. . . Lisa Falkenberg's "human equation."
Metro has apparently decided to cancel a bus route, the No. 48, that the agency says is losing $147,917 a year.
Ms. Falkenberg rushed to Pleasantville, a "quiet, aging, historically black hamlet known for its active civic club and voting precinct" -- and found that No. 48 serves an 85-year-old widow, cancer survivor, and "former River Oaks housekeeper" who really needs the bus.
Not to mention a fellow Pleasantville resident, 75; "a worker at a Heights funeral home, a clerk for HISD, a contractor on his way to a job in Missouri City, and two home health providers who . . . care for patients in Pleasantville"; and "a minister and retired bricklayer in a plaid flannel jacket." (Lisa Falkenberg, "Human equation absent from this calculation," Houston Chronicle, December 15, 2011)
This is an interesting and legitimate story. Good for Ms. Falkenberg in doing the legwork. Government actions have real human consequences that should not be ignored.
But . . .
. . . -- and you knew there would be a but, did you not -- the story is also a perfect example of how journalists today serve as press agents for big government.
Last week's example was columnist Patricia Hart Kilday's defense of grants to a radical Houston political organization because the men and women who receive taxpayer-financed scholarships through the group really, really need the money.
Let's review the bidding.
Metro is a publicly financed agency. It runs on money from taxpayers. Like all other public agencies -- indeed, like all other economic actors -- Metro must deal with the problem of scarcity. There isn't enough taxpayer money to do all the good things Metro might wish to do, so it must make reasonable decisions about how to spend the money it has. On occasion, wisdom might require dropping a bus route that loses $147,917 each year and using the savings to serve needy riders elsewhere. That's an example of the inherent tragedy of living with scarce resources.
The Chronicle's implicit argument -- and, yes, Ms. Falkenberg can be taken to speak for the Chronicle -- is that no bus route may be canceled, whatever the financial wisdom of the cancellation, no matter what better use might be made of the same money elsewhere, if the route serves a mediagenic 85-year-old widow, cancer survivor, and "former River Oaks housekeeper" who really needs the bus.
That's the "human equation," and it trumps all else.
Sadly, every other route that might ever be a candidate for cancellation also serves at least one 85-year-old widow, or someone like her, who really needs the bus. So the "human equation" requires nothing less than this: Never cancel a route.
This is a perfect formula for the metastatic growth of an agency. Always more. Never less. The formula sets in motion a perverse cycle of higher spending and taxing, cheered on complaisant journalists. The Chronicle, for instance, can always be counted on to write editorials in favor of an ever-larger budget for Metro.
Two groups of human beings are never interviewed for these kinds of stories. One is the group of riders who might well benefit from a new route elsewhere or other alternative use of the disputed funds.
The other group, naturally, is taxpayers. They rightfully expect their money to be used wisely. And wise use of their money might, on occasion, require a money-losing, low-ridership route to be canceled. (In the case of Metro, I confess, the real alternative may not be another route; it may be avoiding bankruptcy.)
A lot of government money is wasted and misappropriated, but let's posit that most things done with the money are good, in the sense that they help the intended beneficiaries, and usually for good purposes. It's good for the 75-year-old widow to have a convenient bus. To say otherwise is to misstate the problem.
The real problem, again, is the tragedy of scarcity. We can't do all the good things we can imagine doing or wish to do. Understanding this is a necessary element of adulthood. Grownups know this and deal with it. Children ignore scarcity and imagine it does not exist or should not influence their decisions.
The Metro problem, writ large, explains our natonal debt and deficit.
In ignoring the problem of scarcity, Ms. Falkenberg's column is emotionally satisfying, in its way, but intellectually childish.
In its failure to hire any opinion writer who respects the problem of scarcity, the Houston Chronicle betrays honest journalism.
* * *
Anyone who wishes to know more about the problem of scacrity could do worse than to consult the entry for that subject in Wikipedia, which begins this way:
Scarcity is the fundamental economic problem of having humans who have unlimited wants and needs in a world of limited resources. It states that society has insufficient productive resources to fulfill all human wants and needs. Alternatively, scarcity implies that not all of society's goals can be pursued at the same time; trade-offs are made of one good against others. In an influential 1932 essay, Lionel Robbins defined economics as "the science which studies human behavior as a relationships between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."