Sunday, September 8, 2019

Privatization and the Weather

Like many Trumpian flaps, the recent Alabama hurricane flap du jour directed our attention to things we probably should have already been paying attention to-- in this case, the drive to privatize the US Weather Service.

Barry Myers was the top lawyer for Accuweather, the weather service founded by his brother Joel. This article from Bloomberg Businessweek chronicles the thirty or so years that Myers spent fighting with the National Weather Service. He had a variety of complaints, not the least of which was that while Accuweather was charging clients to get weather reports, NWS was giving away that stuff for free.

It's going to be a bad day for somebody.
There are two things wrong with that argument. One is that one of the people that the NWS gives it away free to is-- Accuweather. NWS has 120 Doppler Radar positions around the country, plus the computer power to process all that information that comes in, and they do, in fact, give it away. Even if your local tv station has its own Super Eye On The Weather Sky Place weather product, chances are good that it depends on NWS data. At one point in his years of kvetching, Myers argued that it was like the US Postal Service vs. FedEx, only with the USPS delivering for free. While his analogy is a bit off, it's self-defeating in one respect-- when FedEx doesn't want to deliver your package to some remote address, it hands the package off to the USPS. Their entire business model depends on using the federally funded service to fill in the less profitable holes, because their business is built on only serving the profitable customers. Not unlike the basic business model for a charter or voucher system.

The other problem is that the NWS stuff is not free. Yes, they don't charge the users of the information, but we taxpayers have already paid for the whole operation. That is our information-- to collect it and then charge us for it again would be like, well, those times when taxpayers pay for a school building twice (once to build it and once to finance a charter buying it) and still don't own it.

If you clicked through to the article, you already know the other parallel here to education-- Myers was the Trump nominee to head up NOAA (the agency under which NWS falls) in fall of 2017. That has not gone particularly well; in the meantime, the agency is just one more that is operating without a permanent chief. They come under the purview of Wilbur Ross, another swamp dweller.

Oh, and fun trivia. Rick Santorum once tried to float a bill to force the NWS to charge for their stuff, thereby helping Accuweather compete.

So the plan was (or still is-- who knows) to have the government agency that provides an important service for all citizens headed by somebody whose allegiance is with private businesses that want to compete with the taxpayer-funded agency that provides essentially the identical service. Barry Myers, meet Betsy DeVos.

Is there anything new to learn from this? Well, Myers is still not head of the NOAA because some senators actually took a stand. So I guess that could hypothetically work, sometimes. And the silencing and attempted discrediting of actual experts seems familiar. I guess the only other lesson here for public education advocates is that it's not just us-- if the government does it, and taxpayers pay for it, somebody would like to make a buck offering a private alternative, and they would like to kneecap the government in order to do it. It's not just education.

1 comment:

  1. The Barry Myers/Accuweather scam was one of the chapters in Michael Lewis's 'The Fifth Risk,' one of the best books I've read on the whole catastrophic Trump situation. Lewis interviews folks who've worked for the government for decades, leading some of the most important and critical programs that most people know nothing about. There's a chapter on school lunches, for example. These lifelong bureaucrats are non-partisan (seriously non-partisan--it's part of the job) and proud of the vital links they've been in building a better nation. There's a chapter on nuclear warheads that will make you nauseous.

    For all of us who have been thinking that, so far, we've dodged bullets and things haven't gone completely to pieces, Lewis's ultimate point is: don't be so sure. A lot of the damage is underground and not yet visible.

    A relatively short and easy read. Highly recommended.