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 revenueā€”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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mcwop January 3, 2008 at 5:04 pm

Never mind that Maryland tests cars that do not need testing (e.g. new cars purchased within the last 6 years with less than 100,000 miles). Why can't I have it tested when I bring it for an oil change, saving me the annoying trip.

The other day I spent 3 hours, and was sent to 5 different rooms trying to get my house changed from multi family to single family here in Baltimore. I did not accomplish the task, people were rude, and I still have no idea where things stand. And pro-government people wonder why there are so many anti-government people. It is becuase many of us simply have constant bad experiences at the hand of government.

Sylvain Galineau January 3, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Assuming you can trust the information off the chip, or the wireless transmitter/transponder. If it was done as you suggest, how long would it be before software and gizmos are available to hack the system and always broadcast a clean bill of emission health ? See the profitable market for radar detectors.

While sustaining the bureaucracy may be a primary motive, there could be other valid reason to require a live inspection. This may even be cheaper in the short run than having a bunch of states set up a commission to come up with a secure protocol to transmit this data and come up with the technical requirements to make this tamper-proof, with the federal government butting in to argue that there should be one single standard etc.

Although on past forms it's likely we'll get to pay for both…

mcwop January 3, 2008 at 5:40 pm

Sylvain Galineau, it could be that more emissions are expended at central testing stations than are saved by ferreting out and forcing cars that need tune ups. So why do it at all in that case? In fact if your car does not meet the emissions standards you may not even have to make it meet the standard by simply getting a waiver. I bet the government did no analysis on any of this. And why bother testing a new two year old new car with 30,000 miles on it? It is probably a cinch to pass.

Waiver for VEIP testing

Nathan Bowers January 3, 2008 at 8:15 pm

Funny, I took my car in yesterday for my biannual California smog check (it's required for DMV registration). I drive a 2002 Honda Accord so naturally I passed with super low emissions.

I thought having to spend $50 and 15 minutes for a test I knew I would pass was annoying, but that Maryland testing sounds like pure hell. Maybe one disadvantage of small states is that it's easier for small but annoying special interests to come up with schemes that would never work on a large populace.

The ads for the Institute for Justice on the back of Reason magazine always seem to be some small business owner standing up to the Rhode Island Embalmers' Association or some such nonsense.

Bob Smith January 3, 2008 at 11:39 pm

There's no need to test every car. You only need to ticket and impound gross polluters (you know who they are). One such car is the equivalent of a thousand new cars in terms of pollution. The second thing you need to do is have a rising registration fee as the car ages, inducing drivers to replace old polluters with newer cars. Neither will ever happen, especially in places like California (where the problem is most acute because old cars live a *long* time since they don't rust). The "poor" and "illegal immigrant" lobbies will launch huge lawsuits should any such law be passed, claiming it unfairly discriminates against them.

Jon January 4, 2008 at 10:23 am

Emissions testing is ridiculous.

As a car tuner fan … it's meaningless. all we have to do is swap the parts on before inspection, pass, and put them back on afterward. No cop is going to be able to tell.

Christopher Renner January 7, 2008 at 7:51 pm

Another aspect of emissions as related to modified cars – state regulations that specify that a car has to have all OEM emissions related parts, versus those which only measure what's coming out of the tailpipe.

In the first case, there's an incentive for the car's owner to swap parts back to original once a year, pass the test, and immediately revert to the(possibly much more polluting) modifications.

In the second case, the owner can ensure that his normal setup(i.e. with modifications) won't pollute more than otherwise.

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