Archive for the ‘public policy’ Category

Risk and Safety Nets

David Leonhardt makes a quick summary point in his article about the history of opposition to America’s social safety net that I think is far more broad than just the issue of the recent health care law. He is discussing the competing strains in American culture and history of upholding individual freedom and up-by-your-bootstraps risk taking with our belief in social justice and the sense that all deserve to share in America’s prosperity and success.

It’s easy to look at the current debate and see an unavoidable trade-off between this country’s two economic traditions — risk-taking and security. But I don’t think that’s quite right….Guaranteeing people a decent retirement and decent health care does more than smooth out the rough edges of capitalism. Those guarantees give people the freedom to take risks.

A good part of the United States’ success is built on our tendency for creativity, risk taking, entrepreneurship, and innovation. While the “solitary genius in his garage” meme can be overplayed, it is true that if you look at a lot of the big breakthrough companies (Google, FedEx, etc.) in recent history you’ll find someone who struck out on her own, bucked conventional wisdom, and took a risk to create something new.

A common conservative argument is that increased government involvement in people’s lives will coddle them, make them dependent/passive, and will stifle innovation and risk taking. While there are those that will take risks no matter the cost and those who value comfort and security above all else, most balance risk and reward, potential benefits and potential costs.

This fits neatly into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In this paradigm, the classic ‘American Innovator’ is working in the realm of self-actualization, pursuing the goals of creativity and achievement. But Maslow’s big realization was that most people will only pursue these higher goals once their more basic needs are secured (food, water, safety).

Here is Leonhardt’s critical point, safety nets don’t prevent people taking risk, they encourage them. The knowledge that our most basic needs for survival are secure (resources when we can no longer work for ourselves, care if we become ill) gives us the freedom to strike out on our own and take the leaps that do sometimes result in breakthroughs and have helped the United States to be a leader in technology, business, the arts, and justice.

Matt Yglesias summarizes the thought nicely:

…it’s worth taking the safety net metaphor seriously. Typically when you see a safety net in place, you’re not really looking at someone who’s trying to be safe. You’re looking at someone who’s trying to do something dangerous. Because it’s dangerous, there’s a safety net in place. But the main point of the net is to facilitate risky-taking behavior not to make you safer than the average person.

One perhaps less universal, but still perceptive contention is bikesnobNYC’s maxim that “brakes make you faster”.



A lot of classic environmental concerns get wrapped up in moral judgments. We need to “save” the Earth, “protect” polar bears, fight against “threats” to our wild lands. While I may believe in all those causes, not all do. Perhaps worse, even some who might agree with the goals of these campaigns are turned off by the common perceptions of environmental activism as elitist, anti-human, or just a distraction from more important issues.

While I’m a proud “environmentalist” and don’t think we should apologize for our goals, there’s a lot of wisdom in speaking to people in ways that resonate with them. Even more importantly, a lot of environmental goals are worth pursuing purely on measures that environmentalists typically (or it is claimed) don’t pay attention to like jobs, national security, economic considerations, and the like.

Few areas of environmental activism fit this bill better than global warming. While global climate change is a threat to many traditional environmental concerns (extinction, habitat destruction) is is also a threat to many of the issues most important to those who often see themselves in direct opposition to the environmental lobby. How many other environmental issues has the Pentagon and CIA identified as “a real threat.”

The case for responding to climate change is so broad that even the Washington Post ran a recent editorial arguing that “fighting global warming should be a conservative cause“. Writer Bracken Hendricks makes a strong case for addressing climate change on the basis of protecting our “national interests”, “rigorous cost-benefit analysis”, and to avoid “unnecessary intrusions into our personal liberty.” One of his key arguments is that regardless of your belief in the science of climate change, we should behave like that key idol of conservatives, the small business owner.

“When faced with uncertainty and the possibility of costly outcomes, smart businessmen buy insurance, reduce their downside exposure and protect their assets.”

This approach to arguing for addressing what is typical viewed as an “environmental concern” as a rational response to a threat to our economic and national security interests is why I so like David Roberts’ recent campaign to rename people who want to address climate change issues. His general point is that as long as the movement to address climate change is seen a issue of the environmental lobby, it will be subject to all the vagaries of the left/right debate in this country. In reality, there is a huge, natural coalition of people on both sides of that split that should see this as a critical issue. Roberts sought to come up with a terms to describe those who see this as a threat to be addressed and settled on “Climate Hawks”.

“First and foremost, it doesn’t carry any implications about The Truth. It doesn’t say, “I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m smarter and more enlightened than you.” Instead it evokes a judgment: that the risks of climate change are sufficient to warrant a robust response. By definition, everyone must make such judgments on their own. Rather than being a Manichean choice—you get it or you’re stupid—it becomes about values, about how hard to fight and how much to sacrifice to defend America and her future. That’s the right conversation to be having.”

So I’m officially declaring myself a Climate Hawk and hoping that is just one of a growing number of ways in which issues that have typically been seen as the purview only of people who “care about the environment” or “social justice” find natural allies among groups who have been considered adversaries.

Labor versus Capital

Over at the TreePeople blog, founder Andy Lipkis takes exception to water agencies’ typical reliance on technological/industrial approaches to providing safe, reliable water supplies. He compares two possible approaches for increasing the local supply of water for Los Angeles, rain water capture and ocean water desalination plants. Beyond the obvious question of why you would allow rain water to run into the ocean, becoming salt water, so you can then pump it back out and try to take the salt out of it, he sees another lost opportunity with this approach, jobs.

Lipkis compares these two charts:

Source: Pacific Institute, “Desalination, With a Grain of Salt”

Source: Political Economy Research Institute

He notes that a typical desalination plant has only 4% of its costs come from labor indicating few long term jobs due to a focus on investing in a capital and energy intensive approach. By contrast, investment in “Water Systems” like rain water catchment has been shown to produce more jobs per dollar invested than other major infrastructure projects and common tax cuts. Water catchment and recycling requires capital investments, but it also requires more long term labor to build, maintain, and operate. Lipkis spots a key fallout from this approach:

The investment decision towards massive grey technology and away from people drains cash and resources, jobs and vital energy from communities and city. The result is a very powerful contributor to chronic unemployment of urban dwellers. Lack of legitimate, useful work perpetuates poverty, hopelessness, crime, and leads to youth violence.

A general shift away from labor intensive and toward capital intensive approaches is considered normal for an advanced economy with high living standards. Labor tends to be expensive and it is more “efficient” to invest in larger, more automated systems. Lipkis has identified one undesirable consequence of this tendency. But he doesn’t go beyond that into one of the key reasons that this is typical…cheap energy. Seawater desalination is hugely energy intensive. That this is now being considered as a viable solution to dwindling fresh water supplies points to our desperate need for more water, but also that manufactured energy is still vastly cheaper than human energy (labor). Even a modest increase in the costs of energy will begin to shift this equation, making energy intensive approaches more costly while making labor intensive approaches more competitive.

Whether it is through cap and trade, industry specific emissions targets, or other techniques, all recent proposals to change our energy policies have been widely attacked as “job killers”. While anything that increases costs does tend to suppress economic activity and jobs in the short term, most critics fail to see the long term implications of raising energy prices. For many industries, long term expensive energy may actually tend to increase employment as labor becomes more competitive cost wise compared to capital intensive techniques. By keeping labor relatively expensive, we’ve driven our economy toward cheaper, energy intensive systems. While this may have lowered the cost of many goods and services, it has also contributed to job insecurity, higher unemployment, and rising outsourcing. Corporate america might not like expensive energy, but if you actually “work for a living”, it might be the best thing coming.

Is It Broken?

At a recent talk in Los Angeles, New York City DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn made the following seemingly innocuous statement, “no one can claim the current system isn’t broken.” It was an offhand thought that got general murmurs of agreement. But in some ways, I think this may be the most radical thing she said all night. Ironically, it may also be one of the least accurate things she said.

Sadik-Khan is famous (and infamous) for rapidly and shockingly veering NYC transportation priorities away from the standard “move the most cars as fast as possible” mission statement to one that at least considers pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit priorities and their needs. Without overstating her impact, it does seem that starting from this fundamental belief that the current system does not function has allowed her and her department to embark on a series of experimental approaches. Departments of Transportation are notoriously hidebound and resistant to change. Many planning concepts and priorities are still based on approaches developed in the 1950’s and earlier. Indoctrination into these traditions is passed on as new engineers study under the last generation and then begin to work in the real world.  So rather than nod in agreement, let’s take her statement at face value. Is the current system broken and can anyone claim that it’s not?

I doubt anyone would argue that our current transport system is ideal, at least no one who commutes in any moderately sized city would. But “broken” is a distinction of kind and not degree. Like the apocryphal boiling frog placed in a slowly warming pot of water, people have an amazing capacity to adapt to slow changes over time without noticing, each new level of degrading conditions becomes the new “normal” that is accepted as the way things are. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people per year are killed in traffic accidents in the US. Your chance of getting killed in an auto accident is roughly 1 in 87. The chance of being killed by terrorism…1 in 9.3 million. But which is seen as an existential threat to our country? In 2007, the overall cost of traffic congestion is estimated at $8.7 billion, $750 for every traveler and wasted time added up to 4.2 billion hours, roughly one full work week per traveler. Over the last decade, we have added an average of 32,000 lane-miles per year to the nation’s highway system. Despite the huge social costs and big investments, traffic congestion has gotten worse, nearly continuously. The only event that seems to have decreased it in recent history was the intense economic slowdown of the last two years, and there are signs the economy (and traffic) are on the rebound.

Does all this mean our transportation is “broken”? Hard to say perhaps. People enjoy greater mobility than they ever have in the past, cars are improving rapidly; becoming safer and less polluting. But will incremental improvements fundamentally change anything? Beyond easy statistics, some of the biggest criticisms of auto-centric planning are of the costs in terms of community and quality of life. These criteria are tough to quantify on even the broadest criteria. Perhaps all that can be said is that there is a rapidly spreading belief that the system is broken. It is that belief that there is a better way that is forcing change in cities, large and small, around the country.

To the initial assertion that “no one can claim…” Well, here I will have to take exception with Sadik-Khan as much as I wish I could agree with her. I won’t bother to link to the wide range of voices, from the marginal to the powerful, who would do anything other than admit that our system is broken. Even those who will admit that there are problems will usually assign the cause as being a lack of commitment to an auto-centric policy rather than an over commitment to it.

While I can’t agree with Sadik-Khan in a literal sense, I will stand with her vision without reservation. Change often requires both the belief that change is itself possible and that it is necessary. I think she is demonstrating the power of one’s basic assumptions and why they are so critical.