Efficiency of Government

One of the most common lines of argument on the right is that the government never seems to be able to do anything efficiently, so we shouldn’t let them do anything. The problem with this idea, in my opinion, is that the definition of “efficiency” being used is the wrong one. Usually we think of efficiency in terms of a ratio between resources consumed vs. outcomes. When we try to compare government to business, though, as is most often the context in which this argument gets used, we fall into a trap. The only outcome that matters to a business is the financial one, which is why analyst reports always have items for things like return on equity or return on capital. The government, however, specifically does not try to pursue activities in which it’s easy to make a financial profit. Even liberals generally accept that if the free market can do something itself, it should be allowed to do so; government takes on the tasks that profit-driven businesses can’t or won’t, and serves “customers” that those same businesses would avoid. Efficient use of funds is always important, but government agencies define success primarily in non-economic terms. The military’s goal is not profit (whatever Chomsky might say) but enforcement of US policy. The CDC’s goal is prevention of needless deaths from disease. In terms of dollars in vs. dollars out, both are massive failures, but of course they provide value that’s not measured in dollars. No government agency should be compared to a profit machine like Microsoft, and no profit-driven business should be compared to an agency like the EPA.

A secondary effect of this mismeasurement of efficiency is perceptual bias. The perceived “size” of a government agency is generally proportional to the resources it consumes, not the benefits it provides. Thus, agencies that consume massive resources to accomplish little (or whose benefits are provided to an easily-ignored subset of the population) occupy much of our attention, but agencies that accomplish a lot on a small budget remain practically unknown. There are actually many parts of government that operate efficiently, but we don’t hear about them precisely because they operate efficiently. The Secret Service’s investigations division does a lot of great work to deal with counterfeiting and financial fraud, creating great value for their small budget, but all most people ever think about when they hear of the Secret Service is the protection division. The National Weather Service provides information of critical importance to agriculture, shipping and other activities, but get taken for granted even (perhaps especially) by those who always complain about not getting enough for their tax dollars. The list goes on, but the point should already be clear: by applying the wrong definition of efficiency to government, we end up counting the misses and ignoring the hits. Government gets plenty of blame for the money they spend, and not enough credit for the value they return, contributing to an anti-government sentiment that reason would tell us is ill deserved.

“Off the Mark” Strikes Again

Today’s cartoon (local copy for archival purposes) was worth a chuckle.

Comment Spam

Some of you might have noticed the comment spam about poker and debt consolidation. WordPress can force moderation for comments that contain certain words, but the code seemed to be broken and was causing all comments to be put in the moderation queue if the banned-word list was non-empty. I think I’ve fixed that so it works properly, and the comment spam should be eliminated or at least greatly reduced. I’d sort of like to make it so you get a proper message if the comment is placed in the moderation queue, instead of just taking you to the post page with your comment mysteriously absent, but that will probably have to wait for a less busy time.

Meeting Etiquette

OK, I just have to have a good old-fashioned rant, and my own site seems to be the place to do it. Here are some things that I wish more people would think of when they’re in a meeting.

  • Don’t tie up a meeting with a room full of people satisfying personal curiosity that would more appropriately be assuaged by a discreet one-on-one afterward. Every five minutes you spend making a dozen people wait is one whole hour of aggregate lost productivity.
  • Keep the side chatter to a minimum. Twice today I watched someone ask someone ask a question and then get involved in a side conversation while the answer was being given. Several times the side chatter has drowned out the main part of the meeting.
  • Don’t cut people off in mid-sentence. This applies outside of meetings as well, and my boss is a prime offender. I understand that sometimes two people start to say something at the same time, and one of them has to win. I understand that maybe it makes sense for the boss to “win” and make his point or ask his question even if he starts a word or two behind. Nonetheless, cutting someone off when they’re well into a sentence or question (their first, not like they’ve been dragging anything out) is simply rude and disrespectful.

Really, I was just about to walk out or start hitting people in one meeting today, which took almost two hours to cover what was seriously a half hour’s worth of material because people were simply being jerks. We have meetings to facilitate information sharing, and also to maintain a sense of togetherness. It’s OK if people go off on (what turns out to be) a tangent once in a while, or even crack a few jokes, but more people need to stop deliberately wasting everyone’s time.

Young Voters

This point was separate enough from those addressed in my moments-ago post (below) that it seemed worthy of its own.

maybe, to be utterly cynical, we give up on them [young voters]. As you’ve sort of hinted, if they couldn’t be persuaded to get out and actually vote this time, maybe that’s just a doomed cause. Maybe they just won’t vote until they’re a bit older, and the most productive thing we can do is prepare for when they do instead of spending time and energy catering to them now. What will resonate with today’s eighteen- or twenty-year-olds when they’re in their mid-twenties? For example, what about programs to support young first-time parents, which is what many of them will be when the next election rolls around? What about a comprehensive child-vaccination program, to address their concerns the way a prescription drug benefit addresses seniors’? What about social-security reforms that are targeted to the interests of those who are still relatively new to the workforce?

Democratic Directions

I’m feeling lazy, so here are some thoughts about what the Democrats need to do to prepare for the next election, culled from posts and messages I had already written mostly over at Whistle Stopper.

it’s mostly about the perception of a move toward the middle, though of course perception and reality are inextricably linked. Democrats can’t afford to keep being seen as the party only of extremes – of the east and west coasts but not the middle, of the wealthy or intellectual elite and the poor or criminal but not of those in between. They can’t afford to keep ceding terms like “patriot” and “liberty” to the right. In Indiana or Ohio, the Democrats used to appeal to people via unions, but that effect is no longer evident. Michigan could be next. The Democrats need to find something that resonates with those people’s current concerns. In a sane universe, things like health-care and educational costs would be clear candidates, but so far no way has been found to frame those issues in a way that has the proper effect.

Another group the Democrats must reach out to is libertarians. Nowadays libertarians are almost exclusively associated with the right and the Republicans, but that’s an anomaly. Historically and logically they have as much in common with the left and the Democrats, but somehow the two have become alienated from one another. There’s a significant left-libertarian streak among techies, but pure economic self-interest seems to make every non-technical libertarian a willing stooge of the laissez-faire right. The ideas that only economic freedom matters and that only governments are capable of limiting that freedom have been allowed to take root too deeply. Somehow Democrats need to make the point that other rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion and freedom from false prosecution matter too, that they represent those values more than the Republicans do, and therefore that they and the libertarians should have common cause.

The Sticky Slope

Many logical fallacies tend to be paired, so that going too far in avoiding one can lead right into another. For example, if we absolutely rule out all ad hominem arguments, we become vulnerable to endless appeals to authority. Often one side is accused of treating two things as different when they’re similar, while the other is accused of treating them as similar when they’re different. One of the most common fallacies one might encounter on the net is the slippery slope (a.k.a. camel’s nose), in which any move in a direction is assumed to mean careening so far in that direction that some terrible outcome will occur. The most common example I’ve been seeing lately is gay marriage: if we “redefine” marriage to allow unions between people of the same sex (or, more accurately, fail to redefine it to exclude such unions) then we’re opening the door to polygamy, incest, bestiality, etc. Ouch. It hurts when my eyes roll like that. The fallacy lies in assuming that the dreaded consequence flows inevitably from the proposed action, when no such logical or causal connection between the two has actually been shown. No slope is ever as slippery as some would have us think. Returning to our example, if we define gay marriage as being between two adults (the most likely alternative to “between a man and a woman”) that still precludes all of those other nasties.

So what’s the opposite of a slippery-slope fallacy? It would have to be one in which a causal relationship actually does exist, but is ignored or denied. One way this happens is the “horizon effect”: if an outcome can be deferred long enough, it becomes possible to ignore it. Chess programs are notoriously vulnerable to this kind of thinking; any program that only looks a fixed number of moves into the future will see delaying moves as a “solution” to something that in fact remains unavoidable. The example that actually brought all of this to mind was the old “deficits aren’t so bad” canard. Yes, we can delay the day of reckoning until it’s our children’s (or grandchildren’s) problem, but the bill must eventually come due. Another kind of “sticky slope” is the deus ex machina: we’ll be saved from some adverse effect by the intervention of some as-yet-unknown agency. The most common form of this wishful thinking is the “by the time it becomes a problem we’ll have the technology to deal with it” theory often applied to nuclear waste or global warming.

Because these and other kinds of irrationality all share a common logical structure, I think they all deserve a name with the same resonance as “slippery slope” – hence the title of this post. I think “sticky slope” nicely captures the kind of fallacious reasoning that’s involved.

Howdy, Neighbor

It looks like Winds of Change (which is one of the political blogs on my daily list) has moved to Total Choice Hosting (where this site is located). It’s a different server, perhaps even a different data center, but that still makes them my virtual neighbors.

Interesting Observations

From Crooked Timber:

â?? The thirteen original states that brought us the Constitution voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry.

â?? The states that didnâ??t secede and which fought against slavery voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry.

Maybe the Republicans shouldn’t be making so much noise about patriotism, unity, or moral values. Yes, they won the election, as I said yesterday, but they did it on a platform contrary to all of those things.

Hail to the Chief

Well, it looks like it’s over. As a member of the reality-based community, I would have to say that Bush has apparently won both the electoral and the popular vote. To think otherwise, one would have to make some very unrealistic assumptions about how much fraud or disenfranchisement occurred, how many provisional ballots are valid, what percentage are for Kerry, etc. The empirical evidence available at this point seems to indicate that the people of the US more clearly want Bush as their president than they did in 2000.

That doesn’t mean I think Bush is a good president – just that he’s a legitimate one. I’m actually more at peace with the decision than I thought I would be. The problems I see with his presidency will not be solved by recounts and lawsuits, but rather by a decades-long process of improving education and public discourse so that people can once again distinguish a good person or policy from a bad one. As always, let’s learn from the past but not get mired in it. Even if our vision is flawed, it’s time to look forward.