Saturday, December 2, 2017

Deconstructing the Department of Motor Vehicles

As I stand in line waiting for the DMV to open, I wonder how the experience could be improved. Online services have helped tremendously, reducing workload for "Patty and Selma" behind the desk.  Permits have to be renewed in person less frequently than in the past. But sometimes you still have to go to the DMV, MVA, or whatever it's called in your state.

How about privatizing? No, this is not a libertarian antigovernment screed; I'm referring to the customer-facing services. The government definitely has a role in ensuring safety of vehicles and their operators on public roads. But going to the DMV still stings.

The driver's license or ID card is an important document that allows people onto airplanes and into other secure facilities. How could you trust a private firm to issue IDs? On behalf of the federal government,  private Acceptance Agents check identity documents for the IRS, notaries give a seal of witness to legal documents, and contractors perform security screening in lieu of the TSA in places like San Francisco, and at a number of small airports. Ditto the rationale for registering car titles and license plates.

And would shady companies look the other way on tests? Computer based testing, typically arranged by the firms Prometric and Pearson Vue, is used for knowledge tests in issuing certificates and licenses to skilled tradesmen and professionals. No clerk can nudge you up to a passing grade. A simulator would objectively evaluate driving skills versus a subjectively-graded road test. However, a simulator seems to be a disservice to 16-year olds when this 20-minute test allows for a lifetime of driving. So, okay, you'd go to the DMV for that road test.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

San Juan Report

For the past two weeks, I've been on the ground in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although I earlier reported the resumption of normal life after Hurricane Maria, what I saw from the bow of the hospital ship was superficial. Beyond the Marina street, electricity is not in service in the old city. A number of shops are open and running on diesel generators. Grocery stores are selling dry goods which do not require refrigeration. Essentials like eggs and milk can be procured at certain restaurants running on generators. It is impossible to find fresh meat in affected areas of the harbor, although stores near downtown have had electricity restored.For eligible patrons, the PX and Commissary at Fort Buchanan, both well-stocked, were doing brisk business. Gasoline is available, and rush hour traffic jams give a sense of normalcy. However, many traffic lights remain down, and major intersections are being marshaled by police. Light rail service is not available, but a cabbie was optimistic of an upcoming reopening. Much work remains in restoring public infrastructure, which will at long last allow more citizens to resume daily life and get the essential tourism industry back on track.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hugh Hefner's Ghost

They say Hugh Hefner never dies. But it happened this month. His controversial magazine, Playboy, included nude women, beautiful bachelor pads, and social commentary. The Playboy bunny became an American icon. The controversy, of course, was whether Playboy glorified the body ( a la Renaissance ) or objectified women. "Liberated women" could take the former view, but pantsuit feminists took the latter opinion, and posters, calendarsa and magazines were removed from white and blue collar workplaces alike.

Context mattered, and Playboy sold itself as a classy publication. If Playboy was a high-minded ideal, 25-cent peep shows were the crude, ugly bastardization of the beautiful body. Times Square, New York, was the epoch of sleaze, and Mayor Giuliani's cleaning up the city meant shutting down those venues. The twinning of public sexuality and mid century urban physical decay must've made sense in the mind of the Moral Majority. In Hugh Hefner's final year, Playboy removed the nudity to appeal to a wider audience. It is a paradox how in some ways, America has become more sexually liberated, like greater acceptance of LGBTs;  but has become constrained, such as the undergrounding of nudity to the internet, and the rise of MGTOW online forums fomenting resentment for the other gender.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Farewell, USS Ponce

When the USS Ponce was commissioned in the early 1970's, you could guess some of the sailors had somewhere else to be. Given that it was the Vietnam era, there was a draft. No women on combat ships then, as this was an LPD amphibious ship. Skip forward to 2012, and the USS Ponce got a second life. Saved from decommissioning, she has spent the better of five years in the Persian Gulf, testing new theories of littoral action in a Navy once accustomed to deep sea operations. Of note is furing these past five years, she carried a civilian operating crew. As the last ship of that class, the Navy sailors who knew its engines were in bigger positions on other ships or shoreside. The civilian engineers put a bit of sweat equity to get the ship mission ready again. She has served a good five years with a hybrid crew, and is now being commissioned after 46 years of service. For this last tour of duty, all engineers were volunteers on one of the last steam vessels crewed by Navy civilians.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

City on Fire, 1977

While flipping through property records of Norfolk, Virginia’s most desirable neighborhood, I discovered that a Dubai investment firm had purchased, at full price, a fixer-upper in this small city at the eastern end of flyover country. 

When a Dubai investor puts money into the future of a fairly provincial shipbuilding town with few international flights, it makes me wonder if the globalists have used up all the potential of New York, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles. Not too far from their favorite depositories for wealth are cities down on their luck- Johnstown, PA; East Baltimore, MD.  Several million dollars, less than the cost of a New York apartment, would transform these places, but to no avail. 

Subway and streetcar neighborhoods of 1950’s urban white America, can be seen in the films “Brooklyn” (2016) and “Avalon” (1991). At the same time of parish-centric neighborhoods, there were suburban ambitions. Part of this was practical: urban neighborhoods were overcrowded at the end of WWII. Depopulation of white ethnic neighborhoods continued with the Civil Rights Movement.
Further hurting the cities were job creators following their employees to the suburbs. Government programs created in the 1960’s became politically impossible to defund. By 1975, New York City was bankrupt. President Gerald Ford, a favorite of suburbanites, told the city government to “drop dead”.  This brought 1980’s footage of abandoned houses and vacant lots which younger generations can watch on Youtube. Dating from this era, I came across a book in the aptly-named “Urban Literature” section of DC library, titled “Young Landlords”, and read stories of college- educated squatters on the Lower East Side.

Those dark days are two decades past, so nostalgia for wild days, individuality, and a “blank slate” takes hold. The South Bronx is not wrapped in hypergentrification seen in rezoned industrial districts of lower Manhattan, or of that in Harlem. Although many of the same underlying social problems remain, the physical environment is improved, with new affordable housing and parks. How did this happen, without the unstoppable displacing force of gentrification?
“During the past three decades, this extraordinary partnership between state and local governments, for-profit and nonprofit builders, and private investors and lenders has resulted in the construction and rehabilitation of more than 2.9 million rental homes for the most vulnerable members of our society”.

(Granger MacDonald, Chairman, National Association of Home Builders; letter in Wall Street Journal).