Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What you get when you make hasty generalizations

On Monday I pointed you to a Times op-ed by Elliott Sclar and Robert Paaswell, and observed that they chose to focus on the private transit systems of third world cities like Calcutta (which in that particular spelling is practically shorthand for crowds and squalor to most Times readers) and ignore the reasonably clean and safe vans in New Jersey and Chinatown. Last night I showed how this guilt-by-association game leads to a number of erroneous conclusions.

First, I want to discuss one bizarre point in the op-ed, the parenthetical aside in this paragraph:
Indeed, even though the van companies are already operating on the former bus routes, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has not added enough personnel to cover its new regulatory responsibilities. (It’s worth asking why, if such funds were available, the city shouldn’t reinstate some of the bus routes instead).

Sure, it's worth asking. There are no dumb questions. But an answer comes to my mind pretty quickly: one TLC enforcement agent can monitor several routes. One agent is a lot cheaper than the number of bus drivers needed to run all those routes. So it's worth asking why, if I answered this question right away, the guys who run two prestigious academic institutes couldn't come up with the answer before their op-ed went to press. My guess is they didn't want to know, and they thought it would make them sound clever. Not exactly.

Here are a few more of their erroneous conclusions, which happen to result from applying their selective methods to perfectly accurate observations. Sclar and Paaswell are correct that appropriate regulation is necessary for transit to be an effective tool for achieving our goals. But they make a mistake in conflating public ownership and regulation. In reality these are not the same thing. You can have poorly regulated government enterprises; the MTA is often said to be one. You can also have well-regulated industries that are privately owned, like restaurants. If the authors are Communists who believe that everything should be run by the State, they don't say that upfront, and if they're not Communists they don't make a good case for transit being treated differently from food preparation.

Once established, Sclar and Paaswell argue, transit providers can become organized and entrenched, protecting their interests at the expense of the public. They are correct here: I can think of one city in particular where a "cartel" of transit operators has jealously guarded their monopoly even though the public winds up paying more money for less service. Unfortunately for their argument, it happens to be our city, and the cartel is the Transit Workers' Union. They may not engage in the kind of violence that the authors breathlessly related, but they are certainly succeeding in stifling innovation and impeding efficiency measures.

In this op-ed, the argument I'm probably the most sympathetic to is the one about employee wages and hours. I strongly believe that everyone deserves a job with decent pay for a reasonable workday. But it doesn't make sense to fight this battle in every workplace. Transit cannot shoulder the burden of social justice by itself. There are other social goals that I consider more important than maintaining the wage levels of unionized public-sector transit workers. What does it matter how much you're earning if you spend most of it on Metrocards, or if you're obese, your wife gets run over, your kid has asthma, or your house gets flooded.

I am also troubled by the hours worked by van drivers, but I'm equally troubled by the amount of overtime racked up by MTA workers. I don't want to see anybody overworked, no matter how much they get paid for it.

In contrast, Sclaar and Paaswell don't seem concerned at all about the amount of overtime that MTA operators are working. That makes me think that they don't really care about the hours anyone works. They just know that other people might care, so it's a handy thing to throw at the vans.

And I think that's the bottom line. This op-ed isn't science, and it's not journalism. It's a couple of cranky old guys who've been doing things a particular way their whole lives: publicly owned, unionized transit. That way is running into some difficulties, so someone tries a different approach: private jitneys. This also happens to hurt their friends in the union.

Do Sclar and Paaswell actually go try the vans? Do they ask around to find out how vans can be successful? No, they start from some prejudices they formed on a cramped bus ride in Rio, and brainstorm all the bad things they can think of about jitney service. They edit it (sort of) into an op-ed, and presto! Top of the Times opinion page. Yay.

1 comment:

NYC taxi photo said...

hmm, I liked that op-ed piece in the times, but I also agree with yours too if that's possible. eh it's op-ed, it's not all backed up with the best journalism. and about the tlc agents, I'm pretty certain that this organization is even stingier than the mta, I'm almost positive they've cut back on their agents in the feild, to the point where an already small number has been reduced to an even more trivial number like 2 or 3, and they probably aren't about to re-hire anymore agents anytime soon. all I'm saying is i wouldn't count on the TLC to manage anything better than the MTA