T.G.I.F. Thank God It’s Friday – or if you prefer the secularized version, Thank Goodness It’s Friday! But what about… Thank Government? It’s always fun to rant and rave about ridiculous government spending or frustrating government regulation, but I thought it might be appropriate to spend some time every now and then thanking the government for something good that it does. So I’m kicking off a new (possibly weekly) category called T.G.F.S: Thank Government For Something. And today, with Hurricane Irene skirting up the East Cost, I’m thanking government for the National Weather Service.
The National Weather Service is a subset of the United States government that gathers and disseminates information about weather all over the country. It is now considered part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but according to Wikipedia the NWS has been around for 100 years longer – since 1870. From snowstorms to tornadoes to floods to hurricanes, they track everything that’s going on and issue warnings to citizens about dangerous weather. The best part has to do with how well they’ve made the transition to the digital age – all of their data is publicly available at what I consider to be one of the most important, if not one of the prettiest, websites in the world: www.weather.gov.
Right now they’re featuring all kinds of links to maps and information about Hurricane Irene, but the information extends far beyond that. In the water section you can find up-to-date information about gauge levels across hundreds of rivers, as well as historical information for every one of those gauges. You can find a decade’s worth of tornado and severe weather data broken down by state (although it’s easier to find the section by googling “tornado statistics” than by clicking around NWS’s imperfect navigation). And there are hoards of other kinds of information there available as well. From satellites to ocean buoys to Doppler weather radar systems, this government service provides an incredibly valuable amount of information about weather every single day.
Markets, and societies in general, require the flow of information to function properly. Individual citizens do not have the resources to personally track past, present, and (possible) future weather, but having access to that vast body of knowledge enables them to make much better (and safer!) decisions that lead to a much better society. Government has the necessary resources to be able to gather all of that information, and I don’t know that such reliable and comprehensive information could be trusted to come from the private sector. Sure, The Weather Channel’s weather.com is full of hurricane information, too, but would The Weather Channel have placed river gauges all along the Mississippi River to help track flooding if the government hadn’t, and also made that treasure trove of information freely available to the public? Would their meteorologists be able to tell us all about the latest wind speeds and millibars of pressure coming from Hurricane Irene without the National Weather Service’s investments? I’m not sure, but I doubt it.
When I read a book about Hurricane Katrina a couple of years ago, I remember recognizing a sharp contrast in some of the things that the government did. When it came to gathering and disseminating raw information about the hurricane’s size, shape, and location, the government did a fantastic job. When it came to figuring out how to distribute resources among the people who truly needed it vs. the people who just took advantage of it… eh, not so much. Local charities and organizations were much more effective (well, when FEMA wasn’t actively preventing them.) In both situations the effectiveness was a result of the flow of information. Local people had better information about the needs of other people close to them than a far-away government did – but the government was able to gather much better information about the hurricane than anyone in Louisiana could have on their own.
I think economists would call the information gathered by the National Weather Service a “public good.” It is something that each citizen can enjoy the benefits of without taking away from the benefits of another citizen (unlike, say, a dollar from FEMA, which if it goes to one victim can’t also go to another victim). If the population of the United States doubles, it doesn’t cost any more money to gather information about hurricanes and tornadoes and provide it to citizens than it did before, so we’re in fact getting more value out of our relatively cheap investment in the National Weather Service all the time.
This is not to say that there may not be inefficiencies or bloated pensions or any number of improvable aspects in the NWS, but I think it still provides us a very positive value by its overall existence, unlike many government agencies and programs that have a negative value that is constantly getting worse. There are some good-intentioned conservatives now trying to say that we don’t need the National Weather Service, but I don’t think they understand how much data the private weather stations get from them, and I’m not sure they understand what a public good is.
So, thank you, National Weather Service, for helping us stay informed about the weather. Information is a valuable thing. Thank Government For Something!