There is much financial news disseminated these days -- perhaps more than we can properly evaluate.
The balance of payments goes down, the rate of inflation goes up. Unemployment drops but the money supply and the price of gold both rise. One day we're told that we will have a slowdown, but no recession. The next day it appears we'll have a recession, but not a depression. Positively, perhaps.
What does it all mean? I'm sure I don't know, and I suspect that some of our experts don't really know either. But they proclaim their educated guesses with such solemnity that people are impressed.
The District Line's unscientific survey (which consists of talking to a few storkeepers) is that things are slowing down. Volume is "flat." There is little or no growth over last year's figures.
When volume is flat and expenses rise, profit dwindle and eventually turn to losses. So, while these are not the best of times, neither are they the worst of times -- yet.
One business that is booming now is public transportation. Airlines, railroads and intercity bus companies are up to their bellybuttons in reservations. And urban mass transit systems may be the busiest of the lot. Their business has never been better.
With our own Metro now setting new records almost every week, its patrons may be wondering: "Is Metro finally operating in the black?" The answer, I regret to report, is, "No."
Metro will probably never operate in the black. An urban mass transit system probably shouldn't be expected to operate in the black.
A highway department doesn't make money; it provides a vital public service. Mass transit is in the same category.It is essential to the social and economic well-being of the city. It must be supported by tax dollars.
To what extent? I don't know. I'm a philosopher, not an accountant.
Metro derives about half its revenues from its fare boxes and half from subsides (tax dollars). In other words, when Metro provides us with $1 worth of transportation, it collects about 50 cents at the fare box and 50 cents in subsides.
Eckhard Bennewitz, Metro's budget director, says the recent increase in patronage might have reduced the subsidy required to keep Metro solvent had it not been for the dramatic increase in operating costs. Of Metro's 6,000 employees, 5,000 are covered by cost-of-living contracts. The cost of living has gone up more than the budget anticipated. The cost of diesel fuel has gone up almost 50 percent -- much more than the budget anticipated. "We are now putting together our 1981 budget," say Bennewitz. "There is no way to be sure that our inflation estimates will be valid."
Metro officials have one major hope of serving more people and reducing the need for subsidies: They could achieve these goals if working hours were staggered.
About 336,000 people work in our downtown area. Of this number, 125,000 must be at their desks by 8:30.
If a substantial number of them could start work 30 minutes sooner or 30 minutes later, Metro could accommodate more people and come closer to paying its own way.
But this is not Detroit or Pittsburgh. In a factory town, there are people who know how to make decisions and get things done. In Washington, we have congressmen and other specialists whose major skill is recognizing problems, analyzing problems, defining the parameters of problems (whatever ever that means), forming committees to discuss problems and interfacing today's problems with those that have already been implemented, finalized, folded, spindled, mutilated and biodegraded.
For brief periods, the problems specialists do work hard. They work to win elections so that they can continue to study problems with their customary speed and vigor. But between election, the government makes little progress on the proposals before it. Uncle Sam, Washington's largest employer, can't get his act together.