The problem with all the good news

March 29, 2014

RALEIGH — “Gloom, despair, and agony on me,” sang the corn-pone troubadours of “Hee Haw,” TV’s long-running variety show. “Deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”

Buck Owens and Roy Clark wrote this little ditty as an introduction to some of the worst jokes in broadcast history. But it could also serve as a theme song for North Carolinians of my acquaintance who find it simply impossible to believe any reports of good news.

How have I made their acquaintance? In recent weeks I’ve written about an upward revision in North Carolina’s labor-market metrics, the huge decline in U.S. poverty rates since the 1960s, even-larger improvements in world poverty and health, the improving performance of North Carolina’s highways, and the fact that North Carolina’s public-school students test higher in reading, math, and science than previous generations of North Carolina students did.

In each case, readers have responded in emails and online comments with doubt, disbelief, and scorn. With few exceptions, they haven’t tried to argue with the statistics I cited, which are easily accessible and checkable. Instead, they have resorted to bluster, conspiracy theories, and ad hominem attacks.

The topic about which I’ve gotten the most reader pushback lately is transportation. In late February I wrote a column demonstrating that while North Carolina has one of the nation’s highest gas taxes, North Carolinians do not pay more for transportation than most other Americans do. That is because the gas tax is only one of several revenue sources used to build and finance roadways. In states where local government play a greater role in the process, using property and sales taxes to fund road projects, the gas tax tends to be lower. Because North Carolina has little roadwork done at local expense, the state picks up a high share of the tab. “Local” and “state,” of course, describe different levels of government, not different groups of taxpayers. When you account for all taxes and fees bound for transportation, North Carolinians pay less than the national average — while getting average or above-average results.

My analysis was, to put it mildly, unpopular with my correspondents. The problem isn’t statistical. I used official data and, as far as I know, computed the results accurately. The problem is that motorists see high gas prices posted outside service stations every day. They know that gas taxes are embedded in those prices. They resent paying so much. I do, too.

But they don’t see their car tax bill every day, or even every year. And they don’t see what they don’t pay — higher property and sales taxes in other states with extensive local road systems. So they are not predisposed to believe that, in total, their costs are below the national average.

Since I wrote the column, I ran across another piece of information that pessimists may not buy: our roads have gotten less congested. According to an index from the traffic-management company INRIX, traffic congestion in the U.S. was about a third lower in 2013 than in 2010. Some of the trend may be attributable to fewer miles traveled because of the weak recovery from the Great Recession, although growth in 2010 was certainly not more robust than in 2013. The trend also clearly reflects new road capacity coming online and better traffic-management practices by states and localities.

How do North Carolina metros compare in the INRIX index? Charlotte’s congestion index was 10.2 — higher than the national average of seven and ranked 28th out of 105 North American metros. But congestion in Raleigh (6.6) was slightly below average. In Greensboro (0.6), it was close to the bottom. Moreover, all three metros had much lower congestion in 2013 than in 2010.

I suppose that if Charlotteans really want to grumble, this study gives them something. But if you’re in the Raleigh or Greensboro areas, I’m sorry the news isn’t bad enough.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.