Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If users prefer rail to bus (or vice versa), what should be done about it?

Jarrett, writing once again on the theme of bus-rail differences (in preparation for a new book he's working on), writes an article on sorting out the rail-bus differences, along with a followup. In the series, he takes a list of (perceived) differences between bus and rail that were posted at The Infrastructurist, and sorts them into three categories: 
  • Intrinsic differences: Real technical differences between bus (including trolleybus) and rail (including, it appears, things like monorails and rubber-tire metros);
  • Misidentified differences:  Differences which are related to propulsion rather than guideway type, or differences which arise from how specific lines are implemented in specific systems
  • Cultural feedback effects:  Difference which arise from a result of cultural perception, law, or custom.
I won't repeat the list or the analyses here; go read the articles for those details.  However, there is a forest that is being missed for the trees.  Jarrett, I'm sure, knows this, but it merits pointing out.  The discussion of "cultural feedback effects" vs real vs miscategorized differences is important and useful, but there's a bottom line being danced around. That is:

1) There seems to be a quantifiable and measurable preference for rail over bus, at least in much of the developed world.

2) This preference may or may not be rational, may or may not be alterable (to the extent that planners ought to try), and may be conflated with issues dependent on local circumstances or practice, or who knows what else. (True apples-to-apples comparisons are often hard to make).

Given all of that, what should we (transit advocates, planners, decision-makers, or anyone else who cares about this) do about it, whether in planning individual lines or entire systems?  Specifically:

  • When and where should planners and decision-makers include modal biases in their forecasts (i.e. "a light rail line will attract X passengers per day, a BRT line will attract Y") and how much weight should these things be given?
  • To what extent should transit agencies, et al, attempt to change these views?
There are plenty of schools of thought on the issue.  One one hand, there's a school of thought that says that if reputable data (and proper decision-making requires access to good data) demonstrates a modal bias, that should be reflected in any subsequent analysis, and not colored by political considerations.

There's another school of thought that holds that such biases ought not be considered, especially if they are likely to be irrational (i.e a survey states that 20% more riders will ride on rail than on an equivalent bus line, and the stated reason for that preference is that busses are slow and full of drunks), and that only good "hard" reasons for one choice or another should be considered, such as cost or technical parameters, and that "illegitimate" reasons for a preference ought to be given no weight.  (This view is especially common when the reasons involved can be demonstrably reduced to racism or other forms of prejudice, which good public policy ought to oppose).

Some go so far as to suggest that modal bias (unjustified by tangible differences) is a problem that transit agencies ought to try and solve.

But these questions are ultimately political ones--decision-makers need to take all relevant factors into account.  I tend to favor providing as much quality data as possible to decision-makers, and letting them handle the politics.  (Not that they will necessarily do a good job here, but that is their job...) And while many non-intrinsic differences may be irrelevant in the abstract, they are often quite relevant in the context of a particular agency or system--if rail solutions gets signal priority at grade crossings as a matter of law whereas bus does not, or if a particular agency is not willing to add a new type of rolling stock to a fleet as part of a system expansion, these are important factors to consider.  If there are changes for the better in the wider environment (cultural, regulatory) that can be made, then plan for those; but transit systems have to exist in a particular place.

And difference which are specific to that place can frequently be just as important as those differences which are universal.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The public employees that conservatives love

This article was originally submitted as a comment in response to an article thread posted in The Daily Dish last December.  It was not chosen for publication there, so I'm belatedly writing it here instead edited slightly for article format, given the recent prominence that public employee unions have had here at DHT.

With all the discussion on the problems of the nation's educational system, and the amount that factors such as teacher compensation systems, school administrations, teachers' unions, and the culture at large have on our underperfoming schools--I think it's worthwhile to draw a parallel between teachers and another class of educated public sector professionals.  This profession is one which is ubiquitous, typically ran at local levels of government, generally unionized, considered to be vital to a prosperous civilization--and one which is also frequently subject to heated public disputes about its conduct and competence, into which public employee unions are frequently drawn.  It is also a profession that, unlike teachers or transit workers, is generally beloved by the conservative side of the political spectrum.

I speak, of course, of police officers.

The Thin Blue Line

Big-city newspapers are filled with accounts of incidents where a cop has an unpleasant encounter with a member of the citizenry (up to and including deadly force).  In many of these encounters, the pretext for the police's conduct is found to be questionable, frequently resulting in community outrage--and the cop in question is invariably protected, seemingly no matter the circumstances, by the local police union.  This is especially the case in places (such as Portland) where the civilian government overseeing the cops generally does not tolerate police misconduct.  But the same behaviors which many on the political right deride in many public professions, particularly in teaching--workplace rules that make it difficult to fire bad teachers, seniority-based promotion and retention policies, and a workforce allegedly more interested in professional solidarity rather than in public service--are routinely praised when observed in law enforcement. 

Law-and-order politicians and activists are often more than willing to sweep abuses of power aside on any number of grounds: the perp had it coming, officers have a tough job, etc.  Praises of the the "thin blue line" are frequently sung.  Many of the excuses which prompt calls of "cry me a river" when uttered by teachers (deplorable conditions, insufficient support from higher-ups) find a sympathetic ear when invoked by the police.  And to be fair, many liberals who are quick to denounce abusive cops are in many cases far less eager to denounce bad teachers--instead blaming the environment, the parents, a lack of funding, etc. for failings in the classroom.

Geese and ganders

Other similarities exist between the police and the public schools.  Both are professions, jobs requiring college degrees, and lots of professional judgment on the part of practitioners.  Both careers involve extensive dealings with the public, including many members thereof who don't appreciate the service.  Both careers also are challenging to manage--the quality of an individual practitioner cannot generally be measured with simple metrics, and attempts to do so frequently produce undesirable results.  And both professions pattern themselves after similar institutions, namely the armed forces and the academy.

Law enforcement in the US is modeled in many ways on the military.  Command structures and ranks are military in origin, and many departments include paramilitary tactics as part of their training (whether warranted or not).  It's not uncommon to hear officers working bad neighborhoods describing the environment as a "war zone".  On the other hand, the severity of the discipline is far less in civilian law enforcement   (Can you imagine a commanding officer trying to discharge a problem soldier being overruled by an arbitrator?) 

Likewise, public education likes to fashion itself in the robes of academia--the teaching staff of a school is called the "faculty", and concepts such as tenure and academic freedom are lifted wholesale from the university context, despite the fact that college professors are generally not unionized (and thus are not protected by collective bargaining arrangements) and public schoolteachers aren't typically engaged in research programs which might be controversial and subject to political interference, the justification for tenure in higher education in the first place. 

I think that a useful political compromise might be this:  What is sauce for the goose ought to be also sauce for the gander.  What's good for teachers ought to be also good for cops.  If someone suggests that we should try to bust teachers' unions and/or abolish other personnel practices which are (arguably) more appropriate for factory workers rather than skilled professionals; ask them how they feel about doing the same to the local police force.  If someone says that teachers are overpaid, ask what they think of the salaries of cops.

And vice versa.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More on public employee unions

A few weeks back, DHT covered an article by proud leftist blogger Freddie de Boer, which suggested that the "true" political left in the US was largely excluded from the mainstream professional blogosphere.  Freddie proposed that a way of distinguishing true leftists from "neo-liberals" was their position on organized labor issues, and according to him, quite a few bloggers (such as Matt Yglesias) whose petitions were often adversarial to labor fail to qualify.  The article prompted much debate, including a defense from Yglesias.

Now, another prominent blogger--this time the libertarian-leaning Will Wilkinson of The Economist, has stuck a stick in this hornets nest.  The title of Will's opus is swift and to the point:  Government workers don't need unions.  Will drags an old FDR quote out of the attic to bolster his point ("The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service"), and makes essentially the following arguments.
  • Private labor/employee relationships are different than public ones, as the former involve two parties fighting over the surplus from some economic activity, whereas public sector workers are bargaining against the public good.
  • Many public sector workers don't need collective bargaining to protect their interests, as they often have civil service protections; and are found in such large numbers as to hold significant political power.  (I might add that many public employees hold jobs which cannot be easily outsourced; and that public-sector administrators and their elected-official bosses are generally under more pressure to deliver services than make money).
  • Oh, and they have the Democrats under their thumb--making Republicans appear to be the economic champion of the underprivileged (who by definition are neither wealthy, nor holding high-paying government jobs).
I've commented before on the tenuous relationship between organized labor and advocates for robust public services; quite a few transit bloggers I know are quite hostile to the local transit union.  However, Wilkinson's article contains several points which need firm addressing.

Regarding his first (in the list above)--essentially what he is saying is that in public-employee bargaining, we the taxpayer are management.  (A better analogy might be that the public at large are shareholders, and public officials are management).   That certainly changes the motivations of many people involved; it's not unsurprising to find those who don't care about relations between some corporation and its unions (or who even hold a union card in the private sector), but get outraged at media reports of highly-paid public employees who allegedly loaf on the job.  However, it ought not change the moral calculus one bit.  If you believe that jobs ought to pay a "living wage", it should not matter if the employer is a private enterprise or a public agency; nor should the public/private distinction matter if you are a firm believer in the premise that jobs should pay no more or less than what the market will bear.

Who's got the power?

Will is correct when he observes that public employees often enjoy greater bargaining power than their private sector counterparts.  The best evidence of this is their mere existence.  Many private sector unions (and indeed, entire industries) have been thoroughly smashed over the past three decades since Reagan first took office.   A great and somewhat unfortunate irony of labor relations is that in the industries where unions would have the most benefit, where the workers suffer the greatest levels of mistreatment and exploitation, they are mostly likely to be ineffective or missing altogether--as these are the industries where capital and management hold the strongest hands.  Conversely, where labor is "needed" the least--those markets where workers enjoy good wages and working conditions, are the areas where labor is likely to be strongest.   Part of this is due to the presence of the unions--their job, after all, is to win a better deal for workers--but part of this is because, as Will notes, the effectiveness of labor depends on its economic strength, not on any moral concern.  In those industries where work can easily be migrated elsewhere, or where workers are interchangeable, or where production can easily be stopped without damaging the interests of capital, labor does poorly.  Where workers have specialized skills, cannot easily be outsourced, or where work stoppages pose a serious threat to the boss's bottom line, labor fares well.  Strong unions grow stronger, weak unions get busted.

While Will's suggestion that maybe public employees ought to go away would serve to address one side of this inequity--the alleged overcompensation of public employees at taxpayer expense--he doesn't have any suggestions at all for how we might address it the other side of this phenomenon, and lift low-wage workers out of poverty.  Nowhere is the suggestion that coupled with attacks on the public unions, we ought to encourage and protect and foster private-sector unions, to help farmworkers and WalMart greeters and waitresses get off the minimum-wage treadmill.  (Or as an alternative to strong unions, find other ways to help improve their lot).

The privatization card

The bargaining power of public employees is not absolute, however; as anti-union public officials have several weapons in their arsenal, one of the most effective being privatization.   One of the key reasons that many conservatives favor privatization of public services (including arrangements where operations are contracted out to private operators while control remains in the hand of the public), is that  doing so turns public employees into private employeesAdding a private operator to the mix introduces another hand into the taxpayer wallet, but it is often effective in reducing wages, as private operators are insulated from the political pressures (and civil service regulations) which hamstring public administrators.  This is especially true for those services (including public transit in much of the country) which are viewed as "welfare", and have tenuous political support to begin with.

We see this a lot in the debate on public education.  While there are valid concerns that organized labor (which seeks to promote job security in addition to good pay and working conditions, and is thus frequently opposed to anything that might make it easier to fire teachers) opposes many sort of useful reforms, I suspect that a big part of the push for privatization isn't out of a desire to make education better, but to make it cheaper--and return the windfall to taxpayers.  (There are other factors as well that have little to do with economics; including a desire that many have for taxpayer-subsidized religious instruction).

Privatization has many defenders, including many parts of the media that consider it axiomatic that private agencies, motivated by profit, are inherently more efficient than public ones.  I'll agree that profit-focused agencies are better at making money; but they're not necessarily better at providing service.  There are countless examples of private companies (acting in countless industries--banking, telecommunications, and health insurance immediately come to mind) which seem to excel at nickeling and diming their customers to death.  Unsurprisingly, many of these industries are oligarchies, where the crucible of competition doesn't exist in any meaningful form.

Labor and political activism

Will also seems to consider it untoward that public employees attempt to better their lot via political activism (including the support of labor-friendly politicians), rather than solely seeking concessions at the bargaining table.  The prospect of elected officials owing patronage to unions is frequently denounced as corruption, under the theory that public officials have a fiduciary duty to the public to turn the screws on the government workforce as tightly as they can.  However, many conservatives seem far less bothered by the same sort of arrangements when rich people do it; and that it's perfectly legitimate for the Koch brothers or Richard Mellon Scaife to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process to try and elect politicians who will be friendlier to their business empires.  It ought to tell you something that the Citizens United decision is largely praised by conservatives and loathed by liberals, despite the fact that its provisions also apply to labor--both sides know perfectly well who has the bigger bankroll at the poker table.

With regards to the impact on the fortunes of the various political parties, Will's observations may well be true--quite a few of the country's downtrodden seem to identify more with the GOP with the Democratcs--but it's worth asking why that ought to be.  Why should a poor person's livelihood be more threatened by a bus driver or school teacher making $50k a year, than by the multimillionaire Davos-hopping CEO who just got a bonus for sending good private sector jobs overseas?  While cultural and racial politics are likely a big part of it, the observation in the last paragraph (who has the most money to spend on political messaging) probably has something to do with it as well. 

Some final thoughts

As noted above, those of us involved in public-service activism frequently find ourself in adversarial situations with public employee unions.  Many of the government agencies we deal with lack plenary taxing power, and thus a direct conflict exists between the amount of service which can be provided, and the wages and benefits paid to the workers who provide the services.  It's tempting to pile onto the public employee unions and tell them it's their turn to take one for team progressive.  However, one question must be asked:

What would happen were major concessions to be won from public employees?  Would quality of service really improve?  Would class sizes shrink, bus frequencies increase, potholes get filled more quickly, and the folks at the DMV start to smile?

Or would the savings instead be "returned to the taxpayer", often in a form (such as broad-based rate reduction) that distributes the lion's share of the windfall to the wealthy, and the same class sizes and bus headways maintained--only now staffed with teachers and bus drivers who are more likely to come from the bottom half of the barrel? 

Four decades ago, when unions had broad market power and were producing inflationary spirals that threatened the economy, attempts to curb said power might have actually done some public good.  But in today's economic climate, such complaints are tantamount to fretting about mosquitoes while being chased by a hungry bear.  The growing economic disparity between rich and poor is the real problem facing the US today.  Taking shots at public employees will do nothing to narrow this gap, and might well widen it by eliminating a significant sector of what is left of America's middle class.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Quote Of The Day

From Conor Friedersdorf, substituting for Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic:

The average suburban homeowner is a vocal proponent of property rights until the day when a nearby landowner wants to build an apartment complex on his property. Then the right not to live near renters is treated as sacrosanct.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Random thought for the day

Originally something I posted on a friend's Facebook page, but worth sharing here (and edited slightly):

I've always been fascinated by the way that some conservatives, particularly in the US, eagerly embrace things like social Darwinism, but detest the real thing.

I've long been flummoxed by how distributed intelligence (i.e. "the market") is trumped as the only way to manage something as complex as the economy, but then it is asserted that the Universe itself--something infinitely more complex that mere economics--can only arise due to the actions of a Creator.

Maybe we should just put God in charge of Wall Street. But given the things that Jesus had to say about money and wealth, I'm not sure our titans of finance would like the result.