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The Great American Fallacy Machine

When it comes to urban policy issues such as public transit andsmart growth, self-identified "Conservatives" and Libertarians have turned"straw man" argumentation into an art form. Many of their positions are sotransparently fallacious that I feel compelled to take them down, (asI've done in previous Planetizen op-eds [here and here])by systematically identifying their fallacies and documenting their misleading use of data sources.

It's easy and it's fun!

Michael Dudley | August 12, 2008, 9am PDT
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When it comes to urban policy issues such as public transit andsmart growth, self-identified "Conservatives" and Libertarians have turned"straw man" argumentation into an art form. Many of their positions are sotransparently fallacious that I feel compelled to take them down, (asI've done in previous Planetizen op-eds [here and here])by systematically identifying their fallacies and documenting their misleading use of data sources.

It's easy and it's fun!

To cite the latest example, the Heritage Foundation's Ernest Istook calls the automobile, The Great American Freedom Machine (posted to Planetizen as Three Cheers for the Automobile):

"They offer us enormous opportunities to go where we want, when we want...But not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of having to sacrificeour freedom of mobility because 'green' politicians chose to 'save theplanet' by hampering our country's ability to produce affordable energy."

Notice the specious rebuttal: he is deflecting the argument awayfrom the inherent futurelessness of the internal combustion engine, byinstead saying high energy prices are the fault of politicians who want to protectfragile ecosystems from oil exploration. The truth is, America can drill wherever it wants to but oil will never again be "affordable energy," thanks to growing global demand and geopolitical instability (which, not incidentally was grossly exacerbated by the war in Iraq, which most Conservatives...oh, never mind).

"Liberals also assert that it's cheaper to ride than to drive, aclaim that depends upon perspective...Public bus and rail systems get75 percent of their operating costsfrom taxpayer subsidies, and only 25 percent from riders' fares, sothat expense is simply shifted to taxpayers when people shift totransit."

Overlooking that it's not just 'Liberals' who argue this point, this is of course argument by half-truth: here Istook overlooks -- or more accurately, deliberately fails toacknowledge -- that public roadways and the externalities of theautomobile represent an enormous expense that is also heavily subsidized by taxpayers. The car could never pay its own way and still remain the "great American freedom machine."

Next he turns to arguing by selective observation:

"American buses average 4,650 BTUs per passenger mile, compared to only 3,702 for autos."

This is based on data collected in 1995. Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that between 1995 and 2004, the gaps between these modes narrowed to 3,509 BTUs per passenger mile for cars and 3,572 BTUs for passenger buses. It should be stressed that Istook doesn't distinguish between cars and the almost ubiquitous SUV, which consumed 4,538 BTUs in 1995 and 4,452 in 2004.

The data problem here is that he is implying that this measure is an absolutefigure, when in reality we see it changing year-to-year with actual transit useand advances in technology. If buses were running at capacity, theaverage BTUs per passenger mile would drop accordingly; with the recent surge in transit use brought about by high gas prices, subsequent data sets will likely show this. Asthe stock of transit buses is replaced with hybrid or other drives,this figure will be similarly reduced.

The fallacy though is tautalogical: more transit use -- which his argument is aimed at preventing -- would lower BTUs per passenger mile, thereby deflating his argument.

Then there's also the always-popular "taking data out of context" strategy:

"The New York Times' John Tierney reported, 'As documented by the Texas Transportation Institute, when you take population growthinto account, traffic congestion has been increasing more rapidly inthe cities that haven't been building roads.'"

Well, yes, but what he doesn't say is that the Texas Transportation Institute's Annual Urban Mobility Report for 2007 actually comes to a much more nuanced conclusion:that while maintaining a pace of roadway construction that matchespopulation and travel growth will indeed reduce congestion,

"only five of the 85 intensively studied urban areas were able toaccomplish that rate. There must be a broader set of solutions appliedto the problem, as well as more of each solution than has beenimplemented in the past, if more areas are to move into the'maintaining conditions or making progress on mobility' category."

Finally he turns to the fallacy of ideological triumphalism:

"Trying to force everyone onto mass transit will neverwork...Forcing people to use a particular mode of travel is not theAmericanway. Life is better when you have the freedom to drive, not just find aride or wait at bus stops."

"Liberals" are not now, nor ever will be "forcing" anyone out oftheir cars. The marketplace will likely take care of that as volatile oilprices continue to make car ownership less affordable. But the broaderideological paradox here is that Conservatives are supposed tobe all about allowing the market to provide choice to consumers. How isa technological monoculture -- composed entirely of cars -- supposed todo that? Public transit and active transportation investments arefilling that need by providing more choices, leaving people their hallowed freedomto continue to spend ever more of their income on their cars if they sochoose.

As it becomes more apparent to a broader constituency that the dominance of the automobile is making less sense all the time, and that real transportation choices supported by public investments are urgently needed, we can probably expect more of this sort of defensiveness from folks armed more with ideology than data.

(For a more detailed examination of the energy benefits of public transportation when comparing modes, check out "Conserving Energy and Preserving the Environment:The Role of Public Transportation" by Robert J. Shapiro, Kevin A. Hassett and Frank S. Arnold).

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