December 2002, Part 2
Jim Miller on Politics
British Crime Tsunami: Theodore Dalrymple has a characteristically gloomy account of the increase in crime in Britain over the past 50 years. As Iain Murray notes, Dalrymple goes too far in one of his comparisons, not the first time Dalrymple has made that kind of mistake. He is right about the direction of the change; even a casual visitor like myself could see some of the changes in three visits over the past decade. And he may well be right that snobbery among the left wing elite is one of the reasons that Britain is finding it difficult to face up to the problem. There are similar patterns here in the United States; I have long thought that, if the crime were as high in the places where the editors and publisher of the New York Times live as it is in parts of the Bronx, the newspaper would have long ago called for martial law.
- 7:21 AM, 22 December 2002 [link]
The Barbie Wars: Here's the latest salvo in the Barbie wars, an attack on "Lingerie Barbie", a doll that does seem out of place for little girls. Despite what the author says, I suspect more than one girl would, in fact, like this doll.
I first understood the intensity of the feeling over Barbie when I watched two feminists agonize over their daughters' requests for a Barbie for Christmas. The mothers and their daughters were quite different, but found the same resolution to the conflict. Each mother gritted her teeth and bought the Barbie—and then bought a toy truck for balance. The daughters, one 5 and the other 11, if my memory is correct, reacted the same way. When they opened the package with the Barbie, the reacted with satisfaction. They seemed to be thinking that their mothers would, after all, understand, if they explained things clearly. The trucks they discarded immediately with a critical comment; I think one actually exclaimed, "Oh, Mother!" before putting the truck aside. (I kept absolute silence through both episodes, as you probably have figured out by now.)
- 7:08 AM, 22 December 2002 [link]
Persecuted Christians in Iraq: Saddam Hussein has reacted to the pressure from the United Nations by attacking Iraq's Christian minority. Jonathan Eric Lewis has the story in the Wall Street Journal. (Login required.) Will any of the usual suspects, from Noam Chomsky to Sean Penn, protest or even care? Don't hold your breath.
- 6:49 AM, 22 December 2002 [link]
Strom Thurmond, Secret Integrationist? Colbert King tells the story of Essie Mae Williams, born Essie Mae Washinton in 1925. The light skinned woman is the daughter of a black maid who worked in Thurmond's home when he was superintendent of schools. She is widely believed to be Strom Thurmond's daughter as well. The story seems entirely plausible to me, since Thurmond had a reputation for womanizing that makes John Kennedy look like a celibate.
- 7:18 AM, 21 December 2002 [link]
"Evil, Venomous Toad": That's Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong's term for Abigail Thernstrom, as he reacts to her column in the New York Times attacking Trent Lott. (You can see the entire Thernstrom column in the post. Professor DeLong is, shall we say, casual, about matters of copyright, at least other people's copyrights.) What set Professor DeLong off? Thernstrom's argument, which is obviously correct, that votes on matters like AIDS funding and unemployment benefits for aviation workers are not the best measures of support for civil rights. Using such votes, as the NAACP has, discredits the measure, just as Thernstrom says. As some one who has built and used these kinds of measures, I can tell DeLong that Thernstrom is entirely correct on this question.
The anger in DeLong's post, and in his follow up comments, raises a question about his ability to read the works of those he disagrees with accurately and fairly. He has written interestingly, and so far as a non-economist can tell, usually fairly, on economic matters. It is distressing to see him go off the rails as he did in this attack. After I post this, I am going to email him, asking him to reconsider his remarks. (Stuart Buck read DeLong's post and reached similar conclusions to mine, as you can see at his site. So did some of the people who posted comments.)
- 8:23 AM, 20 December 2002 [link]
Smallpox Info: Wondering what to think about the risks of both the vaccine and the disease? Check out the sensible posts from the medpundit. Good advice, and free.
- 7:47 AM, 20 December 2002 [link]
The Reviews Are In for the PBS documentary on Islam, and they are not good. Oh, not the reviews from the politically correct at the New York Times and similar places. No, I mean the reviews from those who know something about the history of Islam. Daniel Pipes thinks it outrageous on two grounds; it is bad history and an attack on the 1st Amendment prohibitions against an establishment of religion. Andrew G. Bostom shows just how bad the history is, in this discussion of the documentary's whitewash of the Qurayza massacre, where Mohammed ordered an entire Jewish community killed or enslaved. Lowell Ponte describes the dubious funding sources for the documentary, with their strong connections to Saudi Arabia. Another argument for new management at PBS or perhaps even closing the network down.
- 7:39 AM, 20 December 2002 [link]
Patty Murray Speaks: Washington state's senior senator spoke Wednesday, giving this explanation for Osama bin Laden's popularity:
He's been out in these countries for decades, building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day care facilities, building health care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. We haven't done that.Those of us familiar with Senator Murray will not be surprised by this statement. Not that long ago, she was rated as one of the dumbest senators by Washington, D. C. magazine, and nothing I have seen in her career leads me to think that assessment unfair. The Seattle Times, which endorsed her in 1998, had the following to say about her in 1996: "Colleagues, lobbyists and former staff members view her as indifferent to issues that can't be explained through anecdotes about her family and neighbors." Does she realize just how many schools, roads, and health care facilities are in the foreign aid budget? Apparently not. Does she realize how many schools, roads and health care facilities in Afghanistan bin Laden and his Taliban allies destroyed? Apparently not.
I'd like to add that, from what I know, she is a pleasant person who would be a fine, if a bit ditzy, neighbor. (By way of talk show host Hugh Hewitt)
- 5:20 PM, 19 December 2002
Update: The magazine rating Murray is the Washingtonian. She has won their "No Rocket Scientist" award more than once; here's their latest list of awards. The magazine polls Congressional staffers anonymously, which is probably the best way to get informed opinions on such matters. For what is worth, Democrats won 5 of the 6 "No Rocket Scientist" awards. On the other hand, Democrats also won 5 of the 6 "Looks Best in a Bathing Suit" awards.
- 9:15 AM, 20 December 2002 [link]
How Many Unis Make a Multi? Christopher Hitchens wittily dispatches a common complaint on the left, that George Bush and the United States are acting "unilaterally". Since an action becomes multilateral as soon as more than two nations participate, there has not been a significant action by the Bush administration in the war on terror that has not been, by the dictionary definition, "multilateral".
- 10:13 AM, 19 December 2002 [link]
Genetically Modified US Food for Africa? Remember the story about the African nations, facing starvation, rejecting corn (or maize as the Europeans would say) from the United States because it was genetically modified? There were only two minor inaccuracies in the story, as this letter from Lee McClenny of the American embassy in Britain explains. The corn was not from the United States but from other African countries. The corn was not genetically modified.
So, the situation is even more disgusting than it first appeared. Africans are starving because of the superstitions of European Greens, who could not be bothered to learn the facts in this case. One more reason not to trust the environmental groups.
- 7:51 AM, 19 December 2002
Correction: McCleeny has now retracted his claim, as you can see in this follow up letter. It is still disgusting the European Green superstition is causing people to starve in Africa.
- 7:42 AM, 21 January 2003 [link]
Baghdad Stock Market Up: One piece of evidence on the thoughts of Iraqis is the rise of the Baghdad stock market up 50 per cent in the last year. The best gain came November 9th, the day after the United Nations passed its tough new resolution for inspections. A broker named Nerses Artin Ardzivian explains the rise as follows: "People think that six months from now, the situation in Iraq could be much better." So, these Iraqis seem to agree with Congressman McDermott that their fascist dictator may be overthrown soon. Unlike him, they think this a good thing, even if it helps George Bush.
- 5:33 PM, 18 December 2002 [link]
McDermott Predicts War With Iraq. This morning, Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott, best known for trusting Saddam Hussein more than George Bush, said that war with Saddam was almost inevitable. Using the Dave Ross radio show on Kiro 710, probably for the reasons I described here, McDermott argued that the Bush administration now has sufficient evidence to claim that Saddam is breaking his agreement to rid himself of weapons of mass destruction. McDermott expects that the Bush administration will release some of it soon to provide a pretext for war. (It was not clear from the interview whether McDermott is now backing away from his recent claim that Bush will lie to get us into a war with Iraq.) He also thinks that so many troops have already been moved into position for war that Bush can not now back off. Naturally, he repeated the usual tired and foolish claim that it was all about oil. As before, he referred to the United States as "they" at least once. And, he honestly seems to think that he learned what Iraqis think from his trip there, despite what Iraqi refugees say, and even what we learned from a poll done in Iraq.
The best part of the show came after McDermott left. The Republican state chairman, Chris Vance, called in and made the obvious points that the host had avoided. McDermott is now taking positions opposite to those he voted for in 1998, when Clinton was president. Then, he supported the use of force against Iraq and removing Saddam; now he opposes both. Vance described McDermott as a "hyper-partisan", which I think is accurate. Ross tried the rather dubious argument that McDermott voted for force in 1998 because he knew Clinton was lying and would not really use force against Iraq. After Vance laughed that one off, Ross retreated to, what else—Trent Lott.
- 4:22 PM, 18 December 2002 [link]
Krugman's Bias? The Instapundit wonders whether Princeton economics professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is biased against fundamentalist Christians. I have wondered the same thing and have two pieces of evidence supporting that idea, one indirect and one direct.
First, the indirect evidence. As I explained in this post, Democratic party activists are so hostile to fundamentalists that their attitudes, at the very least, approach bigotry. For example, delegates to the 1992 Democratic convention gave fundamentalists an average score of 11 on a 0 to 100 warmth scale. That's cold. It would not surprise me to learn that Krugman shares this coldness, since he shares so many other views with these activists.
Second, the direct evidence. Political scientist Carol Swain, a black woman, left Princeton for Vanderbilt, a less prestigious university, because she felt that her evangelical Christianity was not accepted at Princeton, as I discussed in this post. It is not a big jump to conclude that Professor Krugman may share the bias against evangelicals that Swain felt at Princeton. A bias, I should add, that is illegal under many of our civil rights laws. I doubt very much whether Krugman even knows any evangelicals well, and I would be amazed to find that he had any as friends. (I await with interest, but not bated breath, Josh Marshall's investigation into this kind of bigotry.)
- 8:08 AM, 18 December 2002 [link]
Fun With Math: Solly Ezekiel does the calculations to show that getting the shuttle into orbit is mainly a matter of getting it fast rather than getting it high.
And, for anyone who wants to be the scientific adviser to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", here's the basic mathematics for Vampire Population Ecology, with a surprising conclusion:
Although the creators and writers of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" are probably not theoretical ecologists, and although we are consistently amazed by the depth and sophistication of their fabricated milieu's continuity, it is downright nifty that the show appears to make ecological sense.You'll enjoy this even if you can't follow all the math.
- 7:30 AM, 18 December 2002 [link]
Hitler and Hobbits? Karen Durbin's confused commentary on the new Lord of the Rings movie shows us much about her way of thinking. (Whether it is an accurate description of the movie is a question I will leave to those who have seen it.) For her, and many others, a political interpretation is inescapable, even for a fantasy. Any military elements make her think of Nazism:
The scene in which ranks upon ranks of enemy Uruk-hai warriors march in perfect order seems like a spine-chilling tip of the computer-graphics hat to Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will."(Not, for some reason, those awful Soviet parades, or any of the many other disciplined military forces from Spartans to the British SAS.) And her conclusion shows why this disturbs her:
Dehumanizing the other guy is the first step in training soldiers and fighting wars. The danger is that this is what makes not just warfare palatable but extermination itself.The lesson that most draw from Munich and the history of appeasement before World War II, that training soldiers and being prepared for a war may be the best way to prevent it, seems entirely lost on her. And, it is a historical fact that many exterminations could have been prevented only by military action, conducted by trained soldiers. (One mischievous thought: Is is possible to "dehumanize" an orc?)
Science fiction writer David Brin has a more balanced assessment of the movie and the Tolkien trilogy, but he, too, seems to put more weight on it than it will bear. And, I should add that his brief discussion of historical progress would draw many quibbles and some substantial objections from most historians. Still, he makes some provocative points about the seductive power of the romantic way of thought. A power, I think though I am sure Brin would not agree, that is shown in some of his own writing on environmental questions.
- 7:00 AM, 18 December 2002 [link]
Perspectives on War With Saddam: Two pieces in British newspapers, one on the left and one on the right, provide a revealing contrast. Matthew Engel, writing in the left wing Guardian, opposes a war with Saddam because he dislikes the people he calls, revealingly, "Bushies":
In general, people have two perceptions of the Bushies: that they are strong, patriotic and fearless defenders of freedom, or that they are dangerous warmongers. There is a third possibility, which has been under-considered: that they are, quite simply, blunderers.Note that there is not a single line in this "special report" on the consequences for the Iraqis of overthrowing Saddam. Nor is there even a suggestion for an alternate policy toward Iraq. I think it fair to conclude that Engel despises the "Bushies", and does not care about either Saddam or his Iraqi victims.
David Blair's article in the right wing Telegraph is written entirely from the point of view of one group of Saddam's victims, the Shiites who make up a persecuted majority of the population. Unlike Engel, Blair is not indifferent to their suffering. He also makes an important practical point. If Saddam is defeated in the open field, the Shiites may well finish the job in Baghdad, without any need for British or American troops to fight house to house.
I did not much care for President Clinton, to say the least. But I was able to overcome my dislike for the man and support his objectives in Bosnia and Kososvo. It is sad that so many on the left can not put aside their partisanship and, even for a moment, consider the Iraqi people. For them, it is better that millions of Iraqis suffer than that the "Bushies" be happy.
- 7:42 AM, 17 December 2002 [link]
Worth Reading: Michael Barone's comparison of the political careers of Richard Nixon and Al Gore.
- 7:17 AM, 17 December 2002 [link]
Sobering: This account of the "education" a student would receive at an Islamic madrasah, and how it has changed for the worse in recent decades.
In some ways, madrasahs are at the centre of a civil war of ideas in the Islamic world. Westernised and usually-affluent Muslims lack an interest in religious matters, but religious scholars, marginalised by modernisation, seek to assert their own relevance by insisting on orthodoxy.As much as would wish to, we can not ignore this civil war.
- 10:08 AM, 16 December 2002 [link]
Objectively Pro-Fascist? George Orwell famously claimed that British pacifists were objectively on the side of Hitler, because they hampered the efforts to defeat him. (I believe he may have softened that harsh criticism after the war.) Why can not the same criticism be made of people like Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall? Like the earlier British pacifists, Tisdall opposes all practical attempts to defeat a fascist dictator, Saddam Hussein. At what point will it become fair to say that he is "objectively" pro-fascist?
- 9:55 AM, 16 December 2002 [link]
Gore Drops Out: Gore's decision not to run for president in 2004 reminds me of his similar decision in 1992, and the curious way these candidate decisions interact. Gore decided not to run in 1992, like most of the first tier Democratic candidates, because he thought that George H. W. Bush would not be beatable. If Gore had run then, he would have been competing directly with Clinton for the same voters in the early primaries and the two might well have knocked each other out of the race. Or, he might have won and ended up defeating Bush in 1992. He would have had many of the strengths of Clinton without the interesting personal quirks.
I have also thought for some time that Clinton had at least two motives in making his race in 1992, though I must admit that I have no hard evidence for this. Of course he hoped to win, but he may also have thought that by making the fight in 1992 for the nomination, and perhaps for the presidency, he could position himself for the election in 1996, when he would not be facing a popular incumbent.
- 9:46 AM, 16 December 2002 [link]
Skeptics on Global Warming: Here's a concise summary of the objections some scientists make to the theory that human activity is causing global warming. The sides agree that the earth has warmed, but disagree on the causes. Baliunas, Patterson, and MacRae make several interesting claims, that CO2 in the atmosphere has lagged rather than led warming, that the warming in the 20th century mostly occurred before the increase in CO2, that the simulations used to predict the future temperatures do not fit the data well, and that variations in the sun may be a better explanation for recent temperature changes. I have not studied this difficult subject enough to decide whether the proponents or skeptics are closer to the truth. In fact, I suspect that we do not currently know enough about climate change to decide. The poor fit of the simulations to the current climate data certainly shows gaps in our theoretical knowledge. If our theories are insufficient for accurate prediction, then the right course now is to improve our knowledge, not to take expensive steps that may be unnecessary or even counter-productive.
- 9:20 AM, 16 December 2002 [link]
Saddam's Mosque: Back to politics, though not necessarily out of Wonderland. Today's New York Times has this article on Saddam's latest mosque. The outer minarets are modeled on AK47s and the inner minarets are modeled on Scud missiles. Inside the mosque is the copy of the Koran supposedly written in Saddam's own blood. A pool around the mosque is meant to be a map of the Arab world. At one end of the pool, there is a plinth, which is a "reproduction of Mr. Hussein's thumbprint". This is one strange character.
- 5:48 PM, 15 December 2002 [link]
More on Alice: Reading the comments from Meryl Yourish and Diane Moon inspired me to get out my copy of Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice. Of course, there are two Alice in Wonderland books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Gardner covers both. (The most recent version from Gardner is Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, a book I hope I do not see while Christmas shopping. For me, one of the hazards of Christmas shopping is encountering books I buy for myself.) Gardner's book is a treat for anyone who liked the Alice stories or who shares Lewis Carroll's interest in logic puzzles. For example, here's what Gardner reveals about "Jabberwocky", found in Through the Looking Glass. The first four lines give you a sample of the poem, if you have not seen it, or have forgotten it:
Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesAs you can see, it does not make much sense, though people tried to force sense into it later. Now, here's the strange part. People have translated it into French:
Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleuxAnd into German:
Es brillig war. Die schlichte TovenAnd, other languages. Now here's the question: What does it mean to translate nonsense in one language into nonsense into another language? If you like this kind of puzzle, you'll love Gardner's book.
- 5:28 PM, 15 December 2002 [link]
Kids' Books, Cut 1: Thanks to Joanne Jacobs and Meryl Yourish, who were kind enough to post my request here and here. Joanne had these suggestions, as well:
I'm a big fan of Lois Lowry's Anastasia books, which are aimed at the 8 to 12 set. For teen-agers, I recommend Lowry's Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye about a girl's search for her biological mother. And nothing beats the Narnia books.(If you order them through her site, she gets a well-deserved commission from Amazon, by the way. Her site is also a good place to find books on education reform.)
Meryl began with two lists, one of books to get:
And, just as useful, a list of books to avoid:
Bambi, Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Kidnapped! (come to think of it, any Robert Louis Stevenson novel), Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels.Not everyone agreed with the books to avoid; Diane Moon, for instance, remembered Alice in Wonderland with fondness from her childhood. I think, of course, that both Meryl and Diane are right about Alice. Definitely for adults is Martin Gardner's entertaining Annotated Alice, which explains all the obscure references. I have heard more than once that Bambi is upsetting to most small children and think Meryl is probably right about that book. Meryl then added still more books in a second post.
Their posts inspired others who posted their own lists. Lesley, of the "Vast Center Wing Conspiracy" (a site name I like), listed books from three authors, Ursula LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, and Madeline L'Engle that would appeal to adolescents with a taste for fantasy, I think. Andy, of the World Wide Rant, added a fantasy series, The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. Mac Thomason added The Wizard of Oz and The Chronicles of Narnia. Michelle of "A Small Victory", who does seem to be something of an expert on children's literature, has three lists, and many comments from her readers with other books.
Fans of Narnia will be amused to learn that, yesterday, a Guardian columnist suggested admitting the land to the European Union. I wonder whether NAFTA might not be a better alliance, but will leave that question to experts on Narnia.
This post is already quite long, so I will not add the emailed suggestions I have already received, but put them in a separate post, nor will I add more than a few thoughts of my own here. I didn't see any mention of reference books, but many kids will like the right ones. I still remember with pleasure seeing one of my nieces, who must have been 7 or 8 at the time, read a picture dictionary I had given her all the way through, and then turn back to the beginning to start over, without opening her other presents. My brother tells me that his kids, then about 8 and 10, liked the Encarta encyclopedia best of the programs that came with their first PC, so I don't think I was alone in enjoying the World Book when I was a kid. William Bennett once pointed out that nearly all kids like dinosaurs and space, something that fits my experience. Finally, the right book can have a remarkable impact. British mathematician Andrew Wiles discovered Fermat's last theorem at the age of 10, by reading Eric Temple Bell's The Last Problem. Decades later, he solved the problem and won everlasting fame.
- 2:36 PM, 15 December 2002 [link]
Worth Reading: This Ruth Wisse essay on campus anti-Semitism. As she points out:
All the while that students, in the spirit of diversity, are actively discouraged from making pejorative comments about other vulnerable minorities, some Arab and Muslim students have been actively fomenting hatred of Israel as an expression of their "identity."And some departments of Middle East studies are even worse. Your tax money is , directly and indirectly, paying for them to
disseminate anti-Israel propaganda to an extent unimaginable a generation ago, representing violations of intellectual honesty and academic impartiality that may be unique in our academic life.(This essay is in today's Wall Street Journal, where you must be a subscriber to read it. For some reason it is simultaneously available free, as I write this, at Horowitz's FrontPage site.)
- 8:38 AM, 13 December 2002 [link]
Friday the 13th is a good day to learn that many of our superstitions have recent origins, at least by British standards of recency, as this entertaining column explains. Be interesting to see Dr. Weevil's thoughts on this. Do we share any superstitions with the ancient Romans or Greeks?
- 7:19 AM, 13 December 2002 [link]
Not a Trent Lott Free Zone: I have not posted on Trent Lott yet, not because I am avoiding the subject of his foolish comments at the Thurmond birthday party, but because I am trying to think of the right way to present my thoughts, which are complex. More when I have it sorted out to my own satisfaction.
- 2:01 PM, 12 December 2002 [link]
The Media Screws With Your Mind: Says who? Says ABC anchor Peter Jennings, according to this thoughtful column by Mindy Cameron, the former editorial page editor of the Seattle Times. Specifically, Jennings said: "The sooner we tell people how we screw with their minds, the better off we'll be." This supports my opinion that Jennings is both the most biased of the major anchors, and the most honest about the problem of bias. (Now, if I can just get Cameron herself to say something about the problem of Molly Ivins' plagiarism, a subject she avoided while running the Seattle Times editorial page . . .)
- 1:21 PM, 12 December 2002 [link]
Forward Steps on Free Trade: In August, I argued, in this post, against Brink Lindsey and other free trade advocates, that the Bush administration's small steps back on free trade were a necessary preliminary to future steps forward. Since then, the Bush administration has further reduced the effects of the steel tariffs (which are to be phased out in three years, anyway), proposed big reductions in protectionism for farm products, proposed world wide reductions in tariffs for manufacturing, and negotiated free trade agreements with both Singapore and Chile, as described here. Who was right last August, Lindsey and other critics of the Bush administration, or myself? You be the judge.
- 1:02 PM, 12 December 2002 [link]
Sidney Hook gets less attention and credit than he deserves. History has proved him right in his vigorous opposition to Fascism, and his equally vigoraous opposition to Communism, something not true for everyone on the left. In this tribute to Hook, historian Ronald Radosh reminds us just how much influence Communists had inside the executive branch:
Thanks to the Venona translations, we know that the KGB had as its agents such influential New Dealers as Alger Hiss; Asst. Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White; chief of the State Department's Division of American Republics, Laurence Duggan; the head of its Latin American Division, Maurice Halperin; and Lauchlin Currie, administrative aide and State Department liaison to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.And, outside:
As for general politics, historians have long established that Communists played a major role in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, in the California Democratic Party, the Democratic Party in the State of Washington, and had two secret Communists in Congress, along with New York's well-known fellow-traveler Vito Marcantonio. And through the CIO, Communists controlled a good portion of labor's major union affiliates, as well as its newspaper and political action committee.The worst thing Senator Joe McCarthy did was to partially discredit, through association, the responsible anti-Communists like Sidney Hook.
- 11:00 AM, 12 December 2002 [link]
Zap! Here's a report on field tests of a laser intended as a counter to artillery and rocket fire. I do wonder what limits weather put on it. Can it be used on foggy or cloudy days?
- 9:09 AM, 12 December 2002 [link]
Getting Your Money's Worth, Part I: That is, I hope, a more interesting title than "local government efficiency", which is the subject of this post. I am not switching subjects, because local governments are often places where you do not get your money's worth. The Labour government in Britain has just made a valuable contribution to this subject by auditing 150 local councils there for efficiency. You can see their report with the council ratings here. Few of the local governments receive an "excellent" grade; most councils could provide better services at a lower cost, just by matching the best ones. (Kudos to the Labour government for doing this study, by the way, since they found that the Conservative councils were generally better managed than those controlled by Labour, which is what I would have expected.)
Over the years, I have seen many similar results for American states and local governments. Years ago, for example, I saw a comparison of Vermont and New Hampshire, two very similar states, that showed that the much higher taxes in Vermont bought no significant gains in output. Roads were as good in New Hampshire as in Vermont, school test scores were a bit better in New Hampshire, infant mortality was lower in New Hampshire, and so on. Vermont citizens were not getting good value for their tax money. (And are still not, as far as I can tell.)
Now, why is this so? Why should there be persistent differences in efficiency between local governments? Why don't ambitious challengers oust incumbents by promising better services at lower costs? Note that this should work regardless of ideology. A challenger on the left could promise more government services, while one on the right could promise lower taxes, both improvements for the voters. We expect more efficient businesses to eliminate their less efficient competitors, as Walmart did to Kmart, in many places. Why do not politicians promising efficiency defeat their opponents?
There are many reasons for this persistent inefficiency, which is why this is Part I of a series on the subject. Today, I will just comment on one of the most obvious and most important, government workers. Often, both here and in Britain, local elections draw small turnouts, where government workers can have a disproportionate influence. A challenger promising greater efficiency will be seen as a threat to their work conditions, their pay, and even their jobs. They will, naturally, support the incumbent to protect what they have. In a low turn out election they will often provide the margin of victory.
This problem of government workers suggests a different strategy for solving the efficiency problem than that chosen by the Labour government. They are planning to replace the inefficient elected councils with appointed managers. I think they would do better, long term, to encourage competition for the supply of services. American local governments, like Indianapolis under Stephen Goldsmith, that have tried this, have often made significant gains in efficiency. Government workers were not always displaced in Indianapolis, by the way. Sometimes, especially after they were freed from some of their past constraints, they proved able to compete against private contractors in supplying services. Contracting out for services is not a panacea for local government inefficiency, with its many causes, but it is a fine place to start.
- 8:51 AM, 12 December 2002 [link]