Modern Cost Effective Public Policy for America

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By Paolo von Schirach

September 28, 2007

WASHINGTON – I was really hoping that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would have entered the race for the Republican nomination and that he may have had a shot at the presidency. Apparently he decided otherwise. This was not an ideologically motivated, partisan wish for conservative leadership. This was and is about the hope that a credible public figure (Gingrich or someone with a similar approach) who has articulated and would push an agenda for the modernization of the state, for the introduction of viable technologies and cost effectiveness in public policy may bring fresh air in stale debates long on abstract ideological posturing and short on the need to drastically upgrade the effectiveness of the government’s tools. The tools (in terms of both institutions and technologies) are low quality and often obsolete. Without good tools we cannot implement anything meaningful.

Good government is about sound principles, of course. But, in the end, it is about the timely, cost effective, delivery of needed services. Whereas, amazingly, America is sorely deficient when it comes to modern tools necessary to plan and deliver basic public services. Whatever the reasons, two years after Katrina we still have not built adequate levees in New Orleans. We have collapsed bridges in Minnesota for lack of a system that would guarantee appropriate levels of care and repair of basic infrastructure. The Washington DC public school system not only fails to educate the children, but it does not even have the basic logistics to deliver badly needed pencils and books from a central warehouse to the classrooms.

In the country renowned for its innovative genius and technological advances –innovations that have led to a productivity revolution in all fields– the tools of public policy are horrendously outdated. Thus the ability to deliver high quality services is hampered. At the same time, because of consolidated, systemic inefficiencies, expectations of effectiveness on the part of the public have become surprisingly low. As people are used to public inefficiency, they have come to accept it as normal.

Here is a glaring example of inefficiency that could be easily remedied, assuming focus, will and better organization. Consider air traffic congestion and the reality of constant disruptions, more and more delays and mounting frustrations for the public that has emerged as a major national issue in recent months. President Bush, at a recent White House meeting aimed at addressing possible solutions, said, among other things, that, due to this mess, passengers are not treated fairly. This might suggest a focus on issues of improved customer relations for the airlines; such as providing timely information to customers about delays or compensating them adequately in case of severe travel disruptions.

While all this may help, this has little to do with the cause of the problem. The real issue is a stupendously obsolete air traffic control system incapable of coping with more and more flights. Why is it that we had to reach this unprecedented level of air gridlock to put forward a plan aimed at phasing in a new, more efficient space based system for air traffic control? And how long is it going to take to fully implement it? If the federal bureaucracy is expected to lead the phasing in of these new systems, it will be decades. Air traffic control management is a complex and delicate matter, but well within the technological know how of the United States of America.

And, equally important, why is it that we are unable to look at how to meet the needs of the traveling public in a broader context? The current problem is posited as: “More and more people are flying. How can we create a system that can accommodate these ever increasing volumes”? This is a good question. But it is incomplete, as we leave out of the equation other cost effective modalities of transportation that may be good in their own right, while they would help relieve at least some of the air congestion. In other words, flying is not the only good option.

Whatever the reasons, it is inconceivable that one of the most technologically advanced countries of the world has not managed to introduce high speed trains as a real cost effective alternative to air travel between relatively close large urban centers. For example, in this context of growing congestion in the air, especially in the North East, we have two airlines (Delta and US Air) that offer regular shuttle service between New York and Washington and between New York and Boston. The shuttle theoretically should be a convenient one hour flight. But we know that this is not so when we add the time to get to and from airports, security screenings and, most importantly these days, additional time wasted due to traffic congestion that delays departing and landing flights.

The existing, relatively fast, Acela trains between Washington and New York already cut down travel time to a level that is comparable to flight time plus airport transfers. Of course, significant investments would be necessary to build new tracks that would allow true high speed in the New York Washington corridor and increased passenger loads. But, even now, the case could be made that, as a matter of public policy, flights such as those between Washington and New York should be strongly discouraged, when good alternatives based on reasonably fast trains are available. It may not be much, but transferring the shuttle travelers to trains would help reduce congestion in the overcrowded air space of the New York area; while it would foster a more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, not to mention more pleasant, way to travel.

Further down the line, let us imagine a future in which most of the travel between the large urban centers of the North East, or along the coast of California, would take place via a network of high speed trains. This would significantly curtail congestion in the air, allowing airplanes to fulfill their true mission, that is, to take people to faraway places or to places that cannot be reached reasonably fast, in a cost effective way, through other means.

Of course, all this is complicated and quite expensive. Building new tracks in densely populated states would require significant up front capital investments; not to mention the legal complexities involved in the need to acquire the necessary tracts of land. But, however complicated, this is not an impossible idea and certainly not beyond the means of the world’s largest economy.

Yet, before even starting to think about efficient new modalities that could be made available to the traveling public, the current crop of policy-makers, faced with the task of confronting the probable resistance to change from organized lobbies, interest groups and bureaucratic inertia, have already given up, because leading on such  complex issues is just too hard.

This is why in this political season we would have needed someone like former Speaker Gingrich (no idea as to what his thinking may be on the specific issue of high speed trains) who seems to be willing to challenge the way we organize and deliver public services and rally the public behind the notion that, if we try, it is entirely possible to shake an outmoded, clumsy and inefficient way to conceive and conduct public policy.

Government “for the people”, beyond slogans and idealistic pronouncements aimed at stirring voters’ emotions at election time, in the end is quite simply about the delivery of high quality services and/or about creating a regulatory environment that induces the private sector to step in and do what is cost effective for the delivery of services useful for the society. The people of one of the most technologically advanced nations on earth are entitled to demand and get more value for their tax dollars.

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