Cutting the Brainian knot

Marshall Brain is generally adept at explaining How Stuff Works. When he ventures into trying to explain how things should work, he doesn’t do quite as well. In economics, a subject that vexes Brain (q.v., life would be better if we doubled the minimum wage), it is the difference between positive economics and normative economics.

In an op-ed in The News & Observer, Brain proposes a way to solve Raleigh’s problem, which is defined by Brain as being a place a prospective convention-goer would not be “excited” about. Much more after the break. Brain writes:

Now think about Raleigh. If you are invited to a convention in our fair city, would you get excited?

To find out I tried this experiment. Upon landing at RDU, I went to the airport’s visitor desk, pretending to be an out-of-town guest. I asked the man behind the counter what I had to see while in town.

Seattle has the Space Needle. St. Louis has the Arch. What about Raleigh?

“Well, there are some trails at Umstead Park that are nice.”

That was his actual response!

What should we do to change things? We can create a big, impressive theme that makes visitors want to come to Raleigh. Then we build a destination city around that theme. Vegas has gambling. Orlando has amusement parks. What is Raleigh’s theme?

My proposal: “Raleigh — City of the Future.”

Now you must be thinking, We have a presidential candidate offering Hope and Change, and now someone talking about making Raleigh a City of the Future; why, what an exciting time, and not at all like any other election year over the past century picked at random! Yes, this notion is brand-spankin’-new in the annals of municipal improvement.

People who try to envision how the future will be dream up some fanciful notions; take a look at books, public-service announcements, movies, advertising campaigns, television shows, etc. They run from the cheesy to the ridiculous, and the best of them can be quite clever and thought-provoking, but rarely if ever are they accurate.

Speculators who invest in something they think will be important in the future who turn out to be correct earn well-deserved riches. If they’re incorrect, they alone reap the losses.

But when government officials get into the very iffy business of deciding What Future Generations Will Think Is Cool, they do so on citizens’ dollars; the risks are all on the populace. And the likelihood that what a group of politicians (who as a group are, to be very charitable, not exactly known for aesthetic taste) will decide is the Future will be as embarrassingly campy as a 1950s idea of a “Kitchen of the Future” approaches 100 percent. It’s certainly not something to encourage public spending on in any format.

Brain suggests a monorail. Honest to goodness, a monorail. For how many decades past has a monorail been envisioned as the lapis exilis of the City of the Future, the pleasure-dome of the new Xanadu, the Lake of Gold of the El-Dorado-to-be?

He also proposes a city of carbon-free electricity (tourists would flock to see the downtown solar panels, you see), condemning several blocks in downtown to convert to a manmade river with adjacent shops and such like a land-locked Myrtle Beach, and ooh, giant sculptures.

Frankly, it seems upon closer reading that the root problem here is really that there’s a counter attendant at RDU who doesn’t know that Raleigh has, in Brain’s words, “the civic center, the big shopping malls, the art museum, the restaurant islands, our stadiums, the fairgrounds, the big hotels, the colleges and universities, Umstead, the greenways, … etc.” (not to mention many, many other sights to see, to which roads conveniently already lead). Fortunately, that problem can be fixed in minutes at virtually no public cost at all.

Jon Sanders / Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...