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The fatal flaw in policymaking-by-anecdote

Posted Jan 20, 2014 by Tom Jackson

Updated Jan 20, 2014 at 06:50 PM

Much of the fury surrounding last week’s deadly theater shooting in Wesley Chapel swirls around the fact that Curtis Reeves Jr., the retired and decorated Tampa cop, brought a pistol to the movies.

Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that absent the gun, the worst likely outcome is Reeves and the victim, Chad Oulson, might just now be nursing fading bruises and shared anonymous embarrassment.

Fair enough.

But be wary of your neighbors who would have us then leverage anecdotes into policy, because just as soon as we are ready to enact stern new gun restrictions over of what happened inside Theater 10 at the Cobb Grove 16, this happens (as reported by the Selma (Ala.) Times-Journal:

ORRVILLE — Law enforcement officials are calling Marlo Ellis a hero in the wake of Thursday’s shooting at the Dollar General in Orrville.

Ellis shot and killed Dallas County resident Kevin McLaughlin after McLaughlin entered the store, reportedly shouting and waving a gun.

Authorities said that as McLaughlin was [herding] a group of people into a break room, Ellis turned and used his own pistol to shoot McLaughlin. Ellis’ weapon was concealed according to Sheriff Harris Huffman.

McLaughlin was pronounced dead shortly after the shooting.

Two (perhaps three) points worth noting: Not only have authorities called Ellis’ action a case of self-defense, they’ve described him as a “good Samaritan” protecting other innocents. Also, a sign at the store’s entrance makes clear Dollar General disapproves of firearms being carried inside the store, an arrangement that may have emboldened McLaughlin’s fateful activities. Arguably, several central Alabamans are alive today because self-evident good guy Marlo Ellis paid the sign no heed.

So, upon which anecdote shall we create new weapons-wielding law?


Study: BRT equals bang for your rapid transit buck

Posted Jan 20, 2014 by Tom Jackson

Updated Jan 20, 2014 at 06:15 PM

Guiding economic development along permanent corridors is among the principle reasons supporters cite for favoring light-rail transit over other forms of mass transportation. Tracks are laid, stations are built, business booms and that’s that.

But suppose communities got a similar boom from bus rapid transit — modern coaches traveling dedicated lanes and getting favorable treatment from traffic signals; passengers pre-purchasing tickets at well-spaced weather-proof kiosks — and, at least in part because capital expenses were far less, the return on investment was several dozen times higher than for light rail?

Standing on the threshold of a new path for getting around the Tampa-St. Petersburg region, who wouldn’t love to know that sort of information? If only someone had performed a reliable study. Wait. What? Somebody has?

Indeed. ITDP, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, dedicated since 1985 to “ implement[ing] projects that reduce poverty, pollution, and oil dependence,” released a survey of 21 North American transit projects in September that found BRT routinely produced bang for the government buck that summons up Gulliver in Lilliput.

Two extremes: A BRT project in Cleveland, completed in 2008 (just as the Great Recession was sinking its teeth into America), had, as of the time of the study, generated $5.8 billion in development, or $114 per transit dollar.  A LRT project in Portland, Ore., completed in 1986 leveraged just $3.74 per transit dollar.

Stipulated: This example constitutes an apples-to-oranges comparison. The larger point, however, remains: The flexibility of routes does not automatically cause developers to regard BRT as something to avoid, particularly — as the study shows — when government actively pursues redevelopment efforts along BRT corridors.

All of which is simply to say: Let’s keep our eyes open out there.

Uninsured aren’t lighting up ACA exhanges

Posted Jan 20, 2014 by Tom Jackson

Updated Jan 20, 2014 at 04:27 PM

The notion that the swirl around the Affordable Care Act is simply enthusiastic chaos coming into gradual order continues to be disproved by stubborn facts. Over at “The Apothecary,” his health-care blog for Forbes magazine, Avik Roy has distilled some of the more sobering details.

Among them: The vast majority of Americans signing up for Obamacare through the various exchanges are not the targeted uninsured — those beleaguered souls who were supposed to benefit from exploding the old insurance system — but instead are those who were covered to begin with.

Between 65 and 89 percent of enrollees, depending on the survey, were previously insured.  The reasons these formerly insured came to the exchanges are becoming depressingly familiar: old plans became illegal and were canceled; employers dropped coverage; or have seen their plans absorbed and now are paying substantially more (about a 41 percent premium hike) than just last year.

Joan Budden, chief marketing officer at Priority Health, told Wilde and Mathews that Michigan’s health insurers had expected 400,000 uninsured Michiganders to enroll in exchange based plans during the initial enrollment year. According to the latest data from the Obama administration, as of December 28, only 75,511 had “selected a marketplace plan.” Of those, only an unknown fraction had paid their first month’s premium, and therefore were actually enrolled in new health coverage.

“I don’t know if we’re growing the number of people with insurance,” a Minnesota-based health insurer told Wilde and Mathews. “We’re just adding complexity.”

Roy also notes a study by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics that shows the Obama administration has wildly inflated the number of new Medicaid beneficiaries due to Obamacare.  Glenn Kessler, “The Fact Checker” at the Washington Post, roasts the boast with three Pinocchios.

All of which (and more) is leading Roy to reassess his previous pessimism about repealing Obamacare.

But what if the number is far less than 34 million? What if it’s only 5 million? Such an epic fail would seem far-fetched, but then again, so did the dismal performance of Obamacare to date. For 2014, the CBO has projected that 14 million previously uninsured Americans would gain coverage under the law. With about ten weeks left in this year’s enrollment period, we’re looking at a coverage expansion of less than a million.

Remember also that as many as 100 million previously insured Americans will endure higher premiums—and higher taxes—under Obamacare. The political constituency of the newly insured could be dwarfed by the political constituency of those harmed by the law. If that turns out to be the case, President Obama’s signature legislation may not be long for this world.

Sigh. All that acknowledged, The Right Stuff will need more persuading that such an eventuality is possible, let alone probable.


Better choice for transit: ‘Light rail on tires’

Posted Jan 15, 2014 by Tom Jackson

Updated Jan 15, 2014 at 08:23 PM

I like trains, to begin with. When Sheldon Cooper says the only thing better than two trains is three trains, I’m right there with him. Before Mr. Shunderson dresses down the university board looking into the background of Cary Grant’s Dr. Praetorius in “People Will Talk,” the best scene was the model train pileup.

As for grownup trains, I’ve gotten around on the Metro in Washington D.C., BART in the San Francisco Bay area, MARTA in Atlanta and the subways in London and Paris. Heck, last summer I rode the Chunnel express from London to Paris, and a few summers before that I rode the local roundtrip between Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. And I have found all those experiences uniformly satisfying.

Moreover, although I am blessed by a workday commute that travels in the opposite direction of rush hour into Wesley Chapel, this year I’m also in charge of ferrying the Heir Apparent to his high school 13 miles away. On a good morning, it’s a 45-minute grind, one way. Sometimes — usually when we get a late start — it’s a flat hour. So it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with Tampa’s horrendous traffic flow migraines.

But I’ve also boarded London’s iconic red double-decker people-movers and, in lanes set aside exclusively for bus travel, breezed past cabs, limos and private cars jammed up tighter than your worst Malfunction Junction nightmare. This lane exclusivity, also practiced to startling effect in New York City (but not in Tampa, where buses still share and get bogged down in regular travel lanes), is what makes Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, a genuinely dazzling (and, compared to rail, breathtakingly cheap) thing of beauty.

Accordingly, boosters of light rail as the cure for travel heartache in Tampa and Hillsborough County — before the possibilities of true BRT have exhausted — do so at taxpayers’ peril, as National Review’s Reihan Salam describes here.

We know this: Regardless of whether we ever get a light rail system, we’re going to lay more pavement. Streets and highways will be widened, so that’s an expense already figured into the metropolitan transportation plan.

For the additional price of road-striping paint, signage, ticket kiosks and cutting-edge buses, the system urban planners call “light-rail on tires” could blossom here at a scant fraction of the billions (a planned 9.3 mile expansion of light rail in Charlotte, N.C., will run $1.2 billion) needed to do even the most meager commuter train here.

Yes, rail lines attract economic development, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe has made no secret of his fondness for light rail as a method not simply for encouraging new business activity, but also for directing where it goes. (Who will pick the land-owning winners and losers, Old West-style, is a post for another day.)

The same cannot be said for BRT, because if growth fails to follow forecast patterns, transit officials simply summon the road-striping crew and lay new, more appropriate routes. Alas, rail supporters regard BRT’s thrifty flexibility as a flaw, not a feature.

As I say, I think trains are terrific. Love to ride them. And in urban areas far more densely populated than ours, there’s an argument for them. But as a key to relieving what ails local transportation, and given the alternatives aching for full exploration, they’re overpriced, hopelessly rigid and, frankly, antiquated, a 19th Century solution to 21st Century problems.

Heck, what an I getting all worked up about? Before they ever complete that first line, we’ll all be commuting in autonomous cars.

Brothers Koch: Really that scary?

Posted Jan 15, 2014 by Tom Jackson

Updated Jan 15, 2014 at 05:43 PM

What is it with the left and the Koch brothers? Wait. Make that: What is it with the left and the “shadowy” “billionaire” Koch brothers?

OK, they’re libertarian industrialists who contribute to groups pursuing libertarian and conservative policies, and I suppose that makes them unwelcome at liberal cocktail parties. But does the threat of how the Kochs might spend their money really drive otherwise undecided or unmotivated voters to support their side?

It must, because they never miss an opportunity to mount that mule and flog it like it was the homestretch of the Kentucky Derby.

No sooner was a winner declared in the Republican primary for Florida’s 13th Congressional District special election early Tuesday night than Washington Democrats acting on behalf of Alex Sink snatched up the Koch brothers like some stuffed sailfish and started using it as a cudgel to browbeat David Jolly, the freshly minted GOP nominee.

Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took a Koch-flavored whack, warning “independent-minded voters in Pinellas” to be alert for “politics-as-usual” driven by “shadowy groups funded by the Koch Brothers.”

Wednesday afternoon, the DCCC followed up with a table-setting release that, while thick with references to Jolly’s brief career as a “Washington lobbyist” (he’s such a creature of the Beltway his cellphone number carries a — gasp! — 202 area code, much like those pumping out press releases for consumption in Pinellas County), found space to spring the two-headed Koch brothers bogeyman four (count ’em, four!) times.

In other words, in the sprint to Election Day March 11, it’s going to be a campaign of issues.