Out With the Old

Paul Kedrosky writes in The Edge:

How many calls to a typical U.S. fire department are actually about fires? Less than 20%. If fire departments aren’t getting calls about fires, what are they mostly getting calls about? They are getting calls about medical emergencies, traffic accidents, and, yes, cats in trees, but they are rarely being called about fires. They are, in other words, organizations that, despite their name, deal with everything but fires. 

Everywhere you look you see fire departments. Not, literally, fire departments, but organizations, technologies, institutions and countries that, like fire departments, are long beyond their “past due” date, or weirdly vestigial, and yet remain widespread and worryingly important. 

There’s probably a cheaper and more efficient way to deal with the 80% of problems that trained firefighters deal with that aren’t about things burning.  Or, maybe not.  But it is interesting to look around and think about what else we’re doing — or building, or paying for, or living with — that doesn’t make sense:

One of my favorite examples comes from the siting of cities. Many U.S. river cities are where they are because of portages, the carrying of boats and cargo around impassable rapids. This meant, many times, overnight stays, which led to hotels, entertainment, and, eventually, local industry, at first devoted to shipping, but then broader. Now, however, those portage cities are prisoners of history, sitting along rivers that no longer matter for their economy, meanwhile struggling with seasonal floods and complex geographies antithetical to development—all because a few early travelers using transportation technologies that no longer matter today had to portage around a few rapids. To put it plainly, if we rebooted right now most of these cities would be located almost anywhere else first.

We’re living with an “installed base” of things that we’d be wise to rethink.  What’s interesting, to me, is how willing we all are to put up with rapid and often capital-intensive rebooting in our personal lives — how often have we upgraded computers, phones, appliances, even houses in the past 20 years — but how hard it is to get our, ahem, leaders to rethink the installed base of universal retirement plans (Social Security) and national health insurance.

Does anyone think those two things are modern?  Or efficient?  Or reflective of the way we live in 2013?

Nope:

History increasingly traps us, creating paths—and endowments and costs, both in time and money—that must be traveled before we can change directions, however desirable those new directions might seem. History—the path by which we got here, and the endowments and effluvia it has left us—is an increasingly large weight on our progress. Our built environment is an installed base, like an ancient computer operating systems that holds back progress because compatibility gives such an immense advantage. 

I wonder if that’s a possible theme, for those of us looking to persuade the giant swath of Americans to rethink our ossified entitlement programs: they’re old.  They’re yesterday.  They’re holding us back.

  1. Western Chauvinist

    Not just entitlements. Public education. It is so last century! And it has taken on tasks for which it was never intended and utterly fails at tasks it’s supposed to accomplish, like producing self governing informed citizens.

    I’d like to scrap it entirely, but the obsolescence argument might at least get more people talking about major reforms.

  2. Rawls

    NPR’s Planet Money did a great piece on the value of firefighters in December. They even chronicle the public backlash against a firefighters union.

    You can stream or download the episode (#424) here.

  3. Nick Stuart
    Western Chauvinist: Not just entitlements. Public education. It isso last century! And it has taken on tasks for which it was never intended and utterly fails at tasks it’s supposed to accomplish, like producing self governing informed citizens.

    I’d like to scrap it entirely, but the obsolescence argument might at least get more people talking about major reforms. · 16 minutes ago

    Liked WC’s comment is so spot on it deserves to be quoted in addition to “Liked.”

    The pittance (<$100/yr) I pay in property tax for my local fire department is infinitesimal compared to the fortune (~6000/yr) I pay for my local government schools. I’ll gladly pay for the fire department who I can rely on to be there when I need them (and how cool are fire trucks anyway?) vs. a government school system that teaches children that Christopher Columbus was a genocidal racist (true ‘dat, that teacher got a prestigious award too).

  4. EJHill

    Actually that’s a poor example. Let’s give credit where it’s due. Would you rather have them sitting around 80% of the time doing nothing or pay them to save lives?

    It’s just as bad outside of government. Take the NAACP, the Urban League and Southern Poverty Law Center as those organizations have had to work overtime to revive racism to justify staying in business.

    The March of Dimes was created in 1938 to end polio and when that was accomplished twenty years later did they proclaim “mission accomplished,” throw a party and disband? No, they just had to find a disease less curable.

  5. Innocent Smith

    The problem with progressives is that they simply aren’t all that progressive…  They want to move away from traditional values, yes, and I suppose they consider that progress.  But they are rather entrenched in their thinking, are very much attached to their own past, and they really do resist any “radical” change when it comes to the sorts of failed experiments that you’ve mentioned.

  6. Tim H.

    One thing rubs me the wrong way about Kedrosky’s examples:  the portage cities.  Maybe it’s my traditionalist streak, but I don’t see how a modern city is hampered by being at an old portage.  The same changes in transportation technology that have made the portages unnecessary have made the details of geography much less important in general.  In the old days, if a dam and locks were put in at a rapids, the city’s economy might be hurt.  But now, with transportation by river, truck, rail, and car being so cheap, and with the internet allowing such easy communication, the city may be less important to the river traffic, but the other businesses in that city have easier access to the rest of the world.  

    Why does it matter where the city is, now?  Why would you even think of “rebooting” the city’s location (figuratively or not)?  Being near a rapids doesn’t hurt development, that I can see (any more than the existence of any hill might).  The river flooding might be a problem, but the flat land in the valley is the best to develop on, anyway, and it’s terrific farmland.

  7. Tim H.

    [cont'd...]  Furthermore, since a given city is defined by where it is, it doesn’t make conceptual sense to talk about a given city being better put somewhere else.  If it were somewhere else, it would have been a different city.  And given that there’s probably another town of some kind in that other location already, then why isn’t that town big and important today, if that’s a better location?

    I don’t know; the guy is probably on our side, and his application of this thinking to entitlements is a great insight.  So I shouldn’t be nit-picking.  But this one example makes me think too much of the start-over-from-zero mindset.

  8. Ross C
    EJHill: Actually that’s a poor example. Let’s give credit where it’s due. Would you rather have them sitting around 80% of the time doing nothing or pay them to save lives?

    I don’t know what the fire house siting requirements are in my area, but   it is not the argument (as I see it) to say that fire departments do no good, but rather are we allocating resources in the most economical (or valuable if you prefer) way.  If we closed one fire house in 5 would there be an appreciable change in fire protection?  We would certainly free up resources for other uses if we did.

  9. EJHill
    Ross Conatser   If we closed one fire house in 5 would there be an appreciable change in fire protection? 

    Let’s test this theory. Walk your neighborhood and advocate closing the nearest fire department. Or would rather advocate closing someone else’s fire station?

  10. Misthiocracy

    I would love to know more about Rob’s process for trawling the Internet looking for interesting articles.  This seems like a pretty obscure publication, and I’d love to know how Rob finds this stuff.

  11. Misthiocracy
    EJHill

    Ross Conatser   If we closed one fire house in 5 would there be an appreciable change in fire protection? 

    Let’s test this theory. Walk your neighborhood and advocate closing the nearest fire department. Or would rather advocate closing someone else’s fire station?

    Or we could change the name to “Non-Ambulance/Non-Police Emergency Response Department”.

  12. Ross C
    EJHill

    Let’s test this theory. Walk your neighborhood and advocate closing the nearest fire department. Or would rather advocate closing someone else’s fire station? · 9 minutes ago

    You point out the political difficulty in doing anything which I think is the point of Rob’s post (i.e. make the status quo look old fashioned as a means to provoke useful changes).

    I was (years ago) somewhat close to the Base Realignment (BRAC) process for closing military bases and I will call your fire department closure and raise you thousands of civilian jobs per closure. 

    The process is messy and it is our representatives job to provide leadership by pointing out that both harm and good will be done but that the overall system will be improved. Key to that message is a Romneyesque immersion in the data.  What is the typical response time?  How has it varied over time.  What are the losses due to fire over time.  Are they higher or lower with different spacings.

    It is hard to know what the optimum level but it is hard to believe that we have figured it out.

  13. Z in MT

    Most rural fire districts are “volunteer” where most (i.e. 80-90%) of the firefighters are unpaid, but receive free training in exchange for serving shifts, fighting fires, responding to major incidents.  The volunteers do this out of civic mindedness, the association (i.e. it is like a club), and for many (unfortunately) to satisfy their pyromania.  I don’t see why adding volunteers couldn’t be useful in more urban departments.

    Actually, in the 1800′s most fire stations were explicitly civic associations (clubs) and the fire station served as a club house.  These fire stations were competitive with each other, and got bragging rights for reaching a fire first or spending money on engines and fire pumps and such.  

  14. George Savage
    C

    One key feature of our modern administrative state is to make rebooting of infrastructure not just difficult but illegal.  Most feel-good regulatory policies get past otherwise overwhelming public opposition by grandfathering in existing buildings, power lines, dams, refineries, highways, and soon guns, making material adjustments impossible.

    State-sanctioned ossification, just another unintended consequence of big government.

  15. Chris Gregerson

    Do we even need cities?

  16. Ross C

    To provide a less political example than firehouses. I would offer up pressure vessels which I used to have to deal with in my work.  The Boiler and Pressure Vessel code is a very old industrial guideline first printed in 1914.  Vessels were designed with a safety factor of 5 back then (the vessel’s theoretical pressure rating was 5 times the operating design pressure).  During World War II because of the lack of steel the guideline was disregarded and vessels were routinely built to a safety factor of 4.  After study of those vessels found few problems the safety factor was reduced to 4 in the code book in 1950.  The safety factor was reduced to 3.5 in 1998.  It may be reduced again to 3.0 SF in the next decade.  Other codes are already at 3.0 SF.

    Some people and organizations (like steel producers) have likely lost out with the reduction safety factor.  That does not mean it has not worked out and you know we can always change back if it appears necessary.

  17. Bryan G. Stephens

    Switching from Gas to Alcohol is an example. We could run cars on alcohol, but where do you fill up. Same for Natural Gas. Both could be cheaper and cleaner.

  18. skipsul
    EJHill: Actually that’s a poor example. Let’s give credit where it’s due. Would you rather have them sitting around 80% of the time doing nothing or pay them to save lives?

    It’s just as bad outside of government. Take the NAACP, the Urban League and Southern Poverty Law Center as those organizations have had to work overtime to revive racism to justify staying in business.

    The March of Dimes was created in 1938 to end polio and when that was accomplished twenty years later did they proclaim “mission accomplished,” throw a party and disband? No, they just had to find a disease less curable. · 2 hours ago

    EJ, check the Planet Money podcast cited above.  Early in the piece they look at actual fire statistics and find that there is actually less need to fight fires.  More and more often the firefighters are doubling as paramedics, or racing out even when there is no fire because the laws dictate they do so.

    Statistically speaking, it does appear worth further review – maybe we need fewer firefighters, or maybe we’re not using them correctly.

  19. Miffed White Male

    Fire departments are kind of like guns – most of the time you don’t need them.  But when you do need them, you really, really need them.  In a hurry.

     

  20. 3rd angle projection

    For city sitings, I would say a look to Brasilia would be in order. It’s a relatively new city without any “installed base”. I don’t know how successful it’s been but it would be good to know. Anyone? To pull that off you need a vision/visionary, political will and the cash.

    In the US today, that just isn’t going to happen. Not with politicians basically having a vision based on a 2-6 year horizon. In San Francisco, from what I understand as of a couple of years ago, all the recyclables are sorted, put on a barge and sent to Japan. Couple that with the enviro-statists that won’t abide by having outdated facilities re-purposed. Lack of vision and regulations are killing new industries and won’t allow for any advancement.

    Fire departments? Unions. Good luck.

    Social Security 2.0? Absolutely. With democrats? Not going to happen.

    National health insurance? 3 things:

    1. Ability to buy insurance across state lines.

    2. Ability for individuals to write off premiums, as do businesses.

    3. Portable health savings accounts.

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