Saturday, July 31, 2010

A belated mea culpa

This is roundabout; bear with me.

Matt Yglesias highlights a story about the closure of Walter Reed hospital, and notes the existence of regulations on how the land may be used. In short, the land may be conveyed directly to government agencies or various kinds of non-profit entities that submit proposals for it. It cannot be auctioned or otherwise sold to the private market.

Matt notes-- rightly-- that this is weird.
What on earth is the purpose of rules of this sort? Why not sell the land and earmark the money for these worthy purposes? That would seem to make everyone better off. You don’t see that many examples of truly pareto optimal policy changes out there, but this is one. No nefarious interest I can think of benefits from this arrangement, it’s just wasteful for no reason. And it comes up in DC all the time because a similar rule applies to a bunch of long-vacant school buildings we have.

I didn't know about these rules, and probably would have thought no more about it if not for the fact that he quoted David Alpert's reference to the regulations as "federal base closure rules." (Walter Reed is, after all, a military installation.)

Uh-oh, thinks I.

A little reading later, I believe I owe the following apology:

In 1988, the Pease Air Force Base on the edge of my hometown had been slated for closure, and it was shuttered in 1991, at important savings to the federal government and important anti-stimulus for the local area during the early 90s recession. The land was transferred to a QUANGO, the Pease Development Authority, which spent its first few years trying and failing to attract high profile firms to come use large amounts of the land all at once. In the meantime, a huge chunk of real estate and infrastructure sat basically vacant.

In 1992 (at the ripe old age of 21) I ran for the New Hampshire House of Representatives, as a Libertarian. And my distinctive policy proposal was: break up the PDA, stop trying to land the One Big Firm that would come replace the Air Force as a dominant employer, and allow the base to be parceled and auctioned. Market-led base redevelopment rather than local-politico-led posturing.

It's now pretty clear to me that this would have been impossible under federal law, and that the PDA/ tradeport model was as close as any local authorities could come to letting commerce take hold there. (At least they didn't turn the base into a megaprison complex.) Doesn't mean it was a good model, and almost twenty years later I still think there's underutilized capital there. But it would have been wholly outside the New Hampshire legislature's authority to fix this.

Of course: 1) No one else seemed to know this, either; certainly, my opponents never slapped me down as an ignorant kid who didn't know the rules. 2) I was a 21-year old third-party candidate running against two Democratic incumbents in a solid Democratic (two-seat) district. I wasn't ever going to win. 3) Had I won, I would hardly have been the most ignorant member of New Hampshire's 400-person part-time lower legislative house, or the first to find that the thing they'd talked about on the campaign trail couldn't be done.

Nonetheless: I apologize to the voters of my then-district, and to my opponents in that race. I spent several months arguing something on the basis of insufficient information, and making claims that it turns out were false or impossible.