Rebuilding Morale in DC

At the Washington Monthly, John Donahue and Max Stier argue that some of government’s most intractable problems remain so because they’re in the hands of the worst-run agencies. Fixing them will take high-level commitment:

In many European and Asian countries the high status of public service helps offset modest financial rewards. But in the U.S., decades of bureaucrat bashing have exacerbated the economic factors and driven away untold thousands of talented Americans who might have tolerated lower compensation if abuse hadn’t been part of the package. Celebrating private enterprise and denigrating bureaucracy run deep in America’s political DNA. Some recent administrations have viewed federal organizations and the workers who staff them with something approaching contempt. Others have made at least some efforts to improve how federal agencies operated. But it has been a long time since federal workers had a real champion in the White House. No president since John F. Kennedy (some would argue since Theodore Roosevelt) has been willing to spend much political capital to improve the human capital that constitutes the core of the federal government.

Mother of All Traffic Jams

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I have friends going to Washington for Obama’s inauguration, but I’m content to watch it on TV, thank you very much. Even the DC Metro system is expecting madhouse-level crowds:

“It will be sardine crush-load on the way in and sardine crush-load on the way out,” agency spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

The image, by the way, is of the special $7.80 weekend pass the Metro folks will be selling for the inauguration. They suggest buying in advance.

Matt Yglesias isn’t convinced of the soundness of Metro’s approach, given that they plan to waive parking charges at stations for the day:

Fares and fees should really be kept as low as possible, with as much of operating costs as possible covered by direct subsidy. The exception to this guideline, however, is when you’re genuinely up against a supply constraint. When you can’t fit any more people on to your trains and there’s no good way to expand service, you need to use pricing to keep demand in check, even in an Yglesian world where transit funding was sky-high. … What’s more we of course don’t live in that ideal world where public subsidy is generous enough to use fees purely for rationing purposes. Metro needs to cover some of its operating costs through fares and parking fees. And Inauguration Day is a potential bonanza in that regard.

Spoken like a true right-winger there, Matt.

Climate Change: “Partner … Ally”

Obama had a message for the country’s governors on Tuesday:

Buffalo’s Hidden History

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Given that a lot of peeps in my family still live in Buffalo, I try somewhat to keep up on what’s happening back there. Needless to say, the town has obviously fallen on hard time. The NYT, however, had an excellent piece in Friday’s paper about how some folks are trying to preserve some of the city’s best architecture. Well worth the read.

Another Public Housing Failure

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Sad story in the NYT about the elevator problems dogging the Wagner homes in East Harlem. The lifts are extremely unreliable and have caused serious disruptions to the lives of people who hardly need the added aggravation. Needless to say, the poor maintenance of public housing is a serious and nationwide issue.

SpaceX Makes It

NASA Watch has the on-board video. The first-stage separation still looked rough to me but they got away with it.

Seattle Transit

Matt Yglesias points out, or more accurately has it pointed out to him, that California isn’t the only major player with a big rail bond/program on the ballot this fall.

The Vision Thing

NASA Administration Mike Griffin teaches a little history:

The planned Apollo 20 mission was cancelled a few weeks after the Apollo 11 landing, and Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled some months later. With those actions, the space program as we knew it in the 1960s was over, finished, and done. NASA is often blamed for its so-called lack of vision after the apotheosis of the Apollo years, but frankly, after those decisions, it didn’t matter what NASA did, or didn’t do. Our elected leaders had lost the vision and sense of purpose for our nation in space, and we retreated to low-Earth orbit.

We have become inured to what should be recognized as alarming trends, the subject of a recent hearing before the House of Representatives Science & Technology Committee. There are half as many bachelor’s degrees in physics awarded today in the United States than when Sputnik was launched in 1957. The number of engineers graduating with bachelor’s degrees declined by over 20% in the last two decades prior to a recent up-tick – but that up-tick is primarily due to an increase in the number of foreign students, who are increasingly returning to their home countries. In 2004, China graduated approximately 500,000 engineers while India graduated 200,000 and the United States graduated 70,000. In 2005, the United States produced more undergraduates in sports exercise than in electrical engineering. In 2006, only 15% of college graduates in the United States received a diploma in engineering or the natural sciences, compared to 38% in South Korea, 47% in France, and 67% in Singapore. The number of PhDs in engineering awarded by U.S. universities to U.S. citizens declined 34% in a single decade. Two-thirds of U.S. engineering PhDs are awarded to foreign nationals. In some surveys, U.S. public schools consistently rank near the bottom in mathematics and science as compared to their global counterparts. We are surpassed by, among others, Azerbaijan, Latvia and Macao.

China to Top TGV

The Chinese are growing four-lane highways like weeds, but they also want the world’s fastest high-speed rail system:

“It is possible that we can start to manufacture 380km/h trains in two years time, and put them into service on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway,” Mr Zhang told the state-owned China Daily.

Meanwhile, here in the US it’s a struggle to assemble political support for even one of these. Technological feats are increasingly the domain of other countries.

Rebuilding Passenger Rail

It’s been out for a while now, but a study group says it’d take about $357B over the next 40-plus years to re-create a passenger rail system that would offer travel times competitive with the auto. That annualizes to about $8.1B a year. The group suggests that the feds pick up 80 percent of the tab. See also America 2050.