Tag Archives: public policy

And Now A Word From the Fantasy-Based Community

I read Dispatches from the Culture Wars regularly. Ed Brayton is a witty and perceptive commentator with an excellent grasp of America’s constitutional foundations–but his greatest appeal (for me) comes from the fact that he monitors behaviors that I wouldn’t have the stomach to follow. He keeps tabs on the kooks of the far, far right (and sometimes the far, far left)–the “celebrities” of the wacko fringes.

Most of the time, when reading about the pronouncements and delusions of these characters, I take comfort in reminding myself of the limited appeal of whatever brand of crazy a particular figure is peddling.

But this was truly appalling.

Earlier this month, the city of San Antonio (Texas) held a mayoral forum in which candidates talked about the impact of and challenges for non-profit groups in the community.

At one point, current Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked about the “deepest systemic cause of generational poverty.” There’s no simple answer to that, of course, but Taylor’s response wasn’t even close.

“Not even close” is an understatement. Here’s the Mayor’s response.

To me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their Creator, and therefore, not being in good relationship with their families and their communities, and not being productive members of society. I think that’s the ultimate answer.

As Ed points out, that not only isn’t the “ultimate answer,” it’s an answer that betrays vast ignorance of American economic realities and that displays the sort of breathtakingly smug religious arrogance that you encounter from time to time from people who give religion a very bad name. As Brayton puts it,

Poor people aren’t all poor because they’re “broken” or atheists or in need of a better relationship with their families. (While we’re at it, they’re also not poor because they’re lazy and addicted to welfare checks.)

People are poor, in many cases, because they don’t have opportunities to put their skills to work, they never had access to a quality education, and they live in areas where upward mobility is hard to come by. In some cases, they can work multiple jobs with little sleep and still have a hard time getting out of whatever debt they’re already in. Poverty is tough to overcome. Generational poverty, even tougher.

The vast majority of poor Americans work 40 or more hours a week at jobs that don’t pay a living wage. (Not that it is relevant, but a sizable majority of them identify as Christian, and profess a “relationship” with a “Creator.” Atheists in the U.S. actually tend to be well-educated and financially comfortable–when you aren’t constantly struggling to put food on the table, you have the time and resources to ponder theological questions and consider counter-majoritarian conclusions…But I digress.)

I’ve written before about the United Way of Indiana’s description of ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and the huge gap between what those families need simply in order to survive and the pitifully inadequate public and private resources available to them.

There are a lot of things policymakers could do to decrease poverty: raise the minimum wage, reinstitute Reagan-era tax brackets, strengthen unions, eliminate the ACA in favor of “Medicare for All”…and jettison a self-satisfied ideology that blames poverty on a lack of productivity and an inadequate “relationship with the Creator.”

The fact that Americans elect people who mouth such inanities (beginning with Donald Trump and definitely including Mayor Ivy Taylor) is evidence of a different kind of poverty.




Complicated Problems, Bumper-Sticker Solutions

A recent column in the New York Times reminded me (as if such a reminder was needed!) of American lawmakers’ penchant for “solving” problems by passing “quick and dirty” laws that may placate a constituency, but do little to actually solve the problem at hand–and often do considerable collateral damage.

A particularly pernicious example is the one highlighted by the Times, 

a wave of laws around the country restricting where people convicted of sex offenses may live — in many cases, no closer than 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, parks or other areas where children gather. In some places, these “predator-free zones” put an entire town or county off limits, sometimes for life, even for those whose offenses had nothing to do with children.

Protecting children from sexual abuse is, of course, a paramount concern. But there is not a single piece of evidence that these laws actually do that. For one thing, the vast majority of child sexual abuse is committed not by strangers but by acquaintances or relatives. And residency laws drive tens of thousands of people to the fringes of society, forcing them to live in motels, out of cars or under bridges. The laws apply to many and sometimes all sex offenders, regardless of whether they were convicted for molesting a child or for public urination.

I vividly remember a friend’s anguish when his younger brother–who had just turned eighteen–was placed on Indiana’s sex offender registry for “molesting” his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, despite her protests that she had initiated their voluntary encounter.

I understand the desire to “do something” when a genuine molestation occurs. I understand the pressure on lawmakers to respond to a parent’s demand for action (particularly when that parent is politically active or connected). But at some point, everyone needs to take a deep breath and recognize the unintended–and pernicious– consequences of “solutions” created by people who fail to understand the complexity and dimensions of the problem.

A Thought Experiment

Sometimes, it’s useful to step outside our usual political debates about programs and policies, about this or that candidate or pundit or official, and think a bit about a more basic question–perhaps the most basic question facing any society: how should we live together?

In my graduate Law and Public Affairs class, we spend a semester considering the American answer to that question. We discuss the effect of Enlightenment philosophy on our understanding of the role of the state, we examine the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the constraints those documents impose on policy formation, and we take a closer look at current policy debates through that lens. Well and good–the stated purpose of the class is to give public affairs students an appreciation of the myriad ways our legal system shapes our policies.

But every so often, I give an exam with multiple questions from which students can choose (“write an essay on one of the following questions…”), and among the choices, I include one that poses the following scenario:  Earth has been destroyed in WWIII. You and a few thousand other inhabitants, representing a cross-section of nationalities, cultures, races and religions, have escaped to an M-Class planet. (I’m a Star Trek fan. Sue me.) Create a new government.

The question instructs students to identify the values they will privilege, the measures they will take to ensure stability, etc.

The point of the question is to shake students’ tendency to think that the world they inhabit is the only world possible; to get them to question structures and processes they take for granted, and to think about more basic questions. Typically, those who choose to answer my “science fiction” question, rather than the more mundane alternatives (immigration, taxation, environmental issues, etc.) are the better students, although even among them there are plenty who simply fashion their new world government after that of the U.S.,who simply  replicate the world they inhabit, albeit with minor changes. (Most would get rid of the electoral college, for example.) Over the years, however, I have gotten some truly inspired answers–funny, thoughtful, creative approaches to that fundamental question of how humans should construct our social order.

The answer someone gives to that question is a pretty good clue to what they truly value–not to mention to their ability to understand what can and cannot be expected to work in a world composed of real, diverse and quarrelsome humans.

What “new world order” would you create, if you had the chance?

You’ll Never Get Your Hair Cut in this Town Again

Recently, a colleague of mine was asked to research the impact of professional licensing laws and to report her findings to a legislative study committee. Licensing laws have steadily proliferated—in1970, about 10% of the American workforce required a license of some sort in order to earn a living; by 2000, that percentage had doubled to 20%. It is now estimated to be around 29%.

Lest we think of these requirements as evidence of “big brother” or the much-deplored (and largely fanciful) triumph of an insatiable governmental regulatory fervor, most of these rules are the result of lobbying efforts by the occupational groups being regulated. The result is that Indiana—like many states—requires that workers be licensed before they can shampoo or braid your hair, hypnotize you, or decorate your family room.

Licensing laws are justified by concerns for public safety. We license doctors because most patients lack the knowledge to spot charlatans, and the consequences of what academics call “information asymmetry” can be fatal. We license architects and engineers because building collapses are similarly consequential. This justification seems weaker when we get to shampoo girls and interior decorators.

There is statistical evidence that licensing acts as a barrier to entry into a profession, and also as a barrier to labor mobility (since states have different requirements, licenses are considerably less portable than one might imagine). There is also clear evidence that licensing raises consumer prices—depending upon the profession, those increases range from 4-35%.

The study committee was weighing these benefits and burdens, and considering whether other means of protecting consumers in lower-risk situations might be more cost-effective. Certification, for example, might offer a middle ground. Physicians with specialties use this approach—they have numerous board certifications that are administered by professional organizations. Government isn’t involved, and taxpayers don’t pay the administrative costs, but consumers have the benefit of information about that particular doctor’s training and expertise.

Enter political reality.

Facebook postings warned of disease spread by unclean cosmetic instruments. Tweets went out to rally those in the affected occupations. On the day of the hearing, swarms of scissors-wielding hairdressers (and for all I know, livid interior designers and angry hypnotists) descended on the Indiana Statehouse. My colleague, somewhat shell-shocked, reported that those whose scissors were confiscated by security were furious—evidently it hadn’t occurred to them that weapons couldn’t be taken into the Statehouse. She may have to leave town to get her hair cut after this, and she wasn’t even there to advocate de-regulation; she was just reporting what the relevant research showed.

I am not a betting woman, but I’d give odds against any change in the status quo. As any political scientist can confirm, it is easier to stop change than to effect it.

There are a couple of lessons here, for those interested in reality, rather than the ideologies of Right or Left.

The Right needs to admit that government regulations are just as likely to be a product of the economic self-interest of the regulated industry as the expression of authoritarian impulses. At the state level, much of the drumbeat for licensure reflects the (understandable) belief that one’s occupation should be elevated to the status of a profession; much more comes from a less noble desire to restrict entry and increase profits.

The lesson for the Left is that regulations do, in fact, increase costs, and that they are not always the best way to achieve public goods. The perceived benefits in public safety must be weighed against those costs.

The lesson for my colleague is to avoid angry hairdressers brandishing scissors.












I get tired of beating the same dead horse, but the Star’s story this morning about the Litebox episode–a piece of real reporting that is becoming increasingly rare–raises additional questions.

The story makes vividly clear how slapdash the City’s vetting process has been, and how politically motivated the decision to announce “job creation.” But the story makes a bigger point, albeit implicitly, about the entire policy of “buying” jobs for one’s area by offering financial incentives to companies that will promise to move or expand.

The obvious arguments against such efforts are familiar: it puts government in the position of helping some businesses but not others that may be their competitors, which troubles those of us who believe in real markets; and it is a zero-sum game overall, since the company that moves its company from Ohio to Indiana is not creating more jobs–it is simply moving jobs from one place to another.

But the Litebox fiasco pointed up a problem I hadn’t previously considered. Even if competent people are running these programs–clearly not the case here–they are unlikely to know enough about the technologies and economic realities of very different industries to make truly informed decisions. This may not have been the case when local officials were competing to attract an automobile factory, but the same technological and cultural changes that increasingly challenge tech businesspeople and that make investment decisions risky even for savvy and knowledgable investors make it virtually impossible for government officials to accurately gauge the viability of tech business deals.

When you add in the inevitable politics involved–the huge pressures to score political points, to look like you are delivering on your campaign promises–it’s no wonder that the jobs don’t materialize. As the Star pointed out, even companies with sound performance records and none of the red flags that accompanied the Litebox proposal have more often than not failed to deliver on their promises.

It’s time to rethink these incentives. Even in competent administrations, as currently structured, they are bad public policy.