This is a response to the article posted by Dr. Ryan Maue here titled: CEI misses the boat on the need for the National Weather Service. Ryan’s response is in the comments, and here is the key clause:
…The CEI should think about their statement about the “private collection” and ownership of weather data. How did that work for the UK Met-Office + Hadley Center with Phil Jones’ climate data? (climate data is weather data, btw)
By Iain Murray and David Bier
The most difficult task free-market advocates often face is in addressing the duties the government has already assumed. Who will provide education? Who will deliver the mail? Who will coordinate airline flights? The knee-jerk reaction is generally that it is too difficult for the private sector to provide these services. Our recent op-ed [“Do We Really Need a National Weather Service?”], in which we argued that the private sector could provide the services provided by the National Weather Service (NWS), met precisely that reaction.
Each response seemed to conclude that we wanted the NWS’ services to disappear. That is analogous to saying that advocates of privatizing the U.S. Postal Service want to end mail delivery. Or that proponents (like CEI) of Federal Aviation Administration privatization want to end air traffic control. Such a suggestion would indeed be “laughable,” as some critics put it, but we never suggested that.
Therefore, most of the responses simply attacked a straw man. On reflection, we should have been more explicit that we were calling for the privatization of the government’s civilian weather services, not their outright abolition. Our piece was too easy to misinterpret.
Nearly all the responses dismissed the notion that the services of the NWS could be provided privately. Yet Britain’s Meteorological Office is already a self-funding, commercial entity, and the British government is now considering selling it to a private corporation, much as the Canadian government sold its air traffic control (ATC) service to the now award-winning NavCanada.
Private weather services often rely on NWS data. But we repeat that no one (to our knowledge) wants to shut down NWS services. The existence of many private weather agencies demonstrates a significant demand for this information, and the fact that they do more with the data and provide even more accurate forecasts strongly suggests that private entities would improve on the data collection functions the NWS currently provides. There is no intrinsic reason why the infrastructure for this data collection function should be publicly owned. Our critics have advanced none, other than the fact that it is currently publicly owned.
Historically, privatization has led to more investment in a service or industry, not less. For example, the privatization of water utilities in Britain almost doubled investment in that vital service — and increased quality, as well. The UK Laboratory of the Government Chemist has seen a fivefold increase in its number of staff since privatization.
Some responses discussed NOAA, the agency that oversees the NWS, and other government agencies which were not referenced in our piece. To be clear, we do not envision private planes replacing all military reconnaissance flights, as some (including Dr. Maue) suggested, but military data collection is not incompatible with a NWS privatization plan. The private sector owners could – and perhaps should – pay the military for the information.
Some have argued that the private sector could not afford to purchase the assets of the NWS. If that is the case(and we doubt it is), then the NWS can be sold as either one or a number of companies via IPO.
Either way, the sale of the NWS would bring in substantial revenue for the government at a time we are told it needs it most. At the very least, the NWS should begin to operate as a Performance-Based Organization, charging for its services. That will allow private companies to decide whether or not they are receiving value for money. If they are not, we will see more competition, and therefore increased accuracy, in data collection.
Even when the government stands in the way by means of regulation, that is advanced as justification for more government. Accuweather’s Mike Smith argues that, “[C]urrent federal policy (set by the FCC) will not allow private sector companies to run 10cm weather radars. For technical reasons, 10cm are vital in measuring precipitation. We must have a federal entity for that.” Why? The reason for the ban is unclear, but if the NWS already gets an exception to FCC rules, a private competitor could be granted one as well. If there are genuine national security or interference issues, then a rigorous licensing procedure respecting those concerns should suffice.
It may surprise some to learn that privatization is not new to the NWS. Over the years, the Service has divested such programs as direct commercial radio and television broadcasts, newspaper weather page preparation, agricultural forecasts, and the fire weather service. The latter two were privatized as recently as the mid-1990s. In each case, government officials simply decided that government had no real business providing the service. Our suggestion simply follows that logic.
The arguments against privatization focus on the role the government already plays, as if the service would disappear otherwise. This flawed logic is trotted whenever government monopolies are criticized. The National Weather Service is not exceptional. If people demand weather forecasts and advisories, and government gets out of the business, the market will provide.
Iain Murray is Vice President at the Competitive Enterprise Institute with considerable experience in privatization. David Bier is a Research Associate at CEI.