Air travel stinks

Interesting article in Yesterday’s Washington Post on the deadly awfulness of air-travel.

Essentially, domestic air-travel stinks. Airports are crowded, inconveniently located, intrusive, impersonal and the concessions are ridiculously overpriced. Flights are overbooked, late, crowded and the food (if there is any) is offensively bad. Airline customer service is unresponsive, rude, arrogant and incompetent.

And airfare isn’t cheap either. Rising oil prices and increased security costs are partly responsible for keeping the cost of air travel high. But the airlines are also dealing with rising labor costs, over-capitalization, aging fleets, and rising airport fees.

Unfortunately, there’s no real relief in sight. Small and nimble airlines like Southwest, Jet Blue and SkyBus can be much better than the old guard airlines, but they don’t service all areas, have limited flights, and (with the exception of Skybus) are rarely less expensive than the major carriers. And all still overbook their flights.

To make matters worse, air travel is too time consuming. Short “commuter flights” often take longer than driving (once travel time to and from the remote airport, flight delays, airport baggage collection, boarding rules and security are all taken into account); an hour-and a half flight can easily take five or six hours from start to finish. Flying cross country almost invariably means losing an entire day.

A big part of the problem is the “hub” theory of air-travel. Major airlines have regional “hub” airports that they route the bulk of their travel through. This radically increases travel time for passengers that need to endure hours of sitting between flight segments and it can increases airline costs as well. When a 10 minute weather delay hits a major airport, it can result in hour-long delays for hundreds of flights. Taxi time is 20 to 30 minutes at very large airports and, of course, the landing and gate fees are higher. Parking, security, concessions, service… they’re all usually easier at smaller airports.

Some airlines (like Southwest and Skybus) try to avoid the major hubs and offer cheaper, faster routes to the smaller airports. But these routes serve only a small portion of national traffic, and some (like Skybus) only really work for a relatively small number of people. (At least as of now. I can only hope that Skybus grows and expands into other markets.) Smaller airports serve smaller populations and it’s more difficult to expand regu

The problem is compounded by the fact that aside from taking the family car, there is no viable alternative to air travel in the U.S.. Taking a bus over any significant distance is an exercise in torture, and Amtrak isn’t much better. (Amtrak is also absurdly expensive. Try pricing your next trip through Amtrak — it takes longer, the connections are worse, and it’s significantly more expensive.)

So what are to do?

Unfortunately, there just aren’t any easy answers. Additional regulation will only increase costs and decrease flights. Additional deregulation won’t make a significant difference because major carriers don’t make much profit anyway, are beholden to all kinds of hidden subsidies, and are all over-capitalized (they just don’t have many places left to cut costs). Moving away from the giant airport model will take decades as entrenched political interests make airport competition nearly impossible. And ultimately, oil prices are probably not going to fall significantly.

The large airlines are doomed. Large airplanes need long runways, and in a world where madmen want to use airplanes as bombs, access to those runways will remain restricted and tightly controlled. That means that airlines can only fly into large airports, and large airports (for innumerable reasons) will remain scarce and largely remote. Airlines will suffer the same fate that passenger rail traffic has suffered. Air travel takes too long and is too expensive. And finally, it only offers fixed-route service; airlines don’t bring passengers to their destinations, they just take them to other airports. A two-hour flight to Orlando, for example, is only the first leg in the journey. Getting to DisneyWorld takes another two hours. I’ve spent longer in the taxi home from Logan airport than I did on the plane coming in.

We live in an increasingly personalized world, and we demand increasingly personalized service. Small airlines understand this and will last longer and be more successful than the large airlines.

If I had to guess, I’d say that there’s probably room in the charter air industry for a savvy entrepreneur to pick up some traffic. A large network of private jets could be organized into a faux-airline. A number of microjet “air-taxis” could be integrated into a kind of air-jitney network…. The key would be to keep fuel costs down and better allow the market to set the price. If it were possible to reduce costs enough, the network could conceivably compete with the major airlines for general public travel dollars.

The key to a successful air-taxi service would be a sophisticated tracking and booking solution that gave customers a simple pricing mechanism and a clear, easy-to-understand seat allocation system. It would need to be a system that tracked current openings, and current routes, and that allowed for maximum flexibility. Both operators and passengers should be able to see and to affect current demand with operators coming in to add capacity in a crowded market, and passengers bidding up requests to attract operators. I’m picturing a match-making system that allows both customers and operators to see demand, routes and prices in real-time.

Of course, I’m sure it’s all illegal.

As for me, I’m driving if I can.


Vice President Gore

Now that Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize for starring in a documentary, the net is abuzz with speculation about whether or not Gore will enter the 2008 Presidential race.

He won’t. As many people have pointed out, Hillary Clinton’s lead is unassailable and Gore’s Nobel, while very pretty and very shiny, won’t translate into the kind of money he’d need to run. However….

As I said a while back, I think Gore will be the VP nominee. I don’t think he particularly relishes that role; after all the accolades he’s received this year, playing second fiddle to the Clintons (yet again!) will be a difficult pill to swallow. I also think that Hillary will resist that nomination if only to further differentiate her candidacy from her husband’s presidency. But I do think she’ll offer and that he’ll accept. Since that seems contradictory, let me explain my thinking.

Hillary needs to create a distinction between herself and her husband in the primaries so that she doesn’t lose the progressive vote entirely. There are significant blocs of democrats who still resent Bill’s efforts to move the party to the middle. Hillary will need to stay to the left of her husband to win the primary. But in the general election, Clinton nostalgia (prosperity, relative peace, saxophone solos) will be a positive. Even the sex scandals will be blunted as Hillary can turn those scandals into personal triumphs. Essentially Hillary needs to keep left during the primaries and then suddenly swing back to the middle for the general election. But that swing to the middle could end up angering the progressive left — and it’s the hard left progressives that have given the last two general elections to Bush by jumping ship and voting for Nader. Gore, especially now, could blunt the Nader challenge and convince many of the hard line eco-progressives to vote the ticket. So despite Hillary’s misgivings, Gore offers her something no other candidate can. She gets to stay middle and court nostalgia with a Clinton/Gore 2008 campaign and she gets to stay left and piggy-back on Gore’s progressive credentials (Obama might hold some progressives to the ticket, but would drive more moderates away).

For Gore, it will be a matter of swallowing some pride, biting the bullet, and keeping his focus long-term. Gore could be a huge nightmare for the Democratic party. If Gore wanted to, he could run on the Green Party ticket (maybe with Nader) and guarantee the Dems a loss in 2008. But he can’t win the Dem nomination outright this year (maybe he could, but the fall-out would be so fractious that the party would be left in tatters). Gore can be a spoiler in 2008 if he wants to, but he can’t be president in 2009. However, if Gore swallows his pride, accepts the nomination for VP and runs arm in arm with Hillary, he positions himself to be the no-question Democratic nominee in 2016. Sure, that’s eight years away, but Gore is young; he can wait. The question for Gore is does he want to run for President in 2016, or does he want to run in 2012? If he plays spoiler in 2008, he can run in 2012, but he’ll run against a Republican incumbent. If he signs on with Hillary, he stands a good chance of running in 2016 as a four-term VP.

Of course, I’ve been wrong before….

Choice matters

For those of who don’t know, there’s been something of a ruckus surrounding 12 year-old Graeme Frost, his family’s wealth, subsidized health care, and political viciousness.

I don’t want rehash all the gory details, but you can find a good (if obviously biased) account of the brouhaha here at the Baltimore Sun. For bias in the other direction, see Michelle Malkin, here.

My initial observation is that it’s always in poor taste to use children as political shields. The only reason a political party (either party) would trot out a child to deliver a political address is to use the child as a shield. It’s an appeal to emotion and for that reason alone the practice should be condemned. If your political argument is solid, you don’t need an injured child to help you make it. Political arguments are contentious, that shouldn’t be news to anyone. Political arguments will and should be openly debated, not just as floating abstractions, but as concrete proposals. Consequences matter and the particulars of public policy matter too. If you make an argument for subsidized health care, you shouldn’t be surprised if your political opponents ask questions about means testing. If you use a specific family as an example, don’t be surprised when that family is subjected to scrutiny. If you use a child in an attempt to deflect scrutiny and arouse emotions, you’re an a~~hole. (Note: this isn’t a partisan critique — the Republicans will do this as often as the Democrats. It’s awful and nasty when either side does it. I should also be perfectly clear — personal attacks, if there are any, that are actually directed at a child are completely and utterly inexcusable.)

My second observation is that it’s bad parenting. No parent should ever allow their child to be used as a political shield. It’s a clear example of the insidious danger of ideological zeal. Promoting political abstractions should never matter more to parents than their son’s security and happiness.

But there’s another point, specific to this debate, that needs to be made over and over again: choices have consequences.

Part of why it’s so despicable to use children (especially young children) as political tools is because children don’t yet have a full understanding of how and why trade-offs matter. Children aren’t generally very good at delaying immediate gratification for future reward, they aren’t generally very good at long-term planning, and they aren’t generally very good at developing contingency plans. That’s ok, they’re children. But adults should know better.

Part of being an adult is knowing how to plan and how to prepare for unexpected disaster. It’s an essential part of being a good parent. This is not to say that a parent should be able to predict and account for any and all possible obstacles or disasters that might happen. But it is to say that responsible parents get insurance. A parent who choses to spend money on fast cars, or alcohol, or trips to Disney World rather than on health insurance for his children is an irresponsible parent.

There is no evidence that the Frosts did any of those things. But there is evidence that they chose to invest in commercial real-estate rather than in health insurance. And there is evidence that while at work, they chose personal satisfaction over family security.

Michelle Malkin qoutes Mark Tapscott: “Mark Tapscott’s point remains: “[P]eople make choices and it’s clear the Frosts have made choice to invest in property and a business, but not in private health insurance… .”

That’s a choice. It’s not the same as blowing the money a the race track, or spending it on booze and vacations. But it’s a choice — and it’s a riskier choice than buying insurance. The Frosts took a risk and were tragically unlucky. I don’t want to minimize the awfulness or the tragedy of the accident that wounded their children. Nor do I mean to imply that the accident was in any way the fault of the parents. But we can’t ignore the fact that the Frosts had made choices that were inherently risky, and choices — especially risky ones — have consequences.

Bill Scher writes at the Huffington Post:

“These are the same conservatives that insist that they love tax cuts, not because they are cold and selfish, but because it will unleash the entrepreneurial spirit that makes us Americans. Well, Mr. Frost is an entrepreneur and small business owner. And the tax cuts for the wealthy did not provide him with the financial security to afford health insurance for himself and his family. Nor did it do anything to reduce the cost of health insurance.But the family has been able to get by, despite suffering unexpected medical expenses, in part because we have collectively pooled our resources to provide health insurance for millions of kids.Without SCHIP, the Frosts’ entrepreneurial spirit may well have been crushed, literally and figuratively. This does not concern conservatives.”

Entrepreneurship is great. It really is the engine that drives wealth creation (not just in America, but all over the world). But entrepreneurship is inherently risky. That’s why it can be so rewarding! High risk = high potential reward. If we try to blunt those risks through subsidy, we necessarily blunt the rewards as well. But the point really isn’t about entrepreneurship, it’s about parental responsibility. Parents, as a general rule, should be a little risk-averse. It’s their job because they’re the adults.

Money is fungible. The subsidized insurance that the state provided to the Frosts defrayed the costs of their risky choices. The effect for the Frosts would have been the same had the state subsidized wood working and commercial real-estate investment. The frosts have $160,000 in commercial real estate assets. The insurance subsidy is what enables them to keep that asset (rather than liquidate the asset and purchase health insurance).

The state of Maryland apparently does not check assets when determining eligibility for state subsidy. And that’s the point that bothers people — even people who endorse some plan to help subsidize health insurance for poor families. Without an asset check, we create incentives for people with even greater assets than the Frosts to game the system. Why should I spend money on health insurance when I can invest that money elsewhere and let the taxpayers foot my health insurance bill? The Frosts took a risk, but they took that risk with the taxpayer’s money, and that seems genuinely unjust to a lot of people.

It’s not that the Frosts are especially evil people. I don’t single them out in an effort to discredit the messenger. The message was “more govt. subsidies” and it’s a bad message. That the Frosts happened to be a poor example for that message is unfortunate for them — and especially so for young Graeme. But the blame should fall on the political machine that held the child up as an example and then used him as a shield.

Go Army!

Jamie and I went to an Army game on Saturday night. As it happened, they were playing Tulane. Aside from one-half of one Dartmouth game that I can barely remember (it was a home game…), the only college football games I’ve ever been to have been Tulane games, which I thought was an odd coincidence.

The Army game was way cool, and of course, I found myself rooting for Army, who managed to tie the game on a last second hail-mary touchdown pass, and then win in overtime. We sat with Jamie’s sister and her husband’s family, who are at least second generation season ticket holders and have great seats. Plus, we got to tailgate with them before the game which was a lot of fun (there isn’t much tailgating at the Superdome in New Orleans). My Brother-in-law has a nephew who’s a first year cadet at West Point, and he and some friends came for the extended tailgating. (It happened to be homecoming weekend and a night game, so we had a lot of time before the game.)

But I found the game especially intriguing not because of the action on the field, but because of the context surrounding the field.

The context began to set in as we drove down. We’d been reminded to bring our licenses; we needed a photo ID to get in (that doesn’t happen at every college stadium). As we entered the USMA (United States Military Academy) grounds, we showed our id’s to regular rent-a-cop security personnel and proceeded through the temporary checkpoint. About 100 yards past the gate we came to what looked like a very serious cattle-guard across the road. But, of course, it wasn’t a cattle-guard, it was a very serious, large, steel road blockading device. It’s a reminder that we’re entering an active military base; they can close these roads if they need to.

As we got closer to the stadium we saw fewer rent-a-cops and more MP’s in their gray camouflage (which seemed odd — it’s early October in upstate NY. Grey stands out against the green/red/burnt umber of the trees pretty well). And of course, at the tailgate party there were a slew of handsome young men in their cadet uniforms. (A note to any young single women out there: there are some seriously good-looking boys at West Point.)

So I know that I’m at an Army game, I get it. This is West Point, etc… etc… blah blah blah… cool enough.

But then we take a walk, a little mini-tour of the grounds around the stadium. We don’t see much: athletic facilities which could be on any campus in the country, a very pretty reservoir, and the outside of a very large chapel. But we also see a few monuments. Monuments to fallen soldiers, to fallen cadets. Monuments to young men who gave their lives in service to their country.

Now I’m really starting to get it. Maybe I’m overly sentimental, but I’m starting to get a real sense of… honor. I know it’s corny, but the place itself seemed honorable. Maybe it’s all the young men and women in their pressed, crisp uniforms, or the MP’s and their rifles. Or the fact that the campus is spotless. Or that there are military helicopters overhead and troop vehicles on the road, or maybe it’s the artillery battery lined up across from the stadium….

We went into the stadium and then it really starts to hit me. Before the start of each game, there’s a regimental parade. The cadets at the USMA are divided into four regiments, each with a cadet Captain and cadet staff officers and each regiments is divided into two battalions of four companies — each with a cadet commander. Before the game, one regiment parades into the stadium and the officers are announced. It’s a military parade with precision marching, flags and semaphores to direct the cadets. I learn that in addition to the four regimental cadet-captains there’s a cadet Captain of the Corps each year — and I begin to think about what kind of honor that must be for a 21 year-old.

The cadets take their hats off and salute the opposing team and the visiting fans. How often do you see that? The student body sits in a reserved section like they do at many football games around the country. But these students are all in uniform. They cheer, but their cheers are organized and civil.

Then came the paratroopers.

Before each game, three cadets jump from a helicopter at 4,500 feet. The three that jumped on Saturday each landed dead center at midfield. It was amazing. I was awed not only by the fact that they were willing to jump out of a helicopter at 4,500 feet, and not just by the fact that they came down in even formation, and not just by the fact that they did it with such precision. I was awed by the realization that they would also be willing to do exactly the same thing even if people on the ground were shooting at them.

Then they announced their honorary captains. There was a little girl from the Make-A-Wish foundation — which I’ve seen at other football games. But then there were also two alums. Both were combat veterans and both had lost limbs. Later in the game, they announced and introduced various other combat veterans and alumni in attendance. Now, I know that US Army soldiers come from all walks of life and many different colleges. Even my alma-mater probably has one or two veterans (Abbie Hoffman does not count). But everyone who graduates from West Point will serve in active duty — and we’re at war.

Throughout the game I remained very conscious that it was a game. It wasn’t the most important thing in the world for these young men — it might have been the most important on that night. But each of those players — as well as all of their classmates — have made a fantastically difficult decision at a very young age.

I was overwhelmed. At that age I would have been incapable of making that kind of decision, of committing myself to something as large and dangerous as the USMA. Part of me is envious. Going to West Point makes you a part of something for life — it creates an enormously powerful social network and provides intense psychological visibility. It also requires a great deal of discipline and submission.

It’s not a choice that I think I could or would ever make. There’s a lot wrong in the military and it requires a temperament that I just don’t have. But after that game, I have to admit it.

I’m a fanboy.

Go Army!

D.A.R.E. to know

At least six middle-school kids in St. Paul, Minnesota appear to have taken meth from a 14-year-old classmate on Tuesday. Story here.

One of the students complained of “feeling out of sorts” and ultimately the students were all sent to the hospital. The drug was apparently handed out in the school cafeteria, and although initial reports indicated that some of the children may have thought the drug was candy, it now appears that they all knew what they were eating.

The story raises obvious concerns about the availability of illegal drugs in schools and the relative effectiveness of drug education, but I think it also raises questions about drug policy.

Carol Falkowski, chemical health director at the Minnesota Department of Human Services is quoted in the article saying, “We know we live in a world where drugs and alcohol are probably more accessible to students than ever before. We also know the age of first drug use has been generally declining. The average age of first marijuana use is about 13 and first alcohol use about 14.”

“The average age of first marijuana use is about 13 and first alcohol use about 14.”

Marijuana before alcohol. Average age of first use is 13.

I’m not terribly surprised by this; I’ve long suspected (based on anecdotal evidence) that marijuana was easier for children to get than alcohol, but I am surprised to hear what amounts to an admission of that fact come from a government official.

It seems clear that we’re losing the drug war and losing badly. It also seems clear that we’re not effectively educating our children about drugs. Beyond the fact that some kids in St. Paul took meth (the principal at the school has a great quote: “We deal with middle-level kids. They make bad decisions sometimes.”), the fact that the kids ate the meth raises interesting questions.

Most addicts and regular users will smoke or inhale meth — the high is faster and more intense as the drug enters the blood stream quicker; they don’t eat it. The fact that the kids ate the meth could indicate that they didn’t know enough about the drug to know how it was “supposed” to be used (although it could also mean that they didn’t have a lighter). If the kids ate the meth because they didn’t really know much about the drug, then we’ve got a pretty tough problem. Do we teach our kids enough about drugs that when they get the opportunity they’ll really know how to abuse the drug? Or do we hope that in their ignorance they’ll go ahead and try it, but misuse it and dampen the potential harm?

Ignorance always seems the riskier option to me; not knowing will eventually get you in much worse trouble than knowing.

Several long-term analysis studies done on various drug education programs have shown that these school-based programs (D.A.R.E. in particular) are not statistically effective. (See here, here, here, here, here, here)

The studies show that while programs like D.A.R.E. have a limited positive short-term effects, they are not effective in curtailing drug use long-term. Children who take D.A.R.E. are just as likely to use or abuse drugs as children who have not gone through the D.A.R.E. program. At the very least, these studies conclude that the most common and popular drug education program in the country is not as effective as alternative programs.

So what should we do? Give up? Put meth vending machines in the middle school cafeterias? Of course not.

But if we want to start correcting the problem, we need to stop pretending that useless educational programs do anything other than salve our conscience. And we need to recognize that if children can get marijuana more easily than they can get alcohol, the drug war has been a complete and utter failure.

It’s long past time for a rational drug policy and rational drug education in America, but I’m afraid that we’ll get neither in the near future. In the meantime, talk to your kids. Be honest with them.

I’ve seen first-hand the effects of drug abuse. I’ve seen a people succumb to meth. I’ve seen friends and loved ones destroyed by alcohol. I’ve seen houses lost to cocaine, and I’ve seen people laugh at some pretty silly things while high on pot. I’ve also seen people lose their jobs while they sat on the couch, lost in a hazy miasma of bong-passing. I’ve been robbed by crack-heads and gone searching through a roommate’s stuff to find the pipe before the police showed up. I smoked cigarettes for 19 years.

But I hate pot. I’ve never done coke or smack or crack or meth or uppers or downers or rush or X. I drink moderately (in fact, my doctor keeps telling me that I need to drink ~more~ red wine).

When my kids ask me about drugs, I tell them what I know. I tell them what I’ve seen. I tell them who I’ve lost. I also tell them the truth.

I don’t want them growing up afraid of drugs, or enthralled by a mystery. I want them to grow up knowing. I want them to know that drugs are dangerous and that stupidity is deadly.

Once again…

Hillary Clinton has secured the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Our members have told us that they want a leader they can trust to strengthen public education, increase access to health care, promote common sense economic priorities and secure America’s place in the world,” AFT President Edward J. McElroy said in a statement. “Hillary Clinton is that leader.”

“Promote common sense economic priorities…” what does that mean? Does it mean that the AFT thinks that Hillary Clinton’s proposals are economically sound? Maybe when they say “common sense,” they mean “ridiculous and unworkable” — like her recent Baby Bond proposal.

Or maybe they take Albert Einstein seriously. Einstein said, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

The AFT is in a unique position to help shape those childish prejudices. Maybe what they really mean is that they think Hillary Clinton is the candidate that would best promote childish prejudices?

Whatever they mean, I have even less confidence in high school economics classes than I did before.