Dreaming of the State

This past Sunday, I flew home to Los Angeles from Thanksgiving with my relatives in Montreal (actually, it was a bat mitzvah since Canadian Thanksgiving occurred six weeks ago but you get the idea).  The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest flying day of the year, with millions of passengers criss-crossing the country.  And I had to connect through O’Hare, the second busiest airport in the world.  I was dreading the experience, and half-expected to be stranded in Chicago on Sunday night.

And nothing happened.  The flight into Chicago was fine; the flight out of Chicago was fine.

And as far as I can tell, the same thing happened in thousands of flights all over the nation.  Flights were generally on-time arriving and departing, despite rainy and cloudy weather conditions.

Now, I don’t know how this occurred.  Airports run by state and local governments and regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration all coordinated tens of thousands, if not millions of different activities, events, and flights throughout the United States.

But…but…we all know that this just isn’t possible, because the government is invariably inefficient, incompetent, corrupt, slow, bureaucratic, and completely incapable of nimbly managing these millions of transactions and activities, unlike the private sector.  (That’s why it’s so great that the Republicans want to cut the FAA’s budget).  There is simply no way that any of this could have happened.  I really have no idea how I got home from Montreal.

So at this point I’m figuring that I must have dreamed up the whole thing.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

40 thoughts on “Dreaming of the State”

  1. I have no comment on the broader issue of government (in)efficiency, but it’s worth noting that ATC failures can result in outcomes (i.e. crashes) which are visible (can’t be hidden), high stakes (loss of lives) and rare enough that the levels of failure can’t get lost in statistical noise. That must incentivize the FAA employees differently than some paper pusher in the Department of, say, Agriculture, whose effect on institutional productivity is not easily measurable and not interesting enough to highlight in the media.

    1. I don’t really have anything to say about your comment, but it’s worth noting that despite your protestations to the contrary (such as in the introduction) and somewhat circumlocutious (unnecessarily complicated) writing style (or lack there-of), that you actually do wish to comment on government efficiency.

      1. Swen, I have worked for city, county, state governments and the federal government. I can positively say that there was not a single government organization that I worked for that I could not line up the employees and fire two out of three and increase efficiency.

        This is just not in the government. I’ve been in the military. I’ve worked for 4 of the largest banks in the country. I worked for the largest insurance agency in north Florida. They all have the same situations.

        The truth is that almost 80 percent of the people not working would not be a problem, as long as they had good water, food, shelter, sex, medical care, education, exercise and hobby societies. The “get a job” nonsense is totally obsolete. We’d all do better if 80 percent of the population were paid not to work.

        When you look at this blog, remember, if work were such a great value for the top 1 percemt, they would, logically speaking, support a 100 percent inheritence tax.

        1. What a very, very strange response to my comment. I would be completely convinced you were responding to someone else except you mention me by name (Swen). I said nothing about “getting a job” or the value of work. Please look through these comments and see if you hadn’t intended these remarks for someone else. If they really are for me, please explain how they relate to my comment.

    2. There’s an awful lot of air traffic regulation whose effects show up in on-time performance, missed connections, and the like; there are countless ways that poor (or, on the other hand, overzealous) regulation could impair air travel without showing up in the form of awful tragedies, contrary to your assertion. These factors were the main subject of Zasloff’s post; maybe you should read it.

      1. There’s an awful lot of air traffic regulation whose effects show up in on-time performance, missed connections, and the like

        Actually what JZ said in the post was “And as far as I can tell, the same thing happened in thousands of flights all over the nation. Flights were generally on-time arriving and departing, despite rainy and cloudy weather conditions.

        In any case, even these outcomes such as timeliness are public-facing outcomes. The couple hundred of passengers who show up for a flight will immediately notice if the plane is delayed, and if the problem is systemic and cascades through the roster of scheduled flights, then it will show up on the news within a few hours.

        1. And of course if a hundred thousand people didn’t get their SS checks no one would notice or say a peep? Or if some great number of personal mail disappeared that would go unnoticed? Or say a bridge fell into a river, er, uh, well stuff happens.
          Truth is I don’t see that tha guv’mint does it’s job any worse than the fabled private sector. Some things are good and some not so much. The trouble is that we already paid for the government service and get pissed when we feel we are not getting what we’ve paid for. Add to that, there is a very well funded pr organization working night and day to covince us all that government is a terrible thing. It’s called the GOP. They not only try to convice us how bad our government is but theyhave people we hire to run that government working like the devil to wreck it. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

  2. Such is the paradox of government. On the one hand, completely incapable of making the trains run on time. On the other, capable of committing massive yet undetectable fraud in TARP, 9/11, death panels, New Coke, the cancellation of Firefly, and concealing the secret identity of the foreign-born socialist occupying the White House. Diabolical, I tell you.

  3. One reason it all works is that the airlines have computers cranking 24/7 running optimization software to find as near optimal use of resources as possible.

    And just because government performs some function doesn’t mean government has too or does it best. After all, in that bastion of socialism to the north, air traffic control is handled by a private corporation.

    1. I think you are mistaken on both counts:

      Actually, the airlines only use their computers to perform yield management and other planning functions for getting the most from their own resources. It is the FAA that plans and actively manages the overall resources of the air transport system to find as near to the optimal utilization of the available resources as possible. If the system works it’s because the FAA makes it work.

      As for the air traffic control system in Canada, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree. Yes, Nav Canada is a private company but it’s also a not-for-profit corporation where the government and labor unions control half of the board of directors. More importantly, it was originally a government department and the basic structure of the air transport system in Canada was established long before Transport Canada privatized the air traffic control system. It is no more a part of the “free enterprise” system of capitalism than is the Veteran’s Administration.

      1. IATA air traffic control Eagle Award Winners.

        Eagle Awards honor air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and airports for outstanding performance in customer satisfaction, cost efficiency, and continuous improvement.

        1998: Irish Aviation Authority – Commercial semi state company.
        1999: AirServices Australia – Government-owned corporation.
        2000: Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) – Company organized under private law 100% owned by the Federal Republic of Germany.
        2001: NAVCANADA – Private sector, non-share capital corporation.
        • Airways Corporation of New Zealand – State-owned Enterprise (SOE), a fully-owned subsidiary of the NZ Government operating as a commercial business.
        • Estonian Air Navigation Services – Republic of Estonia sole shareholder.
        • The General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates – not sure how closely it’s tied to government.
        2005: AirServices Australia – Government-owned corporation.
        2006: LFV of Sweden – State enterprise.
        2007: DGAC Chile – not sure how closely it’s tied to government.
        2008: Airways Corporation of New Zealand – State-owned Enterprise (SOE), a fully-owned subsidiary of the NZ Government operating as a commercial business.
        • Vietnam Air Navigation Services Corporation (VANSCORP) – not sure how closely it’s tied to government.
        • The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) – Statutory Board under the Ministry of Transport.
        2010: NAVCANADA – Private sector, non-share capital corporation.
        2011: NAVCANADA – Private sector, non-share capital corporation.

        It would seem that having air traffic control at some arms length from government might be a good thing.

        1. We must be reading a different list, then. As mentioned above, Nav Canada is a private company but it’s also a not-for-profit corporation where the government and labor unions control half of the board of directors. More importantly, it was originally a government department and the basic structure of the air transport system in Canada was established long before Transport Canada privatized the air traffic control system. It was apparently spun off intact and has not significantly changed except that it has been, apparently, nominally privatized. Your list shows that nearly every winner of this award for excellence is either an organ of the state or is substantially controlled by the government. Not a single one of the companies is a private for-profit corporation. Zero.

          By the way, the UAE owns its air traffic control system. DGAC Chile, the same. I don’t know about the Vietnam Air Navigation Services Corporation but it is in Communist Vietnam so my guess would be that probably the best example of a basic profit-making capitalist enterprise in your entire list. So, it would seem to be that having air traffic control overseen by the government is proven to be a good thing.

          1. “Not a single one of the companies is a private for-profit corporation. Zero.”

            Britian’s Nats is a private for-profit company with the government holding 49% share. There were talks this year of the government selling its stake in the company.
            Air control profits soar to £106m: Air traffic control company Nats, which could soon be fully privatised, has announced increased annual profits.

            “So, it would seem to be that having air traffic control overseen by the government is proven to be a good thing.”

            Will the possible exception Nats, if the government sells its stake, there may not be any air traffic control systems in the world, not owned or controlled in whole or part by the government of the country it resides in, to be use as counter-examples.

    2. Who knew? But of course it’s a private nonprofit corporation whose board is partially controlled by the gubmint.

  4. I think sven is right that you are actually trying to comment on government efficiency. I’m not sure, however, what point you are trying to make and how it proves that government is inherently ineffective. What I understand you to be saying is that people with high-profile jobs whose mistakes are harder to hide are more likely to be more reliable workers than those whose jobs are inconsequential. This is true, I suppose. But so what?

  5. […]
    [T]he United States,… now has the worst air-traffic congestion on the planet, with one-quarter of flights arriving more than 15 minutes late. One reason is that U.S. air-traffic control still relies on 1950s-era ground radar technology, even as the rest of the world has been shifting to satellite tracking (the FAA has begun the transition to a satellite-based system, though it’s moving slowly and future funding is a big question). According to recent World Economic Forum rankings, even Malaysia and Panama now boast better air infrastructure.

    This is why your flight is delayed

  6. Everybody on this thread would be well-served to read James Q. Wilson’s “Bureaucracy”, if they haven’t done so already. It is still the best study on government effectiveness I know of. (Wilson, btw, is a political conservative. He’s also reality-based.)

    To summarize a complex book: government agencies can perform pretty well when they have a clear mission. If they do not have a clear mission, they are unlikely to do well, because they have nothing they can measure their performance against–or too many things to measure their performance against. Business corporations do not generally show the dysfunctions of bad government agencies because they seldom lack a clear mission–they always have the profit motive.

    Given Wilson’s analysis (which generalizes to nonprofits), I’m surprised that universities work as well as they do. What is their mission? Training students? Liberal education? Football? Research? The comfort of their faculty?

    1. Wilson’s analysis really speaks to my experience as a former professor: universities are composed of small relatively-autonomous units, each of which has a small number of missions. The quality of individual units vary; those that I’ve seen that had bad reputations or bad outcomes also had lost clarity about what their mission was, or were in conflict with the university’s perception of their mission. The university’s overall quality was a function of both the average coherence of departments/units with their own missions and overall leadership quality/coherence. When the administration tried to restrict autonomy, institutional quality got more fragile and subject to perverse incentives.

      e.g. When I was interviewing for a job, the administration of one of the departments I talked to had decided to increase its national ranking by prioritizing research and explicitly deemphasizing teaching; although the university administration seemed to tolerate this, it created a pretty sharp rift within the department faculty, alienated the students, and ended up hurting the department.

      Autonomy might be less important if there was a uniform “thing to measure their performance against”, but I don’t believe we have one yet. Research performance is typically measured by grant money or by publication rate; my professional journals, at least, are full of editorial discussions of how the publication rate emphasis is hurting the discipline. Every administration-supported uniform measure of teaching performance I saw was gameable or flat-out backwards. e.g. emphasis on student happiness (easy to quantify, immediate, comparable across disciplines) rather than student outcomes (hard to quantify, delayed, very different for different disciplines).

  7. Judging by the rising cost of tuition, and the number of graduates facing a lifetime of debt without having gained any particular job skills, I’m not sure you can really say universities work all that well. More a case of even an inefficient process putting out some product if you throw enough resources at it.

    1. That is largely a North-American phenomenon. Europe, by and large, has little or no tuition at its universities, and that is regardless of whether a country has socialdemocratic leanings or not. You can, for example, obtain a degree at the ETH Zurich (which is ranked, internationally, at about the same level as the MIT or UMich) by paying some $600 per semester. A Scottish student studying at the University of Edinburgh (another world class university) will pay no tuition whatsoever.

      Obviously, the market could bear higher tuition costs (as seen in the United States and the part of the United Kingdom unfortunate enough to lie south of the Tweed [1]). But leaving tuition fees entirely up to market forces creates a disincentive for young people to study; most European countries therefore subsidize tertiary education to make studying (and where they exist, vocational programs) easier to get into; the goal for those countries is to build up a skilled workforce. Where tuition fees exist, they tend to be kept at a nominal level (a few hundred Euro or thereabouts), primarily to provide an incentive for completing your course of study in a timely fashion.

      Note also that even in the US, tuition fees are not any lower at private universities; in fact, private universities can have much higher tuition fees than state universities.

      [1] Education is a devolved power in Scotland, so the Scottish SNP government is able to mitigate some of David Cameron’s attempts to replicate the worst aspect of the US educational system on British soil.

  8. This comment is unrelated to the post but there are at least three links in the left-side column on the main page wrong: Marginal Revolution (the sub-URL doesn’t work), Andrew Sullivan (now at The Daily Beast, though it redirects) and Matt Yglesias (who is now with Slate).

    1. A Mitzvah is a good deed, so a Bat Mitzvah is an instance of the vigilante and/or philanthropic work of Bruce Wayne.

    2. Perhaps I am too gullible, but just in case: The Hasidim are too misogynist to have bat mitzvot and the rest of us are too modern to worry about hats. If we want to keep our heads covered, bobby pins work just fine to keep kippahs and those lace doily-thingies in their place no matter how we are hanging, or rolling.

    3. Surely you do not mean to imply that Hassidim have some monopoly on mitzvahs any more than the private sector has a monopoly on running an efficient air traffic operation? Or that either of them have anything to do with bats?

      1. Sigh. I thought in my Gentile ignorance that it was Jonathan´s typo for bar, and leapt at the comic possibilities. It turns out that the joke´s on me.

  9. This conversation needs to include the United States Postal Service for it too is under attack by those who’d privatize all they see before them!

    1. I understand that Federal Express farms out deliveries for unprofitable routes to the US Postal Service. And those lazy Gubmint bumbs are so dumb they just go and deliver them.
      It’s no wonder the USPO is losing money what with keeping the wheels on our civilization and funding pensions for seventyfive years in advance.

        1. So what you’re saying is that the USPS subsidizes FedEx and UPS? Or at least that if it took the profitable routes back from FedEx and UPS it would be able to make more money?

          1. USPS generally provides the last-mile of delivery in the contracts with the various carriers. The carriers wouldn’t have a relationship with USPS if they didn’t think they could make a profit on it. And the Inspector General has accused USPS of wasting millions of dollars on some of the agreements with the carriers.

            USPS – DHL, FedEX & UPS

  10. Your trip was so easy because the airlines pay huge fines for stranding passengers in planes and so they don’t faff about when closing the doors and getting planes from point A to point B. Because of this, flight times are scheduled longer so planes can come in early and circle a bit instead of sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off because they landed late. Also, the weather was pretty good as far as I know.

  11. I think the US Postal Service suffers from an obsolete business model. Fewer people write letters anymore, & Christmas/birthday presents these days are sent by value-added retailers direct to the recipient. The Postal Service gets some of that business, but apparently not enough.

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