Saturday, March 30, 2013

Quote of the Week

"I have every reason to believe that I am a physical coward, a bourgeois mandarin repelled and frightened by violence. Yet I know that if danger threatened my dog, if anyone offered him hurt, my rage, my impulse to interpose could turn homicidal. If torturers set about my wife or children, I would cry out to them to hold fast and strive to do so myself. Were they to beat my dog or put out his eyes, I would break immediately, betraying all. These are comely truths. They defy reason and what should be the hierarchies of human love. They raise questions as to primordial instabilities, as to the survival of the zoological affinities and twilight that subvert our fragile humanity. They are truths nevertheless. Shared, I suspect, by many more of us than is openly admitted. Odysseus bids adieu to Penelope not long after his epic homecoming. Would he have left Ithaca had his dog Argos lived?"
--an excerpt from My Unwritten Books by George Steiner, included in the newest issue of Lapham's Quarterly. The topic is 'animals'. I have trouble committing to works of literary fiction (and nonfiction); they tend to be too long, are often homogeneous and linear, and the massive selection of options makes choosing difficult (and regret frequent). Lapham's Quarterly solves these problems by excerpting small essays from a wide variety of writers, limiting each issue to around 200 pages every three months. By tightly sticking to a theme and sprinkling quotes, visual art, and amusing data analysis throughout the pages, it's truly a rewarding and digestible way to expose oneself to the classical humanities.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dealing With Cable Internet Providers Is Unpleasant But Unavoidable

This video has been making the rounds:

The broadband internet industry is changing so rapidly that previously-reasonable regulations designed to encourage infrastructure investment are now stifling innovation. Here's an interesting analysis on the problem of broadband monopoly power, and check out this fascinating interview about the regulatory constraints faced by Google as it experiments with its super-high-speed fibre network.

As for the terrible customer service, less competition probably means less of a reward to companies that provide excellent customer service, but I don't think that's the whole story. Errands requiring a physical visit to the retail store are never desirable or pleasant, and it's no surprise that many service companies have found a competitive advantage in finding ways to eliminate the ordeal. We deposit checks by app, change our cell phone coverage online, etc. All of that wonderful change is conditional on free-flowing internet, and to a lesser extent phone services. Internet is the core foundation for retail-visit destruction, but purchasing internet itself is a second-order dilemma: you can't enjoy the fruits of internet-based retail innovation to purchase the internet itself. So we're stuck taking a number at an overcrowded TimeWarner service center.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Power Players: Mark Kleiman

Photo Credit: Todd Cheney/UCLA
UCLA Professor of Public Policy Mark A.R. Kleiman has been hired by Washington state to assist with implementing its new marijuana legalization law, which is great news. Kleiman, who blogs at The Reality-Based Community, is one of the best thinkers and communicators on crime and crime policy currently out there. Crime is one of the most fascinating public policy areas in part because its study so multi-faceted. Rational-choice models and analytical tools from economics provide the main framework for thinking about crime: law-breakers are just regular people reacting to incentives; enforcement and punishment is a cost, not a benefit, etc. Psychology compliments this by providing explanations for "irrational" behavior: why do impulsive people commit crimes even when the expected payoff is negative; why is swift and certain punishment a better deterrent than high severity, etc. Political science helps us understand the anarchic conflict-resolution environment that exists for certain coalitions and markets for illegal goods that lack a neutral court system and why it leads to violence. Sociology has much to say about the cultural conditions of high-crime populations and their links to poverty and other social ills. Moral philosophy has long been concerned with crime: what should the boundaries of one's freedom be?; how can we encourage virtue?; the concept of just desert, etc. And unlike many social science fields, most regular people have a close personal relationship to the issue of crime and its effects.

With so much intellectual richness, it's a shame the topic of crime has become calcified in a boring equilibrium (likely due to the political incentives of fearful voters and powerful interest groups): Republicans and most Democrats generally support tons of enforcement and severe punishments, with any rhetorical deviation from the status quo treated as a "soft-on-crime" gaffe.

Mark Kleiman expertly manipulates the issue dimensions of crime to cut through its tired framing. By ignoring the culture war and emphasizing crime as simply another boring public policy field for technocratic evidence-based interventions, new political coalitions can form and novel arguments advanced. From Kleiman's excellent Washington Monthly article critiquing the current parole system:
"It would be hard to imagine a system that could combine more punishment with less effective social control. It’s no surprise that so many people wind up what we could call “doing life in prison on the installment plan.” A parent who acted the way the probation system acts—letting most misconduct go unpunished, and occasionally lashing out with ferocious punishments—would be called both neglectful and abusive."
Kleiman's book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, is brilliant in its comprehensiveness, creativity, and style, and is one of the best books I've read all year. Most nonfiction books are too long and larded up with useless anecdotes, vignettes, and framing devices. This book is short and nearly every sentence means something useful and interesting. Kleiman's writing also includes an unusually high degree of epistemic humility. The complexity of social phenomenon is not swept under the rug, with probability and uncertainty playing a large role in claims about the effects of policy interventions, evaluations of research findings, etc.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Why Is City Governance Often Terrible?

The Urbanophile blog recently posted an incredibly succinct comment about the poor quality of governance and public policy in cities, employing the analytical lens of public choice theory:
Economists have a concept called “revealed preference” that suggests that consumers reveal their true preferences through the actual purchasing decisions they make. Applying this to public policy, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the real preference of the powers that be in most places is the maintenance of the status quo, not disruptive economic development. It probably also explains why every city obsesses over “talent” publicly, but almost none of them undertake actions that might actually attract it for real.
The problem of incumbent interests capturing and employing the tools of government to protect themselves from change isn't limited to cities (a classic example is a business group lobbying for regulation to keep possible competitors from easily entering the market), but might be most apparent there for several reasons. Density and the primacy of land use issues in urban policy means the dreaded NIMBYism is common. The relative ease of engaging with city government (as opposed to state or federal) means more NIMBY coalitions can thrive, and on a wider range of minor issues.

Another possibility is that the quality of elected officials on the city level is worse. I'm fairly skeptical that the link between politician quality and policy outcomes is really that tight, but it's not hard to imagine that lawmaking is a tough skill that takes time to master. If successful officials gain recognition for good work, they might tend to move upwards through the layers of federalism, leaving lower-quality governance in cities.

One peculiar fact that has almost certainly degraded the quality and efficacy of city governance is their long history of one-party rule. Democrats have had almost total control in urban areas for a very long time, with most electoral competition occurring in primaries between ideologically similar candidates. When one party stays in office long enough, interest groups inevitably gain power and influence. The basic mechanism of democratic accountability is broken when cities always vote for the same party regardless of policy outcomes. Republicans have little incentive to court urban voters with policy concessions (because they'll rarely win), and Democrats also don't need to compete for voters because they'll win no matter what. This basic phenomenon is a second-order claim about incentives and institutions, and is separate from one's party affiliation.

Lastly there's the possibility that this whole issue is merely a mirage--city governance may not be any better or worse than other levels of government. Cities face a unique set of challenges (poverty, crime, etc.) that may warp our evaluation of governance when looking at outcomes. Additionally, there are a great many cities in the U.S.  Naturally we'd expect some to have above-average governance and some to have below-average governance, occurring solely by chance and contingent historical and contextual factors. The emphasis on terrible city governance in the news media might just be a particularly bad case of selection bias: everybody hears about the bad cities, but few hear about the good ones.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Postal Service Should Deliver Mail Once a Week

Photo Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The U.S. Postal Service is having some problems implementing its preferred policy reform of ending Saturday mail delivery, with Congress voting yesterday to force the agency to keep six-day delivery for the rest of the fiscal year. The Postal Service is rapidly losing money in part because of a terrible law mandating pre-paid retiree benefits, but mostly because its revenues are falling as society shifts to the internet for its communication services.

Congress' policy restrictions place the Postal Service in an impossible operating environment: the agency is expected to fund itself like any business and compete for customers, but its ability to make tough workforce and strategy choices is restricted. Given that most governments in the world have some form of mail delivery service, identifying an optimal set of policies shouldn't be that difficult: do a comparative analysis and identify what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately political incentives and ideology get in the way.

The employee union and customers have a direct stake in maintaining the status quo. In the absence of a powerful coalition supporting reform, lawmakers wishing to raise money and public support vote to maintain the status quo. This dynamic is timeless and won't change.

The philosophical arguments against reform, however, might be more amenable to change. The basic purpose of the Postal Service is to deliver mail. In the past, the "public good" nature of a national postal service was clear. Fostering a national identity, providing communication services to individuals living in remote areas, and establishing a ubiquitous and tangible example of the fruits of the social contract are all benefits that the market would undersupply on its own. Add to that the coordination benefits of having a single network provider and the argument for a strong national postal service seems pretty good.

But times have changed. Global corporations like FedEx could presumably provide similar services given the opportunity. Civic virtue and national identity are well-established and unlikely to degrade in the absence of daily mail delivery; indeed cheap and easy access to the internet is almost certainly more beneficial in this regard. By subsidizing the communication and parcel delivery needs of people living in rural and remote areas, the economic and environmental benefits of urbanization are reduced. Subsidizing the lifestyle of people without cheap and easy access to computers and the internet to such a large degree reduces the demand for investments in telecommunications infrastructure, and probably reduces the political demand for better internet and telecommunications policy.

Photo Credit: ThinkProgress
Many defenders of the current Postal Service operation agree with all that, but respond by basically saying poor people without cheap and easy access to the internet deserve communication services to maintain their connection to society and the economy. I agree. But it's important to be clear on what this conception of the Postal Service really means: providing a sufficient floor on communications capacity for all citizens is a far cry from the original purpose of government mail delivery. This conception is basically a welfare policy akin to the food stamps program. And the food stamps program is a good idea! Helping poor people is a good idea and certainly falls under the government's jurisdiction! But if that's what the Postal Service is for, we ought to recognize that it's a much narrower mandate than what the bureaucracy is currently geared towards providing.

Seen in this light, the Postal Service is a costly agency with an extremely low target efficiency. Perhaps just giving people money to purchase computers or internet connections would be a more effective. Perhaps directly providing computers or internet connections would be better (to allay the inevitable concern that recipients might spend the money on other things). Maybe increasing the funding and quality of public libraries would get the job done. Perhaps merging public libraries with the Postal Service is the answer--most parcels could be picked up rather than delivered and the combined real estate footprint of both institutions means most households would have nearby access. Why not allow private businesses to become middle-men in the mail delivery process: in New York City, picking up mail and parcels from a local Chinese takeout restaurant or bodega would probably be incredibly convenient for a huge share of the population.

At the very least, direct mail delivery to individual households should be reduced to one or two days a week. Paired with other reforms aimed at speeding the transition to internet-based communication services, this reduction would allow more public resources to flow to those who truly need them.