Bryson's America: Inefficiency rules. The proof is in the pizza

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The Independent Culture
THE OTHER day something in a local newspaper caught my eye. It was an article reporting that the control tower and related facilities at our local airport are to be privatised. The airport loses money, so the Federal Aviation Administration is trying to cut costs by contracting out landing services to someone who can do it more cheaply. What caught my attention was a sentence deep in the article which said: "A spokeswoman with the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office in New York City, Arlene Sarlac, could not provide the name of the company that will be taking over the tower."

Well, that's really reassuring to hear. Now maybe I am hyper-touchy because I use the airport from time to time, and have a particular interest in its ability to bring planes down in an approximately normal fashion, so I would rather like to know that the tower hasn't been bought by, say, the New England Roller Towel Company or Crash Services (Panama) Ltd, and that the next time I come in to land the plane won't be guided in by some guy on a stepladder waving a broom. I would hope, at the very least, that the Federal Aviation Administration would have some idea of whom they were selling the tower to. Call me particular, but it seems to me that that's the sort of thing you ought to have on file somewhere.

The FAA, it must be said, is not the most efficient of enterprises. A recent government report noted that the agency had been plagued for years by power failures, malfunctioning and antiquated equipment, overworked and overstressed staff, inadequate training programmes, and mismanagement owing to a fragmented chain of command. With regard to equipment standards, the report found that "21 separate offices issued 71 orders, seven standards and 29 specifications". The upshot was that the FAA didn't have any idea what equipment it owned, how it was being maintained, or even whose turn it was to make the coffee.

According to the Los Angeles Times: "At least three airliner accidents may have been prevented had the FAA not fallen behind schedule in planned modernisation of air traffic control equipment."

I mention this because our subject this week is large-scale incompetence. Despite my best efforts, there abounds a terrible myth, which I should like to lay to rest once and for all, that America is an efficient place. It is anything but.

Partly this is because it is a big country. Big countries spawn big bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies spawn lots of departments and each of those departments issues lots of rules and regulations.

An inevitable consequence is that with so many departments the left hand not only doesn't know what the right hand is doing, but doesn't seem to know that there is a right hand. This is interestingly illustrated by frozen pizzas.

In the United States, frozen cheese pizza is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Frozen pepperoni pizza, on the other hand, is regulated by the Department of Agriculture. Each sets its own standards with regard to content, labelling and so on, has its own team of inspectors, and its own set of regulations which require licenses, compliance certificates and all kinds of other costly paperwork. And that's just for frozen pizza. This kind of madness would not be possible in a small country like Britain. You need the European Union for that.

Altogether, it has been estimated, the cost to the nation of complying with the full whack of federal regulations is $668 billion a year, an average of $7,000 per household. That's a lot of compliance.

What gives American inefficiency its particular tang, however, is a peculiar insane cheapness. There is a kind of short-termism here that is simply mystifying. Consider an experience of the Internal Revenue Service, our equivalent of the Inland Revenue.

Every year in the United States an estimated $100 billion in taxes - a positively whopping sum, enough to wipe out the federal deficit at a stroke - goes unreported and uncollected. In 1995, as an experiment, the government gave the IRS $100 million of extra funding to go looking for some of this extra money. At the end of the year it had found and collected $800 million - only a fraction of the missing money, but still $8 of extra government revenue for every $1 of additional collection costs.

The IRS confidently predicted that if the programme were extended it would net the government at least $12 billion of missing tax revenues the following year, with more to come in succeeding years. Instead of expanding the programme, Congress chopped it as - wait for it - part of its federal deficit reduction programme. Do you begin to see what I mean?

Or take food inspection. All kinds of high-tech gizmos exist to test meat for microbial infestations like salmonella and E coli. But the government is too cheap to invest in these, so federal food inspectors continue to inspect meat visually, as it rolls past on assembly lines. Now you can imagine how attentively a low-paid federal food inspector is going to be looking at each of 18,000 identical plucked chickens sliding past him on a conveyor belt every day of his working life. Call me a cynic, but I very much doubt that after a dozen years or so of this an inspector is likely to be thinking: "Hey, here come some more chickens. These might be interesting." In any case and here's a point that you would think might have occurred to somebody by now - micro-organisms are invisible.

As a result, by the government's own admission, as much as 20 per cent of all chicken and 49 per cent of turkey is contaminated. What all this costs in illness is anybody's guess, but it is thought that as many as 80 million people may get sick each year from factory-contaminated food, costing the economy somewhere between $5 billion and $10 billion in additional healthcare costs, lost productivity and so on. Every year 9,000 people die of food poisoning in the United States.

All of which brings us back to the good old Federal Aviation Administration. (Actually it doesn't, but I had to get here somehow.) The FAA may or may not be the most inefficient bureaucracy in the United States, but it is indubitably the only one that has my life in its hands when I am 32,000 feet above the earth, so you may imagine my disquiet at learning that it is handing over our control tower to some people whose names it can't remember.

According to our newspaper, the handover will be complete by the end of the month. Three days after that, I am irrevocably committed to flying to Washington from that airport. I mention this merely in case you find a blank space here in a couple of weeks.

But it probably won't come to that. I just asked my wife what we are having for dinner. Turkey burgers she said.

`Notes from a Big Country', published by Doubleday, pounds 16.99