Citizen nuggets and the food chain
Chickens occupy an uncomfortable place in the food chain. Skunks, weasels, humans and many other animals relish them as a meal.
Like chickens, individuals and families are at the bottom of a food chain. Organizations feed on citizens in different ways. Some draw their nutrients gently, as a Columbine does from the sun and soil. Other organizations are downright carnivorous.
Way back in 1911, sociologist Richard Michels wrote about the iron law of oligarchy. People need leaders of various kinds to make order from chaos, he thought.
Of course, leaders often advance the common good. Yet there is an undying temptation to advance themselves, usually by building ever bigger organizations.
How often do we question whether organizations are serving our interests as individuals? Not enough.
Here is an easy approach. All organizations can be ranked on a simple four-point scale that covers all of what matters to the organization: goal, cost, quality and choices offered.
Take a garden-variety business, say a grocery store. First, its goal is to make money distributing groceries and other household staples. Simple and clear.
Second; on costs we trust they are reasonable if there is stiff competition. Competition keeps profit margins thin. Usually.
Third, quality. An organization’s quality from a consumer perspective is subjective. Grocery stores are highly attuned to public preferences, so prices usually are clearly marked. Excepting sales tax, of course.
Risk is minimal because merchandise can easily be returned. Stores are open almost eternally. Service is usually abundant, pleasant and accommodating.
Finally, the choice of both the number of grocery stores and merchandise available within them is phenomenal. There are little stores, big stores, giant stores, health food stores, ethnic food stores, convenience stores. They litter the landscape like cowpies on a cattle drive.
Rate grocery stores yourself on a 1 to 5 scale on each of the four points: goal, cost, quality and choice. One is the least favorable and five is most.
Scores like 4, 4, 4 and 5 respectively are probably common. They average to a score of 4.25. If so, groceries are organizational flowers, not carnivores.
Now let’s do the same for our local subsidized bus systems: the Summit Stage, Eagle County’s ECO and RFTA.
As wholly owned ventures of the citizenry, their websites should prominently present clear, measurable goals. None of the three local systems do that.
Possible goals transit authorities might have are: congestion relief, safety, efficient transport, poverty reduction, to minimize environmental damage, ease parking and serve as designated driver for party people.
Missing or unclear goals might indicate confusion. For instance, a transit authority might strive to be “efficient.” To the authority that might mean running buses with 50 or 60 passengers each.
If those “efficient” buses extend each passenger’s travel time by 30-40 minutes, society has lost 25-40 hours that could have been spent raising kids, nurturing a marriage or generating income.
Second point: cost. On average, the three local bus systems spent $6 for every $1 they collected in fares in 2016. Yearly losses amounted to $900 per household in Summit County, $300 in Eagle County and $1,100 in RFTA’s colony.
Together they could pay the annual costs of running 6,500 Toyota Priuses according to Kelley’s Blue Book Five Year Cost of Ownership numbers. That’s a number to chew on.
Third point: quality. Buses reduce congestion in ski country’s most heavily trafficked places and times. They excel when moving people from skier parking to the lifts, and in the bustling downtowns of our focal tourist towns. Terrific.
Crowds are necessary to make legacy transit systems work. Conversely, they are complete losers on low-density routes. Is that a form of financial abuse? You decide.
With a little Uber-ization, public transit could tap into the river of empty car seats already going where people want to go. Public transit reborn as an app could be good enough that families voluntarily give up the second car. That would be a public sector victory.
Fourth is choice and democracy. Two parts apply here. Are people forced to pay? Yep. Are people forced to use buses? Nope.
Now it’s time to apply your own ranking to the bus systems. Rate goal, cost, quality, choice and democracy on a one to five scale. I figure zero, 1, 1, 1, respectively for a score of 0.75. Compare that to 4.50 for grocery stores. Your evaluation may be completely different – which is wonderful.
A low score puts local public transit in the same category with market-strangling software companies and Colorado’s cradle-robbing public sector retirement system.
Organizations should be the productive tools of society, not the predators. Most are both, though they might sit closer to one end of the scale than another.
The more we rank them, the better we know them. The better we know them, the less carnivorous they will be.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. He runs Citizens Due Diligence after hours. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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