How government works

I grew up in San Francisco, and always found the intersection at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard frustrating and nerve wracking. Sloat runs east/west and 19th Avenue runs north/south. If you’re heading south on 19th Avenue, and want to make a left turn onto Sloat (heading east), there is a left turn signal. However, if you’re heading east on Sloat and would like to make a left turn onto 19th Avenue (north), there is no left turn signal. Instead the far left lane is a left turn only lane, with the second left lane being a lane that allows drivers to go straight ahead or turn left.

During peak traffic periods, when a green light hits, people in the far left lane creep out into the intersection and sit there waiting for an opportunity to make that left turn. Often, when the light changes, they find themselves trapped in the intersection, with traffic on 19th Avenue heading their way from both directions, always an unnerving experience.

If you’re in the second to left lane, the situation is even worse, because drivers who had no intention of turning left find themselves trapped in that lane behind the left turners. They get impatient, and start pushing in dangerous directions. They, too, find themselves trapped in the intersection when the light changes but, instead of turning into the north/south flow of 19th Avenue, they’re still trying to head east, against the flow.

Just to add to the chaos, students from several nearby high schools traverse the intersection (as I did in my day), and things get even worse on summer weekends because of the popular open air concerts held at Stern Grove, which fronts on the intersection. The statistics for the intersection are amazing:

With its 7.5-mile length, 85,000 daily vehicles, and 80,000 daily pedestrians, 19th Avenue is one of the busiest — and most dangerous — corridors in The City, connecting Interstate 280 and highway 1 to the Golden Gate Bridge. At least three deaths have occurred along the state highway, which is under the jurisdiction of Caltrans and not the city of San Francisco.

There were seven injury collisions in 2006 and six in 2005 at 19th and Sloat.  (Emphasis mine.)

Sadly, just last month, a 21 year old woman joined the list of fatalities at that intersection (and four other people were injured).   It therefore didn’t surprise me today to read that Caltrans is finally going to do something to make the intersection safer — it’s going to put a left turn signal on Sloat Boulevard for east bound traffic that wants to turn left (north) onto 19th Avenue:

A new traffic signal, to be installed today at the intersection, will allow drivers eastbound on Sloat to make a left onto 19th without the threat of a collision from incoming cars on westbound Sloat.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the shocking part of the story:

According to Municipal Transportation Agency spokeswoman Maggie Lynch, the agency’s engineers have been seeking approval for the installation for seven years.  (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, because of bureaucratic inertia, several people have been injured and one woman has died at a manifestly dangerous intersection — and one that routinely contributes to major traffic jams on that well-traveled 19th Avenue.  No matter how you slice it, bureaucracies are inherently inefficient institutions.  This type of story is one of the main reasons I’ve moved away from being a liberal.  Their faith in government means that every single policy they support requires creating ever more bureaucracies.  I recognize the necessity of these institutions when it comes to traditional government functions such as transportation or defense, but I shudder to think of expanding them into more and more corners of our daily life.  (Think:  managed care.)


Using a regulatory howitzer to kill a fly — and destroying freedom in the process

Don Quixote will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the core things about being a libertarian is that you don’t try to control people’s conduct, but you do step in if they break certain clearly stated rules. Indeed, you don’t need to be a libertarian to have that view. As a capitalist, I don’t want the government controlling the marketplace. I just want it to step in and stop cheats. Heck, forget capitalism. Let’s look at the Bible. I doubt many have missed the fact that, subject to a couple of exceptions (identifying the Lord as your Lord, and requiring believers to honor their parents), the Ten Commandments prohibit several categories of immoral acts, but otherwise give people the great gift of free will when it comes to navigating the moral universe.

That’s the sublime. Here comes the ridiculous. To crack down on illegal recruiting in high school athletics, California has imposed a blanket ban holding that kids who transfer from one school to another are barred for a year from participating in competitive sports:

Morgan Farrer knew she wanted to leave Marin Catholic High School last spring. She says all her friends attend Terra Linda High School and she made the decision to transfer, no matter the consequence.

This summer, Farrer learned what it cost her: no interscholastic athletics for one full school year.

“I wanted to play (softball) there,” Farrer said of Terra Linda. “All my friends are on the team, and they want me to play with them, too.”

Farrer, a junior, is among the casualties of tough new regulations for athletic eligibility of transfer students. The new rules, instituted for every high school in the state by the California Interscholastic Federation, make it harder for high school transfer students to retain varsity eligibility at their new schools.

The federation is attempting to curb transfers in which students move to new schools purely for athletic purposes or because of illegal recruitment from coaches. The federation has jurisdiction only over athletics and no other extracurricular activities – which is why a student would not be punished for transferring to a better art department or theater program, but they would lose a year of athletic eligibility even if the transfer is not athletics-related.

The changes come on the heels of a number of violations by members of the Marin County Athletic League. In May, the Redwood High boys lacrosse team was stripped of its league championship and forced to forfeit all its wins for using two ineligible transfer students. Earlier in the spring, the Tam High boys tennis team forfeited the individual matches of an ineligible player who transferred in.

This is the same insanity that plays out in the zero tolerance world that most recently saw a boy suspended from school for drawing what was either a science fiction style weapon or a wacky house.

These kinds of legislative activities, especially when they concern children, could not be better examples of the dangers of government micro management, the type of management that, in the laziest way possible, eases policing duties for government employees. After all, it’s easier just to bar everyone from an activity than to pay attention to whether the activity is being carried out honestly. Worse, this bureaucratic management approach assumes that all employees are too stupid to make judgment calls, and that all students (and employees) are potential cheats.

This post gives me the opportunity to flog a book written more than a decade ago, but one that is as clearly relevant today as it was when written. It’s called The Death of Common Sense : How Law is Suffocating America and its author, Philip K. Howard, fills its pages with examples of rules, regulations and legislation that regularly aim punitive, mind-numbing sanctions at ordinary citizens, and that stifle innovation. Buy it or get it from the library. You’ll find it opens your eyes tro the world around you.

The post also gives me the opportunity to answer publicly a question that DQ asked me privately: How could I tolerate or find even slightly believable the Dolores Umbridge character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? My reply was three tiered, with the last tier tying into this post’s subject. First, I’ve actually known people like Umbridge, who are sugary sweet in their presentation and utterly evil and amoral in their acts. Second, I think Umbridge is the extreme representation of girls generally, since girls are often quite mean but cover it with pinky sweetness.

Third — and here’s the tie-in to this post — I think Umbridge is not merely meant to be a character. I think she is a symbol of the type of overreaching bureaucracy that, by paying lip service to the public good, stifles initiative, imagination, free speech, ordinary morality, and individual judgment. And if you think I’m finding symbolism where there is none, keep in mind that J.K. Rowling is a citizen of Europe, where the “beneficent” EU keeps legislating freedom away, one petty regulation after another.