Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Steps

James Barron and Sydney Ember write in the New York Times about the upcoming closure of the crown of the Statue of Liberty. If you are skeptical of how the government spends money, this article will fuel your fire.

Barron and Ember write:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says it [the crown of the Statue of Liberty] needs a $27.25 million renovation for additional safety improvements that he promised in 2009.

My guess is that, even by government standards, this is a project where the safety benefit per dollar spent is miniscule, or non-existent.

The article continues:

Mr. Salazar called the renovations “a major step in bringing a 19th-century icon into the 21st century.” The Park Service said the project would involve updating the statue’s mechanical and electrical systems, along with its fire-suppression equipment. The two open staircases will be separated from each other,  and one will get walls, a plus for safety. The elevator that runs from the ground floor to the fifth floor will be replaced and will ascend and descend in a new, fire-resistant shaft.

One might presume that in order to justify closing this part of the monument for a year and spend $27.25 million to improve the safety, the existing situation in the Statue must be quite dire.

Apparently not.

Describing the crown, the superintendent of the monument has this to say:

“It’s safe now, but it will be so much safer when we’re done.”

If none of the millions of visitors each year is getting hurt now (which is my guess), how can you make it any safer?

(Hat tip to Jeff Thomas)


John Hugg

I think the implication is that if there was a fire or a a similar emergency requiring people to be evactuated quickly and orderly, the existing structure might be less friendly towards a panicing crowd.

The "it's safe now" line sounds like a dumb thing someone would say to reassure people who are currently visiting the crown.

That said, I agree with the author that there are of lots of ways to use 27.25 million dollars to really make a difference beyond the hypothetical.

Mike B

Um, just because hundreds of people are not currently dying from smoke and flame inside the Statue of Liberty doesn't mean that making sure such a thing cannot happen in the future isn't worth the money. Besides its exposure to accidental fires, the SoL is a prime terrorist target and an irreplaceable national symbol that needs to accommodate as many visitors as possible. This investment will ensure that both domestic and foreign tourists will be able to continue to visit and climb the statue for decades to come.

RGJ

The Statue of Liberty had to be evacuated twice last month (July 21 and July 16, 2011)) in a panic due to smoking from an old elevator motor, with tourists "fleeing" (the NY Times word) down the 345 step staircase. I'm sure that new elevator, safer staircases and fire suppression system looked like a really, really, really, really good idea on those days.

Jy

Can this be a case of insurance-buying?

Clancy

In this case I think they are guarding against a “black swan” so the fact that it hasn’t been a problem yet is irrelevant. The upgrades may or may not be worth it, but to judge you would have to know the details of the construction and what upgrades are being done. I can look at two buildings and say “well, neither of them has ever caught fire, so they must be safe.” But I can look and see that one has inadequate sprinkler systems and poorly marked exits etc. and know that one is safer than the other.

James

Just because something doesn't or hasn't hurt people doesn't mean it is "safe". Millions of people might visit a dormant volcano without getting hurt. That doesn't necessarily mean that the volcano is "safe" to visit.

Charlotte

Safe?! 27million dollars for the future safety (a must have, sarcasm) When they're cutting our Children's education accross the US? Oh sure, its a projection of our image, and who we are, who we've been, who we'll become, right? Now exactly how monumental is this, how monumental will it become?!
SHAME. And cuss words I can't post.

ilkka

Fire suppression investments can go unnoticed for a hundered years, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. I recall reading lately about a nuclear plant in Japan that was "safe" for decades, yet apparently could have used a few additional expensive safety investments.

Statue of Liberty is also a national symbol. We don't want the symbol of liberty to become a death trap under any circumstance. A hundered dead on the highways is a statistic, but a dozen dead in the elevator of the Statue of Liberty is understandably national news and of huge symbolic significance.

Charlotte

Can they make it safe while spending less? Have they bargain shopped for the budget or? Good freakin grief.

Charlotte

Hey People! Since we're all talking about shutting this or that down, I don't want to diaappoint the tourists or anything, but maybe we should shut THIS down for a while and put a sugn on her that says "Focusing in more important things." Then we can all save that money for the kids and take the message home, so our future is safe. Where are our priorities? We're putting lipstick on a barn when the house is on fire.
If we dont make children a priority, soon the Statue of Liberty won't be representing the same idea as before. Is that safe?
Sorry to interrupt your vacation!!!!!

alex

I, for one, am skeptical of the fire risks of oxidized metal.

Charlotte

Sorry about my phone typos

john

This is the same blog that used to regularly say that talking about a water landing during the airplane safety talk was a waste of time because there'd never been a water landing. With that track record, this post makes me glad that officials are making the safety upgrades before the disaster rather than after people die.
The challenge here is that a disaster successfully averted is often never known about and so the costs draw criticism. If the repairs weren't made and a tragedy happened the officials would certainly be roasted for not being willing to spend an amount that in retrospect would look like a pittance compared to the lives lost.
If there' once chance in a thousand that something will happen during the next year, reducing the probability to one in ten thousand does make it safer even if nothing has happened in the past.

Mark

Any other 125-year-old government building that has millions of visitors per year would eventually get an upgrade to meet modern building codes. Why shouldn't the Statue of Liberty? Especially considering its value as a target, as stated above.

John B

I am one of the strongest opponents of governmental waste.

However, based on the many very intelligent comments above, this seems to be money well spent.

I am certain the writer could have found a lot of governmental wasteful spending to report. Perhaps he thought the Statue of Liberty made his article more eye-catching?

Gary

I'm surprised at such cursory analysis from Steve Levitt. He usually shows more rigor in his analytic approach. This post shows the problem with blogging: have have to post often to make it worth it.

Burt Sklarin

Hurrah for investigative reporters who report both sides and bring out the facts, which may be obvious to erudite Times readers, but may be missed by people who only read the ledes. Don't be afraid to read between the lines.

Justin

I found this to be a very disappointing post, particularly when published by an economist.

How much is the SOL worth to the American economy as a tourist attraction? I can't say, but I would assume it's a significant dollar value. The investment of a few million dollars could possibly prevent deaths in a national monument of no small importance.

As for people not regularly being injured while visiting it, fires are a catastrophic event, but they occur infrequently. Arguing that no one is currently dying, you could justify never installing a smoke detector or purchasing a fire extinguisher: yet I think it is safe to assume that you have both.

RGJ

I feel like no one read my earlier post. The place was a fire hazard.

Shouldn't the US have FOUGHT to keep Lady Liberty open and safe?

Or maybe surrender would have been more appropriate. After all, she is French.

Carol Castillo

Congratulations to the dear old lady for getting a lift and a clean up. She has been a welcome face for those entering our country for many years, and I thank her for this. For the safety measures being put in, I thank the Parks Service.
Those who find a complaint about the money being spent should realize that it probably came from the proceeds of souviegners sold at the gift store as well as from endowments.
If the light in her flame ever goes out, it will be a sad day in history.