Emmer column: Bustang: Money well spent?
April 9, 2017
The constant drip, drip, drip of pleas for ever more tax money is a burden of citizenship. The average U.S. family will spend $2.5 million on taxes over its lifetime.
Much public spending is worthwhile and some is even necessary. But not all. Public spending is often "soft" spending, even speculative.
Evidence of effectiveness would build support for that spending. Yet little evidence is required to start a program; even less to keep one going.
Public spending decisions have none of the real-world stress of a single mom deciding whether to pay the rent or replace her bald tires. They more resemble the handsome Harvard Romeo picking out the ninth suit to hang in his closet.
Public money management is remarkably unsophisticated.
What spending adds most to the common good? What public body is ranking programs from most effective to least? Where is the Consumer Reports-style info for programs? What public official is deciding if program X is more or less valuable than young families building some savings?
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The tax dollars are massive. The analysis is meager.
Here, try this. Think through a simple either-or decision between two programs.
First, consider PERA, Colorado's government employee retirement program. It is $28 billion in the hole. That is an oops of $12,000 per Colorado family, or $140,000 per PERA beneficiary.
Yes, there is a plan to fix PERA. It is based on a long-standing federal template which has been adopted by other states as well. The operative factors are good intentions, procrastination and crossed fingers. Note that the state is not scurrying around its gargantuan budget looking for the boat-rocking efficiencies any family or business would make in similar circumstances.
Instead, the state distracts itself by filling its bong with a new spending program, one of hazy social value. Even its name sounds like a 1990s DEA operation — Bustang.
State politicians and bureaucrats are excited to light up this new inter-county bus service. The state does not have publicly disclosed, measurable goals which citizens can use to assess its success or failure. Bustang committee meeting minutes show it wants to build ridership, which has the unavoidable side-effect of building taxpayer losses.
For every dollar that riders are willing to pay for Bustang tickets, the busses lose a dollar more. The system's costs are twice what riders are willing to pay. Young Colorado families and others pony up the missing money.
While the state does not have much to say on the topic, one can come up with a list of legitimate, measurable public policy goals for Bustang. Carbon reduction is a hot topic. Are subsidized busses the best way to trim the toenails of the state's carbon footprint? Probably not.
Bill Gates and others make the point that energy research is a better use of public money intended for decarbonization.
Front Range congestion relief is also a reasonable public policy question. Yet, the problem does not rise to a level of inconvenience sufficient that Front Range commuters will pay full price bus fares. Why should others pay?
Poverty alleviation might be a Bustang goal, too. If the public wishes to subsidize poverty more than it now does, taxpayers could give these people more cash instead. Poor people themselves know where a little money can improve their lives better than a remote committee of rule-writers.
Bus travel is safer than cars. People make safety tradeoffs every time they get out of bed. If they are badly informed about the safety of different modes of transport, the state might offer better information.
There is a smarter way to achieve the goals we presume that Politicians & Company have for Bustang. Uberize it. Build an Uber or Lyft-like ride sharing system. It would couple people who want to travel but not drive, with people who are driving the same route anyway.
A smartphone app, a little e-money changing accounts between rider and driver, and presto — a more efficient transportation system. Traffic streams already flow when and where people want to go.
An Uberized car system has a better shot than busses at helping families move from owning two cars to one with none of transit's degradation of mobility. Imagine the family savings. Imagine the social progress.
To sum up: The state spills your cash on a loosey, goosey Bustang program before it faces its budget-busting PERA mistakes. The politicos cannot stop themselves. It is just too much fun!
Financial management of this caliber is not just a Summit County problem. It is not just a Colorado problem. It is not just a U.S. problem. It applies to most of the rich world as well.
In the U.S., public debt of various sorts is running $600,000 to $800,000 per family depending on what one counts. No need to ask why Putin, China and assorted jihadis smell blood in the water.
We can fix this. Let's not dump it on the kids.
How to start? Decide for yourself where your next tax dollar should go. PERA or Bustang? Or different programs? Perhaps even home?
It is your money.
Vince Emmer is a financial consultant in Gypsum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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