The asinine critique of Ocasio-Cortez’s car usage

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The asinine critique of Ocasio-Cortez’s car usage

The congresswoman’s critics misunderstand climate change, its solutions and her beliefs.
March 7, 2019

The New York Post has a crush on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and like any other childish bully, it expresses its affection through derision. Recent stories on the left-wing rising star have included an accusation that she doesn’t live at her Bronx address and pieces denouncing or trivializing her "Green New Deal" proposal to combat climate change. This trend reached its apex with a Sunday front-page story claiming to expose hypocrisy in Ocasio-Cortez’s frequent car trips around her district, which spans adjacent parts of the Bronx and Queens.

Remarkably, while most such smears fail to resonate outside the conservative echo chamber, this one got some support from journalists at mainstream or even left-leaning outlets. Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt tweeted, “It would be better if AOC was taking the subway especially since she reps NYC,” and CityLab ran an article that concluded, “AOC should take the subway as much as she can.”

All of these arguments are nonsensical and misleading, as they are predicated on a failure to understand climate change, its solutions and Ocasio-Cortez’s clearly articulated beliefs.

First, consider the math: The U.S. is responsible for 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. Twenty-eight percent of U.S. emissions come from transportation, the same proportion as electricity generation, and 85 percent of American commuters travel by automobile.

So catastrophic climate change is not going to be averted by individuals opting for mass transit. Even if the proportion of commuters avoiding private cars doubled to 30 percent, the change in global emissions would be very limited.

Greenhouse gas emissions can only be reduced to net zero before mid-century through transforming the energy sector to rely on low-carbon sources, including solar and wind power, and turning the U.S. auto fleet to electric vehicles. It also requires converting heating systems from burning oil, gas or wood to electricity, and policies to somehow dramatically reduce industrial emissions, which account for 22 percent of the U.S. total. At the margins, increasing mass transit, biking and walking capacity will help reduce emissions and have other environmental, social and public health benefits. But that will be determined by policies that make traveling without a car more appealing or efficient and make driving less so – not by personal choices.

Climate change isn’t a problem like litter that can be solved by inducing better behavior through public shaming. People can be expected to hold their garbage until they reach a trash can, but they can’t realistically be expected to give up using electricity. Carbon pollution is an economy-wide problem requiring economy-wide solutions, and any discussion of anything else is a misleading distraction.

Second, consider these claims of hypocrisy: Hypocrisy means demanding that others do something you don’t. But Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t demand that people voluntarily avoid driving. The "Green New Deal" does not propose reducing U.S. emissions through personal sacrifices such as forgoing air conditioning or automobiles. Rather, it calls for national public policies to transition the U.S. energy portfolio, transportation sector and agricultural practices.

Third, even in situations where individuals leading virtuous lifestyles might conceivably be some alternative to government action, that is the opposite of Ocasio-Cortez’s democratic socialist philosophy. Complaining that Ocasio-Cortez rides in cars is like complaining that she doesn’t give her entire salary to a soup kitchen and then eat all her meals there. Conservatives, not liberals or leftists, are the ones who claim that poverty can be ameliorated through charity. Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters believe the opposite: that social ills such as hunger, homelessness and carbon pollution can only be solved through collective action.

The whole debate is reminiscent of the hilariously inept attack on Ocasio-Cortez by a Washington Examiner reporter that she is “not struggling” because her outfit looked stylish. The congresswoman clapped back by noting that her dress wasn’t expensive, but that’s actually beside the point. There is nothing hypocritical about advocating for policies that will shift social outcomes while allowing individuals to pursue their own rational self-interest. Progressives can be financially comfortable or have nice things. There are rich people with nice things, including cars, in the Western European social democracies that Ocasio-Cortez wants to emulate: They just pay more in taxes, pay more for energy and gasoline, and adjust their habits accordingly. And then that money is used for things like improving public transit and building low-carbon energy infrastructure.

Speaking of improving public transit, that raises a fourth point, which is the foolishness of criticizing someone for taking a car around Queens or the Bronx, or between the two. The New York City subway system is designed to bring riders from the outer boroughs to Manhattan, not to travel between the boroughs or laterally within them. As a result, in Ocasio-Cortez’s district, one can take trips by car in 20 minutes that would take well over an hour by transit.

CityLab noted that the attack on Ocasio-Cortez’s avoidance of the bus and subway echoed similar complaints about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s peculiar insistence on driving from the Upper East Side to a gym in Brooklyn instead of working out closer to his home at Gracie Mansion. But de Blasio is making a long, unnecessary trip, whereas Ocasio-Cortez is just trying to get places quickly. Even still, the criticism of de Blasio’s workout commute is a bit misplaced: The mayor’s performance on the environment should be measured by looking at the citywide result of his policies. (De Blasio has initiated programs to reduce New York’s carbon footprint, which are showing some success.)

The better complaint about de Blasio and Ocasio-Cortez, which CityLab also made, is that they are insulated from the daily frustrations of mass transit riders. Perhaps they would lead more on improving mass transit service if they relied on the subways and buses that bedevil their constituents. There is some merit to this critique, which can be fairly leveled at much of the political class – including also Gov. Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump.

That is separate, and should be disentangled, from bogus charges of climate hypocrisy. And anyone who wants to note that politicians who stay away from the subways are out of touch with their less-cosseted constituents should target liberals and conservatives equally. But the New York Post has never run an expose asking why Trump doesn’t take the crosstown bus when he visits his aerie in Midtown.

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
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