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Archive for March, 2012

One of the many problems of government is that our body of laws, programs and agencies are constantly being added to. Unlike the private sector, where companies are routinely reorganized, restructured, bankrupted, or closed, government becomes sclerotic, unable to properly adapt to a changed world. Laws passed for one reason morph into something else entirely. A prime example of this is the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 (DBA) which still controls public works projects today, and which has had the effect of increasing costs on public works projects by about 20% for decades.

The Davis-Bacon Act was named after James Davis, a Senator from Pennsylvania and a former Secretary of Labor under three presidents, and Representative Robert L. Bacon of Long Island, New York. The legislation was introduced after a contractor in New York employed African-American workers from Alabama instead of local union workers to build a Veteran’s Bureau hospital in Bacon’s district. DBA was legislation designed to prevent such lower paid black laborers from replacing white construction workers on government works projects. It mandated the use of union contractors at “prevailing (union) wages” on all jobs. The union workers were all white, because blacks couldn’t join the unions at the time.

DBA’s stated goal was to outlaw wage exploitation. Public contracts typically are awarded to the lowest bidder. This legislation directed government agencies to employ contractors paying “fair” wages rather than those who competed by hiring cheaper labor. In 1964 the Act was modified to include fringe benefits in the calculation of prevailing wages.

The threshold for application of the DBA when it was passed in 1931 was set at $5,000 of federal spending.  It was lowered to $2,000 in 1935 and has not been changed since!  As a result, the administrative burden of the DBA is imposed on extremely small projects. This problem is compounded by the fact that many federal funding programs pay a small percent of the cost of state and local construction projects and application of the DBA to these projects results in increasing their cost as well.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, DBA wages cost taxpayers over $1 billion annually, in addition to the $100 million in government administrative costs per year. Davis-Bacon also creates unnecessary regulatory paperwork costing construction companies $190 million annually. DBA also forces state and local governments to pick up the cost of artificially high union-scale wages for construction projects in which any federal money is involved.

Repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act would spur local economic growth by making it easier for state and local governments to fund federally subsidized projects such as school construction and improvements to the transportation infrastructure. Davis-Bacon repeal also would create an estimated 31,000 new construction jobs and remove a barrier that keeps many smaller and minority owned construction firms from bidding on federally funded construction projects.

The DBA was enacted before the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act rendered it unnecessary and superfluous. Further, a 2011 study by the GAO found serious methodological flaws in Department of Labor wage calculations under DBA. This law clearly violates the equal protections clause in the Constitution by favoring one class of workers over another. But the political power of organized labor in the construction trades has made repeal of one of their legislative crown jewels a dangerous policy for elected officials to pursue.

Imagine for an instant if we applied DBA rules to other areas of our economic life, such as our consumer purchases at Wal-Mart, which is by far the nation’s largest retailer. From its founding and into the late 1980s, Sam Walton trumpeted products “made in America.” But he found that consumers did not care, and simply preferred lower cost items. Today over 80% of non-perishable items sold in Wal-Mart are sourced from abroad where lower labor costs make them cheaper than high wage American products. It’s time to apply the same standards to public works projects as the public applies to its own purchases.

Watching the final time trial of the 1989 Tour de France convinced Diogenes that embracing technological change can yield victory from almost certain defeat. After 20 stages, American Greg Lemond trailed defending champion Laurent Fignon by 50 seconds with only a 15 mile individual ride remaining. A November 1989 Bicycling Magazine article, supported by wind-tunnel data, estimated that Lemond gained a total of 76 seconds by wearing an aerodynamically shaped helmet and using triathlon type aero handlebars while Fignon rode bare headed with his pony tail exposed to the wind. Incredibly, Lemond won the Tour with a margin of 8 seconds, so without the aid of technology, he would probably not have won.

There are some who are put off by technology and others who embrace the change it brings. It’s simply a lifestyle choice. We all know people who need a “geek” to set up their computers, while others sit down and actually read the user manual. So it is with tennis. The idea of maximizing one’s potential holds seductive appeal. In a repetition sport such as tennis, the more consistent one is with strokes, tactics and equipment, the higher the level that can be achieved.

I bring two or three racquets to the court to make sure that broken strings do not interrupt play. After realizing that I consistently preferred one racquet to the other seemingly identical frames, I purchased a postal gram scale and was surprised to find an eight gram difference in weight between them. This may not seem like much, but a 3% weight difference is clearly discernible to someone swinging a racquet several hundred times/session repeated several times per week. Seeking to eliminate these differences, the purchase of a “balance board” and lead tape applied to various parts of the racquets readily made their weight and balance virtually identical.

Many players are indifferent to their strings. Whenever one breaks, they deliver the racquet to the club’s pro shop and get it strung with whatever brand the stringer recommends at somewhere near the middle of the tension range. Players are told to restring their racquets as many times per year as they play per week. So if you play four times /week, restring every three months. With the new polyester strings (Luxilon and others), strings rarely break, and most tennis players are so cheap they never cut unbroken strings out of their racquets.

This contrasts squarely with the pro tennis tour, where almost all players change to a freshly strung racquet every nine games when the six balls in play are replaced with new ones. There are two reasons for this. First, it makes it extremely unlikely that a player will break a string during play. Secondly, a freshly tensioned racquet provides a consistent feel with new balls.

I reckoned that if the pros do it, perhaps there could be value in providing consistent string tension to my game. Although I had long since consistently used the same string in all racquets, it seemed that every time one was strung, it was hit or miss as to whether it would be an improvement over the older strings. After doing some research, I bought a Gamma ERT 3000 string computer. This little digital device measures the force required to move the strings in the center of the string bed, also known as the “sweet spot.”

Newly armed with this string computer, I asked my club’s stringer to restring three of my racquets at the same time, with the same string, at the same tension. Said stringer was utilizing a top of the line Wilson electronic stringing machine. Imagine the surprise when the string computer measured nine pounds of tension difference top to bottom in those three racquets from a 57 pound requested tension. When confronted with these results, the stringer sheepishly admitted that two of the frames had been strung on the same machine by someone else. This was the last straw.

Last week, I purchased a Gamma X-ELS machine.

Although I had never strung a racquet before, I presumed (correctly) that it was not rocket science, and I could take a DIY approach. One of my regular opponents, less fastidious about his equipment, asked directly if I thought it would make much of a difference. I replied that if it meant that I missed two balls less in one hundred by a few inches, that would be enough. In an average close 6-4 set, the winner typically wins only 2 or 3 more points than the loser. About 60 points are played in a set with an average of four strokes per point. So out of the 240 strokes, of which I hit 120, if I were to miss two fewer times, it could easily change the outcome from a loss to a win. So yes, it’s worth it.

Both a Ford and a BMW can provide transportation, but the quality of the ride is decidedly better with one compared to the other.  I could continue to restring only occasionally. But by taking the time to restring every time I play, I am reassured that from a technical perspective everything has been done within my power to maximize the possibility of success on the court. In his 1974 book Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig relates the tale of a cross-country motorcycle trip with his son during which “the maintenance of the motorcycle becomes an illustration of how we can unify the cold, rational realm of technology with the warm, imaginative realm of artistry. As in Zen, the trick is to become one with the activity, to engage in it fully, to see and appreciate all details–be it hiking in the woods, penning an essay, or tightening the chain on a motorcycle.” The subtitle of the book is An Inquiry Into Values and ultimately, it is an exploration of what is the meaning of “best”?