Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Reclaiming common sense

Have you read Spot's last post Do you see a pattern here? If you haven't, it is important that you do before you read the paragraphs that follow in Voltaire's Bastards:

The point of these well-known examples is that, whatever the merits of each case, modern structure responds to its own errors by a refusal to admit error. It responds to failure by a denial of failure. The system could prove that it does work by simply responding to problems with an open mind, rapidly and positively, eager to find solutions. Instead it automatically goes into a defensive pose, throws out diversions intended to slow criticism, then spends time and money to prove factually that there is no problem. As a final ploy it  will attempt to gain time for new ploys by agreeing to negotiate. If even this fails, the system will drop its own position, grasp that of the other side and treat the new position as if it were an absolute truth always known.

The explanation for such odd reactions to rather straightforward problems is that systems  are constructed from an assumption of correctness. They are built backwards from this  assumption. There is no room for error, except through some properly laid-out procedure: That is why the system is unable to simply assimilate all the obvious factors before coming to conclusions.

Thus acid rain may lead to the destruction of trees but it doesn't fall into the same  process as the decline of the Rust Belt states. And leaded gasoline may harm agriculture and  stone buildings, but it doesn't fall into the same process as trade balances or competition  regulations. The officials in charge of all these procedures are decent people. It's just  that there is no room for them to use their common sense. And from the structure's point of view, when there is an error, it is the error which is in the wrong.

This is why the tyranny of the technocrats—and the economists who love them—can be so seriously, obviously, and tragically (in the Greek drama sense) wrong. And you see it around you all the time, boys and girls. Just as a recent example, in an op-ed piece in the Strib discussing policy options after the bridge collapse, Sean Kershaw and Bob Deboer of the Citizens League, technocrats and good government types to their core, say this:

Minnesotans love local control, and in the case of transportation projects, the term is "municipal consent." When the state wants to replace a bridge, it must negotiate and receive consent from the cities involved. Closing roads costs a lot of money, so it might be prudent to do other associated projects, but when local concerns and demands go beyond replacing the most needed infrastructure, does that slow us in getting to our next priorities?

Of course, if it wasn't for municipal consent, this is the bridge we certainly would have gotten. It would be more efficient, a word these boys really love, in the sense of getting rid of some of those pesky democratic voices. Who do those people in Minneapolis think they are anyway? The bridge is only going to be in their city! Shut them up!

It is perhaps obvious that Spot thinks that Sean and Bob are full of something, and it isn't good ideas.

There was a letter in this morning's Strib from a Bloomington resident—one of those pesky local voices—who took issue with Sean and Bob, too:

In their Aug. 16 commentary, Sean Kershaw and Bob DeBoer of the Citizens League question the value of the current "municipal consent" process whereby local governments exercise oversight over freeway designs.

Eliminating the municipal consent process might save the Minnesota Department of Transportation money; however, any savings would come because MnDOT engineers would no longer be compelled to consider noise impacts on local residents, the effective coordination of transportation and land-use planning, or, as we've seen in the past week, the incorporation of transit facilities into their designs.

MnDOT's engineers do a fine job of optimizing their designs to best serve the "convenience and safety of the motoring public," but they tend to define their jobs rather too narrowly to guarantee that the interests of the public at large will be well served without oversight.


Mr. Elkins also recognizes that the blinkered technocrats at MnDOT are not going to consider all of the things that ought to go into transportation decisions.

It came as a shock to many people the number of bridges in Minnesota and around the country that are in such dismal shape. Why was it such a surprise? Partly because of a lack of transparency in government and partly because of a lack of media attention. The system that exists in Minnesota and the US, whereby citizens can make a request for information before it is revealed, means that the information remains locked up unless somebody thinks to ask for it. This means we need an aggressive investigative reporter on every government beat every day. And we know how likely that is to happen in the present newspaper environment. Secrecy is convenient to whatever administration is in charge. It obviously makes policies easier to sell.

Spot has a not-so-modest suggestion. All proceedings of government, and all information kept by the government, except perhaps in the case of individual citizen files, be published on the 'net. Real "national security" secrets would also be exempt from disclosure, but some mechanism would have to be established to insure the secrets were really related to national security, and not just embarrassing for the administration. Like "interrogation" methods.

The alternative is the continued choking off of the democratic process and our "management" by the technocrats and the tyranny of experts.

[update] The line identifying Mr. Elkins as a Bloomington City Council member was not copied from the newspaper. [/update]

No comments: