Monday, September 10, 2007

Things People Say (2)

A recent story in the Westchester section of the New York Times offers me not one but two opportunities to write a second installment for my series about Things People Say that are very commonplace--but also very dubious. It's a story by local journalist Kate Stone Lombardi (a former neighbor of ours in Chappaqua) about the financial and other problems currently facing Rye Playland.

As you may know, Playland is the only amusement park in the United States that is owned and operated by a government agency--in this case, Westchester County. This makes it mildly controversial, especially in this age of "downsizing" and "small government." And the controversy has become more intense in the wake of three highly-publicized deaths at the park, two involving small children, one a park worker. All three took place since 2004, and lawsuits against the county have been filed by the families of the two children.

Obviously any deaths in an amusement park are awful and tragic, but how bad is Playland's safety track record? I really don't know. Wikipedia says that Disney World in Orlando reported four deaths and nineteen injuries during a single year (2005-2006). Of course, Disney World is much larger than Playland and draws many more visitors, so maybe four is a "reasonable" number for a year's operations. But I suspect that one of the reasons there has been more public outcry over the Playland deaths (at least in the New York area) is the fact that Playland is publicly owned--and doesn't have the P.R. talent and economic clout exercised by the Disney organization in Florida. (Until 2001, Disney was completely exempt from having to report visitor injuries to any government agency.)

Anyway, in Lombardi's article about "troubled, beloved Playland," she offers a couple of good examples of Things People Say that have the ring of "common sense" but deserve to be questioned. The first is a quote from George Oros, Republican minority leader of the Westchester Board of Legislators:
"Recent events have caused people to second-guess whether we should be doing something that is primarily a private venture," he said. "Government shouldn't try to do things that business does, because we aren't equipped to do it and we don't do a very good job of it."
The second example comes from journalist Lombardi herself, summarizing the reasons why "running a contemporary amusement park is an increasingly risky business":
The world has changed greatly since 1928, when the Art Deco park opened with its Japanese Tea House, dance hall and boathouse. Rides are fast-spinning, high-flying and potentially more dangerous. People have become progressively more litigious.
Take Oros's comment first. Thanks to conservative propaganda, it has become a truism that "government shouldn't try to do things that business does." But what exactly is the evidence that government is incapable of running a theme park?

Consider: Most people who have studied the subject consider the National Park Service one of the best-run government agencies in the US; it manages almost 400 recreational sites and serves over 270 million visitors every year.

Of course, an amusement park like Playland isn't "just" a nature preserve--it also has a major technological component, and the rides had better be run competently to keep the kids safe. But government entities all over the US (and elsewhere) operate countless buses, trains, and subways without any complaints that they are incapable of doing so safely.

In reality, there are many, many examples of categories of organizations that have been run successfully by both governments and private businesses, from airlines to hospitals to universities to radio stations to security services. Some are well run, some are not--on either side of the private/public divide. There's simply no basis for saying that "government isn't equipped to do what business does," and asserting this as fact is sheer laziness masquerading as thought.

I judge Ms. Lombardi's remark, "People have become progressively more litigious," less harshly. It may even be true, depending on how you define "people" and "litigiousness."

Those who have actually studied the issue point out that most lawsuits are brought by businesses, not by aggrieved individuals ("people" in the sense Lombardi probably means). And as for the alleged "litigiousness," how exactly would one define "an excessive propensity to file lawsuits," which is what I take the word to mean? If your seven-year-old child gets killed on an amusement park ride, are you being "litigious" if you seek redress in a court of law? Is it historically accurate to assume that "people" wouldn't have sued under the same circumstances in 1975, say, or in 1955? I don't know for sure--but it's far from obvious.

I'm not writing to either defend or attack Playland. Personally I enjoy its old-fashioned, slightly down-at-heels charm, as well as the motley multi-ethnic crowds its attracts on sweltering summer afternoons. I would be sorry to see it close, or to see it taken over by a corporation with more aggressive marketing and profitability goals. But it's wrong for a journalist to off-handedly imply that a publicly-owned park like Playland just doesn't make sense any more, because "people" have supposedly become more "litigious."

I know this is one of those things that has been stated so many times that it's easy to assume it must be true. But that doesn't make it true; and it certainly doesn't make it automatically relevant to every story that refers to a lawsuit.

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