Governance post: Flint & Virginia Tech, A story of a mom, science, and governmental successes among the government failures

Mark Edwards, the scientist who worked on exposing the problems in Flint, MI, was one of my colleagues at Virginia Tech. He seems to be committed to the radical idea that people’s drinking water shouldn’t make them sick.

This piece in Washington Post is one of those “hero’s journey” journalistic accounts that drive me a little bit crazy, but hey. Edwards deserves it. The nice part of the story comes in here:

And then his phone rang in April 2015. It was a woman named Leeanne Walters, a Flint, Mich., stay-at-home mother who was getting nowhere convincing state and local officials that there was something seriously wrong with the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap. Her family’s hair was thinning. Her son’s skin was red and irritated. They told her the water was perfectly safe. And even months later, when it had been determined there were high traces of lead in her water, the officials shrugged it off as an isolated problem.

Desperately, she called Edwards, whom she had read about online. Over the phone, he walked her through how to take her own water samples. The next day she sent them FedEx to Edwards to test. It was the worst lead levels he had ever seen.

“When we saw that my heart skipped a couple of beats,” he said. “The last thing I needed in my life was another confrontation with government agencies. But it was us or nobody.”

First, yay Ms. Walters. Citizen-led science is never not awesome.

Second, though the story highlights lousy behavior and governmental failures on the part of regulatory agencies, included the CDC, which really can’t be doing that. CDC is an agency where nothing less than 100 percent effort towards transparency and accountability is acceptable. Heads need to roll.

But although much of media wants to trumpet just the government failures, ahem. Mark Edwards was educated, his entire life, at state schools–SUNY Buffalo and the University Washington. He’s spent his career fighting for clean water from a *tenured*–not contingent–position at *state* school. He received grant money, though not enough, from the National Science Foundation–a *federal* source of grant funding that some of our friends in Congress buuuuuuuuuurn to cut because it’s just a waste. He disseminated his findings via an internet that the government helped research, develop, and build.

My point is not just to fling more confetti on Professor Edwards, but to point us back to a rather old-fashioned idea: that there is good government and there is bad government, and that good government is possible, and it is often all around us, invisible, and it is sometimes the only thing that is capable of standing up when government itself fails.

Would transit funding be better off with devolution?

This topic has arisen quite often given our Federal budget brinkmanship: would transit in the US be better off with devolution?

Let’s define some terms. Devolution is the political science speak for movement of fiscal and governance responsibility from higher to lower levels of governments–usually federal to state governments. Traditionally, the governance of cities has been a complex blend of home rule and state statute, and since I am not a lawyer and don’t play one on tv, I can’t explain much more than that.

My grouchy libertarian (actually quite genteel and decent) colleagues tend to refer to transit funding in the US as “making bets with other people’s money.” That is, the transit revival so far in the US, with a few notable exceptions like much of the LA system, has been funded via cracking into Federal revenues, largely from gas taxes, for regional transit projects (capital investment). Perhaps nothing embodies the old lobbying adage that “this issue isn’t going to go away until we pass it” more than transit advocacy–unless perhaps high speed rail advocacy. And advocates have been successful, even if they don’t have the funds they’d like.

Beginning in 1992, the US opened progressively more of gas tax revenues to nonhighway purposes. In fact, in the tradition of “not going away” to get funding at the Federal level, I’d argue, prompted a bunch of livable city folks to begin advocating for Federal support of bike and pedestrian projects. (And there is money used for those; if you are going to allocate Federal cash for projects and expect a match, localities are able to afford much more in the way of bike and pedestrian stuff even if nominally it has to look like the money for those things comes from their funds.)

Many people have grumped about Federal funding for transit another such local/regional projects, and I’m one of those, with caveats. It’s not clear to me that Federal taxpayers should pay for the sidewalk outside my door. I realize that the earth will crash into the sun at the mere mention of property taxes, but land value improvements that I capture directly as homeowner, like sidewalks, are what property taxes or private homeowner association fees are for.

Arguably, local leaders would make more prudential developments if they were to be accountable to their constituents for investing wisely, instead of what they are accountable for now–chasing for their share extra-jurisdictional dollars.

I’m not particularly sympathetic to whining that roads got their investment at the Federal level and now fairness requires that transit get its fair share. I tend to reserve social justice arguments for people rather than modes, and if we want to support transit for civil rights reasons, let’s do so based on those compelling reason—and do it right, by concentrating the dollars in the communities, projects, and services where civil rights and access are most needed rather than overcapitalizing into low-density, low-employment suburbs because of political payola.

I also don’t expect Federal taxpayers to pay for the pothole outside my door.

Federal gas taxes were initially dedicated for an interstate system, which we did, in fact, build (though some may be surprised to remember that the “urban freeways” they deplore do connect into a larger network). So the Federal role in high speed rail money makes far more sense, in terms of network coordination and connectivity, than the idea that Federal taxpayers should be on the hook for the Crenshaw Line Light rail (wonderful project though it is) or the Number 8 express busline in Upper Sandusky.

Federal involvement in transit also has led to a heavy capital bias in transit investment, prompting local and regional agencies to build transit projects, again and again, that they can’t afford to run with any frequency. This leads to a wider geographic coverage for transit–which probably still isn’t wide enough to deal with spreading regions–and with lower frequencies than really make for high service quality. (And sprawl is bad, bad, bad, evil and terrible! The worst thing ever! There? Will that sentence keep some of you land-use people outta my grill for the purposes of this post? Can I talk about something else now? Thanks.)

Transit has been on the teeter-tottery edge of those issues and criticisms for a long time. Why can’t New York pay for its own subways? Or Los Angeles? Or anywhere? That’s why we have local taxes and general funds, right? If you want transit, don’t go holler at the feds. Make it happen if you want it. Perhaps there would be a greater chance of that self-helping if leaders know that the buck really began and stopped with them, and they might instead be much more careful to match investments to operations.

The US Congress is overly dominated by rural interests, and many of us for years have argued that this creates a hostile environment for transit funding in the first place, as many rural senators wonder: “what’s in it for my constituents?” and the ineffectual spreading of scarce resources around to systems that aren’t particularly viable or worth investing in. Porky McPorktown.

This graphic appeared in the Economist (where I have been a devoted subscriber for a very long time; please don’t sue me) accompanying this story about US Federal spending by donors and recipients of Federal largesse:

Voila Capture122

I encourage you to read the entire story. This is about all Federal spending, and I’d rather like to dig into their numbers when I get time. This map, I suspect, would be basically the same if it were to map out gas tax revenues and disbursements. The big states, like New York and California, give more than they get. The states with Senator Bedfellows making careers out of yammering on about the evil Feds get a lot more than they give. Who can explain these politics? I can’t.

So if places like California, New York, Illinois, and Minnesota were running their own budgetary shop, they could keep the revenues they are currently sending to Portland and Memphis and Charlotte.

Here’s the glitch: these donor state are only fiscally better off with Federal gas tax elimination or erosion if those donor states prove capable of passing a gas tax on its residents equal to or better than the 18 cents a gallon [- whatever the Feds give away to other jurisdictions]. And I’m not seeing that happen, at least not in California. Maybe in Minnesota. Maybe in New York, or Massachusetts. Maybe.

And there’s another question: would there have been a Portland at all if there hadn’t been Federal taxation, redistribution, and willingness to invest in smaller regions? It’s not clear that Portland wouldn’t have been willing or able to raise the money for its own perky transit miracle, but I have my doubts as to whether Portland as a region would have evolved as it had had it not been for their aggressive pursuit of Federal funding early on.

Wouldn’t many people feel rather bad about that?

Peter Diamond, making us regret Republicans. Again.

Peter Diamond, for those of you who are not economists, is an brilliant economist by any measure. His nomination to the Fed was an excellent choice. But to my surprise, he was controversial.

Why? I don’t understand. At some point, somebody said to some Republican senators that Diamond has studied poverty and income constraints. Or somebody remarked that Diamond isn’t a jackbooted free market Chicago School guy, and so he must be unqualified. Yeah, because MIT gives out full professor positions to just any crank.

Whatever it was, Diamond says his goodbye in the New York Times and explains very well how the idiots running this country (elected by other people who see no value in education and, thus, have no idea what the Fed does or what qualifications would be helpful at the Fed) feel free to mouth the words “monetary policy” without actually understanding what “monetary policy” is.

Did Peter get a minor or a certificate in monetary policy? No? Well that must mean he KNOWS NOTHING.

I wonder if the Dems would strike at a Gary Becker nomination. I doubt it.

It brings to mind Jonathon Chait’s essay this week over at the New Republic, about how a loud, bullying, unreasonable subsection of the American right has taken over largely because their attitude is “screw negotiation, screw facts, screw reasonableness; what I want is the way God intended it and I will stop at nothing get my way”:

Remember when Democrats swept the 2006 elections, then stormed into Washington demanding national health care reform and the repeal of President Bush’s upper-bracket tax cuts as a condition for keeping the government open? Right, me neither. Yet somehow the Republicans, controlling just one house of Congress—unlike the two held by Democrats in 2007—have completely seized control of the political agenda.

As somebody who falls much farther to the free market side than most in my profession, the dogmatic right certainly doesn’t reflect my values in any real way. These are people who are willing to shoot down the nomination of an imminently qualified, brilliant man because he fails to fit their ideology, and I’m tired of it.

I honestly was thinking yesterday during my walk that it might actually better to get rid of the Fed entirely rather than let it become even more politicized. I don’t actually recommend that, but it was a worthy thought experiment for several blocks.

Consider, as well, the embarrassing state of our Supreme Court. Oh, we wouldn’t want those activist judges, now, would we? Giving out civil rights and what all.

I saw a tweet that made me laugh yesterday, from Rick Flora: “The Kardashians’ have now been on the air twice as long as ‘Arrested Development.’ THIS IS WHY YOU CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS, AMERICA.”


Circumventing the NRA via the world court

Neil Peirce asks whether mayors from around the world might create a united urban voice around issues that affect cities. One such issue: the US’s lax control over guns: » Could Mayors’ Fervor For Gun Curbs Trigger Global Legal Action?

A clip:

The “extremely violent” Mexican drug gangs, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon reported, are getting 85 percent of their weaponry from transfers across the U.S. border. (The method’s simple — the gangs simply recruit straw buyers who can flash a U.S. driver’s license at a gun shop, walk out with scores of firearms, many of them assault weapons, and then transport the lethal cargo into Mexico).

This is an interesting idea. Ten years ago, I would have said “no chance.” But recent inroads in global environmental enforcement of things such as environmental assessment suggest otherwise.

We could save a lot of money by getting rid of Oklahoma

In another instance of an opportunistic politician going after small money and getting in the NYT, Republican Senator Tom Coburn is riding high on his brilliant plan to get rid of government waste by going after political science funding in NSF. We’ll leave aside the fact that this is really really small money we’re talking here–we might as well just not fund 20 box culverts–and just go after the heart of this: we need to not fund political science research at the Federal level because this senator wants to claim a ‘win’ and lots of people resent professors, particularly those associated with the humanities or social sciences because we supposedly aren’t curing cancer or, in Coburn’s case, coming up with the newest, most profit-enhancing ranch or oil technology, or since he’s a doctor, a new technology that would allow doctors to spend on average 5 minutes with patients instead that lengthy 7 minutes they spend now. It could save lives.

I also think it is imperative that scholars do relevant work. But the decision rule at NSF or any funder should be about ideas–not disciplines, necessarily–and what seems on its surface less useful sometimes proves over the long term to be immensely useful. So those early experiments in behavioral economics were not particularly well-received. But I’d say they look pretty useful now, don’t you think? Nash’s early work on game theory went unrecognized for years, and now it’s one of the most valuable tools in the anti-terrorism toolkit I suspect Coburn approves of highly. Lots of computer science things absolutely necessary to military and industry began with little abstractions in math or philosophy. Knowledge and human capital are like quicksilver to forecast, and yet the consequences of them are all around us, all the time.

So let’s turn this issue on its head and go after some big money. Do we really need Oklahoma? Is it relevant for anything? Now, we can’t afford to go indulging in jingoistic arguments about how Oklahoma is significant to Oklahoman’s identities and whatnot; that’s just like the “life of the mind” arguments Coburn wouldn’t want us to listen to about political science. Let’s actually look at whether the state of Oklahoma is a worthy and efficient usage of public funds. Couldn’t most of the administrative functions of the state be absorbed rather easily into those of its neighboring states? Couldn’t its universities just close down and send their students elsewhere? Or couldn’t they simply get renamed the University of Texas-Stillwater or the University of Texas–Oklahoma City?** Wouldn’t that save a lot of money? Let’s go at it hard and faster: in two generations, I suspect we will be able to govern most of the US population via mayors’ offices and metropolitan planning organizations. Aren’t states struggling financially? States still wield a lot of political and financial capital because of past political decisions, not because of efficiency criteria, and now that we are an urban country in an urban world, aren’t states by and large redundant? Shouldn’t we be thinking about dismantling them?

I think the answer is no largely because states, like universities, are major employers and provide a lot of economic development for their surrounding cities more so. Maybe some political scientists can apply to NSF for some grant funding to prove me wrong here–to establish a compelling rationale for state-level governance over local or regional administration…

**I’m pretty sure just by writing that, I probably caused a Sooners fan to burst a blood vessel in his temple.