Volcano Monitoring: Bobby Jindal's Bold New Plan

About everything you need to know about Bobby Jindal and all the bold, new, urban, suburban, hip-hop ideas he laid out for the American people -- WHO CAN DO ANYTHING, OKAY? -- Tuesday night is contained in this single sentence:

The stimulus, [Jindal] says, "includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a 'magnetic levitation' line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC."

In the first place, GAH THIS TRAIN TO VEGAS STUFF. If you want a clear, dividing line between who on the GOP side is serious, and who is frivolous, mark down everyone pimping this "train to Vegas" line and file under frivolous. Here's why:

For one thing, if we stuck by the standard that members of congress should only agree to fund infrastructure projects located in their own districts, then obviously we'd have no infrastructure at all. This is a debate that I thought we settled in the days of Henry Clay. But beyond that there is no such [train to Vegas] provision in the bill. This, by contrast, is an accurate description of the high-speed rail provisions of the Recovery Act:

The Stimulus Plan includes two provisions modeled after the Act that finance high-speed rail development. First, the Stimulus Plan provides a $2 billion grant for high-speed rail projects that will remain available until September 30, 2011. The grant will be distributed among applicant states, interstate compacts, public agencies having responsibility for providing high-speed rail service and Amtrak for capital projects associated with inter-city passenger rail services reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour. The Secretary of Transportation will have discretion to award grants based on an extensive set of criteria, including the legal, financial and technical capacity of the applicant to carry out the project; compatibility with relevant national plans; and anticipated economic, environmental and transportation effects.
In a last-minute change, the total quantity of funds available was increased. But there's no special plan for Las Vegas. The money will be spread all across the country.

There are a million ways the stimulus package can be criticized, attacked, even spun. But the least serious way of going about it is repeating, over and over, a tired line that's already been thoroughly debunked.

Now, on to this volcano nonsense. I can't claim to know a whole lot about volcano monitoring, but it sounds pretty important. I mean, I've seen pictures of the ruins of ancient Pompeii and I can't help but think that some sort of volcano monitoring would be useful. Jindal, I guess, seems to think that there's a free market solution to this problem. So, for answers I reached out to my friend of mine, commencing a series we'll call "Ask An Anonymous Business Consultant." Anonymous Business Consultant writes:

First of all, I LOVE Bobby Jindal. He has this way of making entirely ordinary things sound like they're from the FUTURE! "Magnetic Levitation!" "Volcano Monitoring!" Um, dude...mag-lev is a pretty well-established phenomenon. I mean, you can do it with your refrigerator magnets!

Secondly, suffice it to say that Mr. Jindal clearly believes that the citizens of Oregon or Alaska should each, individually, invest in ground-monitoring equipment to protect their property (which for most people is worth far less than the cost of such equipment). They should in no way coordinate their purchase in order to provide mutual protection at a reasonable cost to each. And God forbid, they should not coordinate it through a democratically elected mechanism, or "government" of any kind.

Ideally, a successful private company would emerge to serve people's needs. Its business model would involve a lot of marketing and PR money being spent - "Is Volcano Monitoring Right for You, or Do You Hate Your Loved Ones!?!" -- and a crazy-huge bonus for the brilliant volcano-monitoring executive thanks in part to skimping on R&D. Then, when an actual volcano hit, the system wouldn't work, the company would declare bankruptcy (volcano-monitoring companies aren't yet effective enough lobbyists to get a bailout), and the executive would be forced to "spend more time with his family" while living only on the $100 million he had already made -- plus another $30 million or so in severance.

THAT is how America is supposed to work. We reward entrepreneurs! OK, so the exec is a Harvard MBA who spent his career in investment banking and never started anything or participated in the productive economy in his life -- we reward them too!

Anyway, if you want a serious answer, he says "just look up 'public goods' on Wikipedia." The end.