Monday, February 28, 2011

On the Perfect being the Enemy of the Good Enough

Here in Florida our illustrious governor Rick Scott has decided to veto a high speed rail project on the grounds that, to use his words, it's a "boondoggle" - that is, a huge amount of money on something not that useful. Whether it is or isn't is open to question, but it, and the Democrat's health care reforms, leave me with some thoughts that I'd like to share. Both revolve around that infamous cliche "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough."

In the HSR proposal, a high speed line to link downtown Tampa with downtown Orlando, the issue is that the cliche was never used. The project will cost around two billion dollars, to make a railway line less than a hundred miles long. Meanwhile, a proposal to upgrade the FEC, a line that links downtowns across the entire East Coast of Florida - including large cities like Miami and Jacksonville, and including tourist meccas like Cape Canaveral, Daytona, and St Augustine, so it can run four passenger trains a day, has languished. Cost? Estimated at around $250M. The differences, I suppose, are that the FEC already exists, and that they're not proposing a high speed link.

Could the cost of the Orlando to Tampa link be reduced? Unquestionably yes - there already are passenger trains running between the cities. The problem isn't that they're not fast enough (they're not fast, but that's not the problem), the problem is that there are not enough of them - there's one a day in either direction, run by Amtrak as part of a longer distance operation. The line, owned by CSX, may need upgrades to improve capacity, but the major issue is that someone needs to run a train between the two locations that isn't the Amtrak one, which means buying rolling stock, and negotiating with CSX. Would it be superfast? Probably not, but it would be more comfortable and less hassle than driving, and it certainly wouldn't cost $2B.

But that's not what Florida's been sold on. It's been sold on "Spend billions on a high speed link, rather than spend a few hundred million on upgrading what you have so it can run useful trains". And because it's billions being spent on a very limited utility, rather than hundreds of millions on something everyone in Florida will see, it's attracted negative scrutiny. Oh, I don't doubt that our honorable governor is acting in response to the usual anti-rail forces, but even objectively, the decision to make the proposal a $2B high speed rail link between two cities looks ridiculous. The decision to try to go for perfect has been the enemy of good enough, because now we're likely to get neither.

The healthcare bill comes from the other direction. There is a solution to America's issues with healthcare - and make no mistake, those issues are real. Employer provided healthcare creates a complicated, expensive, system that is absurdly bureaucratic, frequently unfair, and leaves swathes of the country uninsured - a situation where an expensive but necessary procedure can leave an individual with massive financial problems that affect everyone. Spiralling costs have caused immense headaches for large and small businesses alike, with much of the problems in Detroit being partly the result of this.

Early on in the process, the politicians decided they weren't actually going to do anything about most of that. No, seriously. The concern was that there are an awful lot of uninsured people, and that the bureaucracy and obscure rules can leave insured people without health coverage anyway (such as in the case of pre-existing conditions.) To that end, a crippled bill was offered that kept everything in place as is, but helped small businesses and individuals benefit from collective bargaining with insurers (the exchanges), provided subsidies for insurance for those with the lowest incomes, and which reduced the number of loopholes, such as pre-existing conditions, used to deny insurance but, controversially, made this viable by requiring everyone sign up for insurance.

Whatever else you might say about the bill, it wasn't perfect. But there were also major issues with it in terms of the dynamic it set up - if insurance was mandated and the government would pay for tens of millions of policies regardless of cost, what would prevent insurers from hiking their prices beyond anything reasonable? Wouldn't it be in their best interests to do so?

To deal with that possibility, the proposal created a "Public Option", a government owned insurance company that would behave like all other insurance companies - it'd be required to make a profit, for example - but with the difference that it'd be publicly accountable. Even if all the other insurance companies decided to focus on making the largest profits, the PO would be there as an honest broker, competing with the insurers that were overcharging. The Public Option fixed the dynamic, and with that part in place, the bill could be described as "good enough" in that it was workable and solved some specific problems without creating major new ones.

But it was not to be. That part was stripped out due to paranoia about government takeovers of healthcare, and nothing substantial was put in its place. The "good enough" proposal became non-viable. But it passed anyway - and its defenders promptly turned on those who argued it couldn't work, protesting that the critics were "making the perfect the enemy of the good." I know this, as I was one of the people criticised when I discussed it in forums, etc. People making this argument, bizarrely, thought that the bill with a Public Option was perfect, and were unable to see why the Public Option was there, and that the criticism wasn't that the bill was somehow non-perfect, but that it wasn't going to work.

To use a bad analogy, because everyone likes a bad analogy, it's as if a ravine needed a suspension bridge, but the powers that be had decided that only a rope bridge would win popular support - and then before building the rope bridge, they'd decided to build it without any rope, expecting the wooden slats that make up the floor of the bridge to just hang there in mid air. And then, when the engineers had said "No, this really needs rope", the supporters of the ropeless bridge were complaining that the engineers were making the perfect the enemy of the good enough.

Perfect is the enemy of the good enough - on some occasions. But the same phrase can be used to justify an obsession with compromising that goes far and beyond stripping something down to "good enough". The trick is knowing what the goal is, and making sure the proposal, regardless of what it is and how no-frills it is, gets there or not. The lethal combination of lofty goals by rail supporters in Florida, and austerity minded government, means that passenger rail in Florida is going to continue to be out of reach for quite a while, despite population shifts that have started to make the concept potentially profitable. And an over willingness to compromise on the core principle that something should work if you're going to do it, seems to have made a mess of health care reform in the US.

Make it as good as you can get away with, but always make it work.

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