University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman Center Now Run by “Former Obama Staffers Who Cheer” . . . “Moves Toward Socialism”

(p. A15) Colleges’ ideological turn leftward has become sharper. At my own institution, a center dedicated to Milton Friedman is now run by former Obama staffers who cheer on the Biden administration’s moves toward socialism.

These policies reward professors and administrators who can then raise the price of their services. It’s basic economics that subsidizing demand increases the price of the product. Tuition rising as loan subsidies expand is no different. It isn’t a coincidence that education and health care, the industries in which government subsidies are most pervasive, took the highest price increases over the past 15 years—3.7% and 3.1% a year, compared with the 1.8% average across industries.

For the full commentary, see:

Tomas J. Philipson. “College Subsidies Are a Feedback Loop for Bigger Government.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 11, 2021): A15.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 10, 2021, and has the title “College Subsidies Are a Feedback Loop for Bigger Government.”)

FASTA Is Not Faster at Untangling Red Tape to Sell Surplus Federal Property

(p. B6) The plan sounded simple enough.

The federal government has long owned more real estate than it knows what to do with — buildings that sit empty and sites that are underdeveloped — but it must jump through hoops before it can sell its holdings. So surplus properties languish while taxpayers foot the bill for maintenance.

The solution, springing from legislation passed in 2016, was an independent agency that would quickly identify underused properties and expedite their disposal.

But nothing has been simple about the Public Buildings Reform Board, as the little-known agency is called.

It took three years for the five existing board members to be sworn in, and two empty seats remain, including that of the chairman. The Government Accountability Office reported that the board did not adequately document how it went about selecting properties for sale. The board was sued when it sought to sell a Seattle building that is a repository of important tribal records. The General Services Administration, the agency that disposes of most federal properties, has flouted the board’s advice.

And so far, only a single property that the board has recommended for sale has actually been sold.

. . .

The board’s tribulations are a reminder of how difficult it can be to untangle government red tape.

. . .

In the federal government’s 2015 fiscal year, agencies reported more than 7,000 excess or underutilized properties, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Attempts have been made, through Republican and Democratic administrations, to remedy the problem. A bipartisan breakthrough came in 2016 with the passage of the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, known as FASTA, . . .

. . .

But so far, only eight of the FASTA properties have been put up for auction; of these, a parking lot in Idaho Falls, Idaho, has been sold for $268,000.

For the full story, see:

Jane Margolies. “Surplus Property for Sale, Red Tape Included.” The New York Times (Wednesday, September 15, 2021): B6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 14, 2021, and has the title “Plan to Sell Unused Federal Property Becomes ‘Arm-Wrestling Contest’.”)

“Folly” of $66 Billion Subsidy for Trains, When Americans Prefer Cars and Planes

(p. 9) While long-haul railroads have a beloved place in our history, Americans almost entirely abandoned them more than a half century ago for the greater convenience of cars and the speed of planes.

And yet, not only have we continued to run a hugely loss-making nationwide network of passenger trains, last week’s bipartisan infrastructure plan includes tens of billions more for an Amtrak-based transportation system that will only ever be used by a small sliver of Americans outside of the Northeast Corridor rail line (known as the N.E.C.), which stretches from Washington to Boston.

The folly of another $66 billion — mostly for passenger railroads, one of the biggest allocations in the bipartisan compromise — makes me doubt how well other pieces of the trillions in spending proposed by the administration will be allocated. (President Biden wanted even more for Amtrak.)

. . .

Really? Consider a few stats: In the 2019 fiscal year, when excluding the N.E.C., Amtrak carried just 4.5 million passengers (not including services subsidized by states and cities), roughly 1.4 percent of our population. On average, passengers paid $115 while Amtrak spent $222 to transport each of them.

Unprofitable ticket prices notwithstanding, long-distance train travel dropped by 5.4 percent between the 2010 and 2018 fiscal years, while air travel rose by nearly 24 percent. On average, Amtrak filled only 55 percent of its long-distance seats in 2018. Does that warrant another $66 billion?

. . .

Populous California, where the automobile has reigned for decades, is an example of why betting on an American train travel revival is questionable. High-speed service between Los Angeles and San Francisco — which was approved by voters in 2008 at an estimated cost of $33 billion with completion expected in 2020 — remains a mirage. Completion is unlikely before 2030, while outlays are now projected to total at least $100 billion.

The California fiasco illustrates how execution will be key to implementing any infrastructure projects. But the government’s record is not great.

For the full commentary, see:

Steven Rattner. “Who Needs Amtrak? Not Wyoming.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, July 4, 2021): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 1, 2021, and has the title “Why ‘Amtrak Joe’ Should Pull Back on Train Funding’.” Where the wording of the two versions slightly differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Wind Turbines Kill Up to a Half Million Birds a Year

(p. A4) President Biden has taken steps to restore criminal penalties for accidental killing of migratory birds, a move that if adopted as expected later this year would add pressure to wind power developers who are working to fulfill his mandate to boost wind-farm developments as sources of clean energy.

Wind turbines—some with 200-foot blades spinning up to 180 mph—are estimated to kill between 140,000 and 500,000 birds a year through accidental collisions, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The wide variation in the estimate reflects the difficulty in tracking bird deaths, but whatever the toll, it is expected to rise as more wind turbines are built. Wildlife researchers in 2013 estimated that the Energy Department’s 2008 wind-power target would push bird deaths to about 1.4 million annually. That figure hasn’t been updated to reflect the Biden administration’s plans to expand offshore wind farms.

For the full story, see:

Katy Stech Ferek. “Federal Penalties for Killing Birds Test Wind-Power Firms.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 07, 2021): A4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 5, 2021, and has the title “Expanding Wind Power Yet Killing Fewer Birds Is Biden’s Quandary.”)

Census Bureau Algorithm Adds Noise to the Population of Monowi, Nebraska

(p. B1) The resident of Nebraska’s only one-person town was surprised when she heard the news.

The U.S. Census Bureau was reporting that Monowi’s population had exploded by 100% and was now home to two people, according to 2020 Census data it recently released.

“Well, then someone’s been hiding from me, and there’s nowhere to live but my house,” Elsie Eiler said Wednesday. “But if you find out who he is, let me know?”

His name is Noise, and he was created by an algorithm to try to protect Eiler’s personal information. Monowi didn’t add another resident to its population, but the Census Bureau did.

“What you’re seeing there is the noise we add to the data so you can’t figure out who is living there,” a bureau spokeswoman said. “It protects the privacy of the respondent and the confidentiality of the data they provide.”

The bureau doesn’t invent respondents, the spokeswoman said. But it does shift them from one census block or tract to another. And while the discrepancies might be apparent and confusing at that micro level — like when a town’s only resident is shocked to hear that she has a neighbor — the numbers are still accurate when zoomed further out, like at the congressional district level.

For the full story, see:

PETER SALTER, Lincoln Journal Star. “Monowi, Nebraska, is still a one-person town, despite what 2020 Census says.” Omaha World-Herald (Sunday, Aug. 30, 2021): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 30, 2021, and has the title “Monowi, Nebraska, is still a one-person town, despite what 2020 Census says.”)

Public Transit Subsidies Reduce Incentives to Innovate

(p. A4) The bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate this month is the latest effort to inject federal money into public transit agencies. But all that money likely won’t buy what transit really needs: more riders.

Unless ridership recovers from its pandemic-induced drop, agencies will again confront large budget deficits once the federal money runs out in three or four years, analysts say. That could mean service cuts and fare increases, according to transit agencies.

“As soon as the money stops flowing, transit agencies are going to be in the same position as they were before,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation policy expert at the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, for instance, expects to use up its $14.5 billion allocation of federal aid by 2024, at which point it will face a $3.5 billion two-year shortfall.

. . .

Some experts say agencies’ financial struggles during the pandemic should prompt Congress to help fund agencies’ day-to-day costs.

. . .

Other analysts, however, say agencies need to find ways to adapt instead of living off federal subsidies.

“The problem with free money is it does not encourage innovation, and that’s really what transit agencies need to be encouraged to do right now,” said the Reason Foundation’s Mr. Feigenbaum. “It’s just postponing the reckoning.”

For the full story, see:

David Harrison. “Public Transit Is Flush With Cash, But Not Riders.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Aug. 23, 2021): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 22, 2021, and has the title “Transit Got Billions in Relief From Congress but Still Faces Deficits.”)

China Charges Montenegro $1 Billion to Build Road “From Nowhere to Nowhere”

(p. 4) MATESEVO, Montenegro — One of the world’s most expensive roads slices through the mountains of Montenegro, soaring over deep gorges on towering bridges, before reaching its destination: a muddy field outside a hamlet with a few dozen houses, many of them empty.

Mirka Adzic, a resident of the hamlet, Matesevo (population: around 15), said she was delighted there would soon be a modern expressway so close to home as it would save her from having to take a treacherous mountain track, previously the only access to the outside world.

But, much as she likes the new Chinese-built expressway — which is supposed to open in November [2021] at a cost of nearly $1 billion after six years of hazardous work, two years behind schedule — she doesn’t really understand it.

Struggling to support a family on her husband’s meager salary as a driver for the Chinese construction company that built the road, she is baffled that her country, one of Europe’s poorest, has committed so much money to a gargantuan, state-of-the-art engineering project. Montenegro is now saddled with debts to China that total more than a third of the government’s annual budget.

Ms. Adzic is not alone. Montenegro’s new prime minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, who took over late last year from the government that signed the road and loan contracts with China in 2014, described the highway as a “megalomaniac project” that “goes from nowhere to nowhere” and badly strained his country’s finances.

. . .

A 2012 study led by a British company for Montenegro’s Ministry of Transport warned that construction costs would be unusually high because of the mountainous terrain. Even so, its cost estimates were considerably lower than the more than $900 million charged by the China Road and Bridge Corporation to build the 25-mile, but particularly difficult, stretch of the highway.

An earlier feasibility study, in 2007, by Louis Berger, an engineering company in Paris, warned that traffic along the proposed highway would not be “high enough to justify” investment “from a purely financial basis.”

. . .

Nearly $280 million, more than half of the total amount of money paid to local subcontractors, has gone to a single Montenegro company, Bemax, formally owned by a onetime cafe owner who, before he moved into road building, had no previous experience in engineering work, according to MANS, the research group.

Nebojsa Medojevic, a member of Parliament, claimed that Bemax was in reality owned by a close adviser of Mr. Djukanovic, Milan Rocen, a former ambassador to Moscow. Mr. Djukanovic denied this, saying he had “of course” asked his adviser and been assured the claims were false. Mr. Rocen has himself categorically denied owning Bemax.

For the full story, see:

Andrew Higgins. “Montenegro, a Nearly $1 Billion Road to ‘Nowhere’.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, August 15, 2021): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 14, 2021, and has the title “A Pricey Drive Down Montenegro’s Highway ‘From Nowhere to Nowhere’.”)

Users of “Free” Public Housing Wi-Fi Do Not Know How to Keep It Online

(p. 30) After months of back and forth, NYC Mesh got the greenlight to put a hub on the 24-story public housing tower in Bed-Stuy, along with two other developments in the Bronx and Queens. Four other small providers, including Silicon Harlem, were selected to wire up 10 other NYCHA developments. As part of Phase One of the Internet Master Plan, to which the city will direct $157 million, NYC Mesh installed free public hot spots around the exterior grounds of the projects; the other companies must provide residents access to Wi-Fi in their apartments for no more than $20 a month.

. . .

But the people who use the free hot spots in public housing or the family shelter in Brownsville don’t know how to fix the equipment or where to request a repair or report an outage on Slack. Indeed, all but one of the hallway routers in the shelter have been out for the last couple of months, and a number of new ones at the Bed-Stuy tower keep going offline.

For the full story, see:

Bliss Broyard. “Meet the Warriors of Wi-Fi.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, July 18, 2021): 30.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 16, 2021, and has the title “‘Welcome to the Mesh, Brother’: Guerrilla Wi-Fi Comes to New York.”)

Facebook and Twitter Colluded with Government to Censor Free Speech

(p. A17) The media has panned Donald Trump’s First Amendment lawsuits against Facebook, Twitter and YouTube: “sure to fail,” “as stupid as you’d think,” “ridiculous.”

. . .

But the central claim in Mr. Trump’s class-action lawsuit—that the defendants should be treated as state actors and are bound by the First Amendment when they engage in selective political censorship—has precedent to back it up. Their censorship constitutes state action because the government granted them immunity from legal liability, threatened to punish them if they allow disfavored speech, and colluded with them in choosing targets for censorship.

. . .

A growing body of evidence suggests that social media companies have voluntarily worked with Democratic officials to censor content the latter disfavor. In Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (2001), the high court held that state action exists if the private party’s conduct results from “significant encouragement, either overt or covert,” or if the private party is a “willful participant in joint activity with the State or its agents.”

According to allegations in other pending lawsuits, Twitter formed “trusted partner” relationships with state officials to remove content identified by the officials as election misinformation—when in reality the content was simply critical of state policies.

In September 2020 Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook “works with” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remove Covid-related content. The company’s official policy states that it is “advised” by public-health authorities about what Covid content should be blocked. For months, while officials including Anthony Fauci proclaimed that the Wuhan lab-leak theory was “debunked” and a “conspiracy theory,” Facebook blocked any mention of that theory as “misinformation.”

But after Dr. Fauci and the administration retreated from this position, Facebook almost immediately lifted its ban. Recently published email exchanges between Mr. Zuckerberg and Dr. Fauci reveal no evidence of direct instruction from the government on this point but make a case for Facebook’s willful participation in a joint activity with the government.

For the full commentary, see:

Vivek Ramaswamy. “Trump Can Win His Case Against Tech Giants.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, July 12, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 11, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

China Removed Gene Sequences from NIH Data Base Related to Covid-19 Origin

(p. A3) Chinese researchers directed the U.S. National Institutes of Health to delete gene sequences of early Covid-19 cases from a key scientific database, raising concerns that scientists studying the origin of the pandemic may lack access to key pieces of information.

. . .

The removal of the sequencing data is described in a new paper posted online Tuesday by Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The paper, which hasn’t been peer reviewed, says the missing data include sequences from virus samples collected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in January and February of 2020 from patients hospitalized with or suspected of having Covid-19.

. . .

. . . Dr. Bloom said their removal sows doubts about China’s transparency in the continuing investigation into the origin of the pandemic.

Some other scientists agreed.

“It makes us wonder if there are other sequences like these that have been purged,” said Vaughn S. Cooper, a University of Pittsburgh evolutionary biologist who wasn’t involved in the new paper and said he hasn’t studied the deleted sequences himself.

For the full story see:

Amy Dockser Marcus, Betsy McKay and Drew Hinshaw. “Covid-19 Gene Data Removed at NIH.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, June 24, 2021): A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 23, 2021, and has the title “Chinese Covid-19 Gene Data That Could Have Aided Pandemic Research Removed From NIH Database.”)

Politicians Have a “Ribbon-Cutting Bias”

(p. A4) A new paper by a pair of economists says the gains from infrastructure spending aren’t always clear-cut and recommends that policy makers examine the costs and benefits of each project.

“If we are going to commit a significant amount of resources to new infrastructure projects or to maintain our existing infrastructure, bringing some discipline to the way we decide what we’re spending on is an important element of this,” said James Poterba, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-wrote the paper with Edward Glaeser of Harvard University.

. . .

In some cases, the authors write, the best solution doesn’t involve construction at all. Rather than building new lanes to ease traffic in a dense urban area, it might make sense to consider congestion pricing, which charges drivers a variable fee depending on time of day, they write.

Mr. Poterba recommended a voucher or tax-rebate system for lower-income households to ensure they aren’t disproportionately hurt by the fees.

The cost of repairing an unsafe bridge in a remote area with very little traffic may exceed the benefits, they write. In that case, the most economically efficient solution might be to close or demolish it. It might also make more sense to link cities with rapid buses on dedicated lanes rather than build new rail lines. Satellite broadband or 5G network access might be a good alternative to laying fiber optic cables to provide high-speed internet access to rural areas, they write.

. . .

Identifying the benefits of a project also is complicated, because measuring benefits depends on how much it will be used, which is difficult to predict in advance.

“You have to be careful you’re not being highballed with rosy projections about what the demand for utilization will be,” said Mr. Poterba.

. . .

Officials sometimes prefer spending on new projects over maintenance because of a “ribbon-cutting bias,” Mr. Poterba said, “where you can point to the thing and say it wasn’t there before my time and now it’s there.”

For the full story, see:

David Harrison. “Paper Questions Spending On Projects.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, July 15, 2021): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 14, 2021, and has the title “Not All Infrastructure Projects Are Worth It, Paper Finds.”)