Josh Barro Phenomenon

Josh BarroLet me coin a term: the Josh Barro Phenomenon. It is a special form of conservative affirmative action where just by being something other than a stupid troll, a conservative can be held in high esteem among liberals. And Barro has received more than his fair share of compliments by us on the left. For example, I haven’t written that much more about Dean Baker than I have Josh Barro, even though in terms of policy ideas Baker is many quantum states beyond Barro.

This afternoon, Barro tried to make the case that he’s a real Republican that just wants to clean up the party, How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure. But what he actually did was show that he’s a real Republican—full stop. The article starts with him defending Chris Christie’s decision to kill the new Hudson River tunnel for mass transit—an expansion that is badly needed.

Barro tries to sound very Serious by arguing that the project is “overly expensive.” But that is always always always the reasoning for a politician to kill a project. No one ever says, “I’m killing this very popular tunnel because I hate public transit.” (Christie has no problem spending money on expanding the New Jersey Turnpike.) Instead, politicians say, “I’d love to support this very popular tunnel, but I just can’t because it is too expensive.” Or whatever. So all Barro’s “reasonable” arguments about wasteful spending just allow people like Christie political cover when they make entirely ideological decisions.

Also in his sights is Obamacare, which he calls a “Rube Goldberg mess.” And he’s right! But why is it is Rube Golberg mess? Because people like Josh Barro required it! Last year, he was arguing that it was best if the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare—not because he liked it, but because it might lead to a single payer health insurance system. You know: a non-Rube Goldberg mess.

I’m really tired of all of this. Conservative obstruction causes supposedly liberal legislation to be ridiculously complicated and inefficient. Then “reasonable” Republicans like Josh Barro complain about the legislation being complicated and inefficient. It doesn’t matter that he is attacking the Republicans for their intransigence. He is still helping the modern Republican Party to ruin good legislation coming and then complain about the damage they caused afterward.

When you get right down to it, Josh Barro is a middling writer who uses most of his intellect to make conservative ideas sound palatable. Just like the less aggressive “reformers,” he believes in the conservative ideology. He just thinks that the Republicans could do a better job of getting their own way. And he’s right! But he shouldn’t be getting compliments from liberals about being a more effective advocate for vile conservative policy ideas.

Update (5 June 2013 7:53 pm>)

Josh Barro tweeted:

I’m honored he would even read me. However, I don’t see his problem. He is providing cover for the same conservative politicians that he claims to want to reform. I don’t see how I’m wrong about that. The question of infrastructure is one of compromise. Pork is often a necessary part of that. One can always find a reason to be against a policy.

But I do feel a little bad about calling him a “middling” writer. It was a rhetorical flourish. Not that it was his problem with the article.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

9 thoughts on “Josh Barro Phenomenon

  1. I would call it the Joe Scarborough effect myself. Folks like Barro represent what conservatism *should be in our current politics: non-absolutist policy stances that are just a bit to the right of liberal policies.

    Old-school conservatives aren’t missed these days because they had awesome ideas that liberals loved. They’re missed because they could be worked with. They believed compromise earned capital and didn’t simply make you a squish.

    It is funny that a few years of GOP extremism can make us long so much for moderate Republicans, but that’s human nature.

  2. Sorry, but Barro has a point. ARC wasn’t bad because of GOP obstruction. None of its misfeatures were sops to conservative communities or legislators or anything like that. The problems came from agency turf battles and the broader problem that American railroad managers think learning from other countries is for sissies.

    Specifically, Penn Station is used inefficiently, so NJ Transit thought it needed more tracks. The options were to dig new tracks under Penn Station (Alt P), to dig a new tunnel pair to Queens and have trains park at Sunnyside Yard (Alt S), and to dig a new tunnel pair from Penn Station to Grand Central and possibly run Metro-North trains to Penn Station in the same tunnel (Alt G). Alt G was sandbagged: it would’ve opened the door to full integration of Metro-North and NJ Transit service, producing service like the Paris RER or the Berlin and Munich S-Bahns, in which commuter trains run suburb-city-suburb instead of suburb-city; but this was ignored in the major investment study, because of NJ Transit/Metro-North agency turf battles.

    Despite this, Alt G was still deemed to have the highest benefits and the same cost as the other two. But because of the riskiness of real estate acquisition for the Penn-Grand Central connection, NJ Transit dropped Alt G and went ahead with Alt P. The budget estimate in 2003 was about $3 billion. By cancellation it had grown to $9 billion, and the bulk of the cost overruns came from the cavern required for Alt P. Some rail activists like NJ-ARP and the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility begged the state to drop the cavern and connect the new Hudson tunnels to the existing Penn Station instead, but the Corzine administration went ahead.

    Christie’s decision was ideological. He had the opportunity to switch the project back to Alt G, as the activists demanded, but instead he completely canceled it so that he could grandstand, and diverted the money the state had lined up for it to road widening. However, that project was a bad one that needed fundamental changes, and by itself would not have improved regional transportation enough to justify $9 billion in spending.

    $9 billion is an insane cost for a tunnel pair of this length, independently of the cost overrun. In Munich, where the central S-Bahn tunnel is at capacity, a project to add a new tunnel is repeatedly delayed because the budget keeps being revised upward; last I heard the cost per unit length was about a quarter that of ARC. A project the length and complexity of ARC Alt G would cost about $3 billion in expensive countries like Germany and Japan, about $1.5-2.5 billion in France, $1 billion in China, and $250-500 million in cheap countries like Spain and South Korea.

  3. @Aaron Claypool – My point is that Barro is doing as a pundit what the modern RP depends upon. This is not the first time I’ve noticed this with his arguments. Still, I didn’t mean to dump all over him; he adds to the discussion.

    For the record, I think it works the other way: liberals have made conservatives dumb with their rightward push over the last several decades. This has resulted in a RP that doesn’t have much room to distinguish itself from the DP but by moving further right themselves.

  4. @Alon Levy – Thanks for the details! I didn’t mean to counter him on those, however. My point was that he was providing the political cover for Christie’s (as you note) ideological decision. It doesn’t too much matter that there was inter-agency fighting–that’s always the case.

    Let’s take it to another issue. I [i]really[/i] don’t like the Gang of Eight immigration bill. But I still (Thus far!) support it. It is easy to have a good sounding reason for being against it even though you hate it for different, less appealing, reasons.

  5. Sometimes, you have to oppose bad projects to get good ones. I don’t think it’s the case for immigration reform and that’s why I support any bill that’s likely to come out unless it has horrific poison pills. But it is the case for infrastructure construction. For example, Zurich got its world-class regional rail system after proposals to build a subway were rejected by referendum twice; since the money for a high-cost system was not there, the canton and the national railroad cooperated on building just a few strategic tunnels to allow through-service and a few strategic extra tracks to allow more capacity and reliability. It saved billions by avoiding inter-agency fighting (in the Zurich metro area, all transfers on public transit are free, even across different operators). Paris built more and longer tunnels as befits a much larger city, but it too made sure to avoid inter-agency fighting, so that trains run between two different agencies’ turfs with only a quick change of drivers at the boundary stations.

    So the question is what ARC would’ve given New Jersey, at what cost, and what the opportunity cost was. All Alt P would give New Jersey commuters extra rush hour capacity into Manhattan, at a very high cost. It is not transformative; unlike the RER or S-Bahn systems it is not likely to lead to any broader rail revival, since it is only useful for rush-hour service to Manhattan rather than for all-day service to a variety of destinations. The cost of providing that limited (though useful to some people) service is high: per projected rider it was more than $50,000, vs. about $25,000 for Second Avenue Subway Phase 1. Nor is it so necessary that cost shouldn’t be an object: the crowding levels that South Orange commuters complain about are still lower than those faced by Washington Heights commuters every day. So it’s fine to wait for a better project; it’s nothing like ongoing threat of deportation faced by about 11 million people in the US.

    So opinions among rail supporters about the cancellations are mixed. The ones who’d support any project are against it, of course. The ones who wouldn’t are more divided – there’s consensus that Alt G would be great and Alt P was deeply flawed, and most people are also pissed at Christie for grandstanding rather than managing the state better and switching to Alt G. Whether the cancellation was a net benefit over Alt P is where rail activists are divided. The point here is that Barro isn’t defending some random hatchet job, but rather a cancellation of genuinely bad (though improvable) government spending.

  6. @Alon Levy – I understand what you are saying. And it has certainly changed my thinking about the advisability of this project. However, that’s all beside the larger point, which is that Barro is giving cover for ideological decisions from Christie. The specifics of the matter are not the issue. Just like with the ACA, the effect is: conservative politician blocks, conservative pundit apologizes.

    What’s more, I’m not sure what the state-federal distribution of this program funding was. But the federal part of it is worth doing just for the "make work" aspect of it. I understand that Barro’s point was that liberals push less efficient programs because that’s all they can get. But on the federal level, the spending is the point. Barro doesn’t like that; he wants good, efficient programs. And that’s great! He’s a conservative. But it doesn’t mean he isn’t an apologist for the Republican Party.

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