Government cheer

by Russ Roberts on January 3, 2008

in Standard of Living

Even government is getting better all the time. Well, not exactly. It’s bigger, which is worse. But it is better in some dimensions. There is no reason for the U.S. Post Office to exist. Yes, it has too many employees and is probably inefficiently run. Yes, it shouldn’t have a monopoly on normal (as opposed to overnight) letters. But my guess is that it is dramatically more efficient than it once was. Why is that? I think much of it has to do with Fed Ex and UPS and email changing the expectations of consumers. Its structure is not the same as it once was. It has been semi-privatized since 1971 and appears to no longer run deficits every year. This is progress. The glass is half-full.

Even the Department of Motor Vehicles isn’t what it once was. I renew my registration online. It’s essentially a pleasant experience. Why has it changed? People demanded it. It took too long, sure. And it’s probably too expensive. But it seems to be better.

EZ Pass makes driving better. You don’t have to stop and pay tolls. All those toll-collectors put out of work (or at least I imagine so) yet the better technology triumphed. How did that happen? One reason is that it makes it easier to raise toll rates and toll revenue—drivers with EZ Pass are probably less aware of the cost. But surely it has something to do with our ever-higher value of time and our expectations about the role of technology we expect as customers.

Of course, change in the public area takes a long time. Gregg Easterbrook reports:

Last week, I found myself in a group of dozens of cars and SUVs,
almost all of which had their engines running even though they were
stopped and not expecting to move. Where was this? At a Maryland state
emissions testing station. The testing station had six lanes, each with
a dozen cars waiting to be tested, the vehicles creeping forward about
once every five minutes. I got out and walked around the cars and SUVs.
Although it was obvious to drivers they would advance only every five
minutes or so, nearly all left the engines running, wasting gasoline.
And causing smog emissions! Not only was it absurd that drivers kept
their engines running while mired in a slow-moving line, it was absurd
that dozens of cars were stacked up, pointlessly emitting pollutants, at an emissions testing station.

testing stations themselves are technological dinosaurs. In the 1980s
and early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency used Clean Air Act
authority to pressure states into building emissions testing centers
that were designed to attach hoses to tailpipes and catch old clunkers
or poorly maintained cars emitting more air pollutants than 100
properly maintained cars. State governments fought the requirement
because voters hate having to take half a day off from work to pay for
the privilege of waiting in line for time-wasting tests. But
eventually, most states built centralized emissions testing centers,
creating a bureaucracy the states now seek to sustain. All cars and
SUVs sold since about the start of the decade contain computer chips
that report on emissions performance; the emissions centers no longer
test the tailpipe, merely jack in to the chip for a few seconds. This
could be accomplished wirelessly by attaching a small transmitter to
the engine chip and putting receivers along highways; any car or SUV
that was violating pollution standards would announce that fact — and
its VIN — whenever it drove past a receiver, and the owners could be
warned by mail. Setting the system up this way would ensure clean air
while allowing the elimination of emissions testing stations, saving
voters time and ending the long lines of cars idling at the stations,
wasting petroleum and emitting greenhouse gases. However, centralized
emissions testing now has interest groups that support it as a jobs
program, another example of how government can create programs but
cannot end them.

My colleague Dan Klein knew about this opportunity to use technology long ago. it will happen but it will take a long time.


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