Thursday, June 18, 2009

The rationing delusion - it's not just health care

I've spent most of my career covering business and finance, which means I've dealt with a lot of corporate executives in my time. And a whole lot of (gulp) investment bankers. And, to tell the truth, I've liked most of them very much. They're not out to trash the world, and they believe that their companies are doing good things (which, much of the time, they are).

So when my radical friends, or bloggers I like, attack corporations as rapacious monoliths out to dominate the globe, it makes me twitchy. Most corporate executives want to make the world a better place. I'm even willing to believe that at least some Monsanto executives want to make the world a better place - and genuinely believe they're doing it. (Whether or not they're actually doing it is another question, but one that can also fairly be asked of governments, radical activists, and in fact just about all of us. How to make the world a better place is a question to which there's no single, or simple, answer.)

But this much, I believe, is clear: the basic necessities of human life must not be controlled by any organization whose existence depends on making a profit.

The argument over health care is a case in point. Those who oppose government-run health insurance, and government research as to what treatments actually work, argue that we can't let the government decide what health care we get: that's rationing. But, as David Leonhardt pointed out in the New York Times the other day, private health insurers and providers ration health care constantly. The only difference is, they ration it on the basis of who can afford to pay for it and how profitable it is, instead of who needs it and whether or not it works.

It's the same with food. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that Monsanto's GM seeds actually are better; that they can feed more people from the same amount of land than ordinary seeds. (Not that I believe it for a minute.) Even if it's true, though, allowing Monsanto to patent those seeds and control their distribution gives a single company the power to to ration our food supply. Not on the basis of who needs it, as many countries did in WWII, but on the basis of who can pay for it. (And, in Monsanto's case, who can keep paying for it, as the company carefully makes sure farmers can't save seed, but have to buy new for each planting.)

And here's one that we're not hearing so much about, but is possibly the most egregious of all: the privatization of water. By which I don't mean putting it in bottles and selling it, though that's bad enough. I mean privatization of the water supply. By the middle of this decade, the water supplies of 9% of the world's people were controlled by private companies, all of them hungry for more. (Milwaukee is currently considering turning over its water system to a for-profit company.) And what happens when a private company controls water access? Rationing again: those who can afford it get more, those who can't, get less - or even none at all. Meanwhile profits, instead of being reinvested, are siphoned off to the company's coffers.

It's hard to make fair rationing decisions, and however rational they may be, the people who don't get what they want, or what they believe they're entitled to, always feel disenfranchised. But what is so much better about rationing on the basis of ability to pay? And how is it that we - as a nation -
have somehow been bamboozled into accepting without question that rationing based on need, or usefulness, or any other rational criterion, is unwarranted government interference, while rationing on the basis of whether you've got enough money to pay is the wonderful free market at work?

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why You Shouldn't Take an Empty Bus, and Other Anomalies

Groovy Green's got a link to a fascinating cradle-to-grave study of vehicle energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometer traveled. And the winner is? An urban diesel bus - at peak hours only. During non-peak hours, the same bus is just about the worst offender in both categories.

Urban light rail and commuter trains stack up a lot better than off-peak buses, but I wonder whether the same kind of on-peak/off-peak difference applies; the study doesn't differentiate. (Of course in many cities there are no off-peak trains - just try getting into Boston by commuter rail on a Sunday morning.)

Surprisingly, given the vilification air travel gets these days, the PKT emissions for a jumbo (I assume a full jumbo, which most of them are) stack up just about as well as those for light rail. The operating emissions are higher by far, but building and operating the infrastructure for light rail is responsible for a much higher level of emissions than building and operating airplane infrastructure.

The vehicle-building emissions aren't so startling - the emissions from building cars and trucks (again per passenger kilometers traveled) are more than double those of building aircraft and many multiples higher than those of building rail cars. But because even gas guzzler engines emit fewer greenhouse gases than bus engines, the total PKT emission load of a near-empty bus is almost double that of a conventional gasoline sedan.

The lesson that Groovy Green's Eric Spitzfaden takes from the study is that sharing rides - or, I would think, vehicles - is a real plus. (To your Zipcars, city dwellers!). Another - and the one that surprised me, though of course it makes sense when you think about it - is that mass transit, often cited as a panacea, might not be. It all depends on ridership. In other words, if it doesn't attract riders, the Obama high-speed rail plan we're all so ecstatic about will do a lot more to create jobs than it will to make us a greener country.

Meanwhile, if you're going to DC from New York, you might do less harm to the planet taking a packed plane than a near-empty train.

Weird, huh?

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