Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I Can Always Depend on Stossel to Cure What Ails Me (JM)

Unless the government watches closely, the airlines will kill you.

As I read this, I picturing a giant, cartoon JetBlue plane tiptoeing up behind me, brandishing a knife. Only to be stopped by a British bobby wearing a hat that says “Government Regulation” on it. Then John Stossel shows up wearing a fedora with a little slip of paper on it that reads “Press”. But perhaps I’ve said too much…

That seems to be what many reporters and politicians believe.

Not, like literally, but yeah inspections seems like a pretty nifty idea.

"The result of inspection failures and enforcement failure [by the Federal Aviation Administration] has meant that aircraft have flown unsafe, un-airworthy and at risk of lives," says Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

"The FAA has clearly displayed a dangerous and cavalier lack of regard for tough safety enforcement," says Sen. Hillary Clinton.

And Lou Dobbs of CNN wondered "whether airlines are putting profit ahead of passenger safety."

I mean this seems likely. Look, I don’t think airlines ever want their planes to crash, bad PR, dead employees and lawsuits and whatnot, but their bottom line is still profit maximization and they are less specifically interested in safety than a balance between safety risks and profits. It’s not a choice between all safety and no safety for these airlines, it’s a balance and government regulation clearly helps shift the balance in the direction of greater safety.

Let me get this straight. The only reason airlines care about safety is because of the FAA? So without government, multibillion-dollar companies would jeopardize millions of passengers by unsafely flying $50-million airplanes?

Uhh, no Commander Strawman from the planet Exaggertron Prime, it is one of many reasons.

The media and politicians suggest that airlines would cut corners to make money, but how would that work exactly? Crashing airliners is a route to bankruptcy, not profits.

To be persuaded by this argument, I would actually have to stick my head in an elevator while Delta Burke repeatedly pressed the door close button over and over for a period of three weeks in which I did not eat, sleep or drink anything. Don’t ask me why it has to be Delta Burke, it just has to, okay? Or Gerald McRaney.

But air-travel safety has joined mortgage defaults and global warming as "crises" of the month.

What are all really bad things that deserve to be called crises?

Populists in politics and the media get attention by scaring people into thinking the skies are dangerous. The politicians want more power and attention; the clueless media are genuinely scared.

Yes, keeping airplanes safe, just another step down the road to tyranny. Thank you John Stossel for preventing us from making such a horrible mistake. First they come for the airlines, then they come for the environments, and then the Jews…

The latest "crisis" was launched when the FAA fined Southwest Airlines, which has an excellent safety record, $10.2 million for missing inspection deadlines. When Rep. Oberstar criticized the FAA for being too close to the airlines, the agency sprung into overreaction. "An industry-wide 'audit' commenced, and FAA inspectors set about finding something -- anything -- to show Mr. Oberstar and other Congressional overseers that the agency was up to the job of enforcing federal maintenance requirements to the letter," said The Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Steet Journal!!! Turn this ship around, my argument has run aground against an iceberg of objectivity! Yes, sometimes governmental regulators act politically, but they still have the goal of general safety, they don’t actually decrease the level of safety at all.

One result was the cancellation of 3,300 American Airlines flights and the stranding of 250,000 passengers over several days while 300 MD-80s were grounded so their wiring could be inspected.

Yes, I found this disconcerting too…

American Airlines then did something rare and even heroic. It criticized the agency that regulates it for suddenly changing inspection procedures in ways that have little to do with safety. "We don't know what the rules are," said an American technical crew chief for avionics. Some rules contradict each other, the airline said.

Why yes, they are our greatest heros! Why we need to add a new chapter to Profiles in Courage. American Airlines for complaining about FAA inspections. They are Aeneas, Superman, the Green Lantern, John McCain and Jared from Subway combined. So in sum, very heroic.

The FAA disputes American's claims, but The New York Times reports that "John Goglia, a maintenance expert and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that the rules had, in fact, changed. ... The differences in American's work, he said, were so small that 'those airplanes could have flown for the rest of their careers and those wires would not have been a problem.'"

Look, I obviously do not know the technical details of these regulations. I know I don’t trust you, John Stossel, to not cherry-pick only the most advantageous quotes. But here’s where I stand on this: Any mistake maybe erring against regulation could lead to a lot of dead individuals. There is often no middle ground in airline accidents. I would rather over than under reach and I am certainly not willing to wait and let the market solve.

What about alarmist claims that the FAA has been lax in enforcing its own procedures? If the claims are true, then where are the bodies? The best evidence that FAA enforcement is unnecessary is to assume it's been lax -- and then to note that airline travel, though busier than ever, has never been safer (

How is this possible the “best evidence”? Assume it’s not doing its job and then we can assume it’s ineffectual. You, sir, are silly. Also how about massive advances in technology explaining an increase in safety? However, we can still make it safer.

We need to rethink the premise that government inspections keep us safe.

Based entirely on the no evidence you have provided us with.

Clifford Winston and Robert W. Crandall of the Brookings Institution write: "[T]he fundamental problem with most regulation is that the regulatory agency does not have sufficient information, flexibility and immunity from political pressure to regulate firms' behavior effectively. Fortunately, the market, and in some cases the liability system, provide sufficient incentives for firms to behave in a socially beneficial manner."

This is the most generic and stupid sentence I have ever seen. It’s not like these are mutual exclusive propositions, right? The market still exists too, they might have slightly better information, but not as strong motivation. For the FAA the ultimate goal is safety, for the market the ultimate goal is profit maximization. I would prefer to have both in place. Also I am not sure why the FAA doesn’t have adequate information, it’s not like they hire some guy named Ron off the street to inspect these planes. It’s usually, you know, aviation engineers and the like.

To see who really regulates air safety, do a thought experiment suggested by George Mason University economist Donald Boudreaux, who blogs at Cafe Hayek:

Ooh George Mason University AND a blogger for Café Hayek… I have never heard of Café Hayek, but we can all safely assume the delightful island of rationality that is. So, anyway, prepare for some objective truth people.

"Suppose that all government regulation of airlines were abolished today. Does ... Congressman [Oberstar] suppose that airline executives would tomorrow fire all inspectors and maintenance crews, indifferent to the prospect of losing multimillion-dollar assets in fiery crashes? Does he not see that airlines with poor safety records would have difficulty attracting customers? Is he unaware that airlines' insurers have ample incentives to work closely with airlines at keeping air-travel safety at optimal levels? In short, is Mr. Oberstar really so dimwitted to think that airlines will be safe only if they are regulated by government?"

Look, I don’t think that if the FAA went away that airlines would start flying double-decker planes a la the Wright Brothers. I can safely say that there won’t be pedaling involved. But many more fly-by-night (pun absolutely intended) airlines would pop up, willing to risk a whole lot more in exchange for some quick profit. Hell, remember ValuJet, which is now AirTran, some of these airlines just change their names. Some consumers are aware of safety records, most are aware of the cheapest flights on Expedia. We would see an influx of much cheaper, more risky airlines. Regulation merely doubles down, it catches that which the market doesn’t solve for. Even one accident is too much a of a price to pay for deregulation.

Yes, I think he is.

And sadly, most of his colleagues, and mine, agree with him.

One person’s definition of sad is another person’s definition of sheer relief.


Anonymous said...

What do you have against Delta Burke and Gerald McRaney????
You have no idea what good people they are.
You should apolgize.

Jonathan said...

Dear anonymous friend,

I have nothing in the world against either of these fine thespians. In fact, if I am to be ushered in to a world of madness and idiocy I would like nothing more than to have Suzanne Sugarbaker and Major Dad as my Beatrice and Virgil.

Alla said...

So in this column Stossel says the liability system will help solve, but wasn't your last post on his column about limiting lawsuits? How ironic.