries of federal, state and city funding. Meanwhile, car drivers were economic free riders, not charged for the social costs of their accidents, pollution and congestion.
The third reason is that all infrastructure ages and needs costly maintenance and continual improvement, yet funding is often constrained.
Even when new transit systems were built, such as in D.C., or existing ones were upgraded, as in New York City and Boston, they still had to be maintained, which takes up large chunks of public money without the benefit of a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Building something new gives politicians a photo opportunity, replacing a frayed electrical cable does not. And there are many other claims on government such as pensions, schools, Social Security and a large military. Our infrastructure chasm is a quiet, slow-moving but relentless crisis only brought into focus when wires fray to the point of immediate danger.
Across the country, transit systems have a backlog of deferred maintenance. Chicago Transit Authority, for instance, spent $5 billion on infrastructure upgrades in the past five years, but needs another $13 billion. Cities in the U.S. have a repair backlog that amounts to $86 billion.

Private affluence and public squalor

Fourth, there is a deeper tension in the U.S., first noted by economist Kenneth Galbraith, between private affluence and public squalor.
Many of us, it seems, have lost faith in the public realm. The private car is the embodiment of U.S. individualism. The decline of our cities' infrastructure is one expression of loss of faith in the public realm as a place of beauty and efficiency and an embodiment of what one journalist refers to as “our anger and our pessimism.”
This thinking has made our cities less about shared experiences and more a place of different lives and separated spaces.
There is some room for optimism. A series of reports highlight the advantage of investing more in public transport. And as more people want to live in cities in dense walkable neighborhoods, the demand for public transport is increasing.
Ridership rates vary by city and with the price of gas, but the overall usage trend is upwards. The top 10 transit systems carry 12.6 million people each workday.
And millennials lack their parents' and grandparents' love affair with the automobile. We may be at the cusp of a generational shift in attitudes to the car and mass transit. Cities and cars were never a good fit, something more people appear to be realizing.
Urban public transport may come to be seen as a more desirable, more sustainable, more equitable way of getting around the city. If only we can remember to ensure we have enough money to replace those electric cables before they pose a serious danger.
The Conversation
John Rennie Short, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.