Cargo Cult Light Rail

Several people sent me this Reason video on light rail in Detroit

I was really struck by the cargo cult reasoning here and the confusion of cause and effect.  Because we see rail in highly developed urban areas (e.g. Manhattan) then if we build rail in a blighted area, it will soon look like Manhattan.

Note the mentions of serving sports stadiums.  As I have observed earlier, light rail systems almost always service professional sports stadiums.  Is there no limit to the public subsidies that politicians are willing to throw at sports franchise owners?

Then ending is a classic

Update: From Wikipedia, for those not familiar with cargo cults:

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

Sure sounds a lot like Detroit, trying to bring back the prosperity.  This is actually pretty endemic in modern-day policy making, as so few people really understand the origins of wealth.  Obama's stimulus programs can be seen in the same light, as cargo cult economics.


  1. Mark:

    One word: Sad.

  2. ed:

    "Obama’s stimulus programs can be seen in the same light, as cargo cult economics."

    Keynesian stimulus may fail for various reasons, and economists certainly disagree about how the macro-economy will respond to policy interventions. (In fact it's entirely possible that it works differently now than it did in Keynes' time.)

    But to simply dismiss Keynesian arguments ans being in the same category as "cargo cults" mainly shows that you don't understand the Keynesian arguments.

  3. spiro:


    As someone who obviously does understand Keynesian Theory, feel free to enlighten us.

  4. Tim:

    A couple of clarifications --

    The bus systems in Detroit are not very good, either. And yes, that is the correct use of the plural. There is a bus system in Detroit (D-DOT), and a separate one (SMART), for the suburbs. The SMART buses only provide service down the major thoroughfares to downtown. Several attempts to merge them have failed, getting wrapped up in racial identity politics.

    To be fair, a lot of the ruin porn that they showed in the clip wasn't along Woodward; but there is *plenty* on the planned route -- including the city of Highland Park; which is applying as a fire disaster area. Because of arson. (

    "A building fell on the tracks" is a bit misleading. It wasn't like a building collapsed; it debris from a planned planned demolition (the Hudson's building). A big part of why it didn't get cleared and repaired right away was the fight over liability. Of course, had the People Mover been privately owned; the owners would have fixed the problem, then got into the court fight -- but that's a different story. (Here's CDI's take:

    The basketball team plays ~ 30 miles from the far terminus, out in Auburn Hills. It would not be served by the light rail line. The football stadium was only half (51%) publicly financed; and the baseball field only 38%. Which is 51% and 38% more than they should be, respectively; but better than most.

  5. DHL:

    But it's an "exciting" project, so it must be a good thing.

    I was fascinated by the conspicuous lack of any data that show that Detroit actually needs a light rail system. This is a microcosm of the failure of liberal economics in America. Throw money at anything and it will be improved.

  6. Jeff:

    I have many problems with Keynesian economics (poor measurement of money velocity, confirmation bias in estimating multipliers, inefficient capital deployment). But there's one core political problem that is insurmountable.

    Keynesian economics as practiced is nothing more than faux-economic cover for politically driven deficit spending. Politicians will NEVER build a surplus during good times to spend during bad times, so pure Keynesian economics will never be practiced. The correct, efficient political decision is to spend ALL of the revenue now, before the next election. Building a surplus for the guy that beats you to spend is for losers.

    So arguing about the economic minutia of Keynesian policies is pointless. The politicians will just spend it all to buy votes anyway.


  7. Allen:

    @Ed, the author wasn't calling Keynesian economics cargo cult economics but Obama's stimulus programs. There's an important difference.

  8. ADiffs:

    "Is there no limit to the public subsidies that politicians are willing to throw at sports franchise owners?"

    No, apparently not.

  9. Matt:

    The end of the video is missing one important element, an Omni Consumer Products logo.

  10. Fred Z:

    "Is there no limit to the public subsidies that politicians are willing to throw at sports franchise owners?"

    Hmmm, lets go back. "Bread and circuses". Nope, no limit.

    I also recall something about an elite, effete and disconnected ruler fiddling while the city burned...

  11. tomw:

    Do the Powers That Be understand demographics? If you view some of the YouTube vids on Detroit, you will see that the city is abandoned. There is no traffic. There are no citizens on the sidewalks. There is nobody there.
    They need this albatross almost as much as they need a new Lions stadium, Pistons court and Tigers field. Which is ZERO. Ok, I guess the Zero is behind it so it must be OK... ha.
    They are idiots grasping at every straw in the hope that it will be the magic bullet that brings life and value back to Detroit. This is not it, but will burden the city, state and county, and probably the 'urbs with bazillions in construction and more in operating costs -- forever. Great.