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Bread and subways
Two things only, the people desire
The DC Metro, the subway system in Washington, DC, is in something of a financial crisis, with a $750 million budget gap. A common-sense but misleading explanation for this gap is the pandemic. Ridership is down some 50%, and so the Metro isn’t pulling in enough money on ride fares to make it profitable.
This explanation is misleading because the Metro was never “profitable” in the way we would expect a private company to be. Only about 25% of the Metro’s budget is paid by ride fares. By some estimates, the fully burdened cost of a single ride on the Metro would be about $20. This doesn’t mean that the Metro is broken. There are many things that don’t “pay for themselves” in the way we expect a private company to.
Roads, for example, don’t pay for themselves. Only 10% of the cost of roads is paid by tolls, and Americans mostly despise even that small amount required for tolls. When we do expect a road to pay for itself, the results are often unsatisfactory.
Why do we consider road tolls vile but subway fares necessary? The subway could, in fact, be free. The country of Luxembourg –which in a way is like the city of DC, in that people commute in from outside to work– made public transit free. The Luxembourgish people considered this the best option to help traffic congestion. While I was living in Boston, the city made bus rides leaving the airport free. Before, tourists stumbled onto the bus and had long conversations with the driver about how to buy a ticket. Afterward, people just got on, and buses left faster, reducing traffic congestion at the airport.
Imagine a subway system with no fares, where you could just walk on and walk off. Think of the money saved on turnstiles and enforcement. Think of the hours of labor saved by not managing fare cards, both as individuals and as a whole public transit system!
Americans can be moralistic and irrational when it comes to transit. Free roads are good; free public transit is bad. The one that really gets to me is free or nearly-free parking. Say I wanted to store 2,000 pounds of personal property in a container on a busy street in the middle of the city. It seems like it should cost a lot. But if I want to park my car there, I would expect to pay approximately $1 per hour.
In this essay series, I look back to the past to get context for the present. There was no obvious analog to public transit, in the way we think of, in the distant past. So instead I want to draw your attention to another instance when something was made free: the Roman grain dole.
In its earliest, prehistoric days, Rome was a village of farmers who fed themselves. As a small city, it could reliably source food from its local area to feed its population. Over time, multiple factors made the food supply chain more challenging. First, the city’s population grew. Second, the land around Rome was slowly concentrated in the hands of wealthy landowners. While small tenant farmers grew wheat and presumably had some surplus to sell to the city, the large landowners found it was more profitable to grow grapes and olives. Third, many of the small tenant farmers displaced by the consolidation of these large holdings ended up in Rome, expanding the city’s massive underclass.
Over the course of the Roman Republic, individual leaders would sometimes take action to prevent a famine. A wealthy senator might buy a large supply of grain from somewhere else around the Mediterranean, have it shipped to Rome, and then distribute food among the poor. These actions were partly patriotism, partly charity, and partly a way to sway popular opinion.
By the days of the Roman Empire, a managed grain supply had become essential to the city’s survival. Tiberius, grandson of Julius Caesar and the second Roman emperor, told the Senate:
[...] Italy requires supplies from abroad, and [...] the very existence of the people of Rome is daily at the mercy of uncertain waves and storms. And unless masters, slaves, and estates have the resources of the provinces as their mainstay, our shrubberies, forsooth, and our country houses will have to support us. Such, Senators, are the anxieties which the [emperor] has to sustain, and the neglect of them will be utter ruin to the State. (Tacitus Annals 3.54)
The emperors even invented a goddess, Annona, who represented the emperors’ ability to supply the city with grain. The official name of the grain supply was the Cura Annonae, which roughly means, “the thing Annona takes care of.”
The grain supply was an enormous operation. At this time, Rome was the largest city in the world, with 1 million people. It was also the largest city in the history of mankind, and no other city would equal Rome’s size until 500 years later. Free adult men could collect 5 modii of free or steeply discounted grain per month, enough to feed a family of two or three people.
Thus, to feed its people, Rome needed 20 million modii, about 120,000 tons, of grain per year. Nowadays, this might not sound like a lot. You can fit 120,000 tons of grain in 5,000 twenty-foot shipping containers, and today’s biggest cargo ships can carry as many as 200,000 containers. But in the ancient world, a big cargo ship could only carry about 100 tons, meaning that more than a thousand ship-loads of grain needed to come to Rome. Most of this grain was grown in Egypt or North Africa, shipped on a variety of carts or smaller boats to the sea, loaded onto ships, sailed across the Mediterranean, and unloaded from the larger ships into smaller boats near Naples. These smaller boats sailed up the Italian coast to the Roman port of Ostia, where the grain was then put onto barges pulled up the Tiber River, until they arrived at Rome’s enormous granaries.
The foundations of some of those granaries are still visible today. A later emperor built an artificial harbor so that the big ships could dock directly at Ostia and skip the Naples step; that harbor is still visible as a lake near the Rome airport.
The grain supply was a successful public policy. Individual people in Rome certainly starved, but there were no famines in the world’s largest city for hundreds of years.
There were certainly detractors, most of whom blamed the grain supply for moral degradation. The poet and satirist Juvenal joked that the common people in Rome cared about only two things, bread and circuses. (The Latin phrase, “panem et circenses,” is the source of a learned pun in the Hunger Games: the capital city that runs the games is Panem. What is typically translated as “circuses” would be better rendered as “public games,” including gladiator fights.) The Roman historian Tacitus made a similar observation: “[for] the lower orders, who were accustomed to buy their provisions from day to day, [...] cheap [grain] was the sole subject of public interest” (Histories 4.38).
Augustus, the first emperor, paid lip service to this theory of moral degradation:
I was much inclined to abolish for ever the practice of allowing the people [grain] at the public expense, because they trust so much to it, that they are too lazy to till their lands; but I did not persevere in my design, as I felt sure that the practice would some time or other be revived by some one ambitious of popular favor. (Suetonius, Divus Augustus 42)
In other words, Augustus claims that the poor didn’t have food because they were lazy, but he was forced to feed them, to make sure that no one else would claim political power by feeding the poor.
This moral opprobrium rings down to today: the typical English name for the Cura Annonae is the “grain dole.” This phrasing resonates with “the dole,” a term first used in 1920s England to refer to unemployment insurance, and welfare payments more broadly.
My impression is that this moralizing was mostly a way for the upper-class rulers to signal their moral ideas to their peers while also providing a fig leaf to continue executing on necessary policy. Nevertheless, the Roman people did come to treat the grain supply as a right. On the few occasions when there wasn’t as much grain as promised, or when grain prices were raised, there were public displays of anger. Paradoxically, to my mind, sometimes public officials would get bread thrown at them.
I think it’s easy to conclude that Augustus and his buddies were right, that the grain dole made people lazy, and that free subway rides would have some kind of corrosive effect on Washingtonians.
But I think the real lesson from the Roman grain dole is that the state can take a problem off the table. Free food for Romans prevented famines; free subway rides would reduce traffic and reduce the need for people to buy cars. Was it really so bad for Romans to expect that they could eat? Is it really so bad for Washingtonians to expect that they should be able to get to work without purchasing a private vehicle?