Which way to Central Park?

Our points of view arise in large part from how we live. It’s useful to keep that in mind when we encounter public policy we don’t think we like.

“Drivers shouldn’t be paying for transit,” a Republican congressman told NPR in support of the American Energy and Infrastructure Act, a transportation bill that would cut federal funds from mass transit in places like New York City. He reflects a common notion that, in fairness, funds derived from driving cars shouldn’t go to support public transportation associated with big cities.

To a big-city dweller like me, that’s completely wrong-headed; environmentally costly driving in the suburbs and exurbs should be subsidizing public transportation to keep fares low and encourage the use of environmentally friendly mass transit.

Yet I recognize that to someone who lives in a big house with lots of land at a distance from major cities, my point of view might feel like financial pressure to move to a higher-density area where they wouldn’t drive so much.

Full disclosure: I’m in favor of applying such pressure. Living more densely is an essential step towards conserving the resources we need to continue our civilization. But I recognize also that if I’d made a life in small-town environs far from the madding crowd, instead of in the city, I might feel the way they do.

I don’t, however, think I’d partake in the conspiracy theories and paranoia described in this New York Times article entitled “Activists Fight Green Projects, Seeing U.N. Plot.” The seeming nuttiness of the Tea Party-affiliated people it describes initially set off spasms of mockery in this writer’s poor addled head.┬áBut this divide is nothing new; it goes all the way back to the early days of the republic and the battles over adopting the Constitution and paying Revolutionary War debt.

Back then, antifederalists said that the strong national government proposed by the Constitution would infringe on states’ self-determination. The controversy pitted big agrarian states in the South against more cosmopolitan northern states; the southerners particularly distrusted the financial plans of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who was based with the new federal government in New York, home to the bankers (today known as the “Wall Street Fat Cats”) the farmers distrusted.

The antifederalists especially opposed Hamilton’s proposal that the new federal government assume responsibility for the individual states’ war debts and collect taxes to pay for it. (Some states, like Virginia, had paid much of their debt already and didn’t want to have to contribute to paying down the debt of states like Massachusetts.)

The debt assumption plan did pass, via compromise, and of course the states did ratify the Constitution. It’s ironic that that icon of centralized government is now a rallying cry for today’s antifederalists, otherwise known as the right wing. But that’s another story.

Today’s story is simply this: before attacking our opponents for their ridiculous opinions, it helps to think for a moment or two about where they are, literally, coming from.