Invest in Estonian-style e-governance to be ready for the next plague?

Quite a few Boston-area businesses have shut down their physical offices. Employees of Amazon, for example, are working from home. Towns and cities, however, can’t close down their respective Town Halls and City Halls because the only way to access quite a few government services is to show up in person. The same enterprise of state/local government that tries, via its public health department, to get everyone to stay home, may ironically end up being one of the only information processing operations that insists that everyone show up and get within contagious distance.

Supposedly Estonia allows citizens to do almost anything that they’d do at a city hall from the disease-free safety of their own homes.

The U.S. track record for government-run IT is admittedly mixed, e.g., with the $1 billion insurance site. But maybe if we could adopt the Estonian system unmodified for state and local transactions we would be able to save time in non-plague periods and save lives in plague periods.

Readers: What do you think? Should people have to brave coronavirus to get (or issue) a building permit?


  • “Estonia, the Digital Republic” (New Yorker, 2017)
  • e-Estonia (Wikipedia)
  • e-governance (from Estonians themselves): “Estonia is probably the only country in the world where 99% of the public services are available online 24/7. E-services are only impossible for marriages, divorces and real-estate transactions – you still have to get out of the house for those.” (don’t get too excited about those family law transactions; they are not as lucrative as in the U.S. From a 2017 post: “In all three Baltic countries I learned that having sex with the richest person in the country would yield only about 200 euros per month in child support” (similar to nearby Sweden))
  • “Estonia: Tough campaign stop for Bernie Sanders”
Full post, including comments

It’s a coronamergency, but let’s not relax any of our rules

I made it out to the local supermarket recently. The folks in our town who previously said that helping the vulnerable was their only priority continue to keep it stripped of the hand sanitizer and toilet paper that their neighbors might need. The righteous boycott of Barilla pasta, which (initially) refused to feature same-sex couples in its advertising, was apparently forgotten. The only pasta shape left from any brand was lasagna (people don’t have time to boil and bake when they’re sheltering in place?). Nearly all dairy products, however, including the ricotta cheese necessary for a standard lasagna, had been cleaned out. When did ricotta cheese become an emergency ration?

What struck me the most was being carded for the small box of wine that I bought for the lasagna recipe. It’s a national emergency, many of our loved ones will be dead soon, and the nearest toilet paper is in Canada, but we will still put effort into verifying that someone in his 50s is authorized to buy alcohol?

When I returned home, there was an email from the airport. The strict regulations for renewing security badges remain in force. People have to come in, do computer-based training (at a shared computer) to review material that they saw two years previously, and then get a new badge. The idea of relaxing this policy and extended all expired badges for six months is unworkable, apparently. Instead there will be some additional rules, e.g., people whose badges aren’t close to expiring will be turned away, etc.

I had a checkup scheduled at a local physicians’ office. I called to see if it was still on (“no”; anything routine is pushed out until June). The automated phone system forces callers to listen to a lengthy message that hasn’t changed from pre-plague times. It gives the clinic’s FAX number so that they can continue to comply with HIPAA while the economy and society collapse.

I opened my email to find a bill for $4.98 in tolls accumulated while renting a Hertz car in Florida. The “PlatePass administrative fee” was an additional $17.85, i.e., the bureaucracy cost 358 percent more than the service consumed.

An immigrant friend used to say that the true religion of Americans is regulatory compliance because it consumes roughly the same amount of time that people in medieval times spent going to church and praying. I wonder if his perspective is borne out by how Americans are responding to coronaplague.

In this time of coronaplague, I do wonder if we need to make sure that we’ve budgeted for the fact that we can never be as responsive as societies where less time and money is invested in making rules and complying with rules. We might need a much longer shutdown than China, for example, since we have so many people dedicated to crossing Ts and dotting Is and therefore fewer who can perform tests, set up temporary hospitals, etc.


  • “the coronavirus is forcing authorities to admit many of their regulations are unnecessary” (Reason): Something similar is going on in Massachusetts, a state well-known for high levels of regulation, including of the medical sector. Expecting a crush in medical care needs due the coronavirus, Gov. Charlie Baker has seen the light and agreed to streamline the Bay State’s recognition of “nurses and other medical professionals” who are registered in other parts of the United States, something that 34 states do on a regular basis. … And over at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), bureaucrats have suddenly decided to approve overnight a coronavirus test that its former chief, Scott Gottlieb, has described as a “fairly routine technology.” The Roche test is 10 times faster than the process currently being used, but the FDA didn’t approve it until this past Friday—and then only for this particular emergency.
  • “I Got the Coronavirus Test. My Ordeal Was Just Beginning.” (Politico, 3/15/2020): “On Thursday, March 5, I began my own odyssey trying to determine if I, too, had contracted COVID-19 … I spent the next 11 hours at the ER getting tested for multiple contagions. A doctor wearing a breathing apparatus over his head and chest … She informed me they would send the two specimens to Maryland’s public health department for COVID-19 testing, which could take as much as 48 hours. I was then told to go home and await the results. Back at home, I noticed the paperwork did not supply me with a way to track my testing, nor did it provide me with a point of contact for my results… Late Sunday, March 8, I heard from an outbreak investigator at the county health department. She had discovered that only one of my two specimens had been sent in for testing, despite a two-specimen protocol; the other was still sitting in an ER refrigerator.”
  • Canada is apparently more holistic and flexible. On March 17 they decided to extend expiring pilot medical certificates at least to August 1 (AOPA).
Full post, including comments

If the British are right, everything the U.S. is doing about coronavirus is wrong

From my secret source in Ireland… “Coronavirus: What are the British up to?” (RTE):

The UK scientific and medical advisers do not expect the infection rate to peak for another three months.

They believe that it is too early to take drastic measures, and that if they are taken now, they will have to be held in place longer than most people expect, and because of that they would lose effectiveness just when they were most needed, because people would get bored and stop practising the hard disciplines of “social distancing”.

In a Channel 4 news special programme on the virus shown on Friday night, Professor John Edwards, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who also advises the British government, said there are two ways to deal with this virus.

Either stamp it out by curing every person in the whole world who is infected, which we are no longer able to do, or managing the spread of the virus until herd immunity is reached. When challenged about a potentially large death toll, he said “there is no way out of this”.

What, he asked, happens when the lockdown is relaxed? The virus will come back and the risk of a sudden, overwhelming peak rises again.

In other words, the U.S. is due for a massive outbreak of coronavirus in the late spring or early summer.

If the U.S. had a universal taxpayer-funded government-run health care system like the NHS (but with welcome mats spelling out “No Human Being is Illegal” in 15 languages) and no Orange Menace in the White House, Americans would all go to the clinic, get tested like the South Koreans do, and this would purge our great nation of this virus (not to say “foreign virus”), right?

Right now, the British government believes that the biggest impact it can make in terms of slowing the spread of the disease is to request that anyone with a persistent cough or fever should self-isolate for seven days, which is the main infectious period, and not bother contacting a GP or even the phone helpline.

The technocrats in England don’t even want people to go to the doctor, much less fire up the PCR testing machines!

Separately, the article shows that microaggression against the Latinx is muy bien:

Boris Johnson, in his inimitable way, described the resulting chart (or curve, as economists like to say) as looking like a sombrero. And he said the aim of public policy is to “squash the sombrero”.

How is the course of an epidemic in any way like the profile of a sombrero? Isn’t it just up and then down? If Mr. Johnson wants a profile with some action on the brim, why not an English bowler hat? Why pick on our neighbors to the south whom our most righteous Hollywood stars celebrate even as they make plans to migrate to Canada rather than Mexico?

Full post, including comments

Most expensive school building in the United States goes over budget…

… before the first concrete has been poured.

Yeoman suburbanites west of Boston voted overwhelming to build themselves the most expensive, on a per-student basis, school ever constructed in the United States (see ). It will be 2.5X the cost, per town-resident student, of Newton North, a nearby high school that was formerly the high-water mark for lavish government spending.

At $600/square foot for a combination of renovation and new construction, I figured that it was set up so that there was no possibility of a cost-overrun. Here’s an email from the school superintendent:

Last night, the Lincoln School Building Committee met to review the outcomes of going out to bid for the construction portion of the Lincoln School project that is slated to begin in June. As construction bids have come in for the school building project, the total bid value has exceeded our budget for the project by 3.5 million dollars. This is forcing us to make some significant cuts from the 100% design to remove elements from the project. These cuts are going to be hard and feel frustrating, and perhaps dispiriting, at this juncture in the project. However, this is the process working – we are confronting the real costs of the project now, before work has begun, so we are sure we are building within the budget the community has provided. This is not unlike what would happen if a homeowner was planning a big kitchen remodeling project, and when they received quotes from contractors, the quotes were all higher than what the homeowner had budgeted. Tough choices to cut some aspects of the project would need to be made. Maybe the counters will be Corian instead of quartz, the island will be 10 sq./ft. smaller, and the old refrigerator will be kept until it needs to be replaced. While it is disappointing to have to make these decisions, the homeowner will still be getting a wonderful new kitchen.

They already took $15-20 million out of the construction budget via an Enron-style accounting maneuver (letting a third party company buy the solar panels in exchange for an agreement to purchase power at above-market prices for 30 years). This was necessary because state law limits the amount that a town can borrow as a percentage of property value and Lincoln was trying to go over the limit. Somehow this off-books borrowing from the solar panel vendor doesn’t count and the town therefore managed to move forward as the most indebted town in the state, but not over the limit.

The town committee volunteers/experts predicted that property prices would rise once people heard about the fancy new school building and they’d be able to borrow more. Instead, however, property prices have fallen since the vote to approve the school (i.e., the market may value the new school building at $0). So the town can’t borrow more for what the school superintendent compares to a Whole Foods heater-uppers new kitchen.

I think this is of more than local interest because of the human psychology involved. First, there is the faith that an upgraded building housing the same teachers and students using the same curriculum will yield superior academic outcomes. Then, there was the in-person town meeting Vote of the Righteous in which retirees who had no chance of ever sending a child to the Palazzo of Education enthusiastically voiced their support for saving Planet Earth by bulldozing the existing school (sections that were 25-year-olds and sections that had been renovated 25 years earlier) and creating a Net Zero structure in its place.

What is most interesting for explaining decisions in the rest of the country was that people were able to come together to agree to spend the money, but later fought amongst themselves regarding how to pay for the spending. Massachusetts enables towns to use a progressive property tax structure such that owners of lower-value property pay a lower rate. Would a town of self-described “progressives” vote for progressive property tax? It turned out to be a tougher question than Hillary v. Trump and depended quite a bit on whether one occupied a higher-than-median-value home!

Another passionate discussion ensued regarding approving the construction of more housing and commercial structures in the town. This was now vital to increase the property tax base since (a) the density of the town wasn’t sufficient to support a $110 million (with solar panels) school building, and (b) the property values of the existing houses had fallen (“Lincoln home values have declined -0.1% over the past year and Zillow predicts they will fall -0.7% within the next year.”; compare to nearby “Cambridge home values have gone up 1.7% over the past year and Zillow predicts they will rise 1.2% within the next year.”).

What happens when people who enthusiastically support U.S. population increase via migration ponder the prospect of population growth within their own town? At a minimum, any project needs to be built far away from their own homes. And, they wonder, without quoting any numbers, if the per-pupil spending at the school is $25,000/year plus capital costs of $250,000 per student, how can they make sure that the occupants of the new housing don’t breed additional children that might further drive up school spending? As the average property tax per household will settle in at about $20,000 per year, if there is even one school-age child in a household, the result is a net drain on the town treasury.

A great example of the fiscal outcomes of democracy in action!

Full post, including comments

Boeing dispels rumors that the SLS rocket will be overpriced…

… with a $40 T-shirt celebrating the Space Launch System (SLS):

If the project comes in on budget, it will be nearly $1 billion per launch with roughly 15 percent more thrust than the 50-year-old Saturn V.

The entire program, including the Orion capsule, appears similar to Apollo and, in fact, is named “Artemis,” after Apollo’s twin sister. I asked an astronaut why NASA would do this, 60 years after Apollo. Why not just wait for Blue Origin to have their inexpensive rockets ready at roughly the same time? “It’s what they know how to do,” he responded. My mole inside the scientific side of NASA, responding to “Unless Blue Origin fails it seems as though they will be far cheaper per pound”:

That question has been the hot topic for the last two years or so. Congress keeps pushing SLS so until there is something flying that is obviously better value, SLS will keep going. It’s a jobs program that employs all the same people that Shuttle did. And NASA has a PR push about first woman on the moon for Artemis.

If taxpayers are concerned that the true cost will be more than the $1 billion/launch planned, would it make sense for Boeing to limit the shirt prices to $25? Also, if they’re going to spend $10+ billion on a new-ish rocket, shouldn’t they be able to come up with a more original name than “Space Launch System”?


  • in the early part of this century, NASA spent at least $9 billion on the Ares I and V rockets that proved to be a dead-en (NBC)
Full post, including comments

Every American welfare program eventually turns into welfare for rich white people?

“A Surprising Finding on Paid Leave: ‘This Is Not the Way We Teach This’” (nytimes):

One of the biggest arguments for paid leave for new parents has been an economic one: Research has repeatedly shown that women with paid time off after childbirth are more likely to keep working.

But a new study, the largest to be done in the United States, found the opposite. In California, which in 2004 became the first state to offer paid family leave, new mothers who took it that year ended up working less and earning less a decade later. They averaged $24,000 in cumulative lost wages, it found.

For first-time mothers, there was a clear negative effect. After 10 years, the new mothers who took paid leave right after they gave birth were 5 percent to 7 percent less likely to be employed, and those who were employed earned 5 percent to 8 percent less. The researchers said the earnings decreases could be because they worked fewer hours, moved to jobs with lower wages and more flexibility, or became self-employed.

These patterns held no matter the age or prior earnings of the mother, and were true for both unmarried and married mothers, though the decreases in employment were slightly larger for unmarried women

Not too surprising. Pay people to refrain from work and they discover how enjoyable it is to hang out at home!

Usually it takes a while for a welfare program to be co-opted by rich white Americans, but this one was immediately latched onto:

Despite the large sample, the effects were limited to women who took leave immediately after it became available. Only about a fifth of women who gave birth then did so, and that group might have been more inclined to step back from work in the first place.

A variety of research has found that this group was more likely to be older, high-earning, white and college educated than those who took leave after the program had been in effect for a while. Even later, awareness of the program was low, particularly among low earners — exactly the group that research has shown gets the most economic benefits from paid leave.


Full post, including comments

Tesla proves that it is easier to deal with government of China than government of Michigan

Annals of free markets #7231… “Tesla Model 3 floodgates open in China next week” (CNET):

Now, with local production in Shanghai, Tesla can skirt the ongoing US-China trade war. The occasion is also monumental for a different reason — Tesla’s Chinese factory is one of the first solely owned by a foreign automaker.

How are things back here in the Land of the Free (market)? Wikipedia shows that Tesla is restricted or banned from selling its products in 20 out of 50 states. It is banned from servicing its vehicles in 5 out of 50. “Our Tesla Model 3 Suffered a Catastrophic Failure While Parked” (Car and Driver):

… he received an ominous push notification from the Tesla app that the car had “suffered a failure and will no longer drive.” … it’s also an extraordinarily rare case of any car leaving us stranded, something unacceptable for any new vehicle, particularly one that costs $57,690 and with merely 5286 miles on the odometer. … even on Christmas Day, Tesla roadside assistance got a tow truck to us in about a half hour, which brought the car to the closest service center: Toledo, Ohio, because Tesla isn’t allowed to operate company-owned service centers in Michigan.

After a two-day wait, we were informed that there are issues with the rear drive unit, the pyrotechnic battery disconnect, and the 12-volt battery and that they are waiting for parts.

Separately, another recent Car and Driver article has a calculation by Mazda that its own modest-range electric car only emits less CO2 than a diesel-powered version after the car is driven at least 50,000 miles. It looks like a Tesla with a big battery would have to go 200,000+ miles before there was a net reduction in CO2 emissions compared to an efficient petroleum-powered car.

Full post, including comments

Hospital price lists are a good idea, but let’s wait until 2021?

“Hospitals Sue Trump to Keep Negotiated Prices Secret” (nytimes):

The nation’s hospital groups sued the Trump administration on Wednesday over a new federal rule that would require them to disclose the discounted prices they give insurers for all sorts of procedures.

The administration wanted the disclosure rule, which would go into effect in 2021, to allow patients to better shop for deals on a range of services, from M.R.I.s to hip replacements.

It is the 2021 part that fascinates me. There is enough time between now and 2021 for China to build an entire Manhattan worth of office and residential space within each of a few of their larger cities, to open another 2,000 miles of high-speed rail, to add some metro lines in their secondary cities, etc.

If hospitals have all of these prices in their computer systems (funded by tax dollars) and this is a good idea, why wouldn’t the regulation be for them to push them out onto their web sites within a few months?

Full post, including comments

Cost of adding 1,000′ of runway

I thought that “Morgantown Municipal Airport set to expand runway with FAA funding” contained two extra zeroes:

The Federal Aviation Administration has given final approval for the extension of the Morgantown Airport runway.

Under the plan, the runway will stretch another 1,000 feet from the current 5,199 feet. Currently, the Morgantown Airport runway is one of the shortest in the state.

The project will cost $50 million and take up to 10 years to complete

Surely it would be $5 million and 1 year?

Then I found the city’s page on the project, which estimated a cost of $45 million.

Does a mountain have to be moved? The airnav page for the airport does not show anything like that. It is a bit tough to interpret the official project plan, and the associated nearly 2,000 pages of environmental assessment documents, but the area of work appears to be fairly flat:

Full post, including comments

Billionaire Raj: only a bigger government can address the inequality create by a big government

I’m listening to the Billionaire Raj on Audible. For those of us who live in a U.S.-centric bubble, there is a lot of interesting modern history regarding India’s most successful people and enterprises, including Mukesh Ambani who lives in a $2 billion house in Mumbai and was rich enough to spend $30 billion building a from-scratch mobile operator called Jio. Some of the success seems to come from rapid growth in an immature economy, which therefore offers niches that don’t exist in Germany, Japan, or the U.S. (what start-up could realistically compete with Verizon, for example?). The author attributes most of the success, however, to cronyism. Current Indian billionaires were those who got early licenses and permits from paid-off friends in politics and government. Maybe they don’t need to bother with bribes now because they have huge market share and momentum.

The author, James Crabtree, makes righteous-sounding statements about the dramatic income and wealth inequality that prevails in India today. Implicit in his decrying of the current situation is that the Indian government needs to grow in size and capacity until money can be taken away from the undeserving billionaires and distributed to the worthy poor. He draws dozens of comparisons between India’s current crop of billionaires and the robber barons that grew rich in the late 19th century United States.

The book itself contradicts this comparison. Crabtree paints India pre-1990 as having a centrally planned economy with at least as many restrictions as the Soviet Union. Nobody could buy or sell anything without approval from a government bureaucrat. Nobody could get on a plane and leave the country without government permission. The Indian government, even in its stripped-down post-1990 form, is vastly larger and more powerful than the U.S. government was in the 1800s.

There are some good sections on the infrastructure of corruption. Most people don’t know how to bribe government officials and wouldn’t want to learn how. Thus, a corrupt society encourages the development of a layer of middlemen agents who obtain the required permits from government officials. If they’re paying bribes, the customer of the agent never need know.

Ever wonder why the folks calling with credit card refinancing scams all have Indian accents? There are plenty of people worldwide who speak English and quite a few are willing to work at low wages. Crabtree makes the case that India has the world’s richest and deepest tradition of corruption.

The author studied government and public policy and his proposal for India is essentially that government be “reformed” so that bribery and inefficiency are eliminated in favor of enlightened technocracy. Once that is done, presumably, then an Elizabeth Warren-style sanding down of the billionaires will take place to address the scourge of inequality.

Yet it is unclear how this glorious reform is to be achieved. The author describes Indian politics as driven by castes competing for victimhood status and parties promising to dole out government jobs and other government-controlled resources to victim castes. All party activities are fueled by cash from successful businesses and business owners. (Corrupt politicians are punished, however; after 18 years of prosecution and procedure, J. Jayalalithaa was sentenced to 4 years in prison (she served one month before returning to office).)

Ultimately the book is unconvincing regarding the source of wealth of current Indian billionaires. The book describes some of them going bust after making investments that were a bit too daring. The book describes Ambani being unable to get the government to approve helicopter operations off the roof of his $2 billion house. If he’s a government crony, why can’t he get his helipad? GE was able to get their cronies in the City of Boston to approve a helipad in South Boston that nobody else had been able to get (a condition of GE moving its HQ to Massachusetts). Certainly it seems that the Indian billionaires gambled big and won big as the economy continued to grow. And probably they faced a less competitive environment than in some countries with smaller governments and markets closer to the Econ 101 ideal.

Despite the logical contradictions and absurd dreams of hyper-efficient and hyper-honest government in a country that has a multi-century tradition of the opposite, the Billionaire Raj is useful for shaking the American reader out of the notion that the U.S. and China are the only places where big business happens.

Full post, including comments