Mayor Carter says Saint Paul cannot afford 5 police officers but can spend $1.125 million on green vehicles

“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics”

-Thomas Sowell, 1993

I wrote on Tuesday about Monday’s dreadful violence in St. Paul which left three people dead. With more homicides already in 2019 than in 6 of the previous ten years, I asked whether it really makes sense for Mayor Carter to cut five police officers.

On Tuesday, Mayor Carter gave a press conference to address this violence and the authorities’ response. He hedged somewhat, saying that his response would involve stronger law enforcement and more ‘prevention’, aimed at breaking “cycles of violence”. It isn’t “either/or”, he stressed.

Thomas Sowell might disagree. Mayor Carter has a given amount of money to spend. Money spent on ‘prevention’ – given to a community group, say – is money that cannot be spent on employing police officers. The question is which of these generates the greatest return in terms of reducing crime and reducing the fear of crime in St. Paul.

Cops or green vehicles?

But, to some extent, Mayor Carter is making these choices harder for himself. This week, the Star Tribune reported that

The city of St. Paul will replace 10 aging and inefficient public works vehicles with more environmentally friendly models, a switch that will remove the air pollution equivalent of 20,000 cars from city streets over the life of the equipment.

The move, announced Monday, is part of a collaboration between St. Paul Public Works and Environmental Initiative, a Minnesota nonprofit dedicated to cutting air, land and water pollution. Money from Environmental Initiative, a combination of federal Environmental Protection Agency grants and other funding sources, will pay for about 25% of the $1.5 million cost of the new equipment, with the city paying the rest. (Emphasis added)

That works out at $1.125 million.

“Upgrading our city vehicles will help reduce pollution and improve air quality,” Carter said. “This project helps us build a more sustainable city for our future and supports our commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050.”

Now, remember, it is either/or. The money spent on these green vehicles cannot also be spent on employing police officers. The question is which of these generates the greatest benefit to St. Paul’s residents.

That $1.125 million could pay the salaries of the five police officers Mayor Carter wants to cut for 3.75 years (assuming an annual wage of $60,000). So, the first question is what benefit might that bring to the city?

In a recent report, we estimated that if the state of Minnesota enacted a 50% renewable energy mandate with a target date of 2030, it would reduce global temperatures by 0.0006°C – an amount too small to measure. Given this, it is reasonable to assume that St. Paul’s purchase of these vehicles will reduce the global temperature by effectively zero. So, the second question is what benefit might that bring to the city?

Weight these benefits against each other: spending $1.125 million employing five police officers for 3.75 years, or spending $1.125 million to reduce the global temperature by effectively zero. Which generates the greatest benefit to St. Paul’s residents?

You can only spend a given dollar once so you ought to give some thought to how best to spend it. As Thomas Sowell explained, sometimes it is either/or.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.