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.

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Members have made 32 comments.

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  1. Profile photo of Western Chauvinist Member

    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.

    • #1
    • January 14, 2013 at 10:27 am
  2. Profile photo of Rawls Inactive

    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.

    • #2
    • January 14, 2013 at 10:42 am
  3. Profile photo of Nick Stuart Thatcher
    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).

    • #3
    • January 14, 2013 at 10:48 am
  4. Profile photo of EJHill Member

    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.

    • #4
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:02 am
  5. Profile photo of RyanM Coolidge

    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.

    • #5
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:04 am
  6. Profile photo of Tim H. Member

    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.

    • #6
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:16 am
  7. Profile photo of Tim H. Member

    [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.

    • #7
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:20 am
  8. Profile photo of Ross C Member
    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.

    • #8
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:25 am
  9. Profile photo of EJHill Member
    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?

    • #9
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:33 am
  10. Profile photo of Misthiocracy Member

    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.

    • #10
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:48 am
  11. Profile photo of Misthiocracy Member
    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”.

    • #11
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:50 am
  12. Profile photo of Ross C Member
    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.

    • #12
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:54 am
  13. Profile photo of Z in MT Member

    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.

    • #13
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:55 am
  14. Profile photo of George Savage Admin

    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.

    • #14
    • January 14, 2013 at 11:56 am
  15. Profile photo of Chris Gregerson Member

    Do we even need cities?

    • #15
    • January 15, 2013 at 1:02 am
  16. Profile photo of Ross C Member

    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.

    • #16
    • January 15, 2013 at 1:07 am
  17. Profile photo of Bryan G. Stephens Reagan

    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.

    • #17
    • January 15, 2013 at 1:39 am
  18. Profile photo of skipsul Moderator
    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.

    • #18
    • January 15, 2013 at 2:53 am
  19. Profile photo of Miffed White Male Member

    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.

     

    • #19
    • January 15, 2013 at 3:00 am
  20. Profile photo of 3rd angle projection Inactive

    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.

    • #20
    • January 15, 2013 at 4:23 am
  21. Profile photo of Guy Incognito Inactive
    Rob Long: 

    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.

    I don’t think it will be that effective. Government services aren’t viewed, by these people, like other things (phones, television, appliances, etc). Government services are seen as necessary to their survival in this dog-eat-dog world. Yeah, it might be better, but if it’s not then their dead.

    It would be like telling someone on life support that you have a new, experimental breathing machine that consumes 50% less electricity, but which has never been tried. Also, the creator of the current machine is there with a long list of ways the new one will likely fail. Pointing out the shiny LCD screen will not help make the sale.

    [On a side note about old cities, I am reminded of Springfield, MA, which is positioned on one of the main train intersections of New England, which made it an industrial giant until larger trucks and the highway system came along.]

    • #21
    • January 15, 2013 at 4:50 am
  22. Profile photo of Guy Incognito Inactive

    One reason why cities, too large for their need, don’t shrink is because they are made of buildings, which are generally not designed to be changed quickly. This is why there are such things as ghost towns. Also, the economic incentive isn’t there: the previous owners don’t want to knock them down (doesn’t benefit them), and the city officials don’t want to (if they do that, there is no way a new owner will come in. If they leave it up, a new owner remains a possibility, even if it’s a remote one).

    Take Detroit: there are large sections of the city which should be bulldozed, but where is the money going to come from?

    I bring this up to point out that unused buildings (and also a lot of other things in Kedrosky’s article) exist for a different reason than bloated government services, and are not informative in dealing with the latter. As Kedrosky points out, there are economic reasons why some innovations are not added and some redundancies not removed. Government services, however, persist because they are viewed as too vital to ever be tampered with.

    • #22
    • January 15, 2013 at 5:15 am
  23. Profile photo of Last Outpost on the Right Thatcher

    This is the argument for creative destruction!

    • #23
    • January 15, 2013 at 5:32 am
  24. Profile photo of Frederick Key Inactive

    You reminded me of a morning about three years back when a friend was meeting me at a McDonald’s. As he turned his Jeep into the lot, WHAM! Some guy clobbered him on the passenger side. Everyone’s okay. Cops show up. People are interviewed and looked over.

    Just on the corner is the town volunteer fire department. Ten minutes later the fire truck drives .1 miles to check out the scene. There is nothing going on. Nothing! One of the guys could have walked over and back twice in the time it took to get the truck out of the firehouse!

    I still have no idea why they even showed, beyond it was Saturday morning and they were bored.

    • #24
    • January 15, 2013 at 6:39 am
  25. Profile photo of 3rd angle projection Inactive
    Guy Incognito:

    Take Detroit: there are large sections of the city which should be bulldozed, but where is the money going to come from?

    Guy,

    This is correct. For the US, Detroit will be the first big city to able to test this idea, not of re-siting, but of re-booting. It will be interesting to watch over the next few years. The money? If an appropriate vision is in place, will the money come? I would guess so.

    • #25
    • January 15, 2013 at 6:43 am
  26. Profile photo of flownover Inactive

    That is very funny to me that this would become a subject, as I have been harping on the number of firefighters lately after I read the statistics that showed me that the number of house fires has been cut in half since the introduction of smoke detectors and the number of fire fighters hasn’t moved a jot.

    Now if I can just get the city council to remove the town crier from the budget and fire that guy with the flute that’s supposed to get rid of the rats .

    • #26
    • January 15, 2013 at 7:22 am
  27. Profile photo of Ross C Member
    Wylee Coyote: Public safety spending is a bit like military spending – it looks ridiculously excessive right up to the point that some horrific event makes it look insufficient. · 10 hours ago

    We have never been more safe than we are now, but we have rarely felt less safe. Municipalities can do what they want with their money, bu the point is that we as a society need to constantly evaluate our organization and apply political economy for the benefit of the citizens. It is nearly always the case that more is better, but that is not the challenge of governance. When more of one thing means less of another, should we evaluate how to allocate resources or just do what we have been doing and hope for the best?

    • #27
    • January 15, 2013 at 7:42 am
  28. Profile photo of Capt. Aubrey Member

    I like Paul Kedrosky’s tech commentary most of the time but wow, if this isn’t a classic god of the copybook heading comment I cannot imagine one. My city is here and I live in it because it contains the blood of my ancestors and their ghosts…lets rip it all down because we don’t need the river anymore? Are you kidding? If my kid sinks his canoe in the river a fireman rescues him. I don’t care if he is called the dog catcher but I happen to know he has the tools and the expertise to save my kid and we call him a fireman. Sure lets tell them to scrap entitlements because they’re out moded and out dated but lets understand that Russell Kirk is rolling in his grave, to say nothing of Burke and the others he championed.

    • #28
    • January 15, 2013 at 7:46 am
  29. Profile photo of Wylee Coyote Member

    Public safety spending is a bit like military spending – it looks ridiculously excessive right up to the point that some horrific event makes it look insufficient.

    • #29
    • January 15, 2013 at 8:22 am
  30. Profile photo of KC Mulville Member

    It’s obligatory to mention the story told by David Brinkley in Washington Goes to War about the military records stored in quonset huts and trailers parked in what is now the National Mall. After the war, they were trying to clean out the trailers, and a memo was circulated which pretty much encapsulates the bureaucratic mindset. The memo ordered that we should destroy all of the records, but to protect against the possibility that some of them might be needed again … we should make copies of all the records before they’re destroyed.

    It isn’t old or new thinking, but just plain bad thinking, that we have to get rid of.

    • #30
    • January 15, 2013 at 12:16 pm
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