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Published: Sun, 23 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sun, 23 Apr 2017 01:50:55 -0400


Federal Infrastructure Spending Is a Bad Deal

Thu, 09 Feb 2017 06:00:00 -0500

In his first address as president-elect, Donald Trump repeated his campaign promise to invest in America's infrastructure. "We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals," he said. "We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it." His plan is for the federal government to entice private investors with $137 billion in tax credits. The idea is that this will unleash up to $1 trillion worth of infrastructure investment over 10 years, spur economic growth, and create countless American jobs. Politicians' love affair with infrastructure spending isn't new. Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and many before them have paid their respects to the idea. Economists have long recognized that roads, bridges, airports, and canals are the conduits through which goods are exchanged, and as such, infrastructure can play a productive role in economic growth. But not all infrastructure spending is equal. Ample literature shows, in fact, that it's a particularly bad vehicle for stimulus and does not, in practice, boost short-term jobs or economic growth. To work that way, government spending would have to be used quickly to put the unemployed to work on shovel-ready projects. But as Obama discovered in 2009 when he tried to spend $47 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on infrastructure, there aren't that many shovel-ready projects lying around. And since job seekers rarely have the skills needed to start building a bridge or highway right away, employers are forced to poach workers from their existing jobs. Publicly funded infrastructure projects often aren't good investments in the long term, either. Most spending orchestrated by the federal government suffers from terrible incentives that lead to malinvestment—resources wasted in inefficient ways and on low-priority efforts. Projects get approved for political reasons and are either totally unnecessary or harmed by cost overruns and corruption. For example, we know that infrastructure investment produces the highest returns when it supports already-expanding cities and regions. Yet politicians' tendency is to spend in declining areas, where dollars can't help as many people, such as Detroit and Cleveland. Government statistics show that our infrastructure isn't actually crumbling. While conditions vary from state to state, the most recent data on highway quality (from 2012) classify 80 percent of urban highways as either good or acceptable. For rural highways, the figure is almost 97 percent. Meanwhile, the quality of bridges has improved as well. In 2004, 5.7 percent of bridges were classed as structurally deficient, meaning that the bridge isn't unsafe but that it could suffer from a reduction in its load-carrying activities. By 2014 that number had declined to 4.2 percent. Still, our infrastructure could use some work. Recently, in a debate at the Aspen Ideas Festival with former National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, the economist Robert Barro noted that he was "glad that Larry and I can agree that fixing potholes is the most productive activity in government." Unfortunately, the political process is biased against dull but valuable projects, such as basic road maintenance, and biased in favor of flashy or grandiose projects, such as high-speed rail, the Big Dig, and the Bridge to Nowhere. The process also systematically overestimates the benefits and underestimates the price of infrastructure projects. On the bright side, Trump wants to address the "mountain of red tape" that slows down construction projects. His plan would link spending to reforms that "streamline permitting and approvals, improve the project delivery system, and cut wasteful spending on boondoggles." He shouldn't stop there. A new report by Michael Sargent at the Heritage Foundation encourages the president-elect to reduce the federal role in highway construction and mass transit. I [...]

Will Donald Trump Screw Up V.A. Privatization? Probably.

Fri, 30 Dec 2016 17:00:00 -0500

(image) As my colleague Peter Suderman has pointed out, Donald Trump's rumored privatization plan for the Veterans Affairs hospitals is not much of a plan at all. It seems like some Trump official, somewhere, speaking anonymously said the words system, vets, choose, and private in close proximity and that's really all we know.

But let's assume some kind of privatization plan is, in fact, afoot. Is that good news?

While there's a chance that the right people will be at the helm to craft this plan (I know some smart guys, if anyone's interested) and a robust and carefully considered privatization scheme could be enacted, based on what we know about Trump so far it seems far more likely that we'll wind up with something that looks like a giveaway to private business without the corresponding market mechanisms that are necessary for such a reform effort to show results. At the heart of the idea of privatization is the idea that when providers fail to actually deliver products or services as promised, they no longer get paid. Contracts must be canceled for legitimate (non-political) reasons, and companies must be allowed to fail for privatization to succeed. The V.A. hospitals' immunity to competition and veterans' inability to seek care elsewhere were two of the biggest reasons waiting lists got as long as they did.

True privatization is tricky to do correctly—though not impossible! As the Reason Foundation attests, it happens all the time in the real world on the state and local level in particular. But if the Carrier deal is at all instructive about how the Trump administration is going handle relations between the state and the private sector, some bullying of major market players combined with watered down cronyism and politically expedient favoritism looks like the most likely outcome. Which means that veterans may indeed wind up getting even worse care that the deeply troubled V.A. was providing. What's more, a messy half-assed reform effort with the word privatization slapped on the package will give future efforts at thoroughgoing privatization a bad name.

Those of us who are keen on privatization should take a moment to feel deep empathy for those on the other side of the political spectrum. I can only imagine the anticipatory agony of envisioning Trump-administered faux privatization is similar to what advocates of single-payer health care must have felt as they watched the Affordable Care Act take shape. The might-have-beens are cruel indeed.

I was on Kennedy talking about this very topic yesterday. Check it out:

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Gurgaon: India's Private City

Thu, 15 Dec 2016 12:15:00 -0500

The last time I was in India, it was a familiar scene. The rickshaws rumbling through busy bazaars. Shoppers haggling over everything from gemstones to silk sarees. Pilgrims prostrating their way to salvation. Authentic street food, enhanced by locally-sourced infectious pathogens. This time around, I knew the country had changed. I wanted to see the effects of thirteen years of market reform and hypergrowth since my last visit. So I summoned an Uber (already something new) and headed 15 miles south of my Delhi hotel. As the crumbling roads of the capital city opened up into a 32-lane expressway, the old India I thought I knew, gave way to the future. I'd arrived in the city of Gurgaon. It's hard to imagine, but twenty-five years ago, there was nothing here. No high-rises. No kitschy shopping malls with Vegas-like trompe l'oeil ceilings. No 27-hole Jack Nicklaus signature golf courses. Stretching back to medieval times, Gurgaon was nothing more than a plot of rocky soil with a small marketplace. Until six years ago, it didn't even have a municipal government. So what happened? When Delhi banned private real estate development in the 1950s, Kushal Pal Singh began buying land south of the city limits. His company, Delhi Land and Finance, offered cash and equity stakes to farmers in Gurgaon. Many of these cowherds became instant crorepatis—millionaires, in the local lingo—while KP Singh would become the fifth richest man in India by the turn of the century. The state of Haryana eased land use restrictions, making it easy for developers to use their land as they saw fit. But once land was converted from farmland to commercial use, it was still classified as rural. That's how Gurgaon ended up as a city without a city government. Haryana also allowed women to work past 6pm—a bold policy decision in a socially conservative country. Without flexible labor laws, India would never have been able to develop its famous call center industry, where phone operators must work through the night in order to match times around the world. Maruti was the first to arrive with an auto manufacturing plant in the 1980s. As India stepped back from socialism in the 90s, foreign investment bypassed Delhi, and poured into Gurgaon. When General Electric set up shop, hundreds of multinationals followed. Soon Gurgaon was generating middle class jobs by the hundreds of thousands. Today, it boasts an absurd 30 percent annual GDP growth and the third highest per-capital income in India. Over time, other developers have entered the market, competing with DLF, and diluting its share of Gurgaon. But DLF remains the dominant provider of roads, sewage systems, security, and India's only private fire department. While Gurgaon isn't exactly crime free—the crime rate is on par with Phoenix, Arizona—it doesn't lack for protection. 35,000 private security guards keep a watchful eye on the city, compared with 3,000 public officers. Gurgaon's services and cleanliness are like nothing else I've seen in the country. India's only privately run metro system is fast, modern, and efficient. Employees compulsively sweep floors that already look spotless. It's unclear if Gurgaon's metro turns a profit. But as it increases the value of land owned by DLF and others, it may have already accomplished its mission. I'd like to tell you that Gurgaon has solved all of India's problems. But even here, in the beating heart of hypergrowth, the worst of Old India stubbornly refuses to die. Sixteen percent of Gurgaon's population lives in slums. If that seems like a lot to you, the shocker is that it's less than the average Indian city. There are 150 million fewer poor people in India since my last visit. That's half of the population of the United States, lifted out of the slums. India's achievements over the past decade are awe-inspiring. But as my own country turns its back on the same global markets that transformed a rocky patch of farmland into a metropolis of two million souls, I can only hope that Gurgaon has many[...]

Will Homeland Security Continue to Use Private Prison Companies?

Fri, 19 Aug 2016 12:28:00 -0400

The Justice Department's surprise announcement Thursday that it will phase out its contracts with private prison companies sent shockwaves through the criminal justice world and private prison industry, but the bigger question is whether the decision will pressure the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to sever its considerably larger ties with private contractors as well. As I noted yesterday, the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons contracts with private companies to run 13 prisons, which house about 12 percent—or 22,000 inmates—of the federal prison population, most of them foreign nationals. But private prison contractors currently run 46 U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigrant detention centers, housing about 70 percent—about 24,000 people a day on average—of the detainees held by ICE. While the stocks of major private prison companies were taking a nosedive on the news of the DOJ announcement, The Washington Post reported just this week on a sweetheart $1 billion deal between DHS and Corrections Corporation of America, the largest prison company in the U.S., to build a huge new facility to house Central American asylum seekers. In 2015, CCA made $221 million, 13 percent of its overall revenue, from ICE contracts, according to a Center for American Progress report. Asked if ICE would continue to contract with private prison companies, a spokeswoman said the agency "remains committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody. For individuals in its custody, ICE seeks to reduce transfers, maximize access to counsel and visitation, promote recreation, improve conditions of confinement and ensure quality medical, mental health and dental care." Which doesn't really answer the question one way or the other, but an ICE official also noted that ICE's immigrant detention facilities serve very different purposes than Bureau of Prison facilities. ICE detention centers, the official said, are not for punitive or rehabilitative purposes, but exist to hold detainees awaiting resolution of their immigration cases or until their removal order is completed. However, the detention centers, especially ones used to house migrant families, have been accused by watchdogs and critics of inhumane conditions and unethical behavior. GEO Group, a private prison company that runs one of those immigrant detention centers, strongly denied the accusations. The three major private prison companies that the Bureau of Prisons contracts with say the Justice Department's decision was based on a faulty inspector general report that failed to take into account the different populations between their facilities and regular BOP prisons. Their facilities, they argue, house mostly foreign nationals, many of whom are violent gang members. Civil liberties groups and critics of private prisons are already putting pressure on the Department of Homeland Security to follow suit. David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, called the Justice Department's announcement "an important and groundbreaking and decision." "With its announcement today, the Justice Department has made clear that the end of the Bureau of Prisons' two-decade experiment with private prisons is finally in sight," Fathi said. "The ACLU applauds today's decision and calls on other agencies — both state and federal — to stop handing control of prisons to for-profit companies." Rebecca Vallas, the managing director of the Center for American Progress' Poverty to Prosperity Program, said the DOJ decision a "long overdue step with both actual and symbolic value." "Too many for-profit prisons have become havens of brutal force, unlivable conditions, inadequate nutrition, and denial of needed medical and mental health care, driven by incentives to keep costs down," Vallas said. "The Department of Homeland Security and the states should follow DOJ's example and bring their own contracts with private prisons compan[...]

Justice Department to End Contracts with Private Prison Companies

Thu, 18 Aug 2016 12:40:00 -0400

The Justice Department will end or significantly reduce its contracts with private prison companies, citing more safety problems and lesser quality of services, The Washington Post reported Thursday. In a memo, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said private prisons "served an important role during a difficult time period," but safety incidents and other problems led her to conclude that they "simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department's Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security." The private prison industry has been under intense scrutiny from media outlets and progressive activists, not to mention Democratic presidential candidates, but the decision will ultimately only affect 13 privately run federal prisons, which mostly house non-citizens. About 88 percent of federal prisoners are housed in facilities run by the government, as are vast majority of those incarcerated at the state and local level. Yates cited a Justice Department Inspector General report released last week that found higher per capita rates of safety incidents, use of force, lockdowns, inmate discipline, and contraband than at facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons. The report noted several high-profile safety incidents at privately run prisons, such as an inmate riot over alleged inadequate services that essentially destroyed a $60 million privately run federal prison in Texas. In a statement, a spokesperson for Management & Training Corporation, one of three private prison companies the Justice Department contracts with, said "the facts don't support the allegations." "Contract prisons have long provided valuable, cost efficient, and effective services to the BOP," the spokesperson said. "If the DOJ's decision to end the use of contract prisons were based solely on declining inmate populations, there may be some justification, but to base this decision on cost, safety and security, and programming is wrong." In response letters to the inspector general report from CCA and GEO Group, the two other companies the Justice Department contracts with, the companies cited the large population of foreign nationals and gang members in its facilities as a driving factor in the higher number of incidents. A CCA official wrote that the"criminal alien population housed in contract prisons" were "significantly more likely to be involved in violence and misconduct." The Bureau of Prisons began contracting with private prison companies in 1997 to help curb overcrowding. However, as of December 2015, the BOP was still operating at 20 percent over capacity, despite the federal prison population dropping in 2014 for the first time in three decades. As the Reason Foundation (which publishes Reason magazine) has pointed out before, the federal and state systems will still have to absorb the populations of current privately operated prisons somehow if their use is discontinued. An Inspector General report from earlier this year found chronic medical staff shortages at BOP facilities—due to trouble competing with private employers—contributed to lack of access to medical care for inmates. The Reason Foundation's Annual Privatization Report 2015 found private prisons housed 141,921, or 9 percent, of the total 1.57 million federal and state inmates in 2013.[...]

How Privatization and Competition Freed the Web and Made the Modern World Possible

Sat, 11 Jun 2016 07:55:00 -0400

How the Internet Became Commercial: Innovation, Privatization, and the Birth of a New Network, by Shane Greenstein, Princeton University Press, 488 pages, $35  In 1991, the internet was one data communications protocol among many competitors. It had taken hold in a collection of research and education institutions serving less than 2 percent of the population. A small, government-funded backbone that tried to exclude all commercial use held its participating networks together. Twenty-five years later, the internet protocol is the lingua franca of the global digital economy. Nearly 4 billion people worldwide depend on it. It is the platform for the business giants of the 21st century—Google, Apple, Facebook, Ali Baba—and the site of monumental battles over regulation and governance. An entire digital ecosystem has grown up around the internet as it evolved from a government-sponsored research community to a commercial economy. Dozens of books, academic papers, and magazine articles describe different aspects of that change. What we've long needed is a comprehensive history that synthesizes all those elements into a single narrative. How the Internet Became Commercial, a new book by the Harvard economist Shane Greenstein, is an imperfect but noteworthy attempt to fill that gap. Greenstein asks: How did economic forces, government policies, and prevailing norms and institutions interact to encourage or discourage the decentralized innovation that we have come to associate with the internet economy? He devotes most of his attention to the economic part of this triad, with institutional analysis coming in a distant third. The narrative begins with the privatization of the National Science Foundation (NSF) backbone—the larger network connecting all the local and regional networks—from 1992 to 1995. This opened up what had been a fairly closed network for education and research institutions to commercial use, and it replaced a single government backbone contractor with multiple competing private connectivity providers. We see the emergence of private internet service providers (ISPs) and an unregulated, decentralized market for interconnection among them. We also see the importance of dial-up Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) as entrants driving competition in the ISP market. Making the jump from BBS to ISP was relatively easy in terms of the capital investment and expertise required. As demand for internet access grew, what had been a small, localized BBS market for computer nerds exchanging files and messages became a mass market for web access. There is a useful, if stylistically labored, comparison of the early internet boom to the California gold rush. Greenstein is particularly good on the emergence of the World Wide Web and the commercialization of the web browser, including the early browser war between Netscape and Microsoft. Developed in research institutes while internet use was still primarily noncommercial, the web protocols for linking documents and other resources on the network, coupled with the browser's graphical user interface, pushed computer networking into mass adoption from 1992 to 1995. As internet content and applications increased and became richer, Greenstein shows the deepening of capital investment in the telecommunications infrastructure due to user demand for faster upload and download speeds. Dial-up modems went from 2.4 to 56 kilobits per second, and from there to broadband cable modems. Equally important, established firms such as IBM and brick-and-mortar enterprises adapted to the internet, which facilitated organizational efficiencies through more extensive access to relevant information about supply chains, work teams, accounting, and so on. An illuminating chapter is devoted to Google's origins in an NSF-funded research project at Stanford, and to the powerful connections between search and advertising that were subsequently forged. The book also ex[...]

Private Is Better

Wed, 25 May 2016 00:01:00 -0400

Our next president will almost certainly be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. But I take heart knowing that America's founders imposed checks and balances, so there will be limits on what bad things the next president can do. Most of what government does is expensive and useless, no matter who is president. Or governor. Or mayor. Politicians say there are so many things only government should do—explore outer space, provide airport security, supply utilities, etc. But even those things work better when the private sector does them. NASA put rockets into space. But the private company SpaceX found a way to bring those same rockets safely back to earth. SpaceX now puts satellites in orbit for much less than NASA thought possible. Private, competitive enterprises routinely find ways to do things more efficiently than lazy bureaucracies. After all, government can keep screwing up forever and just tax you more. But private companies must make a profit or die. "Everybody loves the space program," says Lori Garver on my TV show this week. Garver was President Obama's former No. 2 at NASA, but now she admits, "It's a government bureaucracy. Their incentives are not to do things more efficiently." Obama actually tried to privatize more of it. "NASA uses test stands that cost $300 million to refurbish, says Garver. "When I went to (Amazon's) Jeff Bezos's facility, Blue Origins, they were building the same quality test stand for $30 million... That is crazy." Airport security also works better when government doesn't run it. After 9/11, politicians wanted to show they were making airport security tougher. Republicans at least vowed that workers of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would not be unionized. But a few years later, Democrats won, and the TSA became unionized. Now, lines are extra long, and the union whines that it needs more resources. That would be more money wasted. Fortunately, Congress allows airports to beg for the right to opt out of the government-run system. Security lines move faster at airports that have. At San Francisco International Airport, the largest to privatize, travelers even told us the screeners were nicer. They're also better at finding stuff. The TSA tested them and found them twice as good at finding contraband as TSA screeners. Private companies try harder. San Francisco's company has screeners practice racing to find mock contraband. The fastest wins $2,000. More airports are asking the Department of Homeland Security to allow them to use private screeners. DHS stalls, because governments rarely relinquish power voluntarily. In quiet ways, privatization keeps improving our lives. A thousand American cities have now switched from government-run to private water systems. When the government-run system in Flint, Michigan, poisoned people, pundits made it sound like cold-hearted Republican politicians created the problem. But government at all levels and of both parties failed in Flint. Government water departments routinely neglect basic maintenance. In Jersey City, New Jersey, they let the pipes rust. The water didn't taste good, failed government's own tests—and kept getting more expensive. City workers said there wasn't anything they could do. "It can't be done" is an answer heard in bureaucracies everywhere. So the mayor put the water contract out for bid. A for-profit company won. Within months, the private company fixed pipes the government couldn't fix. But the private company hired the same government workers. I asked some: Are you working harder now? "Yes. You're always on the go," one said. "Were you goofing off before?" I asked. "Sitting around?" "Well, occasionally, yes," one worker admitted. "What if the private company screws up?" I asked the man who privatized the system back when he was mayor, Bret Schundler. "They're fired. They're toast. If they blow it, we're going to give the contract to somebody el[...]

What To Do About Flint? Evacuate The Residents And Turn it Into a Landfill for Liberal Good Intentions

Thu, 11 Feb 2016 13:03:00 -0500

Private companies had as much to do with Flint’s lead poisoning as Adam Smith had to do with the bread lines in the former Soviet Union. In fact, as I have noted before, Flint was a government-made disaster from top to bottom. Private companies didn’t run the system or profit from it. Government officials switched Flint from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (a government-owned-and-operated system) to the more—not less—expensive Karegnondi Water Authority (another government-owned-and-operated system). Why? Because it would create union jobs and boost the local economy. This wasn’t an austerity cost-cutting effort but a stimulus move, as I noted previously. But since KWA wasn’t going to be ready in time, government officials decided to reopen a local mothballed plant that drew water from the polluted Flint River. That’s what caused the poisoning. Authorities certainly thought that ditching Detroit would save them money. But given that KWA was going to cost $800 million more over 30 years, it is really hard to argue that the interim arrangement was driven by austerity concerns. However, liberals have a story and they are sticking to it, facts be damned, as my colleague Robby Soave noted. So if they can’t pin the debacle on private companies, then “private sector ideology” will do just fine. Thank you, very much! Among the first to identify this ideology as the real culprit was Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. And now The Nation’s Michelle Chen in a piece entitled “Water Privatizers Have Their Eye on Flint’s Lead Crisis” rails: “The cruel calculation of risking public health to choose ‘cheaper’ source of water is less a product of bureaucratic incompetence than that of a corporate mindset that monetizes human welfare.” If only! Indeed, had Flint “monetized human welfare,” it wouldn’t be in so much trouble. Let’s review the facts: Flint has been under a state-appointed emergency manager since 2011 because it failed to “balance its books”—a euphemistic way of saying that it was spending its citizens blind. Why? There are many reasons, but one is that the city’s public unions for decades extracted lavish benefits for their employees while saddling taxpayers with the costs. Indeed, Flint’s unfunded pension liabilities right now exceed $1 billion—about 20 times the city’s $51 million annual budget. What’s more, Flint charged its water customers—indeed, still does—on average $140 monthly, far more than many other cities in the county and elsewhere. Now consider what would have happened if one of Chen’s imaginary rapacious profiteer had been in control in Flint and had run up the company credit card to overpay its employees and then overcharged company customers to pay its credit card. Shareholders would have pulled out, regulators would have been on its ass, customers would have gone elsewhere, and the company would have collapsed. What happened to Flint? It simply became ripe for a state takeover, which didn’t mean substituting competent managers for incompetent managers as might have happened with a private company. No. It meant having it run by two sets of incompetent managers. Although, technically the tragic decision to switch the city to the local Flint River plant rather than have it stick with Detroit happened on the state emergency manager’s watch, there is reason to believe that the emergency manager was doing the local politicos' bidding (not the least because the Detroit emergency manager was accused of being too much of a hardass and insufficiently cooperative with Mayor David Bing or the city council). This is not in any way meant to absolve Gov. Rick Snyder or Flint’s emergency managers of blame. Hey, they had a hand in breaking Flint, so they own it. That means state taxpayers should be on the hook for fixing the mess, and Gov. Snyder—and[...]

Republicans Vow to Hunt Down Flint Emergency Manager Responsible for 'Government-Made Catastrophe'

Thu, 04 Feb 2016 10:27:00 -0500

At a congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis, Republican Rep, Jason Chaffetz vowed to “hunt down” emergency manager Darnell Earley and drag him to Washington, D.C., to explain why he did nothing while citizens drank poisoned water for months. “We're calling on the U.S. Marshals to hunt him down and give him that subpoena,” said Chaffetz. Rep. Justin Amash was equally critical of Earley, as well as the emergency financial manager law—which allowed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to install unelected administrators in positions of extreme power in failing cities like Flint. “It’s outrageous that this sort of government-mad catastrophe would happen anywhere in the United States,” said Amash, who maintained that the state of Michigan and not the federal government should cough up the money to fix the problem. Two bureaucrats testified at the hearing: Keith Creagh, the new head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the EPA’s Joel Beauvais, who blamed each other’s agencies for myriad failures that created the disaster. LeeAnne Walters, a former resident of Flint, and Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who helped uncover the truth about Flint’s water, also testified. Edwards was unfailingly critical of the manner in which the government oversaw the crisis. He repeatedly claimed that the DEQ and EPA simply refused to follow the law and obey their own standards, and are directly responsible for the damage they caused. Edwards expanded on those thoughts in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he accused government agencies of stifling dissent. Scientists and experts have every incentive not to criticize the government, he said, because they rely on government funding for their research: In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things. If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem. In summary, Flint’s environmental regulators were asleep at the wheel, but nobody wanted to call them out, because bad things happen to people who criticize the government. The horribly mismanaged water system was the result of government planning born of economic ignorance. So far, relief has come in the form of private corporations donating millions of bottles of water. Has there ever been a more compelling case for privatization of publicly-run government services?[...]

Here’s How to Fix Flint’s Water System: Privatize It

Mon, 01 Feb 2016 08:00:00 -0500

Social media sites are awash in pictures of Flint’s awful water. Local children exposed to lead will likely face long term health consequences—and it appears that kids suffer from high lead levels in many Michigan cities. Amidst revelations that the state of Michigan made sure its Flint employees had clean water long before taking action on the rapidly declining tap water, maybe shame will at last lead state and local officials to look at how to fix the water utility. And maybe other localities can start thinking about how to best prevent the next mass water poisoning. It isn’t rocket science. There are more than 50,000 water utilities in the United States, and more than 50,000 of them are providing safe drinking water. When things go wrong—as they did in Flint—bad political and management decision are to blame.  On the political side, it is clear that state and local officials papered over the crisis as long as they could, apparently hoping for some miracle to save them from facing the music. Paul Krugman blames stingy Republicans trying to save money, part of the left-wing narrative that presumes more spending would have prevented the crisis. But as Reason’s Shikha Dalmia has reported, Flint’s water decisions were driven by dreams of economic stimulus. Officials knowingly chose a more expensive approach widely predicted to experience delays.  These delays left the city with nothing but nasty water. Meanwhile, the utility managers who were supposed to ensure the water coming out of taps was safe, and the state regulators who oversaw them, botched the job. Improper testing protocols and practices, on top of bad political decisions, made it hard for consumers to discern the emerging problem and allowed the utility to provide toxic water to people’s homes for months. It is very unlikely any of this could have happened if Flint’s water utility had been private.  Maybe with Walmart, Coca Cola, Pepsi, and other companies overcoming their greed to donate massive amounts of bottled water to Flint residents, suspicion of privatizing water utilities will lessen. Nearly 75 million people in the U.S. get their water from a private utility: almost a quarter of the population. Most probably don’t even know it. And about 1,000 cities in the country have hired a private company to operate their publicly-owned water utility. This is a long running practice. Back in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton’s Environmental Protection Agency said that privatizing water utilities “can be used by communities to provide needed environmental services more efficiently” and “can be used as a way to provide substantial benefits to both the public and private sectors, creating the classic ‘win-win’ situation.” Indeed a number of communities privatized their water utilities in order to get them into compliance with EPA safe-drinking-water standards. Under government operation, they would have never gotten there. Flint residents could learn from the example set by Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1993, Milwaukee’s water supply suffered an outbreak of cryptosporidium and had to invest big bucks in new filtration. Since the most likely culprit was their own sewage going into Lake Michigan, they privatized their wastewater utility and required the private company to clean the water even more thoroughly than the EPA requires.  Over 20 years later, privatization is still going strong for Milwaukee. This illustrates a key difference between public and private water utilities—oversight. If Flint’s water utility had been private, it would not have been allowed by state regulators to provide toxic water to citizens. Workers would have been forced to make the investments to fix the problem in the most cost-effective manner. But it probably would not even have come to that. [...]

Guvmint Is Not Done Screwing Over Flint Water Victims Yet

Fri, 29 Jan 2016 09:11:00 -0500


The Flint water mess is wholly and solely a government creation, as I have noted before. But innocent taxpayers— federal and state—are on the hook to pay for the cleanup. President Obama has announced an $85 million "relief" package for Flint victims and is also considering handing everyone under 21 years free Medicaid (arguably a fate worse than drinking poisoned water itself!). Snyder himself has arranged for $28 million in state aid.

All of this sounds like a lot of money, but it is actually a pittance compared not just to what Flint residents are in for but also what General Motors and Toyota have paid their crash victims, I point out in my morning column at The Week.

The main reason why Flint residents won't get more is that, unlike private companies, they can't sue the government, thanks to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects government from tort lawsuits. In fact, prestigious law firms that are representing victims of the recent California gas leak in a class action lawsuit against Southern California Gas Co., owned by the non-governmental Sempra Energy, are so far declining to help Flint victims because the odds that they will succeed against the government are low to zero.

"Scrapping or at least circumscribing sovereign immunity may be worth considering although that isn't a great answer because it will only expose taxpayers to liability for snafus they have not committed," I note.

The real answer, however, is privatization, getting the government out of the business of running utilities completely. But that will of course give lefto-liberals like Castro lover Michael Moore a coronary—which would be reason alone to go for it.

Go here to read the whole piece.

Creating a Private Yellowstone: Environmental Entrepreneurship in Action

Mon, 28 Dec 2015 17:37:00 -0500

(image) In my article, "Where the Private Buffalo Roam and the Private Antelope Play," I reported earlier this year on the efforts of the American Prairie Reserve to to create a private-public wildlife domain the size of Connecticut in eastern Montana. The idea is to basically recreate the wild landscape that Lewis and Clark would have seen including herds of bison and antelope. Eventually the reserve would also be home to free-roaming grizzly bears, mountain lions, and wolves. Of course, neighbors have to agree to tolerate living with willdlife.

In today's New York Times, Pete Geddes, the managing director of the reserve, explains in an op-ed, "The Yellowstone of the Future," how enviropreneurs are offering incentives to private ranchers to manage their land in wildlife friendly ways:

Increasing wildlife populations is a sociological problem. Ranchers are asked to bear some of the costs without seeing benefits and hence view wildlife as a threat to their economic security. To change this dynamic, we’ve started a for-profit beef company selling a brand called Wild Sky, a business that fits well with the state’s ranching culture — and culture is an important variable often overlooked by conservationists.

(image) Here’s how it works. Wild Sky ranchers agree to modify their operations in accordance with our conservation goals by, for example, not tilling native prairie or killing prairie dogs. In return Wild Sky pays them a premium when they sell their cattle. Much like a frequent-flier program, ranchers choosing to do more receive higher payments. For example, we install camera traps on ranchers’ land and offer payment for photos of species we wish to restore, like mountain lions and bears.

This business is only a year old and yet has been profitable since August, selling about 50,000 pounds of beef per month across the country. And Wild Sky is not our only for-profit venture. For several years the High West Distillery, headquartered in Park City, Utah, has produced American Prairie Bourbon, giving 10 percent of the profits on this label to our nonprofit. The hybrid conservation model allows this sort of experimentation to augment traditional fund-raising. ...

Around the world, “environmental entrepreneurs,” as we call ourselves, are creating alternatives to the traditional models of nature protection — filling a void left by governments either unwilling or unable to act. Our role is a vital, but often underappreciated, piece of the conservation puzzle, and it can be used as a model to protect the world’s natural legacy.

With the advent of peak farmland, more and more land will be available for returning to nature. The American Prairie Reserve is offering a possible model for how to get folks to agree to rewilding much of North America.

Dept. of Veterans Affairs Turns to Private Sector for Help

Wed, 11 Nov 2015 14:22:00 -0500

Overloaded and ill-equipped to handle thousands of veterans needing mental health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is now seeking help from the private sector. The agency recently entered talks with the Warrior Care Network (WCN) in hopes of becoming formally involved with this unique solution to veteran health care woes. The WCN is a network of private hospitals across the country that will offer outpatient mental health care to thousands of veterans free of charge. WCN is a program founded by the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), a non-profit that works to raise awareness for the needs of wounded veterans. It will be a collaborative effort among four major medical centers across the country to diagnose and rehabilitate veterans while also working towards innovative treatment techniques by sharing case studies and research. The network is set to treat 3,000 to 4,000 veterans a year and has promised to ensure those who are eligible for network care will "not be denied access to state-of-the-art, patient-centered care due to their geographic location or inability to pay." News of this partnership comes a week after the Government Accountability Office released its most recent report on the troubles at the VA, claiming the agency has yet to be consistent in giving veterans timely mental health care treatment. The WCN is just one way the VA is looking toward the private sector to help meet demands: it is proposing a program, Veterans Choice, that would allow more veterans to seek care privately. However, this program needs congressional approval and funding which will take time, potentially years. The WCN, on the other hand, was announced this past June and will launch early 2016. Funding is primarily from the WWP, contributing $15 million in three years to each of the partnering hospitals; each hospital will provide a matching grant of $7.5 million.  WCN welcomes this partnership with the VA, citing the need to have health care professionals familiar with military life. Stars and Stripes reports: It could be "a game-changer for veterans," said Jeremy Chwat, chief strategy officer at Wounded Warrior Project. "The reason we pursued this, in large part, is that in findings year over year in our survey, warriors are struggling to access mental health care on a daily basis," he said. "There's a dearth of culturally competent clinicians to meet the need." Participating hospitals include: Emory Healthcare's Veterans Program in Atlanta, the Home Base Program at Massachusetts General in Boston, Operation Mend at UCLA Health in Los Angeles and the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. For more on the crisis at the VA, check out Reason TV's 2013 documentary, "Is Government Bureaucracy Failing Our Vets?" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0" src="">[...]

The Ghost Trains of Great Britain

Wed, 30 Sep 2015 11:45:00 -0400

Writing at the BBC's website, Amanda Ruggeri describes the "many train services around Britain that run with empty carriages—sometimes once or twice a day, sometimes as rarely as once a week. Sometimes even ticket sellers don't know they exist, and it takes dedicated amateurs to seek them out."

She isn't kidding about those dedicated amateurs: The routes are so strange, so seemingly pointless, that they have attracted the attention of hobbyists who hunt for them as a sort of sport. This can be a tricky business. "Since the trains are run on extremely inconvenient schedules, sometimes without a return trip, sometimes before sunrise, the journey means a lot of legwork," Ruggeri writes. "If there is anyone else on the train, it's probably another ghost train enthusiast."

So why do these lines exist? Chalk it up to political incentives:

(image) Given the overcrowding on Britain's trains, it may seem odd for these empty carriages to ride the rails—or for empty stations to stand sentry over them. From 1995-96 to 2011-12, the total number of miles ridden by train passengers leapt by 91%, while the entire UK train fleet grew by only 12%.

"Ghost trains are there just for a legal placeholder to prevent the line from being closed," says Bruce Williamson, national spokesperson for the advocacy group RailFuture. Or as Colin Divall, professor of railway studies at the University of York, puts it: "It's a useless, limited service that's borderline, and the reason that it's been kept is there would be a stink if anyone tried to close it."

That is the crux of why the ghost trains still exist. A more official term is "parliamentary trains," a name that stems from past years when an Act of Parliament was needed to shut down a line. Many train operators kept running empty trains to avoid the costs and political fallout—and while this law has since changed, the same pressures remain.

Closing down a line is cumbersome. There must first be a transport appraisal analysing the effect of a closure on passengers, the environment and the economy. The proposal is submitted to the Department of Transport and at that point its details must be published in the press, six months ahead of the closure. Then comes a 12-week consultation period, during which time anyone is welcome to protest; public hearings are sometimes held, especially if the closure is controversial. Then, finally, the plans are submitted to the Office of Rail and Road, who decide if the line closes.

As a result it often costs less—in terms of time, paperwork and taxpayers' money—to keep a line running at a bare minimum.

Britain's railroads were denationalized two decades ago. But the private rails still get plenty of government subsidies—and, evidently, plenty of government controls.

Why Bernie Sanders Is Wrong About Private Prisons

Tue, 29 Sep 2015 08:00:00 -0400

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined three House Democrats in introducing criminal justice reform legislation—the "Justice is Not For Sale Act of 2015"—that includes provisions banning the use of all private prisons by federal, state and local governments within two years. Setting aside that this is likely a political nonstarter in the current Congress, it should also be a policy nonstarter too. The proposed private prison ban is the sort of pandering pablum that may appeal to Sanders’ progressive, anti-corporate base, but it confuses symptom with disease and would have little impact on lowering incarceration rates nationwide. In fact, it would be more likely to raise the costs of corrections by returning prisons to government monopoly control and, worse, increase overcrowding in public facilities. As German Lopez helpfully pointed out in a recent Vox explainer, for all the outsized attention that private prisons receive in the media and in criminal justice policy debates, they only hold a tiny fraction of the total federal and state prison population. According to Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2015, private prisons housed 141,921—or a paltry 9 percent—of the total 1.57 million federal and state inmates in 2013. While that’s up from 6.5 percent in 2000, it still hovers in the single digits and may have reached a plateau; the private prison share has remained relatively consistent since the total federal and state prison population peaked in 2010. Lopez notes that given these small numbers, private prisons "don't hold a lot of sway over the whole system," but that "it's good politics" for Sanders to try and appeal to the parts of his base that believe that private prisons somehow caused mass incarceration, not the other way around. In reality, the growth of the private corrections industry has been a response to the tough-on-crime, lock-em-up policies that took hold in the 1970s and 1980s (a point Lopez details further in his piece). To be fair, Sanders even acknowledged these small numbers in a recent press release, yet still claims a private prison ban would be a “good step forward” to reforming a broken criminal justice system. What's left unexplained is how banning those that operate 9 percent of the system will make any dent whatsoever in improving outcomes for the remaining 91 percent.  It might just do the opposite. Take California as an example. Already stressed public prison systems in states like California—which alone accounted for one of every 13 inmates held in private prisons in 2013—would need to absorb thousands of inmates into overcrowded government-operated prisons. In fact, California ramped up its use of private prisons in the late 2000s as part of a strategy to reduce chronic overcrowding in state-run facilities and comply with a federal mandate to reduce the state’s total prison population.  Left unanswered is why Sanders believes that the answer to reducing prison overcrowding is to potentially create more of it, and why it is the federal government’s prerogative to overrule states' decision making on how to manage their own prison populations. (As an aside, also note the irony of a progressive like Sen. Sanders seeking to undermine a progressive state like California's work to improve conditions in its prison facilities by reducing criminogenic overcrowding.) And while there has been a long-running policy debate over the cost-effectiveness of private prisons, with conflicting evidence on both sides, it's safe to assume that in at least some cases, the costs of in-house operation could be significantly higher than in contracted facilities, especially whe[...]