RALEIGH – Pardon me if I seem distracted, but I spent much of Wednesday thinking about how dysfunctional systems persist despite widespread dissatisfaction with their results.
Much of central North Carolina was hit with a surprise snowstorm on Wednesday, beginning just before noon. The weather forecasts had called for some rain, perhaps some flurries or a light dusting. As it turned out, there wasn’t a great deal of accumulation in most of the region, but what did fall was large and hit pavement or ground that was cold from days of frigid temperatures. The result was a sheen of packed snow and ice that made the footing treacherous, the roads nearly impassable within an hour or two, and school officials reaching quickly for the phone.
By a little after 1p, I knew it was time to pick up the kids. The problem was that, in the Raleigh area alone, many tens of thousands of other parents realized the same thing about the same time and tried to slide their way onto the major roadways to get from downtown to North Raleigh, RTP to Cary, West Raleigh to Knightdale, etc. Traffic quickly ground to a frustrating halt. It took me about 90 minutes to travel a distance, from my downtown office to the Little Conqueror’s school south of town, that typically takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
Others had it far worse, sitting in traffic jams on interstates or major thoroughfares for hours with scarcely a forward lurch. Believe it or not, I heard tell of folks who had left their offices in early- to mid-afternoon who had not arrived at home by 8 pm (a critical time, of course, being the start of the St. Louis auditions of "American Idol," truly among the most spellbindingly horrid pieces of television ever produced). Some school buses never made their scheduled trips at all, so hundreds of students ended up spending the night at their schools.
Because of the need to double back to pick up the Little General, I passed through some of the roadway along which I had previously been creeping along, and was pleased to find that its condition by about 3:30p had improved markedly. Either because of hot car exhaust, the efforts of DOT salting and sanding trucks, or a brief glimpse of sunlight, the icepack had given way to slush and, in some cases, clear pavement. But the traffic jams are just as bad as before. Weather had begun the snarls, but too many people trying to get to too few places would perpetuate them for the rest of the day.
It was, in fact, the decision to let schools out early all at roughly the same time that creating much of the problem. Surely there has to be a better way: widely staggering the releases by grade-level or region, something. A policy designed to respond to difficult travel conditions had generated extremely difficult travel conditions.
Another broken system I was thinking about during my hours-long tour of southern Wake County (which included an abortive trip to a TV taping and a grocery run) is North Carolina’s public-records law. Its particulars seem to be clear and unmistakable, and yet many news organizations and our own Carolina Journal staff continue to be stymied, obstructed, and denied in obtaining what are clearly official records that the public has a right to see and consider. As you may already know, the John Locke Foundation and the NC Press Association filed a lawsuit Tuesday to demand access to public records associated with the recruitment of a Dell plant to the Triad. Hours later, officials released a large stack of documents, some of them containing fascinating information.
It had taken two months of asking, cajoling, and, finally, litigating. It shouldn’t have. The Commerce Department said it need to review the file to identify "trade secrets" belonging to Dell that could not be released. But such information should have been flagged ahead of time, by officials who should have expected to release the file in a timely fashion, unless of course they meant to withhold public information about one of the most controversial policy decisions in Raleigh in years. Surely not.
That’s the commonality between the two systems, it seems to me: in both cases they were broken by a specific events that should have been predictable. Oh, and both cases involved a snow job.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.