Both the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments are currently taking feedback on the Plan Bay Area proposal to reduce the speed limit to 55mph on Bay Area freeways. Dropping the maximum limit by 10 mph could reduce emissions 6% by 2035 — the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off the road. Under state Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, the Bay Area must reduce its greenhouse gases 7% by 2020 and 15% by 2035.
On the face of it this seems like a plausible idea, and for me it stimulates additional ideas for state policy makers. For example, most commuters want to travel faster than 55mph nearly as much as they want good air quality to enjoy. So the speed limit, rather than being fixed, could become actively conditional on real-time carbon emissions: the higher the emissions each hour on the freeway the lower the set speed limit becomes, and vice versa. This idea would create a sustainable equilibrium between polluters and environment, as well as potentially creating a further (collective) demand for the advancement of low-carbon technology.
For those of us passionate about not just a sustainable environment but also a stronger society, there is a fundamental idea worth looking further at here. It’s the idea of a positive equilibrium between society and the economy. Imagine for a second your annual energy costs divided equally over the 12 months of the year – in the winter months you’ll be using more energy than in the summer months but rather than your personal finances being exposed to the peaks and troughs of seasonal needs they are stable throughout the year because thanks to your fixed monthly payments smoothing out potential debit, as well as credit.
A strong society requires high levels of interaction and social bonds, yet we know that during times of economic growth the temptation for individuals to withdraw from social interaction and community collaboration peaks (“why share when I can buy my own”). Consequentially this weakens levels of community capital required for a strong society – decreasing social bonds and relationship building. Ironically though, in the economic good times people cope by compensating for the trough in social bonds through evermore individual consumption fueled by increased debt. Society then has a false sense of security that both economic and community well-being are both peaking. They are not: individual economic prosperity is simply displacing community collaboration.
So, the catastrophic impacts of reduced community capital in society are most acutely felt during times of economic downtown. Individuals suffering economic hardship look to society (their communities, their networks, their relationships) for mutual support yet, as demonstrated by the sub-prime housing crash, many of those societal bonds and ties had been dramatically weakened if not smashed during the good times. Many families were left with far fewer options of support within society than they should have had.
Now that California is slowly emerging from recession, and once again we look to the light at the end of the tunnel that is economic growth, perhaps policy makers might want to think more about how they can ensure social bonds in society are stabilised relative to economic growth (think back to the energy consumption peaks and troughs example above). A very tricky area, but the state has a legitimate active role here given what we know is an inherent market failure of the economy to price in long term future shocks to society.
A good first principle value for policy makers would be to identify that isolationism weakens society, while collaboration strengthens it. So in a growing economy, society would benefit from ‘stabilisers’ that reward community consumption over individual consumption. For example, two people in the same neighbourhood could buy the latest flatscreen television and premium cable channels with their increased disposable income. One person may simply want to enjoy it in isolation, which is their choice but does little to strengthen the neighbourhood bonds society needs. The other person once a week opens his TV room up for all the neighbours on his street to come and enjoy a movie together – everybody brings their own food and drink to share and over time the community relationships society needs blossoms.
Now, policy makers should be understanding firstly how they can enable all those people who do want to share with others (the most recent ideas suggested by the leading innovators in this field have involved new ‘platforms’ – think ebay – which enable strangers to connect and collaborate). Secondly policy makers want to be thinking how to ‘price in’ the difference between those that actively participate for the good of society versus those that prefer to opt-out of community responsibilities (the most recent ideas again suggested by the leading innovators in this field have ranged from ‘community dividends’ – think tax rebates – through to ‘state award ceremonies’ – think medal of valor – and enhanced personal ‘reputation ratings’ – think ebay again)
The challenge to maintain strong social bonds, in spite of economic growth and increasing individual consumption of goods and services, is very hard and innovation like that described above is even harder (given current path dependencies) – there is a huge amount of learning to be done. The potential rewards though for both the state and society – in good and bad economic times – are huge, which is why such bold state innovation should be pursued with both courage and vigour.