America’s Decaying Standards

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WASHINGTON – In the United States, the reliability of some critical public services is now questioned, owing to revelations that indicate insufficient resources, sloppy supervision and worse. In recent weeks it transpired that Southwest Airlines, otherwise known as a successful model of an inexpensive yet efficient and profitable air carrier, kept in active service many aircraft with structural flaws. According to the federal rules that regulate airlines, these planes were unsafe and should have been grounded until all repairs had been performed and inspected. So, how did this serious breach of safety standards involving several airplanes happen? Why is it that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspectors did not catch and report this problem? After all, their function is precisely to avoid situations in which the flying public is put at risk.

Well, we do not know exactly, and the issue is now under investigation. Yet, the digging prompted by the Southwest issue indicates that this is not just about one airline. It would appear that the whole FAA inspection system has –and has had for years– systemic flaws. After the negative publicity from the Southwest issue, many other airlines, including American Airlines, one of the largest carriers in the world, have suddenly come forward revealing problems –previously undetected and unreported– of potential lack of safety, grounding aircraft (with the resulting cancellation of scores of flights) and proclaiming the need to upgrade standards and procedures.

Whatever the eventual findings as a minimum it appears that the federally mandated inspection regime deteriorated to a dangerously low level. According to many testimonies, (some of them prompted by public congressional hearings), overtime, from a hand on regime in which inspectors really inspected the system slowly turned into something approaching self-certification by the airlines. The FAA inspectors did little inspecting. At least in some instances, zealous FAA employees were discouraged from being thorough with their job; in part, it would appear, because their superiors wanted to maintain a cozy relationship with the airlines they were supposed to check. The ongoing investigation in the end may come up with specific offices and/or individuals responsible of negligence or worse. But the real issue highlighted by this air safety scandal runs much deeper and is much more difficult to assess, comprehend and fix.

And the problem is this: at what point, in any given context, lower standards, ignoring rules, underperformance and cutting corners become implicitly normal and acceptable? The slippery slope of standards that slowly but progressively deteriorate is very difficult to detect as it takes place. We need a major scandal such as the Southwest Airlines issue to make people focus and understand how deep the flaw is.

Of course, perfection is not achievable. Mistakes will be made.  Incompetence or corruption cannot be eliminated. But the striving to keep reasonably high standards can be encouraged and pursued only to the extent that societies on the whole remain convinced that there is a self-evident value in upholding such standards. When, for whatever reasons, this belief is no longer ingrained, then less than good is fine. Later on, less than less is also acceptable. Lower standards progressively become the new norm and nobody really minds.

And we have ample evidence that the FAA story of relaxed attitudes about airlines inspections is not an isolated instance affecting a small slice of the federal bureaucracy. They are part of a new culture of neglect. We have recurring instances of serious contamination in the food supply. Inferior hygiene standards in hospitals, mixed with high rates of human error, make some hospitals real health hazards –reminding us of the 1800s when people literally were sent to die in a hospital, because of objectively primitive and unsanitary conditions. Imported items, (witness the cases of contaminated food, medicine and toys with excessive levels of lead made in China) are not inspected because of lack of manpower and other resources. Not to mention the gigantic Katrina disaster of 2005 and all that it revealed about lack of adequate investments to prevent the disaster and the national fiasco in handling the consequences, revealing incompetence and inadequate systems.

At a different but quite related level, we see lowered standars when America accepts the progressive decay and inadequacy of basic infrastructure as an unavoidable fact of life. Of course, the country’s infrastructure (be it electric power lines, roads and bridges, airports or public schools) is not crumbling across the board, (although some pieces are). It is just getting old, (average age of bridges: 40 years), due to systemic underinvestment. Some components are revealing dangerous signs of stress; while in some instances ports and airports cannot withstand a degree of traffic that is much greater than the one they are designed for. But the widespread attitude is that, unless we have a major disaster, we can patch pieces of the system here and there and leave more radical and expensive interventions to others at a later date.

And this is the issue at hand. Somehow, elected representatives and decision makers established (even if only implicitly) a consensus whereby deteriorating systems are alright. By the way they set priorities, they decided that insufficient, aging infrastructure –the essential hard core that determines the functionality of a modern society– is not worthy of immediate attention. By implication this means that inadequate, potentially unsafe, systems are acceptable. Less then good is the new standard. 

This attitude of denial and procrastination can be justified politically by saying that, while these investments in principle may be good, right now we are facing other problems requiring immediate attention and huge expenses. Today we have a national housing crisis, along with other economic hardships for people who need help and support. 

All true. The fact is that there are always competing needs for limited resources. However, what is tragically missed in this absorbtion in the crises of the day is the understanding that a country hobbled by inferior infrastructure and lower standards progressively loses ground. It underperforms; while it produces less at a higher cost, with less added value to be handed out to anybody.

But the strategic long term implications of progressive deterioration are ignored –precisely because they are long term– and very few pay attention. Case in point, Senators Chris Dodd, democrat of Connecticut and Chuck Hagel, republican of Nebraska, in a bipartisan effort last year introduced a bill that would institute a National Infrastructure Bank, with the objective of transforming the approach to the financing of new infrastructure with the net result of getting more funds more quickly for needed projects. 

As they indicated in a preface underscoring the true urgency of this legislative intervention:

“According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the current condition of our nation’s major infrastructure systems earns a grade point average of D and jeopardizes the prosperity and quality of life of all Americans. (Bold added).

According to the Federal Transit Administration, $21.8 billion is needed annually over the next 20 years to maintain and improve the operational capacity of transit systems.

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are 1.2 million units of public housing with critical capital needs totaling $18 billion.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, $131.7 billion and $9.4 billion is needed respectively every year over the next 20 years to repair deficient roads and bridges. The average age of bridges is 40 years.”

“According…” Well, the list of pressing national needs and related costs enumerated as justification for the legislation creating the National Infrastructure Bank goes on and on…

So, major infrastruture in the US get a “D average” and very few really see this as a crisis. It is a sad coincidence that the legislation, targeting among other things deteriorated roads and bridges, was introduced on August 1, 2007: the very same day in which the I-35W bridge over the Mississipi collapsed in Minneapolis; causing a few fatalities and a national outcry. (“How can this happen in America?” “Is this the Third World?”). This was a sad but telling coincidence that should have prompted action. But it did not. Predictably, after the initial outcry, the Minneapolis accident was treated as an isolated event and not as an indicator of pervasive neglect and underinvestment in critical national assets.

True, there is talk in this political season about new investments in infrastructure. But, even assuming that the candidates are serious and believe that this is a national priority, in general the problem is not addressed in its proper framework. Infrastructure upgrades are sold to the voters mostly as a jobs program, as an expedient to absorb unemployment; thus obscuring that it is an urgent intervention in its own right; no matter how soon it can generate how many jobs.

Along the same lines of the proposed Senate legislation, the findings and recommendations of a blue ribbon bipartisan commission, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, (a high profile Washington think tank), focused on infrastructure repair and upgrade have received a brief, polite hearing. Financier Felix Rohatyn and former Senator Warren Rudman, co-chairs of this panel, proposed urgent action, not that different in its essence from the Dodd-Hagel proposed legislation. But these warnings, while they received a polite hearing, have yet to stir anybody into action. 

And yet, it would be hard to find any economist or technical expert who would discount the extremely high relevance of up to date, efficient infrastructure as a vital component of a country’s overall productivity and competitiveness. Hundreds of studies have indicated how, in the context of emerging economies, China’s massive investments in infrastructure have contributed to its growth and advantage vis-à-vis India. Indeed, it is more difficult for India, lacking substantial improvements to its road and rail networks, to develop a vibrant manufacturing economy. The current system is inadequate to efficiently move supplies to producers and goods to markets. 

Of course, the US is not India. And America is still one of the most competitive economies of the world. But not forever; by some kind of divine right. Efficiency and resulting competitiveness are the outcome of continuing investments, including large investments in infrastructure –at the same time the skeleton and the circulatory system of the society and the economy. The Rohatyn Rudman panel calculated a need for additional infrastructure investments of 1.6 trillion in the next several years. They also proposed a system to facilitate the financing of these projects, so that the profit motive would counter political and bureaucratic inertia. 

We have an election coming up. And then, come January 2009, a new Congress and a new president will have to deal with the war in Iraq and other maddeningly complex and potentially explosive issues, such as health care costs and pension reform –all this in the context of a huge federal deficit. Because of this likely scenario, infrastructure upgrades will be way down in the to do list; despite the obvious fact that so much depends on its quality and that any improvement will have positive long term effects on everything else.

Unfortunately, this procrastination is in itself an expression of diminished national vitality. The financial burdens necessary to fund tomorrow’s national vitality and competitiveness appear too large. These investments with long term benefits would take away from us the limited financial resources that we want to use now. While understandable to a degree, this attitude is myopic. If it is not going to be reversed, in the long term it can only amount to decay. 

While all this appears very gloomy, there is a positive side. If indeed the decay of societal vibrancy is the result of shifting priorities and changes that determine what is important, new awareness can reverse these changes. Unlike what happens within the realm of biology, the lowering of societal standards is not an unavoidable physical aging unavoidably leading to eventual death. Now, what causes this new frame of mind is really hard to say. But it does not get established because of a law of nature. Thus, it is not preposterous to believe that new awareness and ensuing new attitudes can reverse this trend. It takes, however, the courage to look at the facts, understand their long term implications and take action.

Political campaigns should provide the perfect opportunity to discuss and determine national priorities. However, this campaign is mostly about what how to achieve a more equitable reallocation of existing resources through revitalized social programs favoring the needy. But what is missing in the current debate is the open recognition that any reallocation postulates existing (better yet, growing) resources. The problem for America in a few years will be that, because of underinvestment –including underinvestment in an aging and underperforming national capital plant– there will be fewer resources to allocate to anybody.

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