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A trolley comes to Phoenix: Tendency in reporting and why it matters

So it’s almost five days since I dropped the dime on the bribe gifts being thrust upon the contributors to AG. Has anyone publicly renounced them so far? We got to see Jay Thompson issue some tepid caveats about the gift products — from our pages, not AG’s. And we got to watch in horror as Russell Shaw imploded, which wasn’t pretty. But if anyone has actually come out and said, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” — I’m not aware of it.

Doesn’t much matter, by now. The moment is gone.

You — meaning you, the invisible reader — will react as you choose, and that is not only your business, but it’s your perfect right. But I can give you a very simple lens for understanding the issue, one that not even the chorus line of tap-dancers who showed up in our comments could manage to gainsay:

Suppose you are finally about to be interviewed by the real estate reporter from your local “City” magazine. Very big deal, very exciting, maybe your chance to break through to the target market you’ve spent a fortune trying to attract. But then you discover that the reporter has taken $2,000 in in-kind gifts from your fiercest competitor. How does that make you feel? Is it possible that the reporter is on the up and up and the gifts mean nothing? Well… yeahhhh… Is is plausible to you that you are about to be served up like a plate half full of cold leftovers? That’s what’s running through your head, isn’t it? Taking expensive gifts from people you write about doesn’t mean you are necessarily corrupt, but it sure makes you look and smell corrupt.

In our comments threads, there were a lot of specious arguments made in defense of taking these bribes, or at least not renouncing them. One of them was the notion that “everyone is biased.” This is a very common fallacious dodge — which is to say a persuasively invalid argument. We start by acknowledging the obvious facts that each of us has a unique point of view, and each of us is operating from limited information. The fallacious dodge is to imply that these facts are equal to corruption.

Like this: Miss Misled is in deep earnest, is striving to be impartial but, alas, is factually in error in the position she has taken.

Mister Crooked is shamelessly and recklessly mouthing the specious propaganda has has been paid to spread to a gullible public.

Neither Miss Misled nor Mister Crooked is factually correct in their pronouncements. But those pronouncements are not morally equal — very far from it. Miss Misled has made a mistake, but Mister Crooked is deliberately lying to you.

(Every logical fallacy can be understood at this level of detail if you take the time to take them apart. Learning to reason according to the rules of sound rhetoric could be a worthy goal for 2009.)

In this particular instance the purpose of the rhetorical dodge is to fudge the difference between honest bias and dishonest tendency.

Tendency or tendentiousness is an attempt to deliberately mislead people into doing something they otherwise would not do. I can think of two flavors, political tendency and pecuniary tendency.

The latter is what salespeople are often accused of — not always without justice. It consists of fudging facts and tickling emotions to get people to do things that will be profitable to the proponent.

We’re more apt to excuse political tendency — to our peril. Politicians lie to us in order to get more power or to pay off their supporters — themselves most often advocates of pecuniary tendency.

The funniest stooges in this charade are the taxpayers, of course, who get whipped this way and that, getting their pockets picked all the while.

The saddest clowns, to me, are the newspaper and TV reporters, who deploy the tools of political tendency for no gain of their own, but simply because they are puerile believers in the beauty and justice of whipping innocent taxpayers and picking their pockets.

We’re watching all of this happen right now, in Phoenix, as we become the latest city to be encysted with that risible product of political tendency known as “light rail.”

If you understand railroading, you will know that, whatever “light rail” might be, what you are looking at in the picture shown above is a trolley car. Absolutely everything about this boondoggle is a lie, starting with its name.

There are many, many more lies behind this trolley:

  • Like all municipal transit systems, it cannot possibly ever make a profit
  • According to its builders’ own projections, only one car in 1,000 will be taken off the roads by the trolley
  • That same report admits that the trolley will make both traffic and air pollution worse, not better
  • There is no profitable route for a trolley in Phoenix, but the route that would lose the least money — north and south on Central Avenue from Dunlap to Baseline Roads — was not used; this is the route with the greatest concentrations of bus passengers right now
  • The second-least-unprofitable route — north and south on Central Avenue from Dunlap to Buckeye Roads, east and west from there along Buckeye Road/University Drive through the airport, through ASU, and then perhaps north and south on Alma School Road to the commercial heart of Mesa — was also not used
  • Instead, bowing to the political tendency of wealthy homeowners in Phoenix, to the political tendency of ASU in Tempe and to the pecuniary tendency of the aging burghers of Mesa, the trolley meanders along a route that is often stupid and useless — unless you understand political and pecuniary tendency
  • The failure to connect through the airport, in particular, will cost the taxpayers another $2 billion to build yet another trolley system to connect with this one — even though the stupid route chosen parallels the freeway that runs through the airport from less than one mile away!
  • ASU is building a completely redundant medical school in gritty downtown Phoenix in a give-back of political tendency; by forcing undergrads to take at least one round-trip a day for their core classes in Tempe, ASU is artificially boosting the passenger count on the trolley with young, shiny, happy, healthy and prosperous-looking students — each one traveling on a taxpayer-subsidized transit pass
  • Taking account of the truly insane route the trolley takes through the campus of ASU, my speculation is that the give-back for the bogus medical school will a rebuilt Sun Devil Stadium — even though the taxpayers just built a brand new football stadium in Glendale
  • Though much has been made of the new commercial real estate development along the route of the trolley, little notice has been taken of the hundreds of once-profitable small businesses that were wiped out, either by eminent domain or by trolley construction
  • Similarly, hundreds of homeowners were dispossessed by the trolley; going north on 19th Avenue, dozens of homes have been taken even though the trolley may never run that far north
  • As you might guess, much of that new commercial real estate development along the route of the trolley is being subsidized by the taxpayers
  • In addition, the municipalities along the trolley route have imposed a Transit-Oriented Development zoning overlay to encourage certain kinds of business and to discourage others; in particular, if your business is friendly to drivers, you’re screwed
  • As with the bogus ASU medical school, the purpose of the Transit-Oriented Development zoning overlay is to stack the deck in the trolley’s favor: If municipalities can make driving difficult or painful, they hope to compel people to use the trolley
  • Even so, in the long run the trolley will result in fewer mass-transit passengers, not more: The massive unprofitability of the trolley will require cuts in much more popular (though still unprofitable) bus lines; this has already started happening
  • Even though the trolley is a favorite pet of the political tendencies of Yuppies, particularly, it will turn out to be an unmitigated disaster for the poor — who don’t have any delusions about the “glamor” of mass-transit but have to take it anyway; this is well-established fact in other cities that have built trolley systems
  • Even so, in a city where the afternoon high temperature is very often way over 100 degrees — in blistering sunlight, sometimes with fairly high humidity — Yuppies who have to walk some distance, either to their station or from it, will not take the trolley to work; their very expensive clothing would be ruined
  • And even though the trolley runs for much of its route behind a curb, and even though the traffic lights have been rejiggered to the trolley’s advantage, nevertheless it will be the source of a huge number of automobile accidents, many of them fatal; this again is well-established fact demonstrated in other trolley-afflicted cities
  • If news reports in other trolley-trend cities are any guide, these accidents will either go unreported or will be minimized
  • And even though every bit of this is true, none of it will be reported in the mainstream media outlets — not now and probably not ever

This is the curse of tendency. Media outlets in Phoenix have been yammering about this silly trolley system for ten solid years, but almost none of these ugly facts have been reported in the popular media.

And please understand, I like public transportation. I’ve lived in New York and Boston, where mass-transit is actually useful — not profitable, but useful. I used to read all twelve of Ibsen’s “social” plays, in order, every summer, on the MBTA commuter rail on the way into Boston. If it weren’t for the rape of the taxpayers, I’d have nothing but praise for mass-transportation.

And here’s the real kick in the head: Mass-transit might actually be profitable if government would get itself out of the real estate and transportation businesses. We build stupidly because the taxpayers never tire of being raped. The earth is 70% water, and yet, somehow, municipally-managed water-supplies are always in “crisis.” In Phoenix the tap-water tastes like chlorine bleach and dead fish. In preference to getting out of a business they’re obviously incompetent to manage, the city produces agitprop public-service-announcements telling people to serve up tap-water — rife with who knows what kind of poisons and bacteria — with ice and lemons to kill the awful taste and smell. One would think that the more thoughtful kind of taxpayer could catch a clue about government management of what should be commercial enterprises.

But instead, the people want to play with their Toonerville Trolley, no matter what the cost, no matter what the opportunity costs, no matter who gets hurt. That’s really sad, but our own hands are not clean, either. As bad as the trolley might be for everyone, considered as a group, it can be very good for particular individuals — Ibsen readers, perhaps. So here we are pimping the damn thing ourselves. I’m doing a contract later today with a buyer whom I have no doubt will be taking the trolley to and from her job downtown.

But: The point of all this is this: You are being lied to, all the time, by the very people you trust to tell you the truth. There has not been any honest reporting about this trolley system in Phoenix, nor about the water supply, nor about any other pet project of politically tendentious reporters. For seventy years and more we made fun of Soviet-style propaganda — half hysterical hectoring, half saccharine boosterism. Welcome to Soviet America. If any topic of civic life is subject to the political tendencies of reporters, you will not discover the truth by pursuing the popular media.

And it goes for us, too. If we are not doing everything we can to make sure that political or pecuniary tendency is not creeping into our writing, then it probably is. And if we are not doing everything we can to eradicate doubts about our tendencies in the minds of our readers, there is no reason not to expect those doubts to take root.

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  • 19 comments

    19 Comments so far

    1. Kevin OBrien December 29th, 2008 1:46 pm

      Greg,

      Excellent article. As usual you point out the most important sides to a discussion that traditional outlets tend to ignore.

      I am in complete agreement that if the “public”(government) would get out of transportation there would be a way to make it profitable. Unfortunately, as long as they are involved it will continue to remain a boondoggle.

      “Though much has been made of the new commercial real estate development along the route of the trolley, little notice has been taken of the hundreds of once-profitable small businesses that were wiped out, either by eminent domain or by trolley construction ”

      This is what 99% of all people who see these projects fail to realize. Like Hazlitt pointed out, we need to look at the seen and unseen when determining the effectivness of a project.

    2. Sean Purcell December 29th, 2008 2:53 pm

      I’ve witnessed another, even less discussed aspect of the trolley system for which I have only anecdotal evidence:

      The crime rate and vandalism in smaller, quieter towns has risen due to the ease with which less than desirable elements can get in and out of those towns.

      Our system added to the folly by making ticket possession a matter of honor. Transit police randomly check some cars and if you are unticketed the fine is large – but then why would a criminal worry about a large fine on their way to commit a felony?

      I can see the ad copy now:

      Coming soon to a neighborhood near you! Tax-payer funded access to criminals and their crimes. All transportation free of charge…

    3. Thomas Johnson December 29th, 2008 4:01 pm

      Greg: In Houston, we call it the toy train. Like that other murderous toy, Chuckie, it is a killer. Like you, I reject the rape of the taxpayers. But any project of this magnitude is a disruption of the real estate equilibrium. It seems to me, that our clients would benefit from our wise counsel in response to this disruption. That is what we do.

      Sean: I once had an assistant who was burglarized at her apartment. Her anguished cry was “I just want to live where Metro doesn’t go.”

    4. Beth December 29th, 2008 4:55 pm

      OMG! I knew I liked you guys before – I think it actually started with the picture of the dog to be honest – but then it was the spot on criticism of real estate matters, that I honestly thought at first I was the only one who secretly questioned.

      But now this???? Actually looking at the facts regarding light rail systems??? Rather than just drinking the kool-aid and repeating the proponents talking points? Now I love you!

      We are the extremely “lucky” recipients of FasTracks (a ginormous system that would put light rail throughout the city and suburbs) here in CO that will likely have to be scaled way back now, because it’s turning out to be WAY more expensive than the proponents claimed it would be when they sold it to the voters back in 2004. (I’m shocked, shocked to find there’s gambling going on here!)

      Anywho, don’t get me started – just wanted to say I was pleasantly surprised by the post.

    5. J Boyer Morristown NJ December 29th, 2008 5:40 pm

      Well at least we have a real train here. Of course you need to be going to Newark or NYC or home from those places in order to use it.

    6. [...] BLOODHOUNDBLOG UNCHAINED There’s always something to howl about « A trolley comes to Phoenix: Tendency in reporting and why it matters [...]

    7. Jay Thompson December 29th, 2008 11:24 pm

      For what it’s worth coming from someone who issues “tepid caveats”, I only have this to say about the Phoenix Light Rail:

      26K riders/day * 7 days/week * 52 weeks * $1.25/ride = $11.83 million per year = 118 years to break even on $1.4B construction cost.

      Let’s not even add operating and maintenance expenses into that equation.

    8. Robert Kerr December 30th, 2008 12:13 am

      118 years to break even

      What’s the break even date for the roads you use? Infinity?

      It’s silly to measure government ventures by profitability since they don’t usually make money, they spend it, and provide services in return.

      Services like transportation.

      The crime rate and vandalism in smaller, quieter towns has risen due to the ease with which less than desirable elements can get in and out of those towns.

      If this is true for light rail systems, I expect it’s even more true for interstate highways.

      Do you oppose them, as well, for the same reasons? Do you do realize the roads and highways you use are heavily subsidized by taxpayers … and they don’t turn a profit, either?

    9. Sean Purcell December 30th, 2008 6:27 am

      If this is true for light rail systems, I expect it’s even more true for interstate highways.

      Specious arguement.

      Roads require cars, gasoline and – if you have even a small amount of self-preservation as a criminal – valid tags. Not to mention the obvious evidence problem of having a witness write down your make, model, license etc.

      The trolley, on the other hand, is non-descript and free transportation to and from your criminal activities. Also, due to the politics Greg alludes to, most trolley lines do not run through affluent areas. They generally link run-down areas (containing a higher percentage of criminals) with small and/or sleepy areas unprepared for a rise in crimes. A perfect little storm.

    10. Greg Swann December 30th, 2008 7:48 am

      > coming from someone who issues “tepid caveats”

      Excellent!

      > 26K riders/day * 7 days/week * 52 weeks * $1.25/ride = $11.83 million per year = 118 years to break even on $1.4B construction cost.

      Or a one-time payment of $54,000 each.

      > Let’s not even add operating and maintenance expenses into that equation.

      Allowing for that, we could buy each one a car every three years, with gas, maintenance and insurance thrown in.

      I like having Jeff Flake in Washington, but I miss having someone like him at the Goldwater Institute.

    11. Greg Swann December 30th, 2008 8:12 am

      > Do you oppose [highways], as well [...] ?

      I do. Freeways massively distort the real estate market. They are the sine qua non cause of “sprawl.” The ideal form of mass transportation is walking, but we don’t build walkable cities because the roads are “free.”

      > Do you do realize the roads and highways you use are heavily subsidized by taxpayers … and they don’t turn a profit, either?

      This is false, actually. The various fuel and road use taxes produce surplus income for most highways. It’s wrong to call this “profit,” since it just gets pissed away on other stupid boondoggles, but roads (not streets, necessarily) pay their own way.

      Now, since I’ve presented you with an idea you’ve never considered — free-market transportation — it is incumbent upon you to come back with every horrible scenario you can imagine. After all, we know how terrible it is to wait in long lines to pay a toll for free-market milk or shoes. Oh. Wait. In fact, I have lots and lots of ideas about how transportation could work — better! — without government interference. Hold your breath waiting to see those things happen.

    12. Greg Swann December 30th, 2008 8:27 am

      > Like Hazlitt pointed out, we need to look at the seen and unseen when determining the effectivness of a project.

      Precisely!

    13. Greg Swann December 30th, 2008 8:44 am

      > Also, due to the politics Greg alludes to, most trolley lines do not run through affluent areas. They generally link run-down areas (containing a higher percentage of criminals) with small and/or sleepy areas unprepared for a rise in crimes.

      FWIW, this is also often the way that freeways run — the path of least political resistance. An excellent book on the epidemic corruption of government transportation and real estate policy is The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It’s a biography of Robert Moses, who pioneered the designs of freeways, parks and public housing — among other disasters.

    14. Greg Swann December 30th, 2008 8:55 am

      > But now this???? Actually looking at the facts regarding light rail systems??? Rather than just drinking the kool-aid and repeating the proponents talking points? Now I love you!

      Hey, Beth! Happy New Year! You may never be rid of government boondoggles, but here’s hoping you get so rich you learn not to care.

    15. Beth December 30th, 2008 9:26 am

      When they were pushing light rail in Denver, I would continuously hear people saying something to the effect that light rail was going to relieve all the congestion and pollution and blah blah blah and how great that would be…but will YOU actually ride light rail? The answer was always “oh no, it’s just not convenient for me…” But they all assumed that “everybody” else would.

      I never did run across anyone who currently did NOT already ride the bus, but who would actually leave their car at home and ride the light rail when it was built. (Anecdotal yes, but always curious to hear nonetheless.)

      For those who might be interested, Randall O’Toole (who happens to ride his bike almost everywhere) has done fantastic work on this topic. ti.org/antiplanner.

      And thanks for the well wishes Greg. Happy New Year!

    16. Greg Swann December 30th, 2008 9:31 am

      My favorite Onion headline: “98% of American favor mass-transit for other people.”

      Thanks for the cite to Randall O’Toole. The man is the Cassandra of American public transportation, a treasure we won’t know to treasure until long after he’s gone.

    17. Sean Purcell December 30th, 2008 10:04 am

      @ The Power Broker by Robert Caro

      Here, here. A must read for anyone that wants to understand how true power within the government is created and maintained. Robert Moses may have created a number of disasters, but the man was a genius at creating monarchies within a democracy. Can you say Port Authority?

    18. Robert Kerr December 30th, 2008 9:07 pm

      Me: Do you oppose [highways], as well [...] ?
      Greg: I do.

      Amazing. Does anyone else here oppose federally-owned and maintained interstate highways?

      Me: Do you do realize the roads and highways you use are heavily subsidized by taxpayers … and they don’t turn a profit, either?

      Greg: This is false, actually. The various fuel and road use taxes produce surplus income for most highways.

      I’d love to see a real citation for that.

    19. Robert Kerr December 30th, 2008 9:39 pm

      Or a one-time payment of $54,000 each.

      The LA subway was met with the same resistance.

      With an initial cost of $1.5B and a ridership estimated at 30K, the cry was: “Why not just give every rider $50K?!”

      Of course that doesn’t solve the problem of congestion or pollution, but it sure sounds good on The Rush Limbaugh Show, doesn’t it? As long as you stop there and don’t bother to think any further.

      Well, anyway, that was 18 years ago. Daily ridership now exceeds 300K and is growing every year.

      That one-time $50K per rider cost is now $300 per rider per year … and decreasing every year.

      When I go to Boston or NYC or DC or LA, I ride the subways. And if Phoenix wants to be a 21st century metropolitan center, it too must provide a transporatation system.