Conspicuous consumption

Marble House, Newport, R.I., built in 1888-92.

Marble House, Newport, R.I., built in 1888-92.

''One hundred years after the declaration that all men are created equal, there began to gather in Newport a colony of the rich, determined to show that some Americans were conspicuously more equal than others.” 

 

--- The late Alistair Cooke, British-born journalist, television personality and broadcaster

America in the Age of Television

The new family hearth: TV in the 1950s.

The new family hearth: TV in the 1950s.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' in GoLocal 24.

David Thomson, one of the most respected film reviewers, has written a terrific book about another medium in Television: A Biography (Thames & Hudson), an erudite and yet accessible discussion about the first 70 years of television as a mass medium, focusing on American television. He shows how TV and the broader culture evolved together, and how commercially and politically powerful TV swiftly became, including in electing good and bad presidents and other politicians and informing and misinforming three generations. He does this with numerous enlightening, amusing and troubling anecdotes connected with themes that link  the medium’ s decades.

I’m old enough to have seen most of this evolution, from fuzzy recollections of fuzzy images of Queen Elizabeth II’s  coronation;  the hijinks of Ernie Kovacs and Lucille Ball; the ads for detergents and kids’ cereal that seemed to finance the ‘50s;  Dave Garroway and his sidekick chimp on The Today Show; the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate, whichNixon won on the radio but Kennedy won on TV;  JFK’s assassination; the Vietnam War; the Watergate hearings; increasingly frank “adult’’ crime and other shows;   the rise of highly politicized cable TV news and opinion stations;  an explosion in pharmaceutical  ads (which have helped drive up healthcare costs); 9/11, and the wars and edgy comedy shows since then.

As do most people, I have vivid memories of where  I watched TV – such as the sitting room in our house, smoky from my mother’s Salem cigarettes, looking at thefunny and racist Amos ‘n’ Andy – black and white TV indeed! – to my school’s common room watching JFK’s funeral, with the haunting dirge of The Navy Hymn,  to the  college fraternity house room where we saw our contemporaries get shot at in the Vietnam War, to The Wall Street Journal newsroom hearing/seeing Nixon resign, to,  in a Jerusalem hotel room, learning of Princess Diana’s death, and watching, in The Providence Journal’s commentary department, the collapse of the Twin Towers – an event so transfixing that I had to ask my staff after an hour to turn off the TV and go back to work.

Television has both mirrored and profoundly changed American culture.

Whether you watch a lot of TV or not, you can’t begin to understand America since World War II unless you study the damn thing. Of course, with screens in virtually every residence and public place these days, it’s almost impossible, unless you’re blind, to avoid watching TV these days.

From what used to be a sort of successor to the family hearth, it’s now in so many places that it recalls Big Brother, in Nineteen Eight-Four, blaring, most irritatingly, in most doctors’ waiting rooms.

Mr. Thomson warns, “we are not in charge” of our relations with TV because “technology is less our tool than something that makes tools of us,” to sell products and people, including politicians.  Consider our current, TV-created leader, whom Mr. Thomson calls “an inspired mercurial handler of TV’’ who goes “from The Apprentice to being the apprentice’s sorcerer in one blithe insult.’’

 

 

Chris Powell: Of contempt and credentialism

The P.T, Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.

The P.T, Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.

Joe Ganim for governor? At first the idea might seem as ridiculous as the idea of his again becoming mayor of Bridgeport seemed when he got out of federal prison after serving seven years for exploiting his city with racketeering, extortion, bribery, and tax evasion.

But of course Ganim is indeed mayor again and his recent musing about running for governor may be no more ridiculous than Donald Trump's running for president. Many voters throughout the country saw Trump as the perfect mechanism for signifying their contempt for politics and government. Might many voters in Connecticut view Ganim the same way, even though, unlike Trump, Ganim himself may have been a major cause of that contempt?

In any case Ganim's return as chief executive of Connecticut's largest city has signified more than any contempt felt by voters there. It has signified the catastrophic failure of urban policy in the state for the last 50 years, represented most horribly by the collapse of Bridgeport, once the thriving center of the state's industry, now a swamp of poverty, social disintegration, corruption and political patronage. Ganim's restoration also has signified the demoralization of the city's voters, their desperate belief that a crook's return to office might be an improvement over a mayor who, however ineffectual, at least had stayed out of prison.

That is, Ganim is a symptom of Connecticut's steady impoverishment by mistaken social policy, policy in which state government persists though it only worsens living conditions. No one in authority ever answers for this, and it now seems to be accepted as the natural order of things in the state, beyond discussion in politics.

Indeed, this week Gov. Dan Malloy actually reveled in that mistaken social policy, touting what he said was a sixth year of increase in the state's high school graduation rate. But this increase is meaningless in a public education system that even school administrators have begun to acknowledge is entirely one of social promotion, a system in which there are no standards for advancement from grade to grade and for issuance of a high school diploma.

Congratulating themselves this week, the governor and Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell seemed never to have read the decision issued last September by Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher in the latest school-financing lawsuit, wherein the judge found the financing system unconstitutionally irrational because it fails to deliver education to many students.

The judge's decision recounted testimony by school administrators that schools, especially in Connecticut's cities, are giving diplomas to many students who are essentially illiterate after 12 years of social promotion.


The measure of education is not the mere credentialism celebrated by the governor and the commissioner this week but actual learning. By that standard education in Connecticut is little better than it is in most states, since here, as there, standardized tests show that half of high school seniors never master high school English and two-thirds never master high school math but are graduated anyway.

Worse, many students who have not mastered high school are then sent on to public colleges where they require remedial high school courses and end up with degrees of little value, in subjects like social work, women's studies and sociology, as if this final bit of credentialism will prepare them any better for making a living in the private sector, where they find a terrible shock, since, unlike education in Connecticut, in the private sector results count.  

If mere credentialism is to be policy in education because it lets everyone feel good, state government could accomplish just as much and save a lot of money by issuing high school diplomas with birth certificates, thereby achieving a 100-percent graduation rate.


Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, Manchester, Conn.
 

Llewellyn King: Big Inc. is bad when to comes to customer service

-- By Tanya Little

-- By Tanya Little

I have believed for a long time now that Donald Trump was elected president partly because of the behavior of companies like United Airlines and its large and growing fraternity of institutions that find the individual customer an inconvenience.

We live in an age where we have to take what we are handed by the institutions that are supposed to serve us.

We live in an age of frustration. The daily frustration of life has bubbled up in politics, on social media and even in graffiti.

These are some of the institutions of our torment:

The banks that leave you half an hour on the telephone, pleading to speak to someone -- a human being -- who might, just might, help you.

The telephone companies that want you to crawl around the floor, at the behest of directions from a call center in Bangladesh, doing your own repairs.

The Internet providers that will not believe that their systems could need fixing and will only send a technician when all logic and patience is exhausted and someone in the Philippines is satisfied that you do know what you are saying and that English is, in fact, your first language.

The medical insurance company that has a computer converse with you about a problem with your account.

Nowadays services are provided for high, unexpected fees. Vendors, such as hotels and car rental companies, dissemble about costs. They use marketing to bait and obfuscate -- Amtrak excels at this. The fine print is there for the purpose of trapping the hapless customer. The price of everything is calculated as to what can be extracted from you at the time of purchase.

Of course, Trump was not the answer. Electing him may have been electing a fox to protect the chickens. But it was a cry for help from many voters.

Big is not beautiful when it comes to services. It means that you, the customer, are nothing, an impediment, a nuisance, an awkwardness, a de minimis statistic, a grain of sand on the beach of corporate wealth.

Most especially, you are to be kept at arm’s length, at the end of a computerized telephone system, to be contacted only to upsell or to threaten, if you are a day late with your payment.

When it comes to large institutions -- primarily corporations but not-for profits, like the AARP and the unions, are as guilty -- the adage that the customer is always right is inverted: The customer is always wrong and should be fleeced and not heard.

Moreover the customer is a nuisance, an impediment to corporate well-being, and should be kept as far from corporate comfort as possible, preferably by employing computers and automated telephone systems. If human contact is necessary, that sort of customer impudence can be handled by call centers in faraway places. Limited English is an asset; bloody-mindedness, a virtue. Customer insubordination must be checked firmly and early.

And the contracts. Oh, the contracts! The poor victim who was manhandled off a flight he had paid for had a contract with United, allowing the airline to overbook flights (a kind of fraud, selling a seat they do not have). He did not know he was party to such a contract.

We all have these unilateral contracts – with banks, credit-card companies, Internet providers, telephone companies -- stuffed down our throats all the time. In fact, any time you deal with Big Inc. You pay, they dictate.

I believe that is why some people voted for Trump: They were “mad as hell and ... not going to take this anymore.” Looks as though they were conned again.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a veteran publisher, columnist, broadcaster and international business consultant. His e-mail is llewellynking1@gmail.com. He's a frequent contributor to New England Diary.

 

Josh Hoxie:Trump's tax plan for the 1 percent

 

Via OtherWords.org

After the failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the Trump administration has set its sights on its next big project: so-called “tax reform.”

And the “reform” they seek appears guaranteed to elicit disdain from all sides — with the notable exception of the ultra-wealthy.

Let’s first acknowledge that tax reform is hard. The system is held in place by entrenched interests who don’t want to see their favorite loopholes taken away. That’s a big reason why it’s been over 30 years since the last major tax overhaul, championed by Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Adding to the complexity of tax reform is the fact that all of the White House people working on it are resplendently wealthy.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump economic adviser Gary D. Cohn are each worth hundreds of millions. In fact, Trump’s cabinet is the wealthiest in history. That might have something to do with Trump, who calls himself a billionaire, being the wealthiest president in history.

Put simply, the folks making the rules around taxes may not have working families’ interests in the forefront of their minds. Crowding them out are the wishes of the ultra-rich friends they see regularly in their glitzy country clubs and gated communities.

A seminal study by Professors Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright in 2013 showed that the policy preferences of the wealthiest 1 percent are “much more conservative than the American public as a whole” when it comes to “taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs.”

The top 0.1 percent, those with assets over $40 million, have even more conservative views, the paper points out.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study shows, the wishes of the wealthiest citizens are much more likely to make it into public policy than those of the less affluent. One person, one vote be damned.

Every year Gallup puts out the same poll asking people about taxes. Every year they get the same response: Over 60 percent want to see the wealthy pay more in taxes. More than half believe “government should redistribute wealth by taxing the rich.”

Earlier this year, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin seemed to agree. He promised in no uncertain terms that this administration wouldn’t seek to cut taxes for the “upper class.”

Unfortunately, that was a bald-faced, pants-on-fire, inexplicable lie.

Trump’s plan does redistribute wealth, it turns out — but it’s towards greater inequality, not less. It takes serious mental gymnastics to argue that what Trump’s team has proposed on taxes would benefit the average working Joe or Jane.

The plan eliminates the federal estate tax, a levy that only impacts the wealthiest 0.2 percent of heirs and heiresses. It was put in place a hundred years ago with the express goal of reducing inequality and preventing aristocracy.

The plan also cuts the effective tax rates on the wealthiest individuals and most profitable corporations, those doing phenomenally well right now.

Meanwhile, the administration has proposed massive budget cuts eliminating whole programs for working people.

This draconian effort would intentionally and literally push working families into the cold, by zeroing out the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. If that weren’t savage enough, the administration also wants to cut the Women Infant and Children (WIC) food program that provides nutrition assistance to about half the babies born in this country.

The poor in this country often don’t see themselves as poor, the late author John Steinbeck noted, but as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Maybe that’s why some working class people support this administration.

Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Taxation and Opportunity at the Institute for Policy Studies. 

Looking for tropical survivors

Monk Parakeet.

Monk Parakeet.

"I  grew up in New Hampshire. My closest neighbor was a mile away. The deer and the raccoons were my friends. So I would spend time walking through the woods, looking for the most beautiful tropical thing that can survive the winter in the woods in New Hampshire.''

-- Steven Tyler, rock musician

Editor's notes:

For years, a colony of  Monk Parakeets thrived on a point in East Providence on Narragansett Bay.

Mr. Tyler actually only spent summers in New Hampshire as a kid.
 

Boston can do much more with solar energy

By ecoRI News staff

ecori.org

BOSTON

As Massachusetts continues to debate policies critical to the growth of solar power, a recently released report ranks the city in the middle of the pack for total installed solar capacity.

The report, which ranks Boston 21st among major U.S. cities for solar, comes as the legislature considers raising Massachusetts’s solar goal to 25 percent solar by 2030.

“By using solar power here in Boston, we can reduce pollution and improve public health,” said Sharon Solomon of Environment Massachusetts. “While Boston has taken some steps to encourage solar energy, we can do much more. Solar has a critical role to play in moving Boston to 100 percent renewable energy.”

The report, Shining Cities: How Smart Local Policies Are Expanding Solar Power in America, ranks Boston ahead of Philadelphia, Seattle and Miami for the total amount of installed solar, but behind Newark, N.J., Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C.

Boston has taken some steps to expand solar energy, such as creating the Renew Boston solar program, which helped lower the cost of solar installations, and installing solar panels on schools and other public buildings. Additionally, businesses and community organizations are exploring innovative models to expand access to solar for low-income housing and churches.

The report outlines additional steps that cities can take to encourage the adoption of solar energy, including requiring “solar-ready” or zero-net-energy buildings and reforming permitting processes.

“With regression happening with environmental policies in Washington, D.C., it is important for cities and towns to lead in solar and renewable energy sources,” City Councilor Matt O’Malley said.

The data in the report reflect the recent growth of solar across the country. The top 20 cities listed in the report have nearly as much solar today as the entire country had installed in 2010. In 2016, solar was the No. 1 new source of energy installed in the United States.

The Solar Foundation recently released new data showing there are 12,486 people employed in solar industry in Greater Boston.

Despite that growth, challenges remain for the solar industry in Massachusetts. Caps on the state’s most important solar program, net metering, are holding back the growth of solar energy, according to Environment Massachusetts. The Legislature is currently considering bills that would lift or eliminate the caps on net metering, restore the full value of net-metering credits, and set a goal of generating 25 percent of the state’s electricity from solar by 2030.

Cities can push solar forward in a number of ways, according to the report. Among the recommendations, cities can set a goal for solar usage, help residents finance solar power, and put solar on government buildings.

Across the country, 25 cities, including Burlington, Vt., have committed to get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.

“Cities are big energy users with lots of unutilized roof space suitable for solar panels,” Solomon said. “Boston has only just begun to tap its solar potential.”

Will tolls make 'Connecticut Turnpike' less unpleasant?

On Route 95 in Stamford, Conn., among the most congested stretches of a crowded road.

On Route 95 in Stamford, Conn., among the most congested stretches of a crowded road.

Adapted from an item in Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' in GoLocal 24.

People of a certain age will remember the toll booths on Interstate 95 in Connecticut, a stretch we used to call the Connecticut Turnpike. To impatient drivers the booths seemed to come every few hundred yards and must have been a major source of state employment. (Older drivers will also remember the soft bump-bump-bump as they rode over the Nutmeg State’s concrete roads,  once favored in the state over asphalt.)

For various reasons, the tolls and the manned booths where they were collected were removed in 1988. That speeded up traffic for a while but since the very existence of roads spawns cars and that stretch of 95 is close to what became in the ‘90s the boom town of New York City, and its extension in Stamford, the congestion has gotten worse and worse.

Meanwhile, in large part because of Republican anti-tax mania, the federal gasoline tax has not been raised for 24 years and cars have been more fuel-efficient. Thus there’s been less and less money to fix the roads.

And so Connecticut officials are considering bringing back the tolls, albeit this time, of course, the money would be collected automatically through the wonder (and Orwellian nightmare) of electronics. The state would presumably use at least some of that money to help fix up its roads. It’s too bad  that the Feds have been so unhelpful in helping to maintain the Interstate Highway System, on which construction started in the Eisenhower administration.  And the Trump White House has talked (in its usual incoherent way) about shoving more of the financial obligations of public infrastructure back to the states.

My old friend Philip K. Howard, chairman of Common Good, the public-policy reform organization, wrote recently:

“Where can {transportation} infrastructure funding come from? One obvious source is the gasoline tax, which hasn't increased in 24 years. Raising the gasoline tax by 25 cents would raise over $40 billion per year, and fund most needed highway and transit projects. This could be supplemented by a ‘carbon tax’ on other fossil fuels. Another funding source would be tax revenue from repatriated offshore corporate earnings.

“New fees and taxes come out of our pockets, of course. But kicking the can down the road will cost us far more. An hour stuck in a traffic jam is multiple times more expensive than an extra 25 cents on each gallon of gasoline. Deferring maintenance is generally economically disastrous — increasing costs by a factor of 10…’’

“The next time you're in a traffic jam — starting, say, this afternoon — think about Congress. It created a paralytic regulatory structure that prevents fixing infrastructure. Now it also refuses to help pay for it. Only Congress can cut these bureaucratic knots, raise funds, and get America moving again.’’

By the way, a study of taxes of the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (mostly highly developed nations) shows that overall (federal, state and local) tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product ranked the United States as 31st. Denmark was ranked first.

Cool summer wear

"Twisted Torso'' (gouache on paper), by Laura Watt, in the show "Grids,'' at Periphery Space gallery, Pawtucket, R.I., April 29-May 27. The title and subject of the show comes from the 1979 essay "Grids,'' by Rosalind Krauss. The show shows the work of six artists fascinated with the grids. They explore pattern, repetition and geometry in nature and everyday life.

"Twisted Torso'' (gouache on paper), by Laura Watt, in the show "Grids,'' at Periphery Space gallery, Pawtucket, R.I., April 29-May 27.

The title and subject of the show comes from the 1979 essay "Grids,'' by Rosalind Krauss. The show shows the work of six artists fascinated with the grids. They explore pattern, repetition and geometry in nature and everyday life.

Don Pesci: Twain, TR and imperialism

Mark Twain during TR's administration.

Mark Twain during TR's administration.

Theodore Roosevelt on Twain – “I wish I could skin Mark Twain alive.”

Twain on Roosevelt – “We have had no President before who was destitute of self-respect for his high office. We have had no President before who was not a gentleman; we have had no President before who was intended for a butcher, a dive-keeper or a bully.”

VERNON, Conn.

Occasionally, columnists back up against a thorny subject much in the way an innocent traveler in the woods backs up against a porcupine. The collision is often painful for both the porcupine and the columnist.

Although the deathless struggle between Twain,  a longtime Connecticut resident, and TR has been known for more than a century, it is rarely mentioned in print. Twain scholars know that Twain and TR were natural enemies on the matter of American imperialism, TR favoring the civilizing benefits of imperialism, always good for the native population and American businesses on the hunt for overseas markets, and Twain opposing it – strenuously.

TR’s animal spirits were aroused by “killing things,” as his political opponents said, and the notion that the American idea should extend beyond its Monroe Doctrine borders to Hawaii, during Twain’s time, still an island paradise controlled by the native population, Cuba and the Philippines, both part of the far-flung Spanish Empire, and wherever else three prominent American expansionists -- Theodore Roosevelt, whose ambitions for personal glory knew no bounds, William Randolph Hearst, a pro-imperialist newspaper owner, and Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge,  a close friend of TR and a shaker and mover in Congress --  though that the United States should extend its reach in the world.

Twain was still in Europe when a diffident President William McKinley, largely at the urging of pro-imperialist, ''civilizing'' forces in the United States, ordered the U.S. Navy into Cuba, there to support rebel groups agitating for democracy and freedom from Spanish rule. We all recall Hearst’s war-whoop: “Remember the Maine; To Hell With Spain.”

The Maine went down in Havana Harbor, a sinking likely caused, it was revealed seventy years after the event, by an internal fire that had ignited explosives aboard the war ship. At the time, Hearst, dollar signs always in his eyes, happily circulated the notion that the Maine had been sunk by the Spanish and said so in many lurid and sensational stories printed in his paper. Roosevelt went off as a colonel to command a regiment in Cuba and later stormed San Juan Hill with his “Rough Riders.” The Philippians, Guam especially, was set free of the Spanish navy. America’s imperial outreach was intended to Christianize and civilize savage nations, open markets to U.S.  goods and announce brashly to the world that, in an era of colonializing powers, the United States had come of age. The imperialists had the stage pretty much to themselves, and then Twain, who at first supported the Cuban adventure because he thought it might help a nation struggling against a colonial power to attain independence, returned home – with a pen dipped in the fires of Hell.

TR found that San Juan Hill was easier to storm than Twain who, to his last breath, insisted as a matter of principle, along with John Adams, that while the United States is a friend to democracy everywhere, it is the custodian only of its own.

The Twain-TR struggle continues today under different battle flags. The presence of a resurgent Islam in modern times has changed the calculus somewhat. Among other things, a resurgent Islam is intent upon 1) sweeping Western influence – religious, cultural and legal -- including democracy, from its own sphere of influence, 2) restoring a sphere of influence it held for roughly 1,500 years as an imperial power, and 3) bringing all other faiths and social orders under Islam at the point of a sword.

The contest between a resurgent Islam and a West that has internally surrendered to a superior spiritual force – demographics show that Islam will out-produce the West in the only product that really matters, children, in the not too distant future – places before those of us in the United States who believe Twain got the better of the argument over TR the age old questions: Without a more than equal countervailing force, how does the West preserve itself from destruction?

Can there be a difference between imperialism and intervention? And has there ever been in the history of the world a non-imperialist nation whose mission is the preservation and extension of Western Cvilization?

Don Pesci is a writer (mostly on politics) who lives in Vernon, Conn.

Expert on global pandemics to speak at PCFR

The main types of influenza viruses in humans. Solid squares show the appearance of a new strain, causing recurring influenza pandemics. Broken lines indicate uncertain strain identifications.

The main types of influenza viruses in humans. Solid squares show the appearance of a new strain, causing recurring influenza pandemics. Broken lines indicate uncertain strain identifications.

Rand Stoneburner, M.D., the distinguished international epidemiologist, will speak at the April 19 meeting of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations (thepcfr.org; pcfremail@gmail.com). Dr. Stoneburner, who has done extensive work with the World Health Organization and other major public health organizations,  will talk about Zika, Ebola and what he sees as the biggest global disease threat – an influenza pandemic.  He’ll have some graphics.

Meanwhile, see:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/the-trump-administration-is-ill-prepared-for-a-global-pandemic/2017/04/08/59605bc6-1a49-11e7-9887-1a5314b56a08_story.html?utm_term=.45d46676dada&wpisrc=nl_rainbow&wpmm=1

Philip K. Howard: 4 approaches to fixing America's infrastructure

An image from Philip K. Howard's "Peripheral Visions'' photos, which he has taken over the years, especially in cities. This goes along with his  public-policy expertise in America's infrastructure, especially regarding transportation. He says: "These images frame the repetitive patterns of daily landscapes that we feel but rarely consciously observe. Shot on 35mm film at slow shutter speeds to convey how most of us experience these moments, they are impressionistic, with large prints taking on a pointillistic quality.''  Mr. Howard's photos can been seen at philipkingphoto.com.

An image from Philip K. Howard's "Peripheral Visions'' photos, which he has taken over the years, especially in cities. This goes along with his  public-policy expertise in America's infrastructure, especially regarding transportation.

He says: "These images frame the repetitive patterns of daily landscapes that we feel but rarely consciously observe. Shot on 35mm film at slow shutter speeds to convey how most of us experience these moments, they are impressionistic, with large prints taking on a pointillistic quality.''  Mr. Howard's photos can been seen at philipkingphoto.com.

A new White House office of innovation, led by Jared Kushner, has been created to apply business techniques to make government work better. Leaving aside state enforcement powers, much of what government does is deliver (or subsidize) goods and services. What would have to change to make those government functions more business-like?

Fixing America’s fraying infrastructure, for example, enjoys broad public support. As a builder, President Trump would seem uniquely qualified to oversee this initiative. But government can’t seem to get projects moving. Only 3.6 percent of the $800 billion 2009 stimulus plan was put to use on transportation infrastructure. No one was able to make the needed choices—as President Obama put it, “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”

How would a business go about fixing America’s infrastructure? It would make choices in four broad categories, none of which Washington will do.

1. Set priorities. Washington has no action plan to rebuild the rickety power grid, or to prioritize interstate bottlenecks. It basically leaves the setting of projects to states and localities—as with the “bridge to nowhere.”

Solution: Put someone in charge of setting national priority projects, which then receive federal support. Australia, for example, has a central committee that receives applications from states and decides which get federal support.

2. Cut red tape. Decade-long review and permitting procedures compromise or kill projects by a) doubling the effective cost, b) creating uncertainty that discourages public and private capital from sponsoring projects, and c) skewing project design toward mollifying whoever threatens to sue. Lengthy environmental review—often thousands of pages of mind-numbing detail—turns out to be harmful to the environment in most cases, because it delays fixing polluting bottlenecks.

Solution: Set deadlines (two years maximum for major projects; six months for fix-it projects), and create clear lines of authority to make needed decisions. Only Congress can do this. Scores of well-meaning laws since the 1960s have resulted in a jumble of competing obligations and balkanized authorities, at the federal, state and local levels.

Clear lines of authority are essential; that’s how greener countries such as Germany are able to approve major projects within a 1-2 year timetable. The nonprofit Common Good, which I chair, has a three-page legislative proposal that: a) gives the chair of the Council of Environmental Quality, who reports to the president, the job of keeping environmental reviews focused on important issues; b) gives the director of the OMB the authority to resolve all interagency disputes and to balance competing regulatory concerns; c) preempts state and local approvals for national projects if their approval processes extend beyond federal timetable, and; d) expedites and limits lawsuits.

3. Outsource design and construction. Most businesses, like government, have no special know-how in large construction projects. Typically, businesses solicit “design-build-maintain” bids which put the contractor on the hook for long-term success of the infrastructure. Government, by contrast, tries to “spec” out every detail in advance—with the predictable result that government fails to anticipate contingencies and ends up paying for costly change-orders and higher maintenance.

Solution: Require best-practices procurement as a condition for federal infrastructure aid. Other countries, such as Australia, make much more use of so-called 3P arrangements (Public-Private partnerships), even in situations where the infrastructure has no revenue stream and the developer is repaid out of general tax revenues. It is generally more cost-effective to let private developers take the risks of the numerous contingencies and to bear the responsibility of maintenance.

4. Don’t be reluctant to invest in good projects. Businesses look at the return on capital invested. By most accounts, the economic benefits of fixing America’s infrastructure are huge—returning $5.20 on each $1 invested in modernizing the Interstate highway system, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Plus 2 million jobs. Plus a greener footprint.

A business would use whatever financing was available to achieve returns on this level. It would even raise price of products if it thought it customers saw the benefit. If a penny-pinching business let its physical plant deteriorate, to the harm of its customers, it would soon be taken over by someone else. Perhaps that’s what happened in the last election.

Solution: This should be the easiest change, because it requires no legal amendments. The Republicans’ refusal to consider any new revenue streams to fix broken infrastructure is another symptom of its dysfunction. Ask Alexander Hamilton: Raising revenues to invest for the greater good does not violate conservative principles. The decision here could hardly be more obvious: For example, a 25-cent rise in the gas tax, which has stayed at the same level for a quarter century, would finance about half of President Trump’s ten year trillion-dollar initiative.

Washington will resist these changes, because, unlike business, it doesn’t want to make new choices. That requires someone taking responsibility. In Washington, the deck is stacked for the status quo—no new infrastructure without a decade of review, no permit without approval from a dozen agencies, no new taxes even if traffic bottlenecks cost billions. No is everywhere. Maybe no is a good presumption for new laws, but not when government needs to deliver goods and services.

Back in the old days, when Washington leaders worked things out, the deal for an infrastructure initiative would be obvious. Democrats agree to streamline environmental review, and Republicans agree to raise taxes in exchange for a streamlined process that cuts costs in half.

Infrastructure is a kind of canary in the mine of democracy. Everyone says they want infrastructure, but there’s no movement. That’s because dense bureaucracy, by stifling any capacity to deliver projects in a reasonable time frame, has removed the oxygen of democracy. A congressional leader might be more amenable to funding infrastructure if he knows that his district’s stretch of Interstate 80 will get a new lane next year. What Washington needs is what every successful business has: a hierarchy of responsibility that allows responsible people to hammer out accommodations and start making decisions again.

Philip K. Howard is a New York City-based civic leader, author (The Death of Common Sense and The Rule of Nobody among them), lawyer and photographer. He is chairman of Common Good (common good.org), the legal- and regulatory-reform organization.

Cod and science vs. anecdote

 

Adapted and expanded from an item in Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary'' in GoLocal24.com

The decline of cod, presumably New England’s most famous fish, is a prime example of why we need government oversight of certain species. In the “tragedy of the commons,’’ fishermen will almost always take the short view and maximize profits by taking out of the sea as many fish as they can as fast as they can.

For years fishermen have complained that federal rules aimed at preserving cod  stocks through fishing bans or tight limits on catches are based on faulty science and conflict with fishermen’s (anecdotally based) observations. Well, that science was pretty damn good but Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, in response to complaints from the industry, much of which is based in Gloucester, ordered the state to do its own survey.

The chief finding: Cod populations have been plunging in the Gulf of Maine, with stocks down about 80 percent from a decade ago. For political reasons, Mr. Baker would have preferred a more upbeat report that avoided offending a local industry as he goes into a re-election campaign next year.

The fish are disappearing, partly from overfishing and, probably, partly from global warming. (Consumers can help by not ordering cod.) Also perhaps playing a big role  is the reduction in the species' food supply, suggests my businessman friend Stephen Key, who has been in various parts of the food sector for years.  All of that increased commercial fishing for bunker/menhaden (used for fish-oil pills etc.), must have an impact, and not just on cod.

The fact is that there are times when only government can save species. Consider the role of the Feds, under President Theodore Roosevelt, in stopping what seemed to be the imminent extinction of the American bison (aka buffalo) by trophy and meat hunters.