Thursday, August 20, 2015

Great Scott!

Boston (and many parts of the country) are experiencing a heat wave. It’s August so it’s not all that surprising. It’s top of the news here because the weather service has determined that three consecutive days of 90-degree plus weather meet the criteria. Fortunately the Weather Channel has yet to name it, but it's still happening. Winter seems so far off. It was a few weeks ago (in July) that the snow pile from the record breaking winter fully melted. We’re another six weeks away from leaves falling and the nip returning to the air. But on July 30th President Obama did something that chilled Bostonians and should scare all Americans: he nominated Beverly Scott to the National Transportation Board.

Beverly Scott used to run the MBTA. She ran it into the ground. Yes, Boston had a terrible winter. A records setting winter in fact. Equipment failed, and it would have failed under any leader. The equipment is decades old. The failure of the primary transportation infrastructure costs millions in lost business, months of frustration and probably more than anything else killed the Olympic bid for the 2024 Games. 

At the time Beverly Scott took to the airwaves in a live Press Conference that has been described as “passionate,” “babbling,” “barnburner” and “bizarre.” Memorable phrases such as “Lord Jesus” as an answer to a rhetorical question stuck with many people as well as her self description: “this wasn’t this woman’s first rodeo.”

At the time there was considerable criticism of Scott and the MBTA. Many of my progressive friends took to social media to reinforce Scott’s narrative: the equipment at the T is ancient, it’s a record amount of snowfall and nobody could do better. There was also the insinuation and actual accusations that the negative comments about Beverly Scott were because she is an African American woman – so both a race and gender bias had to be part of the equation. 

My blog at the time looked at the issue differently. I went through many MBTA budgets and showed how the service actually had increased revenue and increased services in a disproportionate way to population and usage. I researched and found that the MBTA had expanded services and capital programs at the expense of day to day operations. In fact, the service didn't even had a list of what equipment needed to be maintained or repaired. So the Federal Government granted $1 million to them to hire staff and put the information into a computer system. 4 years later the money was spent but the work wasn't done. It was true, but not very sexy.

Governor Baker’s panel came out with a report in April 2015 which validated the thesis: the T doesn’t have a budget problem on the revenue side, it has it on the spending side. Practices such as paying regular staff positions through capital funds was cited as an irregularity. The panel also found the T had been expanding too quickly and not using its considerable resources to maintain their equipment. Management was cited as the cause.

The independent panel of transportation experts determined that most of the problems during the storms were not related to equipment failures but rather a failure to have personnel to maintain, repair and operate them. It wasn’t due to a lack of staffing (which increased dramatically during Ms. Scott’s tenure). During the worst of the snow there was an absentee level of nearly 53% while other snowstorms have had a 19% rate. That far exceeds the 4 to 5% cited in the report as industry standard.

Ms. Scott came to Boston with a tarnished record. Shortly after being appointed to the position in Boston – but before she actually started – it was discovered that she was leaving a track record of problems in Atlanta. The Boston Globe reported in November 2012 that the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to get Scott to do the job she was hired to do. Governor Deval Patrick dismissed the report and pushed through the nomination.

Scott started at the MBTA and reports show she spent nearly one week a month out of state at conferences, running up tabs in the six-figures. There’s nothing wrong with professional networking and training – but she clearly didn’t apply any of the basics to snow management to the system she was running that were covered at those conferences. (Newspapers have gone back and looked at the agendas of those conferences and found that those subjects were covered.)

Scott resigned shortly after her public relations fiasco – and stuck the taxpayers with a $50,000 tab for a consultants report she ordered one week after the Governor established his independent panel to do its review. (The Scott consultant report was largely copies of web pages with statistics from

The issues around Beverly Scott are that she’s incompetent. She was when she was hired based on the failures in Atlanta and she demonstrated it during her tenure in Boston. That’s true whether she’s an African American or not, and whether she’s a woman or a man. Sorry to say to my progressive friends: a bad job is a bad job.

The expression “Great Scott” is now dated. Wikipedia says: “it is an interjection of surprise, amazement, or dismay.” It’s not an adjective describing a highly competent leader. It’s the nicest phrase I could think of when I saw President Obama was rewarding failure with a highly coveted position on the National Transportation Safety Board. The National Transportation Safety Board is the governing agency that looks into mistakes and accidents in transportation. Given that Beverly Scott has overseen so many herself, perhaps she is actually the right candidate?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sharing the work

I’m pretty good at sharing. As kids we’re all taught to share but that doesn’t always translate to adulthood. Thanks to technology the sharing economy is one of the greatest growth areas in the economy. I think that Uber is one of the best inventions ever. Uber (and Lyft) allows people to request and drivers to provide rides via its smart phone application. It has disrupted the traditional taxi and limousine services, causing protests, a slew of legislation and the company has a nearly $50 billion valuation. For me it’s an absolute life saver living in a city like Boston where people who don’t live here rave about how easy it is to walk around.

In my recent travels the difference between traditional taxi services and Uber is stark. Arriving in Los Angeles and getting myself from the airport into downtown as a default I opened Uber and requested a car via the least expensive service – Uber X. No cars available because the City Council of Los Angeles has banned the ride sharing service at the Uber X level. So I went to the taxi stand and waited 15 minutes for a taxi to come. $70 dollars. On my next trip I opted to request an Uber at a more expensive level. 5 minutes later the driver arrived, $60 dollars and he had a bottle of water for me in his leather apportioned high end vehicle. On my way back to the airport using the Uber X service the cost was $25 and it was less than a 3 minute wait to be picked up.

In the college town of Cambridge which has a dearth of parking spaces and getting around from point a to point b is a particular challenge, Uber is banned from picking up passengers, though you can be dropped off. On August 4 cabbies went on strike in the city to protest services like Uber and Lyft. There are a number of issues around the strike – inconsistent regulations and concerns about background checks and safety are the most visible and passionate. They’re also the most legitimate. The answer is applying the same rules across the board – and the sharing economy is a great opportunity to minimize the regulatory process.

A more fundamental objection to the services by the taxi’s is economic. Medallions are issued by cities giving taxi’s the right to pick up and drop off customers. There’s a limited number so there’s an inherent value of supply and demand. In cities like New York and Boston medallions can be passed down generation to generation and many drivers count on the value of the license for their retirement. Services like Uber and Lyft have disrupted that – to the point that medallions have lost a significant part of their value.  In New York a medallion that went for $1 million is now worth half of that, and in Boston not one medallion has changed hands in 2015, indicating a crater in valuation.

The Democrats have seized upon the rift as a political issue. Candidate Hillary Clinton outlined her economic policy last month characterizing  “the on-demand economy as committing wage theft.” Companies like Uber and Lyft classify their drivers as freelancers – not as employees, saving on payroll taxes and a range of other costs. The drivers choose when to work, where to drive, how long to drive, etc. California’s Labor Commission ruled recently that Uber drivers are actually employees since the company controls the workers ability to earn a living, determines their skill set and appropriateness for the job, etc. It’s a determination that could upend the economic model of not just Uber, but the entire shared economy.

James Surowiecki in The New Yorker makes an excellent point: “The real problem here is that Uber drivers don’t quite fit into either of the traditional categories. Declaring them independent contractors or employees means forcing a square peg into one of two round holes. We’d do better to create a third legal category of workers, who would be subject to certain regulations, and whose employers would be responsible for some costs but not others.”

The shared economy is a hybrid  at its core – it takes the public’s demand for a service (room for rent, car ride, repair , etc.) and matches it with an individual who’s willing to provide the service outside of a significant corporate structure. Creating a hybrid work and compensation model that combines employee and independent contractor statuses and rules makes a lot of sense. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

License to Parent?

I parent my two dogs. I use that term carefully. When I lived in California the city of West Hollywood mandated the use of the terminology “Pet Guardian” rather than “Pet Owner.”  It was a way to make sure that people took care of the beings they were trusted with. Absurd and Orwellian as it is to have a government agency dictate language – and the temptation to mock and rant - the underlying point was and still is effective. Parenting is a job I’m in awe of. Not only from my own direct experience as a son, but as I watch my siblings and friends take on and nurture the life of another it’s clear there are unique skills required to be a parent.  Too bad so many people are ill equipped for the task.

I’ve been traveling a lot this summer – more than I have in many years. It’s been mostly by plane. (Nearly 40,000 miles!) I’ve been reminded that this season (along with the holidays) is when families travel. On a recent trip I had six toddlers and infants surrounding me in the rows behind and in front of me.  Junior opted to spend 5 of the 6 hours kicking my seat. His siblings screamed at the top of their lungs for 6 of the 6 hours, getting all the neighboring kids to chime in. Mama (probably in her early 20’s) was useless and Papa sat in an adjacent seat reading his text book, studying for something. Other passengers, flight attendants, etc.  all offered to help – to hold the kids, calm them, etc. All denied.

Society licenses nearly every activity that we participate in: hair stylists, food handlers, etc. so that there’s a minimum level of competency in getting the job done. In Massachusetts massage providers and manicurists must be licensed because it’s important to the state that its residents hair, nails and back be properly aligned. Want to be a parent? Have at it.

There was a moment in my life where my then partner and I were considering parenthood. Since the biology wasn’t in our favor we started looking into a variety of options – and attended a couple of Gayby classes on how to do so via adoption, surrogacy and other options. Today there’s a lot more options, including in most areas foster parenting. In all of these instances, however, there’s some level of screening. The consequences of having responsibility for another being’s life must actually be considered. That alone makes for good parenting – because the people are at some level choosing to be a parent.

Couples who are able to conceive sometimes don’t have the luxury of going through a deliberative process to determine their desire to become parents. Do they figure it out? Yes, most do. That’s life and that’s the way it should be. As a freedom loving, personal responsibility zealot – letting people figure it out is a core belief. As the witness/victim of bad parenting – I wonder why we don’t have a licensing process for parents. It’d never work and it’s a bad idea. Adding a governmental role to license parents is an anathema to me and I'm not proposing it. But when you’re in a metal tube with the decibel level reaching epic conditions even the strongest philosophy melts away.

In the meantime, maybe we can have some enterprising entrepreneur develop an adults-only airline?