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Flat earth follies 

The flat-earth theory had a certain seductive logic in its day. As with any widely held belief, contrarian viewpoints were greeted with skepticism and simply ignored or dismissed. The majority of the world clung to the flat-earth canon for centuries after Greek mathematician Eratosthenes and other ancient intellectuals conclusively demonstrated that our planet was not, in fact, a giant tray. To this day, textbooks contend that the explorers Columbus and Magellan were the first to prove the earth's spherical shape. When an idea threatens established religious or ideological dogma, skepticism turns to outright hostility. Copernicus was muzzled by the Lutherans when he figured out that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the other way around, and Galileo was persecuted by the Catholics until his death for daring to further that radical notion.

We laugh about the flat-earth theory now, and the Pope apologized to Galileo--in 1992. But a boggling array of flat-earth-style theories can still be found in our midst, long disproven but still embraced by true believers with a ferocity that is no less irrational or fanatic than in medieval times.

That big-box development is the key to downtown revitalization has been consistently refuted by the facts, in particular that housing is the primary driver of downtown health. But that hasn't stopped the old guard from myopically pursuing convention centers, stadiums and theaters as the answer to their downtown prayers. Backed by feasibility studies that often overstate the potential returns, big-box boosters rarely analyze the payoff after the fact. When they do, the numbers don't usually add up, at least for the taxpayer, but those lessons have been lost in the ether.

A recent Brookings Institution study of convention centers noted that convention business is down while capacity is rapidly expanding nationwide, an unsustainable equation that is not likely to change anytime soon. "If you're building it to save the downtown, or you're building it to spur private investment, or you're building it to attract thousands of out-of-town visitors with the promise of gaining millions of dollars of economic impact, those things are not likely to happen," said study author Heywood Sanders.

Those reasons are precisely why 53 cities have built new convention centers or expanded their existing facilities since 2000 alone. More than 45 others, including Raleigh, Wilmington and other North Carolina cities, will build or expand convention capacity in the next few years. When queried about the study or other confounding evidence, supporters have alternately attempted to kill the messenger or dismiss the information as irrelevant. Wilmington officials did both in a local newspaper story about the study. And Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau president Dave Heinl remains confident that the capitol city's new center will be a success. "Raleigh has never had a competitive meeting facility," Heinl says. "What we're building now is our first convention center."

Whether the facilities in Raleigh or Wilmington meet expectations or join the majority as chronic drains on local coffers remains to be seen. That's also the case for Durham's proposed $35 million performing arts theater, which has somehow reached the done-deal phase even without the benefit of an inflated feasibility study. But a comment in the Brookings study might as well have applied to the theater and other big boxes as well as convention centers: The money diverted into such projects could be better invested in such community needs as schools, infrastructure and transportation systems. "These projects have greater direct appeal to local residents and thus offer greater likelihood of success," the study noted. "In short, at a time when city finances are obviously stressed, the price of a failed convention and visitor strategy can be measured in terms of all the other investments, services and fiscal choices that will be never realized as a result."

If the big boxes don't perform as advertised, don't count on an epiphany on the part of the economic development flat-earthers. As has happened elsewhere, they're more likely to propose more of the same as a remedy--another publicly financed big box to create the "critical mass" needed to make them work.

More of the same is the trademark of the anti-transit crowd, who insist that the best way to solve traffic congestion problems is to widen highways and build more roads. The phenomenon of "induced traffic"--motorists flocking to new asphalt and negating the expanded capacity--has been well documented. A 15-year Texas Transportation Institute study released in 1998, for example, supported by empirical data from 70 metro areas around the country, found that increasing roadway capacity often increases congestion.

Highway interests and transit haters are also fond of claiming that highways are paid for by users through gasoline taxes, and by extension that rail and other transportation alternatives require burdensome public subsidies and should therefore be abandoned. The evidence argues against this view as well. In 1998, the California Department of Transportation calculated that gas taxes covered only 62 percent of highway costs and the gap between gas tax revenues and road-related expenses has further increased as vehicles have become more fuel efficient. Which is why North Carolina and every other state find themselves in a highway funding bind.

Furthermore, automobiles enjoy massive government subsidies at the local and state level in the form of free parking, police and fire department resources, court costs for auto accidents, development fees for roads that are passed on to homebuyers and business owners and a host of other costs beyond actual construction; a Pasadena study concluded that the city and county subsidy of automobiles there equated to more than 40 cents per gallon. And the automobile industry is a favorite beneficiary of federal tax breaks and other largesse.

None of that includes the heavy financial and social costs of pollution or auto-related fatalities and injuries, which trickle down to most citizens through increased healthcare premiums and other indirect levies. Even conservative estimates (including one by the federal Office of Technology Assessment) peg the overall subsidy for automobiles as ranging between $3 and $7 per gallon.

Transit opponents don't let such trifling details get in the way of their pronouncements, because their loathing of rail and other alternatives is based in faith rather than fact, an almost religious conviction that mass transit represents an infringement on personal freedom and the kind of social engineering rejected by the Founding Fathers.

The negative reaction in some quarters to the recent Supreme Court decision banning the execution of juveniles is grounded in a similar, Biblical righteousness. In that case, the canard floated to defend the practice of killing children is that the deterrent effect of capital punishment has now been undermined. Former New Hanover County district attorney John Carriker told the Fayetteville Observer that the ban would lead to more killings by rampaging youths who would otherwise have been deterred by the prospect of lethal injection. "I do think it is a threat to the public," Carriker said. "I think that it now gives license to people to commit murder."

Carriker has probably not reviewed the overwhelming body of research that rejects the deterrent effect of the death penalty. Or, as is common among law enforcement officials and death-penalty supporters, he may cite one of several studies demonstrating the opposite, including one by an Emory University economics professor that was neither peer-reviewed nor published. That the methodology and conclusions in those studies have been thoroughly discredited won't obstruct the demagogues from invoking them.

The juries-should-decide concept offered by fans of juvenile execution further highlights the ideological nature of their cause: Many of the same folks who say juries are qualified to determine whether a particular child should live or die are the same ones who argue that juries are incapable of awarding appropriate monetary damages for medical malpractice or corporate malfeasance.

Other flat-earth theories have withered under scrutiny but remain as entrenched as ever: the privatization panacea theory, which says that every government program can be better and more efficiently administered by the private sector; the abstinence-only theory of sex education, which postulates that teens will stop having sex and getting pregnant if they're instructed to just say no 'til marriage; the race-card theory of politics, which assumes that charging racism every time a minority public figure is caught breaking the rules will somehow justify the behavior; the all-American theory that the accumulation of wealth paves the road to personal happiness.

The scientific method, cost-benefit analyses and other time-tested techniques exist to put almost any theory to the test. In a sane society, people with differing views would employ these techniques to assess what works and what doesn't, and craft policy accordingly. But for flat-earthers then and now, what works isn't the goal. The adherents to orthodox ideologies don't permit any deviation from the credo, as accepting the possibility that one tenet is off-base or even slightly open to modification means that others may be as well. And that's just too scary for most of the flock to contemplate.

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