Unintended Consequences

A substantial body of research indicates that private enterprise is inherently efficient. The people who wrote that research appear to work at think tanks, however, not private enterprises.

Anyone who has worked in a private enterprise knows what really goes on there. In any enterprise of more than a few dozen people, bureaucratic barriers and pockets of unproductivity crop up and stay around for long periods of time. A bumbling but politically astute manager can hire incompetent staff and maintain a whole department of dead weight, dragging down the efforts of others. Companies are irrational entities: they refuse to acknowledge errors promptly and pour good money after bad.

In short, all the failings attributed to government happen in private enterprises too. These failings are a fixture of human nature and organizational dynamics.

Andy Oram/Getting Universal Service to Work

Every now and then Andy Oram produces something really interesting.  This long essay is mainly about how to make universal service happen (not just broadband, though that’s the main focus), but it touches on a whole lot of other topics as well; they include bureaucratic inertia, creative public servants, and the impact on policy of special interests.  And there’s some discussion of unintended consequences.

Well worth your time.

Republican Primary

I find I’m thinking the unthinkable:  On August 3, I’ll likely vote in Michigan’s Republican primary election.  Never did that before.  Never even seriously considered it.

Unthinkable, I say.  I’m a Democrat.  I used to work in the Democratic Party–hell, I used to work for the party, occasionally for pay.  I usually vote for Democrats.  I send money to Democrats.  My heart’s in the Democracy, and voting in the other party’s primary’s not far from treason.

Except:  Where I live, especially this year, the Democratic primary doesn’t much matter.  Few of the primary races are contested, and few of those Dems who’ll get my November votes will win; on the other hand, a vote in the Republican primary can affect the real outcome of the election.  I’ve a strong opinion in the Republican Congressional race, and can develop a preference for the Sheriff’s contest.  That’s a reason to cast a vote.  I expect I’ll do so.

That comment is probably pretty opaque if you’ve never voted in Michigan, as Michigan’s primary laws are a bit odd.  Historically, this state has not required–nor even had a mechanism for–registering to vote for a specific party.  All Michigan primaries are open to anyone who is eligible to vote.  The only rule is that, for a particular primary, you can only vote in one party’s contests.

For a short time Michigan had a party-declaration requirement, but the declaration was sufficiently unpopular–an “invasion of privacy”–that the Democrats decided it was preferable to stage a party-run presidential primary–which they (I’ll not say “we” about this) choose to call a “caucus.”

The national gerrymander habit must die.  The practice of routinely creating one-party election districts undermines political discourse, and subverts republican government.  One party elections encourage extremism, and create a climate where debate, discussion, and compromise are impossible–on many issues, the practice permits folks to honestly believe that reaching a compromise is indecent.  Few politicians, and few citizens, are naturally extremist, but we’ve created a system which encourages an extremist culture.  Party advantage is not a healthy basis for defining political boundaries, and ideology needs to be tempered by honest discussion.  We ought to do better than this.  We must do better than this.

Modification 7/28/04:  Explanation about the Michigan primary system.

Smoke and Mirrors

Peter Lute of Booth Newspapers critiques the current solutions being built for Michigan’s budget-balancing woes and blames everyone [link deleted; page is no longer available].  Fine piece.

I agree wholeheartedly with his main point, which is that the system is broken.  Part of the fascination of this year’s budget negotiations in Michigan has been that it’s clear that the legislative leadership disagrees with the governor about key issues, but that both sides have been working to find workable compromises and mutually acceptable solutions.  That’s how government is supposed to work, and it’s worth cheering when things work out.  But sometimes more is needed, and it’s becoming clear that now is one of those times.  The next step is to get beyond the legislative duct tape and the temporary administrative measures to build something we can live with for another generation.  Perhaps this is the opportunity.

American government is designed to accomodate disagreement, though the tension often makes folks uncomfortable.  What we need, sometime soon, is a civil discussion about what Michigan’s government is for, how we get to that point, and what tax structure we need to support that effort.  The (less-than-complete) success of the Michigan budget efforts demonstrates that it’s not necessary to continue talking past each other just because we’ve been doing so in the past.  Discussion isn’t helped when each side caricatures the other’s positions.  The habit many have of simplifying and dismissing the other party’s position is really poisonous to the civil culture.  It’s time we stopped, and started finding solutions.

Bob Teeter

A short note to honor the passing of a pioneer.

Robert Teeter, quite likely the most influential political pollster of all time, passed away over the weekend.  Although Teeter worked the Republican side of the street, he devised methods which have influenced political analysts of all stripes.  His primary legacy, poll-driven political strategy, is unlikely to vanish soon.  While his methods are one of the foundations of modern Republicanism, Democratic campaigns have been built on similar bases.

My sympathies to his friends and family.

Iowa: shades of Eugene

Jennifer Lee of the New York Times meets and talks with the youngsters who are staffing the presidential campaigns in Iowa. Makes me think of March, 1968, which I largely spent working for Eugene McCarthy in rural Wisconsin. A strange time. Some of my favorite memories date from days in Rice Lake, Ladysmith, and Dallas.

More and more, this political season’s beginning to look like that political season. There are important differences–no one running reminds me of Gene, or Bobby, or Hubie–but the groundswell seems similar, and the issues of this time have echoes of that time. It’s going to be an interesting time, and I’m looking forward to it.

I heard Allard Lowenstein, who was recruiting folks like this for Gene’s campaign, speak at Macalester a few days before the New Hampshire vote. He offered a telling comment when someone asked about about a press corps which clearly believed Johnson had everything sewn up: “Pundits have got to pundit.” I’ve since come to understand how true the comment was.

Johnson won the day, McCarthy won the campaign, Humphrey won the nomination, and Nixon won the election. The year changed my life–mostly for the good.

Link courtesy of Dave Winer/Scripting News