Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ideology and Expertise

I have not figured out whether it is good news or bad news that, in the wake of making our country an embarrassment in the global community (as was demonstrated most vividly last week in Bali), President Bush has appeared to shift his attention from international to national affairs. After all, I suspect that, if you were to just walk up to people on the street and ask them with what major national event they would associated our President, most of those folks would probably respond, "Hurricane Katrina." So when I read last night's Reuters report by John Crawley under the headline "Bush wants market solutions for U.S. airline delays," my immediate reaction was, "Can this turn into a mess worse than the impact of Katrina?"

Of course air travel is already a pretty awful mess, and there is nothing like a holiday to aggravate the mess. However, when things are at their worst, is it really the best time to experiment with market-based ideology? I cannot help but remember my history lessons about how both Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong tried to apply Communist ideology to agriculture and brought on famines that devastated their respective countries. It is all very well and good to think out of the box, as long as you remember that the operative word is "think!" Even Franklin Roosevelt, who believed that, in confronting the Great Depression, doing anything was better than doing nothing, did not try to attach ideological baggage to the things he tried.

The more fundamental question we need to ask, however, is just what Bush means by "market solutions" and what premises and consequences are associated with that meaning. Fortunately, Crawley has provided us with a few of Bush's own words:

The truth of the matter is, we need a more rational way of allocating gates among airlines.

There are any number of ways to pick apart this assertion. The most important is probably the premise it appears to embody that markets are rational. As far as I can tell, the only settings in which markets are rational are in economics textbooks; and, as more and more economists seem willing to acknowledge that markets are primarily phenomena of the social world, those textbooks are quickly fading out of fashion, if not out of print. Perhaps Bush really meant "efficient," rather than "rational." This is another favorite adjective for economists who prefer the cleanliness of mathematical models to the grubby realities of the social world; and isn't "throughput" the major concern of holiday travelers? Here, however, we have to remember that, particularly from the subjective (and not necessarily rational) perspective of the consumer, "effectiveness" may count for more than efficiency. The last time I raised this distinction, I was discussing the patient's-eye view of health care; but it is just as valid for the traveler's-eye viewpoint of airline operations.

In fairness, however, we should still see what sorts of proposals are on the table, regardless of the weakness of the premises (not to mention their potential consequences):

The Transportation Department has struggled to finalize details of its congestion plan for the New York region -- especially JFK -- after meeting stiff resistance from airlines and some members of Congress to centerpiece initiatives such as the administration-preferred plan that would make airlines pay a premium for flights during the busiest times of the day.

But regulators, according to aviation sources late on Monday, are coalescing around a plan that is to be announced on Wednesday by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and would, over the longer term, manage capacity and competition by auctioning some takeoff and landing rights.

In the shorter term, the sources said, the government is expected to impose hourly flight caps at JFK for the summer of 2008.

It seems as if, between keyword advertising and eBay, auctioning has become the new hammer (pun intended), wielded by a small boy who sees everything as a nail. This may be due in part to the way in which it has provided mathematicians with new opportunities to experiment with models, even if those models are firmly ensconced in the objective world, safely protected from the messy details of the subjective and social worlds. The problem, of course, is that, when the models are used in a predictive capacity, their predictions are limited to the objective world, which is just not the world of holiday travelers.

I actually had my first taste of auction-based thinking at a talk that John Seely Brown gave in the auditorium of the (then) Xerox PARC Auditorium for an event sponsored by the Wharton School (one of those academic monuments to the objective world). Brown was extolling the virtues of low-level communications in highly distributed networks as an alternative to the hierarchy of a "classical" Weber-style bureaucracy. The example he chose to invoke was air traffic control, which, from the point of view of risk to loss of life and property, is a more critical problem than passenger throughput at airports. Brown suggested that the heavy cognitive load on air traffic controllers could be alleviated if every airplane could carry a software package that would enable individual planes to "bid" for the available landing slots at airports. Cynic that I am, I found the following voice ringing in my ears as I thought about this suggestion:

This is your Captain speaking. We hope you have enjoyed your non-stop flight from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, we were unable to secure a winning bid for a landing slot at Kennedy Airport. However, I am happy to report that we have won a bid for a slot at Logan International Airport outside Boston and will be landing there in about an hour.

While I am clearly serving this up as a joke, it also demonstrates what happens if we fail to think through narrative scenarios when we bury our heads too deep in the mathematics. We remember Hurricane Katrina (and associate it with President Bush) because, after the Gulf Coast was flooded by the elements, the entire nation (if not the world) was flooded with such narrative scenarios; and there was not the slightest thing funny about any of them. As I said in my second paragraph, the operative word behind trying to solve any problem is "think." Depression has become too much of a way of life in this country and the President is perceived as being far too detached from that depression for him to take on another problem and fail to think through those irritating details of premises and consequences.

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