Monday, April 09, 2007

Transportation Costs and Political Polarization

Last weekend I was able to finally meet Mr. M for the first time. He was in Pittsburgh to visit Mike from Comments from Left Field so the three of us got together for breakfast and arguments. Five hours later, I had to leave due to a previous curling commitment, the debate was barely started. The discussion ranged wildly from beer, to breakfast, budgetary constraints, isotope monitoring, urban fragmentation, the upcoming election and who knows what else.

One of the areas of disagreement is the nature of polarization in American politics. Mr. M is extremely concerned that polarization in the United States is getting to the point that you typically see before armed insurrection takes place. He pointed out the eliminationist rhetoric of right wing pundits such as Michelle Malkin, and the bifurtification of reality perception on a wide variety of subjects including Iraq, the nature of the fight against terrorism, and the economy.

I disagree with him that polarization is an overwhelming concern for the 2008 election for a variety of reasons. The first is that a polarization strategy is not a winning electoral strategy any more. Polarization was adequate to get Bush to the margin of uncertainty in 2000 from which a successful 30 year project to make segments of the government Republican friendly was able to get him in, and then polarization combined with massive fear mongering was successful as an electoral strategy in 2002 and 2004. It failed completely in 2006, as marginal Republican voters had finally decided to look at reality without fear shaded glasses and switch their votes to Democrats.

However during this conversation, I was thinking about the evidence of localized political homogenization and its causation. From that Slate article:

"during roughly same period—1976 to 2000—geographic segregation by major-party affiliation at the county level increased by 47 percent.......

I wonder how much of the polarization of politics can be attributed to the decreasing costs of transportation? In political science, the public choice models predict that people will sort themselves out to communities and groups that reflect their own near ideal personal policy preferences. As with any theory in social science, there are some massive caveats with this modelling approach, most notably that the transaction costs are non-existent, and that the location decision is based solely on public policy preferences. The strictest versions of these models could not allow for significant moving costs, or a desire to stay in one town because the rest of your family lives there. However follow-on efforts produce models that reflect the real world pretty well, given enough time, people will sort themselves out towards their desired policy outcomes.

Starting in the 1950s, the United States had engaged in a massive build-out of the personal transportation system through a combination of direct highway construction subsidies, mortgage bundling and insurance criteria that strongly encouraged suburban build-out instead of urban infill, and the continued decision to externalize a significant portion of the cost of automobile transit while internalizing costs for public and private mass transit. This reduction in personal transit costs allows for easier and more efficient self-sorting. Suburbs were built for a particular income bracket, and services were adjusted for that level of income. If you were too poor for that suburb, the taxes and the low density of the area would make you move elsewhere, while if you earned too much for a particular area, the informal and formal social networks that support individuals of your income would be located one or two towns further out.

I am curious if the combination of higher gasoline prices, and the probable decision to start internalizing probable global warming costs into the price of driving and greenfield development will have a significant effect on the polarization of politics in the American milieu.

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