Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Improper Signage

The sub 800 word version of this.

Billboard companies, although they are giant multi-national corporations, pay taxes and participate in the public process.

Those are all the benefits of a billboard. Those who advertise on billboards get some peripheral economic gains from purchasing a sign but certainly it isn’t the only form of advertisement in the region. Think about that for a moment. If all the billboards in the country disappeared people would still know where to go to get the best lap-dance.

With the rapidly expanding role of social review sites like Yelp, a billboard in the modern era is increasingly obscure.

That leaves only the tax dollars that the companies pay on the property that the billboard sits on. Those tax dollars go to the cause of essential public services like fire, police, and medical services. But tax dollars aren’t be enough.

Billboards decrease the property values of nearby parcels and reduce the tax revenue of nearby properties. Low property values encourage low quality establishments.

When properties around a billboard are low quality and low value then incidences of concentrated poverty increase. Concentrated poverty is the densification and clustering of low income housing and associated businesses; clumps of really poor people.

The majority of problems correlated with poverty are correlated with concentrated poverty. That means that drug abuse, assault, and robbery are prevalent in areas of concentrated poverty.

In cities such as Baltimore where housing policies have encouraged diverse economic classes to live next door to each other, there has been a significant drop in correlated crime. Only with clusters of economically disadvantaged do the worst effects of poverty take effect.

And when there are clusters of one economic group, there are businesses that similarly cater to said demographic--the discount cigarette and liquor store follows. This creates a perpetuating cycle where poverty follows poverty.

Billboard companies happily advertise for whoever puts up the cash. In areas of concentrated poverty, liquor and cigarette advertisers like to advertise. In fact, alcohol and tobacco intentionally target these areas because addiction rates are so high.

One billboard can severely limit the upward mobility of an area. No one puts a mansion under a billboard and no one puts a billboard in a neighborhood of mansions.

Add in the morally questionable way in which billboards fail to discern the larger impacts of the advertisements they hold and their benefits are erased. Inner city communities have argued that billboard advertisements for booze and cigs have perpetuated many of the woes of low-income neighborhoods. It is important to remember that these are neighborhoods. Plenty of children grow up in areas where they look up at ads for cheap spirits on their way to school.

It is no surprise then that crime climbs while education levels dive in these areas. Down the road this leaves the taxpayer with a fairly large burden: extra police, extra social services, lost productivity from squandered potential, and on and on.

A billboard is a social injustice, amd alone can have a negative effect; there are whole sections of a town where billboards are on nearly every block. This is a reality that many cities face. But regulating all of these billboards would be an unnecessary interference with government. It would be against the small government mentality of a libertarian-minded state like Nevada--not quite.

“Don’t tread on me,” the Libertarian philosophy states, “keep my government small.” And with billboards that seems to be what has been done. Many local governments have largely given free reign to the billboard industry to craft and implement their own rules regarding signage. Which is a very libertarian way of doing things—government out. But the libertarian philosophy has a second component lost in the blaring accusations of “big government!” Government has a role to step in when its citizens are harmed. Government—even in individual-centric libertarianism—has an obligation to protect its citizens from harm.

It’s the same reason everybody pays for fire, and police. And when billboards have such a vast and negative effect it is hard to see why there is not a more stringent approach to siting billboards.

Billboards, while certainly an industry, are nevertheless detrimental to individuals, communities, and governments. They harm citizens by perpetuating toxic environments. They harm communities by locking in concentrated poverty. They harm governments by reducing tax revenues. Believing in billboards’ positive effects unequivocally is myopic and malicious. Improper signage condemns an area to a nearly irreversible fate.