Commercializing the public weal

The Port Authority is going to sell Geico a billboard squarely on top of the George Washington Bridge toll booths. Even more appalling, “Geico’s message will also be integrated into the Port Authority’s direct mailings and its Web site, and costumed gecko mascots will appear at Port Authority bus stations.”

Words fail me. This is the rotten fruit of having no respect for our public institutions and managing government as though the point is to hide its costs. I don’t mind car cards in the subway or buses or ads in stations. I don’t mind (within reason) billboards on private property along the highway. But I despise covering the outside of a bus with an ad, I’m ashamed of begging from companies to clean up along the road for a sign, and I especially despise selling naming rights to things like sports arenas. The idea that we should have a Geico Authority of the Port of New York and New Jersey just because the PA’s management has no pride and the citizens of the New York area think they shouldn’t be happy to pay for excellent public services is deeply depressing. How about the Starbuck’s courtroom, or even a Smucker’s whole courthouse? Why not haul perps before the Wells Fargo Judge Smith of Alameda County, perhaps to become the Bank of America Judge Smith if they bid more next year? We could save a bundle on his salary, and then the taxpayers could buy more private stuff and the supervisor who gets the bill passed will be a hero of local government. This will pay even better if his robe is embroidered with a tasteful stagecoach logo, right?

This has nothing to do with naming buildings, professorships, and even elevator lobbies in hospitals after charitable donors who give irreversible gifts. There’s no public spirit in these commercial rentals of collective institutions; it’s cheap, shabby, and wrong.

OK, let’s see if we can get with the program and stop whining. First, why are we leaving money on the table by putting Washington’s name on the bridge; he never put a penny into the PA pot! Lots of companies would pay for this, and they should. Get this freeloader’s name off it and auction the whole bridge every six months.

And let’s be more entrepreneurial generally. A really good place to make a buck would be a big flag held up by the Statue of Liberty’s torch hand, I mean the Macy’s Statue of humiliation. Or we could paint her gown magenta and orange and pop a big inflatable donut over the torch. After all, it was really expensive to fix her up in the 70s, and the electric bill for the torch is an inexcusable burden on taxpayers. If no-one wants to pony up, that’s just the market telling us she’s outlived her economic usefulness. And copper scrap prices are at historic highs…

Give me your stingy and small-minded, the wretched refuse of two decades of trashing the institutions of a civilized state…I’m in despair.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.