I want to knock down every single one of the numbers we’ve been using – because they’re all utterly wrong. Even the number Sound Transit uses, while it’s correct in ‘year of expenditure’ dollars that do matter when putting together a financial plan, it’s not a number that human beings living today can understand.
John explained a bit about why using year of expenditure dollars isn’t that meaningful, and I submit that it should never, ever be presented this way. I have one simple reason why: The one thing that people plan for as a long term cost – a mortgage – is not presented this way. When we get a mortgage, we understand that we’re paying about double the total cost of the house over the 30 years we’re paying for it. We also understand that there are costs of living in a house – like our electric bill, water, sewer, garbage, maybe internet service or TV. Those are not part of the cost of the house we’re buying (unless it’s poorly insulated, or something) – they’re part of the cost of living in *any* house.
Now, when we look at houses, we consider some of those costs. How much is our electric bill? Do we have to pay for gas? Fill an oil tank? These are important distinctions, and they exist in transportation systems as well – but our media is so caught up on utter horse poop numbers that they can’t even get to this discussion. There is a significantly lower cost attached to operating light rail than operating bus service, and even higher level than that, there’s a MUCH lower cost attached to operating light rail than those people on a car for the same trip.
When you buy a house, you consider this. You buy the house you can afford, and you buy the house you can afford to keep running. Now, here’s the interesting part. When we think about what kind of house we can afford, we’re basing that on what our monthly payment would be – we even base the price of the house we can afford on what our mortgage payment would cost and how much our bills would be (although the latter is just starting to become something people think about, now that the numbers are getting bigger). If we were to find a house for sale that had super energy efficient insulation and appliances, it would cost more, but it matters less to us how much the total cost is and more what the cost increase in our mortgage payment is – and often, that increase is offset by lower electric bills.
So, you’re sitting there reading, and hopefully you’re starting to see where I’m coming from. But if you’re not – if you’re going “more by this crazy fool?” – let me dig just a little deeper and see if I can bring you on board.
There’s a fantastic book from a linguist by the name of George Lakoff (you may have heard of him), from 1980, just before I was born. It’s called Metaphors We Live By. The point of this book is to show that most of the terminology we use in day to day life tends to come from physical, or even biological, roots. The terms we use for argument in conversation are the same we use for physical battle. The terms we use for measuring nearly every concept we have (time, value) have to do with forward and backward, up and down, bigger and smaller, because those are physical things our monkey brains can relate to. These numbers are meaningless to us as figures on a page – what matters to us, what creates the ‘that’s expensive’ or ‘that’s cheap’ reaction, is our connection of these figures to costs we already understand. Lakoff will tell you that’s the only way we understand anything.
In this regard, these huge numbers are useless until, as individuals, we find a metaphor to fit them into.
I reject absolutely year of expenditure dollars. Someone in 1930 told that minimum wage would be eight dollars an hour and someone today might make sixty thousand dollars a year – they would laugh, just as if I told you today that in 2050, you might make a million dollars a year. We can’t grok those numbers. They don’t make sense to us, and even though they’re right within some margin of error and with some confidence, they’re only useful for people who work in finance!
The opposition likes to create this fear that suddenly your taxes will go sky high, kablooie!, suddenly a bagel costs eighty bucks and you’re on the street. That’s the entire point of the big numbers – to create fear and uncertainty, just as so many leaders have done to push their people into poor decisions.
So: I know that even Sound Transit says it’s $17.9 billion, and frankly, that’s because our local media attacked Sound Transit so much last year that they figured it was the easy way out to just accept the Times and P-I’s attacks. Some of this is bus service we pay for now. Some of it is light rail construction we’ll start in a few years. A lot of our projects are paid for with a combination of savings and a bond issue. This would be a lot like advertising a $300,000 house as $600,000 on the sign because that includes operating costs for 20 years and your total mortgage payments over that time. Would you look at that house, or would you look at the one down the street that says $300,000 – for which you already understand there’s interest and upkeep? That’s the point – it makes these projects look more expensive than other projects, like highway projects, for which the Times and P-I report the capital cost today. That gives them something else to complain about, of course, because when we estimate a cost in 2005 and then build it in 2009, it inflates. Duh.
Now, there is an interesting point here. As we aren’t buying this house all at once today, its cost will inflate. We buy some light rail projects, and some Sounder projects, and some new transit centers, and all this comes at different times. So if we say something is five bucks today and don’t buy it until 2015, yeah, it might be eight bucks. In personal terms, we will make that much more money as well. In terms of Sound Transit, not only will we all make more money then, but there will also be more people we’re spreading the cost across! So in real, individual terms, it works out to be pretty constant – dollars are just worth less over time.
So frankly – good grief. There’s a real discussion to be had here about the cost of transit versus the automobile, but it’s completely coated in a thick slime of stupid debate about numbers that will all be different because they’re all calculated different ways. But there’s no way for us to understand the total, because it’s a mixture of dollars we do understand and dollars we don’t have any baseline for.
So I approach it this way. You know that when you go to the store, you pay some percentage in sales tax when you buy something. You’re used to that. So when I tell you how much Sound Transit 2 will cost you, the only measure which I think is meaningful is to tell you how much more you’ll pay next year if you vote yes. That number is a little different for everyone, but for most people, it’ll be around $69 a year.
To the opposition: Stop using numbers nobody understands as straw men. If you have a real argument, let’s hear it.