Minor Thoughts from me to you

Archives for Government Efficiency (page 1 / 2)

New York City's Expensive New Subway →

Progressives are fond of pointing out the excellent quality of life in Europe. America, they say, could enjoy the same quality of life if only we were willing to tax each other and spend the way Europe's democracies do. The problem, of course, as conservatives and libertarians are fond of pointing out, is that there are vast differences between Europe and America. Matt Yglesias, at Vox, explains.

According to transit blogger Alon Levy’s compendium of international subway projects, Berlin’s U55 line cost $250 million per kilometer, Paris’ Metro Line 14 cost $230 million per kilometer, and Copenhagen’s Circle Line cost $260 million per kilometer.

​Okay.

Today, New York City is celebrating the opening of the first phase of the Second Avenue subway, a project that’s been anticipated for nearly a century, and that’s sorely needed to relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue lines and to extend access to some very densely populated neighborhoods. But exciting as the opening is, phase one is also a very modest-sized project encompassing just three stations. The plan is, eventually, to extend it up into East Harlem, and potentially then either go further south or else swing west to provide crosstown subway service across 125th Street.

Any of this would be extremely useful to the city, but it’s far from clear that any of it will ever happen. That’s because even with $1 billion currently allocated in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s capital budget for phase two of the Second Avenue subway, they’re still badly short of the $6 billion that’s going to be needed.

That's a lot of money.​

The $6 billion price tag for phase two works out to $2.2 billion per kilometer. That would make it the world’s most expensive subway project on a per kilometer basis, narrowly surpassing phase one of the Second Avenue subway, which clocked in at “only” $1.7 billion per kilometer.

And there's your difference. NYC is spending 10x more per kilometer than Berlin, Paris, or Copenhagen is.​ And it's not that NYC is unwilling to spend money. It's just not it's not getting much for the money that it's spending.

But this kind of discussion too often elides the real practical difficulties in implementing big domestic policies like those, and the ways in which the US system is uniquely bad and inefficient about doing so. Between the Second Avenue subway, the $10.2 billion East Side Access tunnel for the LIRR, and the $4 billion World Trade Center PATH station, the New York City region is in fact spending a lot of money on upgrading its mass transit system. The money is simply not going to generate as much transit service as a comparable amount of spending would in Paris or Copenhagen, because New York’s institutions don’t seem up to the task of spending it as effectively. Improving is both possible and desirable, but it would take actual time and skill and effort.

...

Until places like New York and California — the bluest jurisdictions that are most open to the idea of taxing and spending to improve public services — get better at actually delivering those services in a cost-effective way, it’s going to be difficult to persuade residents of more skeptical jurisdictions that it makes sense to take the same agenda national.

​American governments are good at spending money but bad at spending money well. I think it's perfectly reasonable for American citizens to look at the poor management of their governments and then ask why they should be giving those governments even more resources to mismanage.

I don't even think it's fair to claim that this problem would be fixed if only Republicans stopped obstructing good government and worked together with Democrats in a bipartisan alliance. ​​Taking a long view of the patronage machines that have dominated city governments throughout America's history, it's easy to conclude that American government is best at looting the private sector and handing it out to the ruling party's friends. This is a bipartisan problem and one that argues against giving American governments, of either party, too many resources.

Government Bulbs: Slightly More Efficient, Vastly More Expensive

Incandescent Bulbs Return to the Cutting Edge - NYTimes.com

...the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation.

... The first bulbs to emerge from this push, Philips Lighting's Halogena Energy Savers, are expensive compared with older incandescents. They sell for $5 apiece and more, compared with as little as 25 cents for standard bulbs.

But they are also 30 percent more efficient than older bulbs. Philips says that a 70-watt Halogena Energy Saver gives off the same amount of light as a traditional 100-watt bulb and lasts about three times as long, eventually paying for itself.

It's a case study in the way that mandates can spur innovation, but I'm not sure the news is as good as the New York Times seems to think it is. A government mandate has so far managed to make incandescent bulbs 30% more efficient and 1900% more expensive. This is progress?

Its troubles are over, Guys

Cow at Peace

Test: Can you tell whether this cow was treated well or not?

How much histrionic handwringing about this beef recall do we have to endure? From The New York Times, presumably nicknamed "The Gray Lady" because it's gone senile, writes:

"A nauseating video of cows stumbling on their way to a California slaughterhouse has finally prompted action: the largest recall of meat in American history... A lot of that beef has already been eaten, and so far, thankfully, there have been no reports of illness. But the question Congress needs to ask is how many people need to get sick or die before it starts repairing and modernizing the nation’s food safety system?"

Am I the only one to ask the question of how cows being killed "inhumanely" (and that's really an interesting term to apply to the death of something that isn't human, isn't it?) results in beef that is not fit for consumption? Even if we waterboard the things before putting them through the grinder, their meat is still meat. A stressed cow does not equal a poisonous cow.

Slap a fine on the meatpackers to appease the heifer-huggers and serve 'em up. Send some to my house.

Quoted for truth

One of The Economist's recent blog entries reminds me of why I like the magazine as much as I do, notwithstanding its faults. Can you see any mainstream American newspaper making this comparison?

"IMAGINE Nazi rule in Germany surviving for decades, with Hitler undefeated in war and succeeded on his death in the early 1950s by a series of lacklustre party hacks who more or less disowned his “excesses”. Imagine then a “reform Nazi” (call him Michael Gorbach) coming to power in the 1980s and dismantling the National Socialist system, only to fall from power as the Third Reich collapsed in political and economic chaos.

"Imagine a shrunken “German Federation” suffering ten years of upheaval, before an SS officer (call him Voldemar Puschnik) came to power, first as prime minister and then as president. Under eight years of rule by Herr Puschnik, Germany regains economic stability, largely thanks to a sky-high coal price."

Readers who chose to comment on the above description can be broken down into righteously indignant "whataboutisms" from Russians and your typical anti-Westerners, those who angrily noted an even more accurate parallel - Turkey - and a couple of level-headed chaps who simply by virtue of their existence make living in this world much more tolerable.

Why Did the Minnesota Bridge Collapse?

It turns out that the Minnesota Bridge didn't collapse because stingy Republican legislatures refused to pay for maintenance. It collapsed because someone flubbed the design.

Sixteen fractured gusset plates in the center span on Interstate 35W were a main cause of the deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said on Tuesday. The plates, which connected steel beams in the truss bridge, were roughly half the thickness they should have been because of a design error. How that flaw made it into the bridge is unclear; according to NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker, investigators couldn't find the original design calculations. Extra weight from construction was also a factor in the tragedy, which killed 13 people and injured 100. The findings confirmed forecasts by investigators from three months after the collapse--plus engineering experts in the immediate aftermath--and underscored the dire state of America's crumbling infrastructure.

Fear Police Incompetence

How's this for on the job competence?

According to the lawsuit, about 9 p.m. June 15, Vega came to Guardi's and ordered pasta salad. When Mendez walked into the cooler to get the food, Vega asked Mendez's wife if she wanted to see Vega scare her husband. She said "no," according to court documents.

Then, Vega allegedly pointed the gun at Mendez's head and fired, causing the prongs to stick to Mendez's right temple and collarbone. Mendez went into convulsions and later became unconscious. He also bit off a piece of his tongue, the lawsuit said.

Vega is accused of immediately removing the Taser prongs, which caused Mendez to bleed profusely. Vega then called for back-up, and a supervisor and two detectives showed up and confiscated bloody towels, Mendez's bloody glasses, the Taser prongs and the video surveillance equipment in the restaurant, the lawsuit claims.

Reading a prepared statement, Zabrocki said Vega was conducting a routine check on the business when he noticed his Taser safety deactivated. While resecuring it, the Taser accidentally discharged, striking Mendez in the head and chest and knocking him to the ground, Zabrocki said.

It really doesn't matter which version of this story is true. Officer Vega should be fired either way. He was either guilty of gross misjudgment for using a taser to play a "prank" or he was guilty of gross incompetence for pointing his taser as somebody while adjusting the safety.

The first law of firearm safety is "thou should not point thy weapon at people". For violating that rule one or another, for hurting the very people he was sworn to defend, Officer Vega should be fired.

He won't be. The police department will call the entire thing an accident, verbally reprimand the officer, and sweep the entire incident under the rug. Rather than standing up to protect their reputation, the police department will stand up to protect "one of their own". And that's why it's getting harder and harder to trust America's police officers.

Busting Down the Wrong Door

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that two homes were invaded recently, by robbers looking for drugs.

"These guys kicked in the doors of people 's residences who had nothing to do with the drug trade, " said Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain. "It was a terrible event for both couples. "

And a violent one, especially for the women in each couple.

In the first attack, at about 2:55 a.m. on Sachtjen Street on the North Side, the woman was hit in the head with a pistol that one of the two intruders was carrying when they burst into the couple 's bedroom and demanded to know, "Where it at? " according to a police report. They fled without taking anything after the man in the couple yelled at them to leave.

In the second break-in, at about 3:30 a.m. at an apartment on Pike Drive on the South Side, the intruders kicked in the couple 's front door and punched the woman in the face while yelling "something about money and drugs, " the couple told police.

The men in that case rummaged through areas of the apartment before leaving. And again, one of the two intruders was armed with a handgun.

"The couple could not think of any reason why someone would try to rob them, " the report said.

This is a horribly, horribly ironic story. Why? Well, it reads exactly like the stories I've read about cops kicking down the doors of the wrong house, looking for drug dealers. The treatement is exactly the same however. Homeowners terrorized, brutalized, and left without an apology for compensation for damages. Don't believe me?

How about this?

The couple baby-sitting their grandchildren when police mistook their home for a drug dealer's residence has been awarded a $325,000 settlement, their attorney said yesterday.

That's when, without a warrant authorizing entrance into the home of William and Sharon McCulley, but rather with an "anticipatory search warrant" that authorized them to search any property where the marijuana was transported, police entered their home.

Though the Toyota truck they had been following and the transported box wasn't at the McCulley's home, police then threw Sharon McCulley on the ground next to her grandchild and handcuffed her, pressing a gun so hard into her head it left a circular mark, according to the complaint.

Her husband, William McCulley, who has a severe nerve disorder and has a walker and leg brace, was also ordered to lie on the ground, but was unable to do so quickly because of his disability. Thrown to the ground by an officer, William McCulley's implanted electronic shocking device to alleviate pain malfunctioned causing him to convulse, court documents state.

Or this?

The three defendants were among a group of DEA agents who burst into the couple's home Dec. 19 using a search warrant signed by a Sonoma County judge for an investigation of a cross-country shipment of six pounds of marijuana.

No drugs, drug residue, money or weapons were found during the search of Keane's house.

Strange, 63, said in the suit that a DEA agent held her down with a boot on her head as agents stormed through the house yelling, "Where are your weapons?" and "You know why we're here."

Or this?

Williams said he believes the team was supposed to be raiding a parolee's home Aug. 24 when they inadvertently hit the wrong door.

Officers ended up at the home of David and Lillian Scott, just off Rancho California Road.

Lillian Scott said she and her husband were in the living room discussing family plans, their 15-year-old daughter was in the garage with two friends and their 16-year-old son was in another room feeding the Scotts' 5-month-old baby.

That all changed at 9:35 p.m. she said, when Temecula police officers -- four or five, she's not sure -- carrying rifles charged though the unlocked front screen door and ordered the couple to the floor.

"Two of them came over and put handcuffs on the two of us," Lillian Scott said. "We asked what we had done wrong and didn't get an answer."

Elsewhere in the house other officers handcuffed their daughter and her two friends.

"(The officers) told them to get down on the f---ing floor," she said.

Her 16-year-old son, who was feeding the baby, was also ordered to the floor and handcuffed, Scott said.

From the other room, Scott heard her infant crying.

"I asked if my baby was OK and the officer told me if I moved he was going to put a bullet in my head," Scott said.

Or this

Law-enforcement officers raided the wrong house and forced a 77-year-old La Plata County woman on oxygen to the ground last week in search of methamphetamine.

The raid occurred about 11 a.m. June 8, as Virginia Herrick was settling in to watch "The Price is Right." She heard a rustling outside her mobile home in Durango West I and looked out to see several men with gas masks and bulletproof vests, she said.

Herrick went to the back door to have a look.

"I thought there was a gas leak or something," she said.

But before reaching the door, La Plata County Sheriff's deputies shouted "search warrant, search warrant" and barged in with guns drawn, she said. They ordered Herrick to the ground and began searching the home.

"They didn't give me a chance to ask for a search warrant or see a search warrant or anything," she said in a phone interview Thursday. "I'm not about to argue with those big old guys, especially when they've got guns and those big old sledgehammers."

Or this guy, who accidentally tripped his own security system?

"I felt a lot of voltage going through my body," Mr. Hicks said recalling the events of that late July weekend. "That's what woke me up."

Jumping to his feet, Mr. Hicks was aware of an intense sensation between the shoulder blades of his 150-pound body. It didn't stop there. His whole body felt as if it were on fire.

... According to Mr. Hicks, the cops were skeptical. "How do we know that you're who you say you are?" the shorter of the two cops asked.

At that point, the cop holding the Taser squeezed the trigger, sending Mr. Hicks into paroxysm of agony. It was not a short jolt like the first one he received. He fell to the floor. His screams woke the neighbors.

"What do you want?" Mr. Hicks asked. "Please stop [shooting] me." The shorter cop helped him to his feet. Swaying unsteadily, he offered to show them his identification. They searched him and found his wallet. After inspecting it, they threw the wallet on the coffee table.

"I told you I lived here and that I'm the legal resident," he shouted, believing he finally had justice, common decency and the angels of heaven on his side. A staff member at the African-American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania, Mr. Hicks counts himself on the side of the law-abiding citizen.

The cop with the Taser squeezed the trigger again, anyway. Mr. Hicks flapped his arms wildly, but didn't fall. All he could do was scream loud enough to be heard all over the Mon Valley.

After removing the pellets from his bloody back, the cops handcuffed Mr. Hicks and led him out his front door to a police van. They did not read him his rights, Mr. Hicks says. The back of his shirt was soaked with warm, sticky blood.

Meanwhile, cops from six neighboring boroughs searched the house for other "burglars."

Mr. Hicks' mother, Arlene, arrived just as her son was being escorted out the door. She had Mr. Hicks' 11-year-old daughter and a niece in tow. "Why are you arresting my son?" she asked. The taller of the two cops answered that he "didn't have to tell her anything."

When Mrs. Hicks persisted, he said her son was being arrested for "being belligerent."

Ah, yes. Belligerence. A crime truly worthy of repeated tasering, false arrest, and a night in jail. Sounds to me like the cops were angry because the rest of the world doesn't take them nearly as seriously as they take themselves. Of course, they won't face any discipline for the behavior. Honestly, I'm more frightened of hopped up SWAT teams than I am of actual criminals.

I think you're missing the point, Guys (The IMF)

A new article posted on the website of my favorite news magazine, The Economist, wonders whether the International Monetary Fund's new managing director, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, can save the organization from its slide into irrelevancy.

"The organisation’s legitimacy is under increasing attack. Fast-growing emerging economies feel under-represented in an institution where Europe and America still hold sway. Even more worrying, there is a big question-mark over the Fund’s relevance. Its role in rich countries has long been modest. But ten years ago it was at the centre of emerging-market financial crises, acting as the world’s financial fireman. Now that many emerging economies have built up vast stashes of foreign-exchange reserves that role is dramatically diminished. And since the Fund’s income depends on its lending, growing financial irrelevance has also spawned a budget crunch."

What the magazine never bothers to do, however, is ask the more obvious question: If we are coming to live in a world in which there are no fires for the fireman to put out, is it actually a bad thing that the fireman's becoming irrelevant?

It's a little surprising that a news magazine willing to make the brave yet sensical suggestion that Belgium really needs to just go ahead and split into two separate countries lacks the proper perspective on such an issue as this. The main points of the article, to a sane reader, all combine to form a cause for celebration, not a call to action. The IMF was established as a lender to countries in need of money. Fewer countries now need money. The IMF is shrinking as a result. Good.

A better question than "How will the IMF save itself?" would be: should the day come when the IMF is simply not needed, will its administration have the character to kill itself?

Such a day is unfortunately far into the future, but it's a question The Economist, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, and others of their ilk probably should start rolling around their heads now. It would give them a better sense of place, and remind them that organizations are not values in and of themselves.

Flight Delays, Courtesy of Congress

Delays are caused by flight volumes that the FAA Administrator's ineptly-managed Air Traffic Control system cannot handle. The skies are full, not because there's no more room in the air, but because the flight controllers can't keep up with any more flights.

What's Congress's solution to this problem? Why, funding a Peace Garden instead of updating air-traffic control towers.

Want to know what had to be cut from the bill in order to get the North Dakota Peace Garden? Oh, just a silly little project that would have updated technology in air-traffic control towers. But the Peace Garden wasn't the only beneficiary of freeing up funds from making air travel safer. California will also get a "mule and packer museum". Perhaps Americans can start traveling by donkey instead.

Senator Tom Coburn attempted to stop the pork party, to no avail. He offered an amendment that would have forbidden earmarks on transportation bills until all deficient bridges had been properly updated. That just barely failed -- by a vote of 82 to 14. Eighty-two Senators voted to prioritize pork over infrastructure maintenance.

In fact, the pork comes to one out of every eight dollars spent on transportation now. In the past eleven years, earmarks have increased a whopping 1150%, while the dollar value of the pork has increased over 300% in the same period. Ninety-nine percent of these earmarks bypassed planning agencies, meaning that the monies got no review for prioritization. How many bridges could have been repaired with that money over the last decade?

Still believe that Congress should manage a multi-trillion dollar budget? Still believe that government is more interested in your safety and well-being than a private company would be? Private companies would be embarrassed to run the air-traffic control system that the FAA runs. Private companies would be embarrassed to have roads and bridges as well-maintained as the governments.

Don't put your faith in government spending. It's the worst "investment" you could possibly make.

Burn the CIA to the Ground

In From the Cold: Worth Saving?

The assessment, which was requested by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), has been sitting on the shelf for more than two years, and the agency vigorously fought to prevent its release. The current CIA Director, Air Force General Mike Hayden, claims that release of the report could be "distracting."

If there's any good news in the executive summary, here it is: As far as the IG can determine, CIA employees broke no laws in their counter-terrorism activities before 9-11. The bad news? The agency's efforts in the years before the attacks were characterized by bureaucratic incompetence and bungling on a scale that is almost unimaginable.

Apparently, bin Laden and his Al Qaida operatives had little to fear from the CIA; as the IG discovered, the agency was beset by ineffective leadership, serious resource shortfalls, squabbles with other agencies, and the lack of a viable plan for analyzing--and combating--the terrorist organization, among other problems. Describing the agency as an intelligence calamity waiting to happen would be charitable.

The stunning, substantive details of those failures are well-documented in the summary, suggesting that the CIA was adrift, rudderless and unaccountable in the years leading up to 9-11. Mr. Tenet steadfastly maintains that he had a plan to counter Al Qaida, but (according to the IG), that plan was never effectively communicated or implemented within the agency. Analysis of the terrorist organization was slipshod; prior to the 9-11 attacks, the CIA's last major assessment on bin Laden was completed in 1993.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of the IG summary is its recommendation for Accountability Boards to review the performance of (a) the former DCI, Mr. Tenet; (b) the CIA Executive Director in the late 1990s; (c) the Deputy Director of Operations (DDO) and (d) the two senior officers who served as Director of the CTC during the same period. In other words, the IG is inferring that CIA management--at the organization's highest levels--failed miserably at their responsibilities in going after Al Qaida, and should be held accountable for their desultory performance.

Seriously. Burn the CIA to the ground. Fire everyone there. Close down and blow up the building. Hire new intelligence people. Allow former employees to reapply, but they start the interview process with two strikes against them. Would we get a lot of new, raw employees that are unfamiliar with gathering intelligence? Sure. Could they be any worse than the current CIA, though? Hard to imagine.

Of Bridges and Taxes

Should we raise taxes to pay for road and bridge repair? In the wake of the Minnesota bridge collaspse, many politicians are certainly saying that we should. But what have they done with the road money that they already have?

Of Bridges and Taxes

James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who runs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently stood beside the wreckage and recommended an increase in the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax, as a way to prevent future bridge collapses. His wing man, Alaska Republican and former Transportation Chairman Don Young, agrees wholeheartedly.

As it happens, these are the same men who played the lead role in the $286 billion 2005 federal highway bill. That's the bill that diverted billions of dollars of gas tax money away from urgent road and bridge projects toward Member earmarks for bike paths, nature trails and inefficient urban transit systems.

As recently as July 25, Mr. Oberstar sent out a press release boasting that he had "secured more than $12 million in funding" for his state in a recent federal transportation and housing bill. But $10 million of that was dedicated to a commuter rail line, $250,000 for the "Isanti Bike/Walk Trail," $200,000 to bus services in Duluth, and $150,000 for the Mesabi Academy of Kidspeace in Buhl. None of it went for bridge repair.

Even transportation dollars aren't scarce. Minnesota spends $1.6 billion a year on transportation--enough to build a new bridge over the Mississippi River every four months. But nearly $1 billion of that has been diverted from road and bridge repair to the state's light rail network that has a negligible impact on traffic congestion. Last year part of a sales tax revenue stream that is supposed to be dedicated for road and bridge construction was re-routed to mass transit. The Minnesota Department of Economic Development reports that only 2.8% of the state's commuters ride buses or rail to get to work, but these projects get up to 25% of the funding.

More Medicare Fraud

How is this not illegal? Select Hospitals Reap a Windfall Under Child Bill - New York Times

Despite promises by Congress to end the secrecy of earmarks and other pet projects, the House of Representatives has quietly funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to specific hospitals and health care providers under a bill passed this month to help low-income children.

... One hospital, Bay Area Medical Center, sits on Green Bay, straddling the border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, more than 200 miles north of Chicago. The bill would increase Medicare payments to the hospital by instructing federal officials to assume that it was in Chicago, where Medicare rates are set to cover substantially higher wages for hospital workers.

The bill, for example, would give special treatment to two hospitals in Kingston, N.Y., stipulating that Medicare should pay them as if they were in New York City, 80 miles away. Representative Maurice D. Hinchey, Democrat of New York, who worked to get this provision into the bill, said it would allow the hospitals to pay competitive wages so they could keep top health care professionals.

John E. Finch Jr., a vice president of Benedictine Hospital, one of the two in Kingston, said the bill would "make a significant difference to us financially," increasing the payment for a typical Medicare case by $1,000.

Republicans sometimes did the same thing when they controlled Congress. Under a 1999 law, for example, a small hospital in rural Dixon, Ill., was deemed to be in the Chicago area "” 95 miles away "” at the behest of its congressman, J. Dennis Hastert, who was then speaker.

This is outright fraud. No matter how hard hospital administrators pretend different, these hospitals are not in New York City or Chicago. The hospitals will be taking money that the law says they're not entitled to. That's wrong. Any doctor trying to defraud Medicare out of that much money would be stripped of his license, find, and probably jailed. Why should these Congress men and women be treated any differently?

Road Logic -- As Seen on Slashdot

As seen on Slashdot

Garbage collection is fine as a private service, but roads? What would possibly improve by letting individual profit-seeking companies control where and when you are allowed to drive?

It's a simple answer. Individual profit-seeking companies only make a profit if you can drive when and where you want. Right now, only one "company" provides roads -- your local state government. And if they don't feel like building where you want to drive, tough luck. A private company would have a financial incentive to build a road where you want to drive.

Example: The population on the west side of Madison has been growing. More people have been moving to West Madison and to the West Madison suburbs. Traffic on the Madison beltline has been increasing, especially in certain sections of the western half. Traffic on County Road M has also been increasing. In some places, it's only a one-lane road.

The state of Wisconsin has no plans to widen the beltline or CR-M. They've publically stated that the earliest they'd even consider doing something would be around 2014. As a result, I increasingly do everything possible to avoid CR-M and the beltline during periods of high traffic.

Unlike the state, a private company would have an incentive to widen both of these roads and increase capacity. More capacity means more drivers. More drivers means more profit. It's a win-win scenario. They get more money, I get a faster commute. This is the beauty of free-market capitalism -- both parties win or there is no deal.

All of this only works, of course, as long as there is more than one private company building roads. Two competing companies would each have an incentive to get me where I want to go as quickly and efficiently as possible. A private company that has no competition -- for instance, one granted a monopoly by the state or local government -- would likely do little better than the government does. Competition is the magic ingredient that makes a free-market work.

So, why do you think roads should be government controlled instead of privately owned?

Airport Security -- Expensive and Worthless

Do you feel safe about taking a flight? Do you think that another 9/11 style attack couldn't possibly succeed? Do the TSA regulations and onerous security procedures make you feel safer? If they do, they shouldn't. We're just as much at risk as we were six years ago.

Hot Air > Blog Archive > A Pilot on Airline Security

At this moment, there are roughly 5000 commercial airliners in the skies above you. There will be 28,000 flights today, and 840,000 in the next month -- every month. The U.S. fleet consists of some 6000 aircraft -- almost all of which will be parked unattended tonight at a public airport. We will carry almost 7 billion passengers this year, the number increasing to 10 billion by 2010, barring an exogenous event like another 9/11.

There is simply no deployable technology that has a prayer of keeping a motivated, prepared terrorist out of the system every time -- even most times. TSA misses more than 90% of detectable weapons at passenger checkpoints in their own tests, and it is not their fault, because of the limitations of technology and the number of inspections they must conduct. This doesn't count several classes of completely undetectable weapons like composite knives and liquid explosives.

What is TSA's fault is their abject failure to embrace more robust approaches than high visibility inspections, and their accommodations to the Air Transport Association's revenue interests at the expense of true security, while largely ignoring the recommendations of the front-line airline crews and air marshals who have no direct revenue agenda and are much more familiar with airline operations than are the bureaucrats (remember government ignoring the front-line FBI agents who tried to warn them about 9/11?). Deplorable amounts of money have been wasted on incomprehensible security strategies, while KISS [Keep It Simple, Stupid] methods proven to work have been ignored.

...

Almost six years after 9/11, it is inexcusable that -- in an environment where TSA misses more than 90% of weapons, RON aircraft are not secured, and ground employees are not screened -- fewer than 2% of our airliners have a team of armed pilots aboard, fewer than 5% have air marshals, and the flight attendants have no mandatory tactical or behavioral assessment training. $24 billion dollars later, we are not materially safer, except in the areas of intelligence that prevent an attack from getting to an airport. Once at the airport, there is little reason to believe the attack won't succeed.

...

I know I've gotten pretty far afield of your topic, but I want to give you the sense that RON aircraft are just one small piece of a multilayered security system wherein every layer leaks like a sieve. The problem is much, much bigger than any single element.

In the end, we should be starting with defending the smallest spaces -- the cockpits and cargo compartments, and working outward to the limits of our resources; instead of starting with the airport perimeter and working inward, ignoring the actual defense of those spaces that are actually the terrorist targets. And we should be using the resources already in place to the greatest extent possible, instead of trying to bring new, untried methods into play, then waiting to find out they don't work nearly as well in reality as they do on paper.

Given that Congress regulates air travel and air security, you can blame them for that. Just one more reason Congress has earned its 14% approval rating.

If you want to demand change, the issues raised in this article would be a great place to start.

Regulation Burnt the Cuyahoga

A few days ago, I wrote about government regulators preventing progress. You may be interested in another example.

My mother was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. By itself this fact is not particularly exciting. But, when I was younger, I learned about the burning Cuyahoga River. Once I realized what had happened, I never lost an opportunity to tease my mother about her hometown.

Recently, I learned the rest of the story. It turns out that excessive government regulation bears a large amount of the blame for the fire.

Incomes were rising and concern about industrial wastes was mounting. Pollutants were corroding sewage treatment systems and impeding their operation. In another part of the state, the Ohio River Sanitation Commission, representing the eight states that border the Ohio River (which runs along Ohio's southern border), developed innovations to reduce pollution. The municipalities and the industries along the Ohio began to invest in pollution control technology.

Unfortunately, this progress soon ended. The evolving common law and regional compacts hit a snag in 1951 when the state of Ohio created the Ohio Water Pollution Control Board. The authorizing law sounded good to the citizens of Ohio. It stated that it is "unlawful" to pollute any Ohio waters. However, the law continues: ". . . except in such cases where the water pollution control board has issued a valid and unexpired permit."(3)

The board issued or denied permits depending on whether the discharger was located on an already-degraded river classified as "industrial use" or on trout streams classified as "recreational use." Trout streams were preserved; dischargers were allowed to pollute industrial streams. The growing tendency of the courts to insist on protecting private rights against harm from pollution was replaced by a public decision-making body that allowed pollution where it thought it was appropriate.

Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, who helped draw attention to the Cuyahoga fire, criticized the state for letting industries pollute. "We have no jurisdiction over what is dumped in there. . . . The state gives [industry] a license to pollute," the Cleveland Plain Dealer quoted him as saying (June 24, 1969). Stokes was not far off the mark.

...

In sum, the Cuyahoga fire, which burns on in people's memory as a symbol of industrial indifference, should also be viewed as a symbol of the weaknesses of public regulation.

It's worth reading the whole thing, if only to see what I left out.

Regulation will always be "captured" by those who have a vested interest in the regulations. Rather than strictly controlling an industry, the regulatory agency will soon be controlled by the industry. This is what is happening (has happened) to the FDA and this is what contributed to the Cuyahoga River fire.

Whatever you do, don't put your faith in a regulatory agency. It will only let you down.

Road Blocks to Improvement

Quick -- how do you increase the wealth of a nation and improving living standards for everyone? I'll tell you how. First, create a stable system of laws that apply to everyone and make sure that everyone knows what they are. This creates a level playing field where neither income nor social status prevent justice from being served.

Second, allow individuals to produce goods and compete for buyers in a free and open market. Producers will compete for buyers through price, quality, and quantity. Producers will diligently strive to gain in edge in one -- or all -- of these categories, in an effort to draw more buyers and earn more profit. As each producer gains a temporary edge, other producers will rush to imitate the innovation. What starts as an innovation by one producer will quickly become the norm for an entire industry.

This cycle will repeat over and over and over again in each sector of the market. Electronics (iPod vs Zune), automobiles (American vs Japanese), furniture (getting nicer all the time), homes (getting bigger all the time), lighting (incandescent bulbs vs compact fluorescents), and more. What once was inconceivable quickly becomes the new base line standard.

At least, that's the way things normally work. Every so often, a spanner gets thrown into the works. The story of Creekstone Farms Premium Beef provides a nice illustration.

The U.S. Agriculture Department tests beef for mad cow disease. However, the USDA has a limited budget and Americans eat a lot of cows every year. As a result, less than 1% of all slaughtered beef is actually tested for mad cow disease. Creekstone Farms sells a premium grade of beef. They'd like to offer buyers another incentive to choose their beef over their competitors. They decided to gain a competitive edge by testing all of their beef for mad cow disease and certifying every cut mad-cow-free.

This would have given Creekstone Farms a decided advantage in the market for premium beef. Their competitors were worried about losing buyers to Creekstone. Rather than compete with their own innovations, they lobbied the USDA to crack down on Creekstone's innovation. The USDA ruled that no beef producer could perform more testing than the U.S. government performed.

Creekstone is fighting the ruling in court, for their right to innovate and compete in a free market.

For the moment, the forward progress of wealth and living standards has been stopped by the U.S. government. Companies that would rather lobby than innovate control the regulatory system. Do you still believe that government regulation makes the world a better place? I don't.

(Hat tip to Coyote Blog.)

More on 'Convoluted Tax Schemes'

Three months ago, I reported that Jim Doyle wanted to hike the hospital tax in order to give hospitals more money. Well, he still wants to. Only now we know that the amounts the hospitals will supposedly receive, is less than Diamond Jim hoped for:

UW Hospital had been projected to gain $23.3 million in Medicaid reimbursements over two years under the original proposal. Under the new calculations, it would receive about $11 million. Meriter, which had been projected to get almost $22 million, would receive about $14 million. The projected reimbursement for St. Mary's Hospital's increased by half a million dollars, to $4.8 million.

Oops. Of course, people not affiliated with the Doyle administration think that hospitals will actually lose money by being taxed, not gain it:

In March, the Wisconsin Hospital Association released an analysis showing hospitals would lose money in the next two years if the hospital tax is approved, not gain $283 million, as Doyle claimed. The group is still analyzing the new data, but remains skeptical.

Of course, it's not even a given that the hospitals will receive all of the money from the tax scheme:

"A large portion is diverted to other programs. ... It's difficult to say where the funds will ultimately be used," Quinn said.

Government efficiency, marching onward. Roll Wisconsin!

Why a Postal Monopoly is a Bad Idea

The U.S. Postal Service raised it's rates for first-class mail today. No longer will you be able to buy a $0.39 stamp. The day of the $0.41 stamp is upon us. The rate hike is annoying, but ultimately not all that relevant to my life. Aside from thank-you notes and renewing license plates, I don't really use the Postal Service.

However, the USPS isn't just raising rates on first-class mail. The Postal Regulatory Comission also decided to change the way it calculates rates for periodicals and magizines:

Starting in July, postal rates for some publications will rise by as much as 30 percent, and a growing number of critics say the new rates will saddle small, independent publishers with inflated costs and betray protections granted by the founding fathers to the press.

The U.S. Postal Service gave periodicals a special class of mail more than 200 years ago and averaged rates to make it cheaper to send a magazine than a letter, while still giving publishers first-class service.

The cost to the Postal Service of sending periodicals has also risen disproportionately to other types of mail over the past 10 years.

Very basically, here's how the changes in rates are calculated: The average cost increase to periodicals is 11.7 percent, but this rate skews lower or higher for many based on price-based incentives created to push publishers to streamline their mailing operation.

A 758-page document details the plan, which plugs many variables into a pricing equation: packaging, co-mailing, co-palletting, pounds, pieces, shape, sacks, drop-shipping, points of entry, distance traveled and editorial weight versus advertising weight.

Confused? So are many publishers. It doesn't help, they say, that the computer software created to help them solve this equation won't be available until mid-June.

Both sides agree that the issue is, at its core, an ideological debate between those who believe periodical postal rates should be averaged for all to protect the democratic dissemination of information and those who see averaging as a subsidization that hinders efficiency.

It's also a fairly pointless debate. The only reason it's happening at all is that periodicals have exactly one choice for delivery: the USPS. There is no competition for first-class mail delivery. By law, anyone who tries to compete with the USPS in first-class mail delivery commits a crime. Publishers are forced to use the government monopoly, instead of using whichever company gives them the best combination of price and service.

It's time to end these pointless, stupid debates over the best way to calculate postal rates. Allow Fed-Ex, UPS, DHL, and other carriers to compete with the USPS. Let publishers choose their own mail carrier. Some carriers might have rates that are less expensive than current Postal Service rates. Other carriers might have rates that are more expensive than current Postal Service rates. Regardless, they would be rates that publishers choose to pay, based on their unique needs. Everyone would get the best combination of price, speed, and service that they need.

Right now everyone gets the same combination of price, speed, and service -- whatever the Postal Regulatory Comission decides is best for the nation.

How un-American.

Protecting the Troops

For our troops fighting the war in Iraq, the number one threat isn't gun battles with terrorists, it's improved explosive devices left by the roadside. IED's cause fully 70% of American casualties in Iraq. This has been known for a while. What's also been known for a while is that Hummers do little to protect the troopers riding in them.

Unfortunately, most members of Congress have been too busy pointing fingers over the war to spend time figuring out how to help the military actually fight the war. Fortunately, it appears that some members of Congress are finally starting to see the light:

What my amendment will do is allow the military to put 2,500 more mine resistant ambush protected vehicles--known in the military by its acronym, MRAP--in the field by the end of this year. ... MRAP vehicles provide four to five times more protection to our troops than up-armored HMMWVs. That statement, that these MRAPs provide four to five times more protection than up-armored HMMWVs, is not my estimate. That is the judgment of our military leaders. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, GEN James Conway, with whom I spoke as recently as this afternoon, wrote on March 1 to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said:

Multi-National Forces--West, that is, the Marines in Iraq [JK Background: specifically, in Anbar province], estimates that the use of the MRAP could reduce the casualties in vehicles due to IED attack by as much as 80 percent.

Let me explain the specifics of the MRAP. Each vehicle can hold 4 to 12 troops. Like the rhino, these vehicles have raised steel, V-shaped hulls and chassis. The raised hull is valuable because it gives the blast more time to expand, lessening the impact. The V-shape pushes the blast up the sides of the vehicle and away from the occupants. With an up-armored HMMWV or any humvee, the flat bottom sends the blast through the floor right into the occupants. In addition, the vehicles have side armor and bulletproof glass, and they also have tires that can be driven when flat.

Surprisingly, the person leading the charge on this issue is none other than Senator Joe Biden. While he often endures the nickname "Slow Joe", in this case he's faster out of the blocks than far too many of his colleagues. Good for him. Now let's work on getting some MRAP's over to Iraq.

Convoluted Tax Schemes

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has a plan to give more money to hospitals. It's very simple -- in order to pay them more, he first has to tax them more. The Wisconsin State Journal gave a breakdown of the plan:

It works like this: The state imposes the tax on hospitals, leading to an increase in the cost of providing health services. The state returns the money raised by the tax to hospitals to help cover the costs of providing care to Medicaid patients. Then the state reports the increased costs of Medicaid to the federal government, which in turn increases its reimbursement to the state.

The state can then use the extra money for health care or other programs.

I'm reasonably certain that any private doctor, trying to increase Medicaid reimbursements this way, would be prosecuted for Medicaid fraud. Why are states are allowed to get away with such blatant fraud? Wisconsin isn't the only state doing this, but it might be one of the last:

"We have, as a state, been much less aggressive than other states in the use of these assessments," said Jason Helgerson, executive assistant and policy director for the Department of Health and Family Services.

Hospital executives say they understand why states are imposing such taxes. But they said the federal government is catching on to what states are doing and federal rules changes could limit Medicaid reimbursements and render the taxation strategy ineffective for states.

This whole scenario is a perfect example of government inefficiency and waste. Whatever faults private insurance might have, this kind of chicanery isn't it.