Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Challenge of Cost-Benefit Analysis In The Public Sector

Driving through New England the other day, I noticed one of those freeway lanes set aside for "high-occupancy vehicles" -- cars with two people in them; motorcycles, buses. This freeway lane was at least 15 miles long, and included specially-built exit overpasses, so that its ecologically responsible users wouldn't have to work their way through the mass of ordinary folk in the other lanes. There was not a single vehicle using that lane in its entire length.

Now: the idea of these dedicated HOV lanes is to reward people who car pool, making their trips faster by getting them out of the gridlock and speeding them on their way. I can see some value in that; we want to encourage people to car-pool. And I would expect that there would be fewer cars in the HOV lanes than in the other lanes -- if there weren't, HOV lanes would be useless. But there were none. Absolutely none. And where I could see the HOV lanes heading the other direction, I saw not one single vehicle over there either.

There still has to be some kind of cost-benefit analysis given to the construction of these lanes. I find it hard to believe that any serious objective analysis was done. How much does it cost to build a mile of freeway a single lane wide? How much does it cost to build 15 miles of it? How much to build the special overpasses for dedicated use? How much to build the added shoulder and guard railings? How much for the carpool parking lots that are part of the system? (Probably not much for that last one, but something.) And how much does it cost each year to maintain all that added infrastructure?

And how much benefit do we get, from the added productivity of HOV users who arrive at work four minutes earlier, or stay later, or are more alert from a more relaxing commute? How much from the pollutants that were not emitted by the vehicles that weren't used? How much from the unspent fuel? (And note that the benefits from using motorcycles and buses are not properly a benefit of the HOV lane, except to the extent that the presumed faster transit on the HOV lane encourages motorcycle or bus ridership. Neither are the benefits of using hybrid or other low emission vehicles, which in some places are allowed to use HOV lanes with only one occupant.) (And, do these expensive-to-build, expensive-to-maintain roadways actually achieve their stated objectives? The one study I found says not.)

I know there are ways to quantify these things in dollars and cents. I would like to see the calculations, but I suspect either they weren't done, or weren't done properly, or were just ignored in the interest of politics. And I suspect something uglier than mere politics.

I've seen these HOV lanes all over the country, and in Canada. In some places, mostly in the very largest sprawling cities, like Houston and Phoenix, they seem to get enough use to justify the cost. I say "seem" because, again, I don't have any quantitative basis for analysis. There are others, as in Tampa and Minneapolis/St. Paul, that are toll lanes ("HOT lanes"), sometimes with no charge to high-occupancy traffic, reducing (or, theoretically (though I bet it hasn't happened since the old Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike was paid off) eliminating) the cost to the public. But if you take it that frequently-used HOV lanes are worth their cost to society, while underused HOV lanes are not, then I would say from what I've seen around the country that HOV lanes are too often a waste of money.

In a representative democracy, we elect public officials to oversee the answering of such questions. We all know these representatives are subject to all of the failings of ordinary mortals, but still we expect them to husband public resources the way they would their own. We expect them to use due care in deciding what project is a good investment, and what project is not.

Sometimes they will get it wrong in the analysis. Sometimes the information provided to them will be incorrect, or incomplete. Sometimes it will be lies and sometimes they won't catch those lies. Sometimes they will be influenced by the desires of the loudmouth segments of their constituencies: the special-interest groups, the lobbyists, the organized groups of citizens who care a great deal about issues that most of us think only modestly important. Sometimes they will be influenced by corrupt influences, generally either money, power, or sex. Sometimes they will just exercise poor judgment, and sometimes they will just be stupid. They are, after all, ordinary mortals themselves, and in theory their failings will be dealt with at the next election.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Favourite Pictures, part 1

I got one of those digital picture frames for Christmas, and promptly loaded it with a few hundred of the pictures that appear in my Picasa web albums. Today, having not too much to do, I decided I should pick out some of my favourites and at least say something about them. Because, let's face it, not many people are going to prowl through three hundred pictures of a herd of wildebeest to get to the head shot of the lion.

I'm no Ansel Adams, but occasionally I get lucky and come home with a shot that, to my untrained eye, looks purdy damn good. These tend to be the ones I like the best. And so, as much for my own pleasure as yours, here are a few of my favourites.

This is a shot taken with a long lens on the main street of the city of Beni, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, late on a Sunday morning. The streets were filled with people going to church, and there's just something about this woman's look that interests me. Maybe it's the hat; maybe it's the sadness I imagine in her expression, a sadness I saw in the faces of many of the people there, until the camera came out. (From a private web album.)

Paris is a city full of stunning views, with grand buildings at every turning. But there's something innately charming to me about this picture, of Rue Suger, near St.-Germain. (From the web album, "Paris") The area around it bustles with traffic and pedestrians, but this winding little street, despite being entirely paved, is like a park in the midst of trench warfare.

This is a view from the base of the dome of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart -- itself one of those grand buildings mentioned above -- toward the iconic grand building. Yes, it was that hazy in Paris that day, but all the pictures I have when it was clear in Paris were taken before the advent of the digital camera, and I don't own a scanner. (From the web album, "Paris")

I don't know what kind of bird this is, and in many ways it's not that good a picture; but I was so pleased with myself to actually be able to get the camera out, change the lens, and focus on the bird for a change that I include it as a favourite. I also kind of like the way the surrounding vegetation seems to be shimmering. (The picture was taken, by the way, in a pullout in Medina County, west of San Antonio; from the web album, "Critters from All Over")

This is the picture I was looking at when I decided to make this blog post. It's an okapi in the San Diego Zoo. I remember reading an article in Natural History magazine, probably 30 years ago, about the search for the okapi, which wasn't found by westerners until about 1905, making it the last large land animal to be "discovered." The natives in the jungle where the okapi lives, near the Congo River, knew about it, of course, though it is a shy animal; but their descriptions tended to be disbelieved, because it made the animal sound like an accretion of parts from other animals. I just think this picture looks really good in the digital frame, mostly because of the angle of the late-afternoon sun.. (From the web album, "San Diego Zoo")

This is my favourite of all the pictures I took in Africa in 2008, when I went to the DR Congo, Uganda, and Kenya. To me, this image captures the loneliness, the vastness, the seeming emptiness of the savanna. I have a couple of other pictures of a lone tree on a ridge, with a single back-lit wildebeest standing in the shade like guards; those pictures give a sense of the constant danger of the savanna to prey animals, but I think this image is more poignant. (From the web album, "Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve")

This isn't that good a picture, but it reminds me of the most beautiful thing I saw while in Africa. This giraffe stepped out into the road in front of us, keeping an eye on us (wife and the kids were off to the left). When we started forward slowly, he turned away and ran up the road, then off to the right. The motion of a big giraffe running is stunning. He seemed to just float above the ground like a big silk banner, and even though we were going about 20 mph, he hardly seemed to be moving yet stayed well ahead of us. (From the web album, "Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve")

I like this picture because all these wildebeest were lined up as though at attention, and three others paraded in front of them as though inspecting the troops. (From the web album, "Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve")

This is a field in the southern Ozarks, photographed near sunset on a Saturday afternoon. There's something about the quality of the light that just makes this picture. Much like in the okapi picture. If I ever doubted that the best pictures are taken early in the morning or late in the day, these pictures would prove it to me. (From the web album "Trip to Maine, part 1")

This picture, at the moment, isn't actually in a web album. I was looking at the files on my computer and found that I never put up an album for my trip to Kentucky and Michigan in 2008. I'll get around to it, now that I know. Meanwhile, this is one of many pictures I have of my favourite toy ... well, okay, my second-favourite toy, in a scenic spot. This one happens to be in the Cumberland Gap. I just love this car. Even when it's not running. (They say a Jaguar is the prettiest car you'll ever see ... broken down on the side of the road.)

I'm not going to try and explain what these people are doing in the parking lot of a dam overlook along the Apache Trail in Arizona. Maybe I know these people ... maybe I don't. I'm not saying.

Joining Another Group

I've decided to become a Philistine. The urge came upon me quite suddenly, sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant yesterday, as several thoughts and recent experiences coalesced in a sort of Aha moment.

It started with the politically incorrect observation that the fork is objectively a more useful utensil than chopsticks. The fork is more versatile as an eating utensil, and at least as useful as a weapon. The fork is also much more useful on its own than is one chopstick; and while two forks would work as well for lifting food as do two chopsticks, a single fork, in conjunction with a single knife, adds a dimension to eating that two chopsticks simply cannot approach.

Millions -- nay, billions -- of people do quite nicely with chopsticks, but this isn't really an argument in their favour. Chopstick users in situ make their way with bowls held up directly under their chins, so the food can be shoveled into the mouth with little opportunity for droppage or splashage; which is fine where that is the cultural norm. But here in America, where the traditions are rooted in Europe, and where we consider it rude to shovel food in that way, chopsticks are really more for showing off than eating. You can eat pho with chopsticks if you don't have to carry those slippery noodles very far from the broth. You cannot gracefully eat it, though, with chopsticks while sitting in an upright position with your bowl on the table in front of you. Noodles will drop back into the broth, they will splash, and you will make a mess. So Westerners in Asian restaurants who insist on eating with chopsticks are really just showing off the fact that they have learned a not-too-difficult skill not indigenous to their own culture. 

This thought conjoined with the observation that almost everyone I know with any pretensions toward intellectual accomplishment either has, or pretends to have, a deep interest in spiritual aspects of exotic cultures. Native Americans philosophies are fashionable throughout the western US and Canada; pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, or at least a cartoon version of them, are revered in the part of the country where I live; and superficial south-Asian and east-Asian cultural familiarity has long been de rigeur throughout the country, the more so now that China and India are becoming economic powers in the Western tradition. Maybe knowing a smattering about Confucianism or Buddhism makes their rise seem less threatening. 

I don't have any real problem with people knowing things about how non-Europeans look at the world. And certainly people who are themselves creatures of those non-European cultures are to be expected to know something about them, just as my mother knew something of the Italian culture she grew up in, and just as I know (and care) much less about it. It would be strange if a person whose parent came over from China knew nothing about how the Man On The (Beijing*) Street looks at the world, even if that person can't really articulate a difference between that worldview and, say, Roman imperialism. Exotic spiritual perceptions -- exotic, at least, to my Eurocentric-American world -- can tell us something, if only by comparison, about ourselves, and given a certain critical cultural mass, such as is present in south Texas vis-a-vis the Mesoamerican outlook, can even become a part of the American outlook. American culture, after all, though called a melting pot, is really more a chunky soup than a fondue, and if you put enough cilantro in, the overall flavour will be changed.

This isn't a bad thing. My gripe is with people who feel the need to force a change based on some perception that the exotic cultural outlook is somehow superior to our own. I always think of a woman who was part of a group of law students I went to Mexico with years ago: a middle-aged woman who vociferously and unrelentingly acquainted all within earshot with her belief in the innate superiority indigenous Mexican culture has over whatever version of American culture she grew up with. I am pleased to say I did not tell her to shut the fuck up, the whole time we were in Mexico, though my Mexican friends wondered to me why she was so down on her own cultural heritage, intimating that it was either false, or condescending.

American culture, such as it is, is superior to every other culture. It is a melding, a merger, a combination of cultural attributes from hundreds and hundreds of cultures from around the world. It is better than any other because it has been infused with the best parts of almost every other culture on earth. With our initially north- and west- European heritage, our ancestors (well, not mine, specifically, because they weren't here then, but my adopted ancestors, the Founding-Father types) built political, economic and social systems that are currently the envy of the world, and in the centuries since the first Native American died of smallpox, those systems have been modified by the beliefs and mores of many, many others. When people come to America from India or Syria or Nigeria, they bring with them the culture they grew up with. They, and their children and grandchildren, hang on to those parts of that culture that are important to them, while discarding less important parts and adopting the ways of the people they now live amongst. They influence the greater culture, and the greater culture influences them. The cream, so to speak, rises to the top, and as a result we have, I assert, objectively the best of all worlds here in our uniquely American culture.

I've lately been reading a book called Empires and Barbarians, by Peter Heather. A well-written book, though, surprisingly, horribly, horribly edited, at least in the book club edition: misspellings, unexplained technical terms, poorly concealed seams where blocks of text have been moved about, repetitive segues, badly-conceived maps, and worst of all, references to plates that aren't included in the book. In it, Professor Heather examines cultural changes in the context of migration, especially in late Roman times. I'm inclined to accept his explanation of how such changes come about, even though I'm only halfway through the book, because I see it happening around me; but that's not why I bring him up. I mention this book because of something I read in it a few days ago, concerning the Anglo-Saxon takeover of England. (He probably wouldn't approve of the word "takeover" here, but I use it denotatively, not connotatively.) What he said, if I understand it correctly (and I think I do) is that the indigenous Roman Britons, upon sufficient contact with increasing numbers of Anglo-Saxons, became Anglo-Saxons themselves. They chose to identify themselves as part of that group. 

I think that is a remarkable thing, and one that I heartily endorse. I see people from all parts of the world choosing to make themselves American, and I applaud them for doing so, not least because of my belief that uprooting oneself and travelling to a strange and distant place is one of the most difficult things a person can do, and so those who do it are just the kind of people we should encourage to join our little group.

And in a perverted support of that concept, of self-determination (a perquisite of our European heritage), I have decided to join another cultural group myself. I have decided to become a Philistine, so that I don't have to pretend to appreciate all the humanist cultural gobbledygook that my fellow Americans inflict on me every day.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Question of Balance

Something tragic happened on Interstate 81 in Virginia, south of mile marker 272 on this past Tuesday. It must have been some kind of road accident, because it put me in the worst traffic jam of my life. I went 4 miles in 2½ hours. In that time I managed to get up to an exit, so I took off for US Highway 11, which parallels the interstate. There I found another 4 miles of traffic at nearly a dead stop. (And there, too, I was passed by a tow-truck dragging the burned-out hulk of an RV and trailer, which I assume had something to do with the traffic snarl.)

Then, Thursday, on Loop 610 in Houston, during the morning rush hour, there was an accident on the southbound bridge over Richmond Avenue. I was heading north, so I wasn't stuck in that traffic jam, but I got a good look at it: two vehicles, blocking two of the five lanes of traffic; three fire engines and four police cars blocking the other three lanes; traffic squeezing by on the shoulder; and behind all that, a sea of cars stretching back for miles, far beyond my exit.

I tend to see all change as the motion of a pendulum --- a clichéed image, I know, but an apt one. Things creep along, getting worse and worse for somebody, some group of people, and then they've had enough and take it upon themselves to make some noise, and --- another cliché here --- they become the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. 

In this case, the group of people who Had Enough were those who, since 9/11, we have taken to calling "first responders": policemen and firemen. Up until, oh, the late 1970s, road accidents were largely viewed officially  as problems because of the traffic jams they create. Before that, the role of police and fire-department personnel was to first see to any injuries, and then to get the vehicles out of the way so traffic could flow again. On very rare occasions, there would be a flare-up. Often, there would be some undesirable substance left on the roadway --- oil, or transmission fluid, or antifreeze --- and very rarely, some more exotic substance being transported in a damaged container.

Getting traffic moving was an important function, and not completely unattended by risk. Those chemicals on the road ... they could be anything. They might get on the cop's skin and cause his hand to rot off. The damaged cars might explode, showering everybody with shrapnel. All kinds of things might happen, and of course on occasion all kinds of things did. And every now and then, some passing car would take out a cop or firefighter; as the comic says, "you can't fix stupid." 

The "first responders" began to see their duty in terms of the danger occasioned for them, instead of in terms of the service required of them. 

I used to be a Revenue Officer, the mean, heartless IRS guy who comes and throws people out of their houses, takes their cars and paychecks and furniture or whatever. It's apparently pretty easy to upset people when you do that, and although I never had any serious problem doing it myself, I often heard about colleagues who were shot at, or harassed, or threatened. I often felt like that was a justified response to the characteristic arrogance, insensitivity or crudeness of the individual Revenue Officer. The way I was taught the job was, "It don't cost you nothin' to be polite when you takin' somebody's car." That's literally true, though not always easy, but my point is not there. My point is that this rarely-occasioned and somewhat self-inflicted danger was adopted by the national employees' union as justification for various changes in policy. Their particular desire was to make the Revenue Officer position out to be so dangerous that it warranted hazardous-duty pay differentials and preferential retirement treatment. It isn't that dangerous, so they didn't get those things; all they got were some changes in training policy and, in the end, some diminution in the range of the Revenue Officer's individual discretion.

The police and fire-department employees have national unions, too: professional associations and actual unions. And there are enough "first responders" doing enough potentially dangerous things to get the attention of trial lawyers. Together, they raised enough of a ruckus that more official attention was paid to the safety of these "first responders" in road-accident situations. 

Now, when there's a road accident, roads are routinely closed down completely. No one responding to the scene takes any interest in getting traffic going again until every last spot of spilled chemical, every last shard of broken glass, every last shred of personal belongings is washed away or swept up or swept away from the scene. Environmental activists got interested in all those chemicals being washed into the roadbed, and so now, before they wash off the road, firemen have to know exactly what chemical they're dealing with, and maybe they have to have special equipment come out to suck it up.

Meanwhile, here we are, the general public, who have no advocates for our interests except at election time (and then, only theoretically), stuck in traffic. A rough calculation of the delay I encountered in Virginia tells me that about ten thousand vehicles were affected; that's at least ten thousand people, probably more like fifteen thousand, and who knows how many millions of dollars worth of cargo delayed. (In my own case, the result of that slowdown was stress, and another night in a motel.) I would bet the accident in Houston affected many more people than that. This kind of casual delay has become the norm in road-accident response.

Much as I admire the bravery of our "first responders," that bravery doesn't make them immune from criticism. And much as I acknowledge the need for their safety in doing their job, that is not the only consideration at work here. My complaint is not that traffic backs up; it is that traffic is allowed to back up so much and so needlessly. My complaint is not that roads are closed, it is that they are closed so often and for so long. My complaint is not that attention is paid to the dangers inherent in road-accident response, it is that too little attention is paid to the injuries caused to the rest of us. 

It's a matter of balancing interests. For now, the pendulum has swung too far, and the diffused interests of the general public are being too much ignored. Drivers need to become squeaky wheels.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

County Count Update

Other people seem to take my county-counting more seriously than I do. It started maybe 20 years ago when I came across a large United States map that had all the nation's counties shown on it, and I started to wonder how many of them I'd been to. I started colouring them in (devising rules for those trips made when I was very young: if I could remember the trip, and knew its final destination, I was confident that my father would have driven the most direct route; he was not a man to wander aimlessly about the countryside, so I knew, to a sufficient degree, that I had been in the counties along the way. There may have been other trips I don't remember, and there may even have been a digression or two from the bee-line route; but if I don't "know" that, then I don't count those counties) and discovered that I'd been to quite a lot of them.

As the years went by I kept on filling in new counties when I'd go to them. I was living in West Virginia at the time -- West By God Virginia -- and since I had no family and no property there (and there being nothing in the world to do in West Virginia, except incest and arson) I started taking routes to destinations that led me through counties I'd not already been in. Heading up to Pittsburgh to catch a flight? Let's go through Grafton this time. Flying out of DC? Lots of counties in western Virginia, a new route every time.

Then, living in Wyoming, I took little opportunities to visit counties I would not otherwise have gone to. I missed my exit off I-80 one time, and the next exit was in Utah, where I'd never been before. Another time, I noticed that if I went a couple of miles farther along the road I was on, I'd be in Scott's Bluff County, Nebraska. Sure, why the hell not.

Eventually it became an excuse to go to places that I had no independent interest in. My first trip to Wisconsin, in 2007, was grafted onto a trip to Minnesota to visit in-laws, which in turn was grafted onto a trip to Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota because my wife had never been to places like Devil's Tower and the Black Hills. All that, in turn, was grafted onto a trip to Toronto to meet up with a Canadian friend. And as long as I'm up that way, why not run over to see the Finger Lakes on the way back? And the Corning Glass museum. And let's see if Steve wants to come up from the Metropolis to meet me for a couple of days. (The result, not surprisingly, became the longest trip of my life -- 10,000 miles in 5½ weeks, and it would have been longer had northern Indiana not proved so incredibly boring to drive around in. Every rural intersection of line-straight roads gets a four-way stop, whether it needs one or not.)

This trip just finished was plenty long. It started as a trip to Wisconsin to deliver and install some stained glass panels (see prior post), with a stop along the way to visit friends in Kansas City. This time I went up through western Missouri, because there were counties there that I'd not been to already, while I'd been to all the counties in eastern Oklahoma and Kansas. (I can see that trips to Kansas City will be getting longer and longer, as I arc farther and farther east or west, in order to go through a few new counties.) The way from KC to Wisconsin started off as a wander through remote parts of Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota, but in the end I decided I'd attempted too much, and went more or less directly --- still managing to visit more than a dozen new counties along the way. This decision came about because, by the time I made the drive, the trip had expanded from a two-week sojourn in Wisconsin to a week in Wisconsin and a week in Maine (for humanitarian reasons, if you can believe it. Yes, me!) plus the time required to get from one to the other (on the freeway; ugh! But I did get to go through 5 more Pennsylvania counties, plus a side-trip to Sullivan County, New York) and then home. In the end, the trip was 23 days. It would have been 22, but there was this traffic jam in Virginia....

Anyway: so people seem to think that I'm seriously trying to visit every county in the country. I say I am, and apparently manage to say it without an appropriately ironic or sarcastic expression, since I frankly don't care if I do it or not. The County Count business is trivial. I like seeing new places; I like travelling around the country. I like meeting strangers, even if our meeting consists of just a fifteen minute conversation about some local oddity, or their new truck, or why Obama is a-fixin' to drive this country bankrupt, or how the police arrested that guy for robbing the IGA.

The county-count is why I'm driving up to Washington (state) later this year, instead of flying like normal people. Well, that, plus the fact that I have so little tolerance for airports and airlines, plus the mockery of airport security. (Not that I feel unsafe; I just feel like the TSA is wasting more public money than any other agency these days. And that, my friends, is saying something. I get too pissed off at them to reliably pass through their mock-tech screenings. It's one of the reasons I choose not to own a gun: I would use it, eventually.)

So. Trip to Wisconsin: done. Stained glass panels: installed. Three days on the freeway: done. Humanitarian concerns: answered. Four and a half more days on the freeway: done. County count? I've now completed ten states, with the drive through Coos County, New Hampshire. I went to 49 new counties this trip --- not a lot, considering the distances involved, but I was in kind of a hurry for a change. I've now been to 2,114 of the 3,096 counties in the USA. In a month or so, I'll start on the last big trip of the year, out west. Haven't planned it yet, but I know that I'll visit the last county in New Mexico, and will go to two states that I've never set foot (or wheel) in before. There'll be a whole lot of new counties visited then, I reckon.

And then, I think, that may be it.