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Leech Control

Jonathan Rauch's article on Washington lobbyists ("Suckers!," May) begins brilliantly and incisively but then comes to a lame halt, with Mr. Rauch concluding that it ain't so terrible after all, since America is such an "open" society. Please!

The only way to limit the power of money on Capitol Hill is to reduce the value of money. Lawmakers need the money of lobbyists in their campaign coffers to run for re-election. With public campaign financing and severe spending controls, deeper pockets would mean nothing. Candidates would be forbidden to spend any of their own money and would receive only a limited amount of public funds—just enough, say, to mail out position papers to their constituents.

Some say that banning lobbyists would infringe on First Amendment rights. But the Bill of Rights was designed to protect people from the government, not to protect the government from reasonable restrictions placed upon it by the people. For the same reason that no one may lobby or give money to a Supreme Court justice in the hope of a favorable ruling, no one should be allowed to lobby or give money to a lawmaker in an attempt to influence his vote. Bribery should be returned to where it belongs: under the table.

Steven E. Curtis
Spring, TX

As a "parasite" with some 30 years' experience before I retired five years ago, including 20 years as a lobbyist in Washington with one of the country's largest grass-roots organizations, I do not buy the generic description of all lobbyists as parasites. A great many lobbyists not only represent the interests of those who pay their salaries but, as many members of Congress will attest, provide an invaluable source of information on thousands of facets of the American economy.

Rauch fails to mention that the most powerful group of lobbyists in Washington consists of those who speak for the hundreds of agencies of the federal government, not to mention state and local government. At least half the time, expense, and effort of lobbyists is spent attempting to stop or make less intrusive new laws that result in more regulation and suppression of initiative and investment. Lobbyists spend as much time fighting the growth of the federal leviathan as they do seeking favors from it.

If there is a lobbyist problem, the answer is to drastically cut the size and power of government at all levels. With fewer bureaucrats to influence and with less tax money to transfer, the so-called problem with lobbyists will solve itself.

C.H. Fields
Alexandria, VA

Flight Risk

On the subject of "budget constraints" resulting in "outdated equipment" for the Federal Aviation Administration ("Sky Cops," May), Robert Poole neglects to mention a government-sponsored scam called the Aviation Trust Fund. This fund, established years ago, is a repository of airline ticket taxes and general-aviation fuel taxes that now amounts to about $12 billion. The purpose of putting taxpayer extractions into this fund was to improve the airport and air traffic control system. Why haven't these funds (user fees) been deployed to address the "problems" Mr. Poole sees as a crisis?

The masters of legerdemain who keep our country's books of account need the Aviation Trust Fund to help their nefarious accounting system look better. When the citizens are given the bad news about our annual deficit position, the reported deficit is reduced by the unspent (albeit fictional) money in the Aviation Trust Fund. The "accumulations" in this trust fund are, therefore, quietly reported and scrupulously guarded.

Had the ATC system been designed from the beginning by accountable businessmen and women, you can bet it would be more efficient and less expensive. To now advocate that the aviation industry remove the FAA's "budget constraints" through user fees and fully fund this gluttonous bureaucratic structure defies reason.

J. Curtis McKay
Sheboygan, WI

Robert Poole suggests "corporatizing" the air traffic control function. Why not just abolish it? This could be easily done for the expensive en-route portion, if the pilots were allowed to see other aircraft under instrument (blind) conditions instead of relying on ground-based radar.

The satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) permits accurate navigation. A device similar to the present transponder could use the information from the GPS and broadcast the exact location and altitude of each aircraft every few hundred milliseconds. Nearby aircraft could take this information, compare it with their own location, and display the results to the pilot(s), a simple programming task.

The current "rules of the road" for visual flight would tell pilots how to avoid other aircraft. The display unit could also watch for potential conflicts and give directions to the pilot on how best to handle them.

Sherwood R. Kaip
El Paso, TX

Why make the air traffic control system one big government corporation, like the Post Office? Why not make each facility a separate government corporation? Air traffic control facilities already hand flights off to other facilities under other management chains and even other systems in other countries.

Whatever competitive pressures exist will be amplified, and local airports will be better able to work closely with local air traffic control facilities without having to go through a huge bureaucratic chain of management. The government will find it easier over time to let go of 100-percent ownership of the facilities, as many find themselves under pressure to seek investors (through bonds or stocks) to finance modernization and expansion.

Recent and future advances in radio technology will make local (and regional) competition possible. This will be easier to accomplish when the entire system is not a monolithic national corporation.

Brooke King
Albuquerque, NM

Poole would have us believe that the entire ATC system is falling apart and only "the heroic efforts of overworked and often underpaid controllers and technicians" are preventing a major calamity. The only solution Poole offers is to privatize ATC.

As an instrument-rated private pilot I too follow the machinations of the FAA's ATC, but I can tell you from personal experience that the system works. Yes, the FAA has been slow to incorporate some newer technology, such as the Microwave Landing System, and there are the occasional highly publicized accidents and near-accidents. But per passenger mile, flying is probably the safest form of transportation. The United States has some of the safest air travel in the world, and it's getting better.

Would Poole's privatized ATC be any better? He tantalizes us by asking if we would choose a flight "guided by highly skilled air traffic controllers, using the latest high-tech radars, satellite-based navigation, and state-of-the-art computers? Or a system in which the busiest towers and control centers are staffed by some of the least experienced people, running equipment that relies on vacuum tubes, depending exclusively on ground-based radio beacons, and using computers two or three generations old?"

Poole would have us believe his description of the older, overworked system accurately describes ATC here in the United States. At best, he exaggerates.

While every controller is different, they have all been well trained and get experience working at lower-traffic airports before moving to the big regional airports. And it's doubtful that every one of the more-experienced controllers automatically applies for the lowest-stress (i.e., smallest airport) job available. Some people want to be "where the action is," or enjoy their work and don't want to have to move to a different location.

Poole makes it sound as if all of ATC's electronics depends on antiquated vacuum tubes. But most of the electronics used by ATC is solid-state. Some ATC equipment, such as high-power radar transmitters and display screens, still uses "vacuum tubes," but virtually every computer in the world has a "vacuum tube"—a cathode-ray tube—in its monitor. Radar transmitters typically use traveling wave tubes, or klystrons. Even though they are "tubes," they are still very often the best way of generating the high power needed for effective radar. Even space-borne transmitters still use TWTs because the solid-state alternatives either cannot generate the required power or are too new to have established reliability.

Poole says the ATC system depends exclusively on ground-based radio beacons and implies that this method of navigation is inadequate. Neither claim is true. Transoceanic airline flights have used inertial navigation system for years, and ground-based radio navigation equipment works just fine and is easy to monitor and repair. Satellite navigation, the only other alternative, isn't used as much because it is still too new and has its own reliability problems.

It is true that more and better equipment is available and should be installed. Poole correctly points out that federal procurement regulations have delayed getting the right equipment for the FAA to modernize where it is appropriate. But this is also true for any government purchasing operation, especially the military.

There are alternatives to privatization. Change the FAA's salary structure, for example, to reflect cost-of-living adjustments for different regions and job descriptions. Then the busiest airports in the most expensive cities would offer the highest salaries and attract better-qualified controllers. Waive the extensive government purchasing regulations for new capital equipment. Right now, the technology is available and, presumably, the money is there, but new radars and computers aren't being installed because of bureaucratic red tape.

Edward M. Teyssier
La Jolla, CA

Mr. Poole replies: Messrs. McKay and Teyssier repeat all the arguments for "reform" of the FAA that have been proposed over and over for the past 20 years: stop abusing the Trust Fund, modernize controller compensation, reform procurement regulations, etc. No serious reform in any of these areas has been carried out, which is why a near-consensus has now developed that structural reform is the only workable approach. The basic problem is Congress, which insists on manipulating the Trust Fund to mask the size of the budget deficit and simply adding new layers to personnel and procurement regulations rather than abolishing them.

The record of corporatization overseas speaks for itself. Freeing an ATC enterprise from government "oversight" and funding, and establishing a direct relationship between services provided to users and revenue received by the enterprise, are the keys to real reform. Airways Corp. of New Zealand has modernized that country's ATC system while reducing annual operating costs by one-third (between 1988 and 1993).

Readers Kaip and King would prefer more-radical reforms, and so would I. My article presented the maximum extent of reform that I judge (just barely) possible to achieve at this point, after 17 years of work in this area. If we can finally liberate the ATC system from the clutches of Congress, making it independent and totally user-funded, it will be a huge accomplishment. To have any hope of moving toward either cockpit-oriented ATC technology or separately owned ATC facilities, a necessary precondition is getting ATC out of the FAA, out of the federal budget process, and into a corporation controlled by its users.

Science Fictions?

In his review of Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science ("Not-So-Popular Science," May), Lee Dembart quotes author Alan Cromer: "Scientific thinking didn't—and couldn't—evolve from the prophetic tradition of Judaism and Christianity." Cromer evidently knows nothing of the work of the physicists Pierre Duhem and Stanley Jaki. Duhem showed that the development of science in the Middle Ages from its Greek beginnings was nourished crucially by Judeo-Christian belief, that the motivation to do the arduous labor of scientific discovery depended on the faith that the world was orderly because it was the orderly work of a Creator and on the belief that we had the power to understand the world because we were made by the same Creator. Duhem's work is most easily read through Jaki's books: The Road of Science and the Ways to God (1978) and Science and Creation (1974).

Dembart states: "We certainly can hold up Euclid's geometry as the model for all knowledge: Start with premises about which no one can disagree, and then, using logic alone, prove theorems that are as certain as anything we know." That's not the way most science works, simply because there are usually no rock-solid foundations to start with. Reason isn't so simple. One must build up a structure of knowledge through a method of coherence. As Jean Piaget shows in The Construction of Reality in the Child (1954), that's what each of us did to attain ordinary knowledge when we were babies.

Dick Hazelett
Colchester, VT

Lee Dembart seems to suggest that our only epistemological alternatives are a subjective universe in which all truth is private and local, and an "objective" cosmos in which "we can learn about the world, but we are essentially passive observers of it." Both propositions are untrue. Independent reality exists; the world is not a lucid dream. But human beings are not passive, objective observers; we are entangled in our universe and cannot avoid constantly changing it. Dembart asks whether the world is discovered or invented. The obvious, simple answer is: both.

Does Dembart honestly believe that there exists no socially constructed intersubjective zone between independent truth and private belief? He gives that impression when he sneers at the idea of "the social construction of reality." Does Dembart really think that the rhetoric of objective science is never a cover for prejudiced scientism, that one cannot question the scientist's pose of impassioned neutrality without giving up the ideal of the impassioned, neutral scientist?

It is possible, I suppose, that Dembart simply thinks that such critiques of human fallibility are in fact assaults on independent truth itself. If so, he is familiar with only a slender portion of the literature he is criticizing. Yes, a lot of "postmodern" thought is airy nonsense, and much of it fails on its own terms. That is no excuse for ignoring the real issues it raises.

Jesse Walker
Port Townsend, WA

Mr. Dembart replies: Dick Hazelett makes two points: First he says religious thinking crucially nourished the development of science in the Middle Ages. This is rather an odd claim, I think, as there wasn't very much science done during the Middle Ages, a period also known—with good reason—as the Dark Ages. Religious thinking was in control, and it stifled science and scientific thought, which didn't get going until the Renaissance.

Mr. Hazelett's second point is that I am wrong to think that science is like geometry. But that is not what I said. In the sentence immediately after the one he quotes, I wrote, "Unfortunately, only geometry is like geometry." I feel an emotional and an aesthetic attraction to the certainty of geometry. It is a model for all knowledge, unattainable in other realms.

I agree with Jesse Walker that we both discover the world and invent it. But the proportion of discovery and invention varies greatly across the spectrum of human endeavor. The social arena may have a good deal of the social construction of reality. The hard sciences do not.

As I write these words, I am looking out my window at the Golden Gate Bridge. Whether that bridge stands up or falls down has nothing to do with the race, gender, class, or sexual orientation of the designer. It has only to do with the laws of physics and the skill of engineers and builders in complying with them. Does Mr. Walker think otherwise?