Browsing the Grist this morning on this sunny DC snow day I saw this interesting article on raising gas taxes. Although it seems at first glance to be only tangentially related to food policy, there are some thought-provoking parallels that can be drawn between the two. Ben Adler’s argument can be boiled down to this: entrenched and deep-pocketed interests have created an enormous and not very cost-effective infrastructure that mandates government subsidization in order to work- in this case, transportation infrastructure. The system could be improved to the benefit of everyone involved (i.e., by subsidizing mass transportation instead of gas subsidies), but the vested interests are powerful and large-scale change seems unlikely. There are a few tendrils of positive change creeping in- an increase in bike lanes in cities, the declining number of Millenials interested in drivers licenses and car ownership- but overall it seems as though the dysfunctional system in place today is unlikely to change.
Dysfunctional is a strong word, but I believe it’s justified. Commutes in New York and DC are the longest in the country, but the difference in DC- and something that has struck me since moving there- is the extent to which DC is a city defined by suburban sprawl and the vehicular traffic that goes along with it. The roads around here are impassably choked up between 8-10 and 4-6; forget about doing anything between those times if you don’t want to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. People work in DC but live in any of the dozens of suburban bedroom communities ringing the city in a pattern made possible by cheap gas prices and highway subsidies. The Washington Post article I linked to above point out that many Virginia and Maryland commuters often don’t use public transportation, relying instead on clogged highways. So why is that?
It’s a vicious cycle– there are little to no viable public transportation options, so people favor gas subsidies over public transportation subsidies, leading to little to know viable transportation options… so on and so forth. I’m not trying to demonize cars- they’re a fantastic resource when used in moderation. But Americans aren’t using them in moderation. It’s a thorny problem, because we’ve built our society to a car-centric scale rather than a person-centric scale. For many people, it’s simply not feasible to not have a car (or a two-car household).
Sounds a bit like the food industry, don’t you think? Except instead of subsidizing gasoline, we’re subsidizing unhealthy food choices in a myriad of ways. There’s a similarly enormous system that appears unyielding and unchangeable; like transportation, there are only a few, scattered bright spots of innovation in the face of a monolithic and largely identical background (after all, highways and supermarkets very seldomly vary in appearance from state to state or even country to country). Most importantly, it’s difficult to find alternatives to the existing, inefficient infrastructure.
So what’s the solution? When it comes to food I’ve always believed rather firmly that the path to change lies not in restricting peoples behavior, but in creating viable alternative options. For food and transportation issues alike, that involves shifting government funding– and thus consumer spending- away from subsidizing existing infrastructure and towards laying the groundwork for better, more efficient, and more accessible alternatives. Whether those options involve bike lanes, more bus lines, streetcars in DC, or new-farmer incubation programs, it seems to me that the road to improvement lies in weaning expensive and cumbersome infrastructures off of government money. But what do you think?