Sunday, September 06, 2009

Anything the government can do, the free market can do better, part III

Shucks, Mike, your kind words are much appreciated. For a couple of years I haven't blogged as often as I'd like, but I do what I can. I started reading Billy's blog after his first link to me a few years ago. He's taught me a lot, not always directly, but he got me thinking through certain assumptions I clung to, which nearly all young Americans develop in a public education. They essentially boil down to this one: "But at minimum, don't we need government for ___?" It's a problem that many "libertarians" have.

In recent comments I linked to something that I was meaning to blog about for months, but I kept forgetting. I almost never listen to Rush Limbaugh's show, but I had the day off and was driving to meet someone for lunch. He talked about this story of rebuilding Polihale State Park's access road, which was destroyed by flooding. Hawaii's state government said it would cost $4 million and require two years of construction, and there was no money for it. Locals, then, did it in eight days and at their own expense. So much for two years!

Was it all out of charity? No, as the article clearly states. Business owners got involved because repairing the road was to their benefit -- decreased visitors, or none at all, meant they weren't making money. And so what if they had that motive? It was their money. Better that they invest their own, rather than the immoral situation of everyone having to pitch in for something not everyone would equally benefit from.

It's reminiscent of when Donald Trump was so disgusted with the lack of progress in rebuilding Central Park's Wollman skating rink that he spent his own money to do it. Six years and $13 million later, the city government just couldn't get anything right. A big problem was the insistence on using freon, supposedly for energy savings, rather than the salt water systems that have worked so well for years (like at Rockefeller Center, which to my knowledge has never failed to open its rink during the winter).

Trump devoted an entire chapter of The Art of the Deal to this:
I never had a master plan. I just got fed up one day and decided to do something about it....

I knew nothing about building ice-skating rinks, but I did know something about construction. If it took me two and a half years to put up a major skyscraper, surely it was possible to build a $2 million ice-skating rink in a matter of months.
Yet no rational person should be surprised that his project succeeded so well, and the first time around. He had his money and reputation on the line. "If I failed--if I was even one day late, or one dollar over budget--my plan was to pack my bags and take the next plane to Argentina. There was no way Ed Koch or anyone else would ever let me live it down." Trump explained how he asked around to learn who was the absolute best, most trusted company in rink construction. He didn't bother with soliciting bids from contractors.

The city government, on the other hand, knew that even if voters remembered news reports, who could be blamed and ousted? The city commissioned a report that itself took 15 months to complete, and in the end no one responsible for the fiasco was ever named. Trump had already offered to take over the project, always at his own expense, with the promise that any profits would be donated to charity. What was there to lose, and who could lose?

Union workers, that's who could lose, and the city council members who received their generous campaign donations. That's no small reason why public projects are inevitably constructed so slowly and shoddily; the rest is pure incompetence. When I lived in Utah, Syncrete was an infamous example of government's desire to "experiment," since, after all, it's someone else's money being risked.
Syncrete proved to be less than the superior surface it was advertised to be, and the freeway surface began crumbling shortly after the project's completion. In the end the UDOT tore out the syncrete and admitted that the experiment had been a failure.
"Less than the superior surface it was advertised to be"? That's putting it mildly. The stuff immediately started falling apart as if it were styrofoam, for crying out loud. I was young then, but old enough to understand the TV news showing these chunks all over the road. Who knows how many windshields were cracked because some semi kicked them up like any common rock.

By contrast, as I keep mentioning, I come home to a private road so excellently constructed that it's been years -- before I moved into the neighborhood -- since its last paving. Similarly, I don't remember exactly when my neighbor across the street had his driveway repaved, maybe a couple of years ago. I came home from work one day and saw it was just finished. Compare that to the week it takes just to fill in a couple of potholes on the typical public road, or the months it's taken to redo Route 6 in Putnam County.

If you scroll near the end in these comments, I was telling our new liberal troll about the pedestrian bridge near the Metro-North train station at Chappaqua. Since it began last year, I can't help but notice how slowly it's going. Since it's a public project, there's no incentive for it to be done quickly or efficiently.

An example in my county is the Tappan Zee Bridge, the biggest joke in Westchester next to Andy Spano's "governance." The bridge opened in 1955 and, I recall, cost $500 million (approximately $4 billion in today's dollars). It's not even six decades old yet is already falling apart. Even the second London Bridge, surely built with inferior technology and materials, lasted over 130 years before it needed replacing.

Instead of repaving, raised metal plates are used for repairs, such utter crap that they don't even rise to the level of "makeshift" or "jury-rigging." I drive across the bridge once in a while, and I can assure you that 1.5 inches wreaks havoc on your car, no matter what "ramp plates" are claimed to use. The ramps up and down make the surface effectively sinusoidal. The amplitude is relatively small, certainly, but at vehicular speeds it's jarring enough that you must slow down. And that slows down the driver behind you, the one behind him, and so on.

This is a bridge where a simple repair has caused one-hour delays, stretching 13 miles back into Rockland County. The repair crews closed two of the four Westchester-bound lanes just to repair one pothole, and in the middle of the morning rush hour! Oh, and in case you don't notice it from the article, the crew didn't even fill in the pothole: they put another metal plate over it!

Update: look here to see what the plates look like, and here for a picture of them installed. You really have to drive over them to experience how terrible they are. And who is surprised that there are "cost overruns"?

This would have never happened in a free market, which is based on freedom and competition, not politics and favoritism. Someone else would have started building a competing bridge, and the better one would be getting all the business. At the very least, the bridge's owner-operator would have done such a repair only until after rush hour, or late at night, and certainly not by putting another damn metal plate over it.

In a free market, one private party contracts with another, and each side has to eat any "overruns" on his end. Thus it's to both sides' benefit that the contracts is negotiated honestly, with all expected costs and timetables taken into account.

The central planners, though, are as stupid as ever. They're looking to build a new bridge. Of course, it's easy for anyone to advocate building an entirely new one when it's not his money at stake:
Mark Kulewicz, director of traffic engineering and safety service at the Automobile Club of New York (the local affiliate of the AAA), advocated a new bridge as follows:

Instead of spending $1 billion to patch up a bridge that is already straining to handle the region's growing traffic volume, why not avoid all those years of messy construction delays and invest $4 billion in a modern structure that can serve more commuters, and in new ways?
Actually, the plan announced last September was for a $6.4 billion bridge, which tells us we should count on at least $10 billion before it's done.

Ask yourself: what could the free market do for $4 billion? What could it have done for the $286 billion highway bill, which Congressional Democrats are aiming to increase to $400 billion with its successor?

Update: here's a Times article that puts the total cost of a new bridge, plus expanded train and bus lines, at $16 billion:
Officials also looked at the possibility of rehabilitating the current bridge, which was built 52 years ago, but [State Transportation Commissioner Astrid Glynn] said that was a costly and complex project.
And $16 billion for the replacement is not costly?

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