Uber Deception on the Benefits of Congestion Pricing

An Uber executive writes an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe touting the benefits of congestion pricing to reduce traffic in Boston. Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy, says that it’s a fact that traffic in Boston is among the worst in the country and that are mass transit systems need new investment. But his argument is based on sleight of hand and misdirection and his claims of Uber’s selflessness are misleading.

Before looking at Salzberg’s claims, I should note that congestion pricing and per-mile tolling have long been part of some politicians’ wish lists. As recently as 2016, the Legislature considered a bill to begin a pilot program to tax drivers based on the number of miles traveled. Earlier, the former state governor Deval Patrick floated the idea of toll gates at every exit on every highway in the state. So, this is not some pie-in-the-sky isolated proposal by Salzberg and Uber.

Now to begin, Salzberg claims that “all vehicles should pay to use the roads,” implying that unless you’re paying a toll you’re driving for free. This is false. We arelady pay for the privilege of driving on Massachusetts roads through a use tax that is the gas tax. In fact, we pay 26.54 cents per gallon in state tax 1, which in 2016 brought in $766 million total, a significant growth from prior years due to both an increase in the tax from 24 cents in 2013 and the rebounding economy. Now, advocates will claim that increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles is lowering the amount of gas consumed (that’s not a bad thing!), but as we can see that is a very long term problem, not a short term one. However, the bottom line is that Massachusetts taxpayers are indeed paying a road fee to the tune of three-quarters of a billion dollars per year in just gas taxes.
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In Response to IRL, by Amy

It’s an odd feeling to find myself even in partial disagreement with my friend Amy Welborn, and I am now doubting myself, but I will press on nonetheless. Amy is writing this week about technology and today she writes about the Church, evangelization, and technology.

To be sure, there’s much I agree with. Like her, I believe that parish and diocesan websites are vitally important and need to be done better. Parish websites, first and above all, need to make it easy for people to get the information they came for, usually the Mass times, including the holy day of obligation Mass times. They also need to be kept up to date. The worst failing of parish web sites is out of date content and the second worst is the failure to put new content up. I have held that every parish needs someone whose primary job is to go to every meeting possible and otherwise to badger the staff for stuff to put on the web site (and in the bulletin). Read More and Comment

Even When He’s Right, Trump is Wrong

These are strange political times we’re living in. (Congratulate me on stating the obvious.) For me, it’s because we have a president whose policies I think, in general, are taking us in the right direction, but who is personally and politically so off-base that I have a hard time reconciling the conflict. I have a former colleague who insists that stating whether we think President Trump is a good person or not is stupid, when all that matters is his policies and decisions. But the ends do not justify the means and, as was decided by many conservatives in the late 90s, character and integrity matter.

That’s all preface to my main point, which is that the way the media, both mainstream and social, are reacting to Trump is shameful, even given his character issues and boorishness. It’s one thing to to lean one way or the other in your coverage and reactions. It’s quite another to baldy distort reality, to frame every disagreement as evil intent, or to outright lie.

Some examples are in order, but keep in mind that these are by no means isolated. They are drawn at random from today’s news and are representative of the vast avalanche of similar news reports every day.

Choosing His Own People

Here’s one: The superintendent of Yellowstone National Park has been reassigned to Washington, DC, from his current plum posting, but Daniel Wenk doesn’t want to go so he’s submitted his resignation, which is his right. However, he wanted to stay in his job until next March, instead of leaving by the deadline he was given of August. The Interior Department said No and he claims to be ill-used.

Okay, that’s the bare bones of the situation, but the real media bias crops up in the last paragraph:

At least eight other senior executives are being reassigned. Critics say many of the reassignments appear to be motivated by politics, sweeping aside those who disagree with the administration on issues such as climate change, wildlife management, and wilderness preservation.

Well…yeah. Of course it’s motivated by politics. The critics seem to suggest that a President doesn’t have the right to have leaders within the executive branch who will implement his policies. Shouldn’t that be understood? The President gets to make policy. Except when it’s Trump? This is, by no means, the most egregious example of bias, but it highlights how common and mainstream it is.

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Social Media Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Men in business suits boxing in a ring

The latest tragedies grabbing the headlines and especially the ensuing bluster on social media have reinforced for me why I have lately decided to stop engaging in discussions about these things there.1 In fact, I have been using a browser extension called FB Purity to block any updates that contain certain keywords from appearing in my timeline.

It’s not that I’m a heartless ogre who doesn’t care about making our country safer or protecting it from dastardly forces. Nor does it mean I don’t care about the Catholic Church and her doctrines and teachings and whether some of her leaders are undermining them.

It’s that I don’t believe that bluster and acrimony on Facebook and Twitter are going to change a damn thing. No, wait, it will change something: It will make me more bitter and angry and sinful.

Much of what passes for discourse on subjects like gun control or Donald Trump or Pope Francis consists of straw man arguments, emotional venting lacking in rational thought, failures to engage charity or to give the benefit of the doubt, silly memes that usually contain falsehoods and/or that mock others without engaging them. Then the comments on these posts devolve into shouting matches and insults that drown out anyone trying to make rational, intelligent responses.

Shakespeare could have been describing these “antisocial” social media debates when he wrote in “MacBeth”: “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

And in the end, no one ever has their mind changed about a single thing. I’ve never seen one of these shouting matches result in someone saying, “You know what? You’re right! I’ve been wrong all this time. I’ve changed my mind.”

So what’s the point of it all?

Now, you may ask me why I haven’t just deleted my social media accounts, like so many other people have. For one thing, social media is part of my job. I need to be there to administer and monitor several social media sites associated with my work. For another thing, once I’ve excised the vitriol from my timelines, I can engage with my family and friends in uplifting and fun discussions and share news of our lives and share articles about interesting or uplifting topics. Social media doesn’t have to be a wasteland. It’s what you make it.

I choose not to make it a place of anger and falsehoods and cheap ideological grandstanding.

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I’m not always successful in staying out of them. But I nearly always regret it.

More Tales of Social Media Marketing Mistakes

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post1 about college students moving to low-tax states. I wanted to illustrate it with an image of a young person house-moving and found one on Flickr on the account of a small moving company that looks to appeal to young people. The photo was available under a Creative Commons license with an attribution requirement. So I used the photo under the terms they had provided.

Fast forward to earlier this month. I get an email from a marketing company. Thank you, they said, for featuring our client on your web site, but we need you to hyperlink the image so that it directs readers to our web site. They didn’t tell me which photo or where it was on my site. My blog has been around for nearly two decades and has thousands of entries. I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Eventually through some sleuthing, I figured out which blog post and photo. First, I wasn’t featuring their client on my site. I was using their photo—in accordance with the usage restrictions they had listed—to illustrate an unrelated story. Second, I had followed the attribution requirements that they selected when making the photo available. Third, that’s not how my site software works. I can’t hyperlink the “hero” image at the top of my blog posts.

I didn’t want the hassle so I just found another image on a different site that was about “moving” and replaced theirs. Then I sent the PR person an email in reply telling her, “Never mind, I’ve replaced the image with one unrelated to your client that doesn’t have special requirements.”

So instead of free advertising for her client (the logo was prominent in the image), they get nothing. Rather than increase her client’s virality and Google-rank, she decreased it by making a silly and annoying request. If they want people to handle their images differently, then they should say so up front in their rights disclosure.

  1. I’m not linking the post or mentioning the mover because it’s not relevant.

Who Are These People In These Stories?

Beth Teitell is a “life in these modern times” reporter for The Boston Globe, who writes stories about the foibles and challenges of the fast-paced technological era we live in and how “ordinary” people cope1, often with a dollop of humor or irony. Some of her recent articles have focused on millennials ordering fast-food takeout instead of cooking their own meals; families texting each other within the same house or even the same room; teen boys who regularly take Ubers, usually prompted by parents too busy to drive them around; the fact that $1 million in Boston buys you a fixer-upper; the phenomenon of the “she shed” as a reaction to man caves; and so on.

The ever-present common elements in almost every story include:

  1. The busy, harried working mom who sounds annoyed by the demands her family places on her.
  2. The guilty parent who knows their kids are way more pampered, sheltered and coddled than they ever were as a kid, but does it anyway, while simultaneously piling a work/play schedule on the children that would kill a 50-year-old with stress in the name of “getting into a good college.”
  3. The desire to be like all the other professional working women whose opinions they value above all others.
  4. Almost exclusively upper-middle class to upper incomes and hometowns in the toniest suburbs or neighborhoods of Boston
  5. The phrase “Don’t judge me, but…” followed by an excuse for a display of conspicuous excess.

The story that prompted this post was her article on parents relying on Uber to shuttle their kids to and fro instead of doing it themselves. What’s ironic is that I just remembered that three years ago today, I wrote a similar post about an article Teitell wrote about the ways that pre-Uber carpooling had taken over the lives of these well-heeled families and I see how both articles unspool in the same ways.

As I read these articles, I’m left scratching my head. Who are these people? Is this supposed to be what passes for middle class family life in the Boston area? Because none of these stories ever look like me and my family or any family I know.

If these do reflect a widespread reality, they make me tremble for what we’re doing to ourselves. The disconnection among family members, the barely concealed annoyance with family, the me-first individualism, the entitlement attitudes, the life-altering stressfulness: Is it any wonder people are feeling fractured and unrooted and dissatisfied more than ever before?

I wonder if this is a coastal or big city or Northeast phenomenon or if it’s fairly universal. But while it makes me worry about our country, at least I feel pretty good about how we’re doing as a family.

  1. And by “ordinary”, they usually mean “families who make seriously north of six figures in well-to-do suburbs and Boston neighborhoods.”

An Analysis of Media Bias in Today’s Boston Globe

Journalists often dismiss claims of liberal media bias from conservatives as sour grapes or just plain partisan whining. Most journalists, in fact, think of themselves as impartial and balanced in their coverage of the news. So here’s an object lesson in why people think mainstream media are biased.

In today’s Boston Globe, we have an article looking at some lawsuits filed in New Hampshire against a new voter identification law. Right from the start, in the very lede, we see the journalist’s point of view on display:

The League of Women Voters of New Hampshire and three New Hampshire voters are suing to block a new state law that toughens voter registration requirements, part of a nationwide pushback against restrictions that advocates say are aimed at discouraging students, minorities, and other Democratic-leaning voters from going to the polls. [Emphasis added]

Notice that the description and characterization of the law is entirely from the point of view of those who oppose it from the Democrat side. Of course, proponents of the law wouldn’t say their motives were aimed at discouraging Democrat voters. So why do they support it?

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A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

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