I’ve been re-reading The Stuff of Thought by the MIT linguist Steven Pinker. It’s a book I’ve read many times, but each time I re-read it, it helps to explain something new to me about the way human minds work.
Pinker has a chapter about content-locative and container-locative verbs. Please don’t snooze about the grammar– I swear I’ll make this worth your time.
Here’s how the concept works. A lot of verbs work both ways: for instance, “He loaded the wagon with hay” (the container-locative, the wagon being the affected entity) and “He loaded hay into the wagon” (the content-locative, hay is the acted-on entity). But some verbs only work one way, or the other. You can “pour water into a glass” but you can’t “pour the glass with water” (only the content-locative works). On the other side of things, you can “fill the glass with water” (container-locative) but you can’t “fill water into the glass”. These are not random rules, even though they took linguists at MIT a long time to codify overtly. People who are fluent speakers of English know well that these verbs work the way they do, but often can’t explain explicitly why. Pinker points out that the automatic use of grammar in English to separate these types of constructions shows the physical assumptions we make in our heads as English speakers about what nouns are most affected by the actions. When you “fill” a glass, you’re really saying something about what you’ve accomplished about the glass– you can’t “fill water into the glass” because that implies that there’s a partway filling that can happen, where water is the actor and gradually accomplishing the filling; to fill a glass means the glass is full. You can’t “pour the glass with water” because “pour” really has the implication of “let to drop” and is talking about what the water is being allowed to do. The pour the glass with water implies a completion of change on the container, but pour is a wishy-washy action which doesn’t really say what’s going on with the container, and English speakers (without knowing why!) intuitively dismiss this use. Even with “loaded”, which can work both ways, Pinker says that each construction isn’t strictly synonymous. “He loaded the wagon with hay” implies completion: the wagon is loaded; “He loaded hay into the wagon” could mean “He put a few pitchfork-fulls of hay” or “He loaded hay completely until it overflowed from the sides of the wagon.”
Pinker’s book is full of constructions which subtly state the way that language shows assumptions about physics and the state of reality, and the content-/container-locative is just one. I think that the content-/container locative is a useful frame for understanding RIPTA funding, however.
Content, or container?
I conceive of the gap between RIPTA cost and car taxes as a serious equity issue (and the hard-hitting economic policy group Economic Progress RI largely agrees with me). RIPTA costs far more, either as monthly passes or as cash fares, than most car taxes cost throughout the state (this is a handy explainer on that).
Here’s where Pinker’s content-/container-locative schpiel comes in: sometimes when I talk to other progressives about this, their response is to say that we should get rid of the car tax, but somehow also make RIPTA free. Even more dauntingly, many progressives equate free RIPTA for the disabled, elderly, and homeless as a one-to-one equivalent of getting rid of the car tax. This conceives of the problem in container-locative terms: we are acting on the RIPTA box to make it a free thing that users flow haphazardly towards: we pour RIPTA riders into the bus, but can’t pour the bus with RIPTA riders. We assume that RIPTA riders come to the table with what money they have, and that we must adjust the bus in order to meet their needs.
My frame is the opposite: the bus is what the bus is. Making the bus free is fine for a small group of special riders. I fully agree we should have free passes for poor elderly people, disabled people, and the homeless, but these are actually a very tiny percentage of the potential riders who could use the system. Let’s put the scale of free bus passes in perspective for a minute. The cost of the Mattiello car tax plan is $215-220 million; the cost of the Raimondo plan is around $60-70 million; state funding from Rhode Island to RIPTA is $47 million; Eco RI finds that free bus passes for indigent riders would cost $800,000. That’s eight-hundred thousand. When I’ve quoted the Eco RI statistic at some RIPTA planners, I’ve gotten pushback. At the recent Jarrett Walker event, a RIPTA planner told me I was wrong about the $800,000. I asked him what he thought it cost, and he said $1.2 million. So even at $1.2 million, we’re talking about less than 3% of the state funding for RIPTA. It’s an even smaller percentage if you conceive of the denominator for RIPTA funding as including federal dollars and farebox returns.
If you view the end result of the policy as making things “fair” by making the bus free and car taxes free, then you ignore the content that goes in. The container-locative is a powerful force for progressives, because we conceive naturally of many policies in terms of the completed state change of the container. But we need to also look at the content that goes in.
The content-/container-locative of free fares also messes us up in other ways. Although it makes sense that a homeless person or an indigent elderly person should ride the bus for free, free fares in general are not necessarily a great way to improve a transit system. Transit planners know this. Even though my rants on the car tax have addressed the fact that fares are much higher than the car tax for most cars in the state, for the average rider the $2 with a $0.50 transfer charge is not what is preventing them from using the bus. What prevents them from using the bus is a bus system that is frequent and convenient. In this sense, the container-locative does tell us something important: the RIPTA “box” needs to contain enough funding that it can provide good service. The content (riders) can be given money (in a sense) by getting a free ride, but they will reject that offer if it gets them to work late. Good service matters more than free fares for most people. Rhode Island spends less per capita on transit than its neighbors: $52/person in RI; $129/person in CT; $230/person in MA (Source: AASHTO). These numbers, even more than fare costs, affect transit use; cutting the car tax takes revenue away that could be used to improve these numbers.
Another example of this is the empirically-tested fact that offering free bus passes to workers helps encourage them to ride the bus, but not as much as charging them for parking. In a prisoners dilemma of options, if you can charge employees to park and give them free bus passes, that’s the best (both prisoners go free). If you can’t charge for parking, but give out a free bus pass, that’s better than not charging for parking but no free bus passes. Charging for parking and no free bus pass, while not as good as charging for parking with a free bus pass, is still better than both things being free. I would argue that the intuition that both things (parking/bus passes) being free is a container-locative construction that gets in the way of us thinking about what the total resources going into the situation (content) were.
The best policy would act to put money in the hands of poor people generally, would give them open choices about how to use that money, but would also properly fund a public system of transportation (i.e., RIPTA) so that rational people would be likely to choose that option. This mixes and matches my metaphors on the container-/content-locative, but if you wrap your brain around this I think you can see that these constructions matter. And that’s why I argue for a negative income tax to redistribute wealth, and a very stringent market-based cost system for driving to make people think of what the real costs of driving are.
Really smart, decent people mix this up
I had an interaction online with Rep. Lauren H. Carson the other day about the car tax, in which I critiqued her repetition of the ubiquitous (and empirically wrong) statement that “The car tax is the most hated tax in Rhode Island.” The point of the critique in my mind was not to paint Carson as a villain, because quite the opposite is true. Carson is among the better champions on income inequality and the environment in the Statehouse. To me, it’s frustrating how ubiquitously the car-tax-as-worst-RI-tax has spread itself, because the meme undermines basic truths about who pays the car tax and why.
Here’s what Carson said. And again, I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, because the point of this story isn’t Carson per se, but about the way that transit issues have a limited frame in Rhode Island:
— Lauren H Carson (@LaurenHCarson) May 1, 2017
Carson did cosponsor legislation to restore free fares for elderly and disabled riders, and she deserves full kudos for doing that. But the way we’ve framed RIPTA activism to say that free fares for some riders is the endpoint of success has led Carson to feel that she’s “checked the box” of transit advocacy for her constituents. In reality, Carson’s apparent focus on reducing the car tax has left the transit system behind.
In Carson’s Newport district, the car tax is very low: 2.3%. That means that a person who owns a $36,000 car pays less in car tax than the person sitting outside that person’s house waiting for the 60 bus to come. That’s if the RIPTA rider in question uses monthly passes ($840/year). I estimate that a person taking the bus with cash who transfers once each way spends $2,190 by the end of the year using the bus. A driver in Newport only pays that much in car tax if their car is worth more than $95,000.
Carson is a good legislator. The point of this anecdote isn’t to pick on her. The blame belongs on activists for setting our goals too low. We need to start conceiving of the complex, unstated physics of the way we frame issues. The cost of RIPTA is far higher than the cost of the car tax, and those who pay for RIPTA are more likely to be poor than those who own cars. But the real issue isn’t somehow “fixing” that imbalance by making everything free. Instead, we have to focus our energy on genuine redistribution of income and wealth downward, and calibrate the costs of transportation to encourage use of transit. We also have to make sure that those costs exist within a framework of a transit system that is actually convenient to use. Good legislators get better when we demand more: I harangue my own representative, Rep. Aaron Regunberg, for the same reason. We need legislators like Carson or Regunberg to act as outliers in the conversation because they are champions, in order to bring the conversation on transit to a new plateau.