Ron Knecht: Drive to Reno leads to a ‘Godfather’ moment of inspiration

Driving from Carson City to Reno recently, I had a Michael Corleone moment.

No, I didn’t make anyone an offer he couldn’t refuse. It was one of those times when you see something that triggers insight into bigger things.

In “The Godfather: Part II,” Michael recounts the arrest of a Castro rebel. The man drew a number of Cuban soldiers to him, then detonated an explosive device he had concealed, killing himself and a number of them.

Michael discerns the lesson for the family business: Unlike the government soldiers, the rebels were willing to die for their cause — meaning that their revolution could succeed and the Cuban government was not a stable partner.

On that drive, I passed a car that had been stopped by a motorcycle cop. Behind the cycle was a police SUV, also with flashing lights and its driver providing cover to his partner delivering the ticket.

There’s always potential danger in police work, even an apparently routine traffic stop. However, that’s generally not a high-risk situation. Increasingly, it seems that all such stops feature full backup and use of public resources.

I’m not criticizing officers who are following procedures. The problem is that police and the rest of the public sector have increasingly decided that no cost to taxpayers is too great to mitigate any small risk or provide any minor benefit.

Oklahoma is considering requiring all schools to have “safe” rooms to protect students from tornadoes. Yes, seven students were killed in May when a monster twister struck Moore, Okla., but the cost of adding “safe” rooms at all schools would be at least $1 billion — 15 percent of the state budget. And even though another funnel leveled a Moore school in 1999, there had been no student tornado deaths in Oklahoma since 1945.

As the recent deaths showed, a storm that kills children in school usually destroys the whole school, rendering “safe” rooms moot. Moreover, the history shows that the cost is ridiculously high compared with the risk-mitigation benefits.

Much more sensible would be having districts design their new schools with safety features they can afford, because it’s relatively inexpensive to upgrade the design of a school before building it, but retrofitting existing buildings is hugely expensive. One reason people fall for such over-reach is that it’s often paid for greatly by federal grants. But when most states play the same game (federal subsidies for corn in Illinois, rebuilding in California floodplains and hurricane alleys in Florida, etc.), there’s no free lunch for anyone, but instead higher federal taxes and debt burdens for our children.

Some folks advocated bulletproof glass for all school windows after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings — even though all shots were fired within the school, not through windows. Imagining the pain of losing one’s child, I’m horrified. But such empty measures do nothing to make our children safer.

Events like these explain greatly why the direct cost of government and the indirect cost of its excessive regulation have accumulated, slowing economic growth ever more and diminishing human well-being. So, the tradition since the start of the Industrial Revolution of each generation being on average much better off is in serious jeopardy.

Forty years ago, Common Cause founder John Gardner said, “Social change is work for the tough-minded and competent.” We have failed his challenge and need to radically change course by adhering to the fundamental principle of social cost-benefit analysis.

Ron Knecht is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher-education Regent.


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