Infrastructure: Privatization and Innovation

Tomorrow at CPAC, I will discuss some advantages of infrastructure privatization. Perhaps the largest advantage is innovation. Unlike government bureaucracies, private firms in a competitive environment are eager to maximize the net returns of projects, so they find new ways to reduce costs and improve quality.     

The benefits of innovation are obvious in fast-moving industries such as high-technology. But innovation can also be important in long-established, hard-hat industries such as highway building. Numerous countries are ahead of the United States in privatizing and partly privatizing (“public private partnerships” or “P3s”) government assets such as highways, airports, seaports, passenger rail, and air traffic control. Experience around the world shows that much innovation is possible after such industries are liberated from the bureaucratic yoke.

A House hearing last year looked at the international experience with privatization. The head of a provincial P3 agency in Canada said that P3 projects are more likely to be completed on time and on budget than traditional government infrastructure projects. And he said, “Competition and the profit motive can lead to startling results, where the winning proposal provides solutions that the public owner never contemplated. This happens over and over again.” Isn’t that interesting?

In his latest newsletter, Robert Poole provides more evidence of the “innovative effect” of P3s. He discusses $2 billion of cost savings from P3 highway projects in Texas, which are examined in a paper by Fidel Saenz de Ormijana and Nicolas Rubio:

Texas DOT has been gradually increasing the extent of design flexibility it gives project developers, via two methods. One is to encourage P3 developers to submit “alternative technical concepts” (ATCs) as part of their proposals in response to an RFP. The other is to encourage potential developers to present innovative ideas during the industry review meetings that precede issuance of the RFP. In the latter case, those ideas may be included in the RFP as options for all potential bidders to consider.

The largest cost savings discussed in the paper concern the LBJ (I-635) project in Dallas, where TxDOT’s conceptual design called for the express lanes to be constructed in a new tunnel beneath the existing general-purpose lanes, due to severe right of way constraints. During design review, the authors’ companies (Ferrovial and Cintra) suggested the alternative of a depressed center section for the express lanes, with the rebuilt general-purpose lanes partly cantilevered over the express lanes. This was presented in the RFP as an option, and the authors’ consortium’s bid that used this approach came in at substantially lower cost, contributing a large fraction of the resulting $1.3 billion construction cost savings.

The other cases described in the paper deal with several phases of the North Tarrant Express project in Fort Worth. In these cases, the developer-proposed changes were of two types. Some were changes in the design and placement of lanes and ramps, to provide better traffic flow (and generate more toll revenue). Others were changes in phasing, so as not to incur premature construction costs for lanes needed only in the ultimate configuration (10 to 20 years in the future), while designing now to facilitate their later addition within the long term of the concession agreement. These changes saved $480 million in NTE 1 and 2W and another $150 million in NTE 35W.

… By looking at the LBJ and NTE projects as businesses, the team was strongly motivated to come up with alternative designs and more-careful phasing of improvements to make the projects financially feasible. And to its great credit, Texas DOT was willing to accept many of those changes, resulting in projects that will provide very tangible benefits, without putting taxpayers at risk.

For more on infrastructure P3s and privatization, see here.

Responding to the White House Response on ISDS

Yesterday, my colleague Dan Ikenson blogged here about an op-ed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in which she was critical of investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions in trade agreements.

Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, posted a response to Warren on the White House website.  In this post, I’m going to comment briefly on his response, going through item by item. His statements are in bold; my comments follow in bullet points. 

Zients: “The purpose of investment provisions in our trade agreements is to provide American individuals and businesses who do business abroad with the same protections we provide to domestic and foreign investors alike in the United States.”

• It’s important to be clear that these protections go both ways. Under ISDS, foreign investors can also sue the U.S. government. Of course, they could already sue under U.S. domestic law. In effect, ISDS means that foreign investors in America have two avenues for a lawsuit, while U.S. investors in America only have one.

• With regard to protections abroad, the result of ISDS is that American investors have protections in foreign countries, but non-Americans do not have protections in those countries. That seems like a bad signal to send: American investors get good treatment, but non-Americans do not. If the concern is expanding protections, there is a better way to do it: encourage these protections to be incorporated into domestic law, so that everyone gets them.

Hold Politicians Accountable for Debacle in Libya

Will America ever again be at peace? Pressure is building for the U.S. again to intervene in Libya.

Less than three years after Libya’s civil war the country has ceased to exist. This debacle offers a clear lesson for American policymakers. But denizens of Washington seem never to learn.

The administration presented the issue as one of humanitarian intervention, to save the people of Benghazi from slaughter at the hands of Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.

Although he was a nasty character, he had slaughtered no one when his forces reclaimed other territory. In Benghazi he only threatened those who had taken up arms against him.

In fact, the allies never believed their rhetoric. They immediately shifted their objective from civilian protection to slow motion regime change. Thousands died in the low-tech civil war.

Alas, Libya was an artificial nation. When Khadafy died political structure vanished. The country split apart. Today multiple warring factions have divided into two broad coalitions.

“Operation Dignity” is a largely secular grouping including Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” and the internationally recognized government. Last May Haftar launched a campaign against the Islamist militias with covert support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

“Libya Dawn” is a mix of Islamists, moderate to radical, and conservative merchants which now controls Tripoli. They are backed by Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey, and deny that the Islamic State poses much of a threat.

Fifth Time’s a Charm? Why the Court Should Strike Down the Armed Career Criminal Act as Unconstitutionally Vague

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) increases the minimum criminal penalty for defendants convicted of illegal firearm possession who also have three prior violent crime convictions. While the Act lists many crimes as qualifying as “violent”—such as burglary, arson, and extortion—it also contains a catch-all provision, a “residual clause,” that includes crimes that “otherwise involve conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

While that language may seem clear, its precise meaning has bedeviled courts for decades. In fact, Johnson v. United States represents the fifth time since 2007 that the Supreme Court has been asked to clarify what the residual clause means. For example, does drunk driving count? How about fleeing from officers in a high-speed chase? Even though the high court only hears about 75 cases per year—and it rarely revisits a law within such a short time-span—the ACCA’s residual clause keeps coming back. As Justice Antonin Scalia quipped in the last such case, “We try to include an ACCA residual-clause case in about every second or third volume of the United States Reports.” Justice Scalia’s comment came in a dissent in which he argued that the residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, and it seems that the rest of his colleagues paid attention. This is the second time this term that this case will be argued before the Court.

Last November, the issue was whether merely (illegally) possessing a short-barreled shotgun is a crime that fits into the residual clause. In January, however, the Court ordered that the case be re-argued on the larger question of whether the residual clause is itself unconstitutionally vague. Apparently, in discussing the law for the fifth time, the justices got tired of trying to answer questions that Congress should have addressed by writing a clearer law.

Repeating News Story: Eroding Shorelines and Imperiled Coastal Villages in Alaska

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell was in Alaska last week at the invite of the Alaska Federation of Natives to discuss climate change and other issues. During her visit, she made a side trip to the 400 or so person town of Kivalina, located on a low-lying barrier island along Alaska’s northwest coast. The settlement sprung up about a century ago when the Interior Department decided to erect a school there under a program to promote the “education of natives in Alaska.” The same program established schools in other coastal location such as Golovin, Shishmaref, and Barrow.

Now these locations are in the news (see this week’s Washington Post story for example) because they are being threatened by coastal erosion coming at the hands of global warming—and are discussing relocating and who should be responsible for the footing the bill (incidentally, the courts have ruled out the energy industry).

With or without human-caused climate change, bluffs and barrier islands along the coast of northwestern Alaska are inherently unstable and not particularly good places to establish permanent towns. This is probably one of the reasons the natives were largely nomadic.

“Were,” we say, because ironically, as pointed out by the Post’s Chris Mooney, research indicates that the abandonment of the nomadic ways was encouraged/hastened by the establishment of government schools!

New York Proposes Special Bitcoin Regulation, But Won’t Say Why

Yesterday, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) issued the second draft of its “BitLicense” proposal, a special, technology-specific regulation for digital currencies like Bitcoin. For a second time, the NYDFS claims to have a strong rationale for such regulation, but it has not revealed its rationale to the public, even though it is required to do so by New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

If you’re just joining the “BitLicense” saga, the NYDFS welcomed Bitcoin in August 2013 by subpoenaing every important person in the Bitcoin world. A few months later, New York’s Superintendent of Financial Services announced his plan for a special “BitLicense,” which would be required of anyone wanting to provide Bitcoin-based services in New York.

About a year later, Superintendent Lawsky released the first draft of the “BitLicense” proposal, to strongly negative reviews from the Bitcoin community. It didn’t help that after a year’s work the NYDFS offered the statutory minimum of 45 days to comment. Relenting to public demand, the NYDFS extended the comment period.

In announcing the regulation, the NYDFS cited “extensive research and analysis” that it said justifies placing unique regulatory burdens on Bitcoin businesses. On behalf of the Bitcoin Foundation, yours truly asked to see that “extensive research and analysis” under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The agency quickly promised timely access, but in early September last year it reversed itself and said that it may not release its research until December.

New Coke and the Iraq War

Donald Keough, who was president of Coca-Cola, has died at age 88. All the obituaries lead with his role in the New Coke debacle. On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola replaced its amazingly successful product with a new formula, called New Coke. Some people liked the new flavor, but many did not. On July 11 the company reversed its decision and reintroduced the original formula, called for a time Coca-Cola Classic. Wikipedia reports, “ABC News’ Peter Jennings interrupted General Hospital to share the news with viewers.”

The experience was generally regarded as one of the biggest stumbles by a major corporation in memory. But what struck me at the time, and what I’m reminded of now, is how fast the company realized its error and reversed it – less than 11 weeks.

How well do governments do at realizing their errors and reversing them? The obvious comparison at the time was the Vietnam War. It took the U.S. government about 14 years, from 1961 to 1975, to realize and reverse that mistake.

Today we might think of the Iraq War. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, based on mistaken intelligence reports, a hazy sense that somehow Saddam Hussein was involved in al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, and deeply flawed assumptions about the ease of the undertaking. The war officially ended in December 2011, though of course we still have 3,000 troops there and are contemplating further involvement in response to the ISIS insurgency. Taking the official end of the war, the U.S. government continued that mistake for about 8 years and 9 months.

What about other government failures? How fast were they reversed? Let’s consider:

Alcohol prohibition – 13 years

Marijuana prohibition – approximately 84 years and counting

War on drugs – 44 years or 101 years and counting

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project – 18 years

Airline price and entry regulation – 47 years

Soviet communism – 74 years

And that’s without even counting the mistaken programs that aren’t yet widely agreed to be failures, from the Federal Reserve to the welfare state

Incentives are different in business and government. Some critics of capitalism suggest that democratic government is more responsive than corporations are. But voting is a flawed way to register dissatisfaction. When businesses make mistakes, they tend to lose customers. And they know that very quickly. Because business owners have their own money at stake, they have a strong incentive to correct mistakes promptly. Government officials run little risk of losing their jobs for failure. Indeed, government officials who fail to solve a problem – poverty, homelessness, dropout rates – may be rewarded with more money and staff. No wonder government failures last so long.

A diamond is forever? Government failure is forever.