Thursday, September 30, 2010

Regulatory Capture and Washington DC taxicabs

I flew to Washington DC's Dulles airport a few days ago. The airport is something like 30 miles outside of the city, and there is no metro service to/from the airport, so taxis and shuttles are pretty much the only choices for getting into the city if you don't rent a car. I took a taxi, and realized that the system serving Dulles is truly messed up.

Specifically, for regulatory reasons, only one company is allowed to pick up at Dulles airport, and that company is not allowed to pick up in DC city limits.

The airport actually highlight the fact that only this one company is allowed to provide taxi services, as if it's some sort of benefit to the traveling public. But this seems to me to be a total scam.

After all, these rules mean that each fare from the airport to DC must return empty to the airport, and each fare from DC to the airport must return empty to the city. As a result, taxis are consuming twice the necessary fuel for each passenger, are losing revenue-generating opportunities while dead-heading (it takes more than a half an hour to get between the airport and the city if there is any traffic), and are making traffic that much worse by the fact that twice as many taxis are on the road as are truly necessary to serve the round-trip passenger traffic. Fares, as a result, are undoubtedly higher than they need to be to compensate for these expenses and inefficiencies.

What we have here is a case of regulatory capture, which usually at least serves the interests of the industry that provides the relevant service. (See another example of this in Louisianna, where regulatory capture protects the funeral business.) But here, it seems to serve nobody's interests, since this cannot possibly be good even for the taxi drivers who must dead-head one-way for every Dulles passenger.

I wonder why this insane policy continues at Dulles.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What's the matter with "Elite?"

One of the clearest signs of populism and demagoguery that I've noticed is using "elite" as a dismissive term for an amorphous group of people who think they're better than "us" or who otherwise are not sufficiently tuned in to what is happening in the real world. This happens often when people deride politicians in Washington DC, or scholars in their ivory towers at universities. The follow-on is invariably that we need "folks like us" in office, because only "folks like us" understand us. Just listen to Sarah Palin and you'll see outright disdain for "elitism."

I think this is a shame. Obviously, to the degree that people are disconnected from reality or behave as if they're superior to everyone else, that's a problem and should not be tolerated. But very few politicians or academics (or other members of the otherwise-not-well-defined "elite") are actually guilty of either of these sins.

Rather, they're guilty of either (a) being part of a governmental body that is empowered to do something that affects "us" from a distance, or (b) being smart and well educated.

Being part of a governmental body is not a sin of the participant, it merely makes one a bureaucrat. But it makes little sense to blame the bureaucrat; if we want to change policy to bring more things local, our system has ways to affect such changes.

But it's the "being smart" part of "elitism" that I think is really problematic: we create an atmosphere where intellectualism is a sin (see again Sarah Palin - compelling in many ways, but not an intellectual heavyweight). The irony here is that this slur on "elitism" typically comes from people who consider themselves hard working, and who feel that ivory-tower "elitists" don't have to work hard like they do. And yet, we (and they!) value truly "elite" people like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and so forth - people who are an "elite" group by any reasonable definition of the word.

We should all aspire to be the smart, educated (even if they don't have college degrees) intellectuals that these elite people have. That's the best hope for our country, I think.