Ten Thousand Spoons


Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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36 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    “Keep the government out of my public transit!”Report

  2. Avatar Damon says:

    The gov’t just paid for the work to be done and maybe now, administers and maintains it. They, as they say, “didn’t build it”.Report

    • Avatar aaron david says:


    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      I’m always amazed by intelligent people who willfully misinterpret that claim. I can’t figure out what they’re getting on about.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:


      That doesn’t really work. One of criticisms of far lefties about markets is that the real labor doesn’t get paid, but the CEO who never breaks a sweat rakes in all the money. And then folks like you and me point out the importance of organization and developing business plans, etc. etc. etc.

      The government is the CEO here, and you are–probably for the first time in your life–the far lefty. 😉Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        from my perspective, it’s not that the CEO is getting paid to come up with a business plan. It’s that he’s getting paid to gladhand, while someone smarter than he is comes up with a business plan.

        **comment is undoubtedly biased by my knowing someone who’s come up with at least half a hundred business plans, some of which are for major companies (and others for places where he’s had the chance to have a stake in the company).Report

  3. Avatar Pinky says:

    Way to nail that guy for not articulating a complete political philosophy at the train stop, Burt.

    Seriously, “you didn’t build that” is an absurd statement, as is “you built that”. “Government doesn’t do anything right” is as flawed as “government does everything right”. The person meant that on balance, he thinks the government is more prone to failure than the private sector, and this particular incident was one of the reasons for his thinking.

    Sorry if my comment is snippy, but this whole thing seems like a cheap shot. You have to know what he meant.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      If my comment is properly defined as a cheap shot, then so is the passenger’s comment about which the shot was taken.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        Of course it was. But it was far more seemly, a human reaction in a difficult moment, rather than a posting intended to (or at least taken to) expose some great flaw in political thinking.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      I’m having a hard time with this line of thought, Pinky. “You have to know what that guy meant”? How do you know what he meant? You weren’t even there, so you’ve probably got far less context than Burt.Report

  4. Avatar LWA says:

    I take the Metrolink or Amtrak every single day, and have heard people say this before, when there is a delay of some kind or another. As though there are never traffic jams on the freeway.

    Although when I read Burt’s comment about “he extent to which public money was spent building the infrastructure, establishing the service, and subsidizing the fares” for a moment I thought he was wryly speaking about the freeways, which like Metrolink, are entirely the creation of government.

    Which is why the politicization of freeway versus rail is so silly. They both are unprofitable government infrastructure, which the private sector could never have sustained.

    But it touches on something that doesn’t get a lot of play in political circles, which is that many or even most government subsidies are hidden from view, often purposefully so. Most people here are attuned to this, but a lot of lay people aren’t. So its easy to look at Metrolink as something Soviet, while Interstate 405 is the product of bootstrappy entrepreneurs. Or how farmers think subsidized crop insurance is a market mechanism, while food stamps are welfare.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Metrolink is a lot more fascistic than communist. If it were a Soviet project, it would be slow, visibly unsafe, overcrowded, and free. But instead, the train does, in fact, run on time.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Well crop insurance does affect the market. (but you ain’t getting paid if you can’t get your goods to market!)Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:


      I’m overwhelmingly in agreement with you, so this is just a quibble. Farmers like food stamps–it’s run by the Dept of Ag, because it’s primary intent is corporate welfare; public welfare is just the means.

      But I don’t want that to distract from my agreement. I’ve long been irritated by conservative and libertarian attacks on Amtrak that favor public highways.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman says:

      What percentage of Metrolink operational costs are provided by rider fares?

      What percentage of highway maintenance costs are provided by tolls, gas taxes, and vehicle registration fees?Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Here’s my $.02
        The overall average lane-mile cost was $5,925 (citing from a Wisconsin document, but that’s more of a “america wide” average).Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Absolutely correct. Americans have always liked what basically amounts to “indirect welfare”. This includes the subsidized 30 year mortgage for homeowners and our roads.

      My brother is right that the U.S. had a romance with a car that no other nation had. We are finally seeing a generation that is less interested in car ownership and less interested in getting licenses in general. My parents do not understand my very utilitarian attitudes on driving and that it is simply a way to get to point B. They saw cars as freedom and ways to explore. I’d rather take the subway if I can.Report

  5. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Public transit is one of the instances where I support privatization – provide a good service or suffer the financial consequences.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Works great until the whole system crashes into the dirt.
      There’s a reason Port Authority took over Pittsburgh’s transit systems.Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

        I’m not entirely familiar with how Pittsburgh’s transit runs, but I don’t think the government having to take over a privatized natural monopoly is necessarily a bad thing either.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW says:

      And I think that makes no sense. The government pays for roads, and public transit is far superior to driving in terms of the environment and in terms of financial accessibility. Why should the inferior alternative be government-funded and the superior one be required to run a profit?

      “Providing a good service” and “making a profit” are not synonymous when it comes to public transit. Making a profit would mean getting rid of smaller, lesser-used bus routes that enable people outside of the downtown core and major traffic corridors to get around using transit. It would mean raising fares and thus making transit less accessible and less desirable to many people. It would mean providing a worse service.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      @christopher-carr–Why does that logic not also apply to roads?

      @katherinemw–I think that depends on the government. Yesterday I mentioned Hernando de Soto’s The Other Path. In one chapter he discusses the competition between private (illegal) and public bus services in Lima, Peru. The public service is so bad that the private services are vastly more popular, provide much better service, and are profitable. Could that work in Chicago, Boston, NY? Maybe, maybe not. Those places aren’t exactly like Lima, of course. But then some of the characteristics are similar–dense urban areas with high transit demand. I think, though, that if the government provides a sufficiently satisfactory service and offers lower fares via subsidization, the private firms would have a hard time breaking into the market.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        I assume he’s talking about non-monopoly bus service? I’d really be okay with that … provided you had some sort of insurance for “what happens when the private companies go under”. (That’s probably a “fill up this fund, and then stop contributing”.)Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Parts of the NY Subway used to be private but they were bought out in the post war years.

        Japan is the only country I know of where the rail system seems to be a combination of public, quasi-public, and private. Even the private companies sell their tickets at a subsidized rate and make their money by owning real estate near and around the stations and also setting up the transit lines as a way of getting you to their businesses. The Odakyu Line is home to many Odakyu department stores:


        Then again Japanese businesses tend to be of the we will do everything variety that American companies don’t go for.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        One of the many ways that upstate NY likes to screw over downstate is denying funds for proper subway and railroad maintenance which causes the prices to go up for monthly tickets.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW says:

        James – I think a private for-profit bus service can only provide better service when both of the following conditions are met:

        1) Typical income and cost of living in a country are significantly lower than they are in the developing world. In the developed world, it would be nigh-impossible to keep fares low enough to maintain high ridership while paying bus drivers a living wage. When I lived in Palestine, I got around mainly by service taxi (vans that are basically a cross between taxis, public transit, and intercity bus service). They’re also very good for short intercity routes in Turkey; in Istanbul they’re less needed because public transit is good. They wouldn’t work in the US or Canada because more people own and drive cars here, so demand is lower, and because the driver wouldn’t earn enough to make it worthwhile.

        2) Public transit services are either non-existent or very poorly designed. Given that major cities in developed nations have public transit services that either are or can be well-designed, there’s no need for privatization or removal of subsidies.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        I agree with the second point. I’ve got a post on the de Soto chapter going up tomorrow, and make the same point.

        I think the first point is debatable. We have Greyhound and charter bus services that are profitable and pay their drivers a wage they can live on. Urban transit may be different, but I think that argument bears the burden of proof.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW says:

        In Canada at least, Greyhound is incredibly expensive (over $100 from Vancouver to Edmonton, making it $200 round-trip – better than an airline trip booked well in advance, but ~17hr rather than 1hr for a flight) and not very enjoyable. The timing is often highly inconvenient. And it’s the only option for intercity bus transport, so it effectively has a monopoly.

        I wouldn’t consider it a model for any system that we’d want to have for local transit.Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

        Interesting you bring up Boston and New York. There used to be a round-trip bus service from Chinatown Boston to Chinatown New York that cost twenty bucks round trip and included free wifi the whole way. Everybody loved it. The government shut it down.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      What is the definition of good service?Report

    • Avatar LWA says:

      Are we talking private, or “private”- “Free Market” or “Freer Market”?

      Virtually all transporation systems require the heavy hand of government to do one thing or another, either secure monopoly rights of way, or facilitate funding, or what have you.

      Even the Commu-Fascist Metrolink/ Amtrak is a hybrid of government funding, negotiated rights of way with Burlington Northern Railroad (over whose tracks they run), purchase of cars from private vendors based on government specifications, subcontracting with private companies for ticket sales, etc etc.

      Anyone looking for a clean win for capitalism vs socialism is going to be disappointed here.

      As Katherine alluded to, one of the program requirements for most government services is to provide inefficient service- that is, to provide universal service even to areas or routes that can’t possibly be profitable, or to provide education or health to people who can’t afford it.
      Its like FedEx providing efficient delivery to profitable routes versus USPS providing delivery to every address in America, for the same price. Efficiency isn’t what it is designed to do.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Chris, I’m joining others in this. What is the logic behind this and what do you consider a good public service. I’ve used public transportation to get around for most of life and generally never had a problem with it. There have been delays and crowded trains and but I really don’t see how that is different from a traffic jam on a busy highway.Report

      • Avatar Christopher Carr says:


        Saul brought it up above – Japan does it particularly well, especially in the Kanto area (Tokyo, Yokohama, Saitama, etc.). Lots of things are privatized there. The end goal is to create an incentives structure that gets people where they need to be as efficiently as possible in order to keep the economy strong. Why can’t we do that? It’s because our incentives structure encourages government workers to be lazy and incompetent and private companies to scam consumers as much as possible.Report