How Illinois residents want to close the budget gap

A recent report sums up how Illinois residents between 2008 and 2016 want to address the state’s budget issues:

First, here’s how people want to address the budget deficit, according to the most recent polling.

Party Cuts Both Revenues Haven’t Thought Don’t Know/Other
Total 47% 33% 10% 4% 6%
Democrats 36% 36% 16% 5% 7%
Republicans 60% 32% 4% 3% 2%
Independents 50% 34% 9% 4% 3%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy…
So maybe we don’t want to cut our way to a balanced budget after all. Which makes sense, since it’s more or less impossible to do so without gutting programs that people support and use. That makes the next question all the more relevant: What new revenues do people favor?…
But there’s one thing that is relatively popular: soaking the rich. And the more closely targeted the policy is towards the rich, the more popular it is…
All in all, it’s a good measure of why we’re in such chaos. We claim we want to cut our way out of the problem, but only one type of cut (pensions) gets even close to an overall majority and is constitutionally prohibited. We’re actually in favor of higher taxes, but only in forms that are constitutionally prohibited, not that even an advisory referendum on a millionaire’s tax can make it onto the ballot. And one of the governor’s pet projects, extremely popular among the electorate and a potentially valuable piece of political leverage, would most likely do little to alleviate any of these problems.

Not a very hopeful analysis. In other words, voters and politicians have worked together to put together plans that significant portions of voters liked (i.e., pensions) but then neither want to enact certain changes (spending cuts and new taxes) that would help solve the past problems.

Is this good evidence for hitting a reset button on the entire state government? Bankruptcy to deal with existing debts? A completely new tax structure? More broadly, a new state constitution? Past actions in a bureaucracy tend to constrain certain future actions while enabling others…has Illinois simply run out of palatable options?

First Medicare patient was in Naperville

Edward Hospital in Naperville will on July 20 celebrate the first Medicare patient in American history:

A Chicago Tribune reporter informed 68-year-old Avery she would be the first citizen to have her bills paid under the then-new program. Her amused reply, “Oh boy! Now I can go to New York and get on the television program ‘I’ve Got A Secret.'”

It was no secret when Avery signed her Medicare forms in her hospital bed on July 1, 1966, the day the program went into effect for nearly 20 million Americans age 65 or older. In addition to front-page coverage in the Tribune, an Associated Press photographer snapped Avery’s picture, which made its way across the country and into numerous other newspapers and publications…

“Edward Hospital, birthplace of Medicare” is how Carlson wryly refers to the event. Carlson is the one who chose Avery for her distinction.

“The reason I was given the right to choose was that I was a member of the communications staff at the national Blue Cross Association,” Carlson said. He and the head of communications at the U.S. Social Security Administration coordinated Avery’s form-signing and photo opportunity.

Although Naperville was still a small town at the time – under 10,000 residents – this illustrates how social networks can help push small communities into the spotlight. Even large bureaucratic programs have to start somewhere and a personal connection between the Blue Cross Association and the Social Security Administration made this possible.

The article says the hospital will dedicate a plaque and hold a small ceremony to make the anniversary. Is this the best way to mark social welfare programs? How many people will know that the plaque exists and view it? The United States regularly crafts memorials for particular people, whether notable leaders (like the proposed Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C.) or collections of soldiers, but doesn’t mark government programs as well. A memorial to the New Deal? The Monroe Doctrine? The Interstate Act? All of these were incredibly consequential yet it is more difficult to envision where and how these should be marked.

The formula to resettle refugees in European countries

How will refugees be dispersed among European countries? This formula:

On Wednesday, shortly after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a new plan to distribute 120,000 asylum-seekers currently in Greece, Hungary, and Italy among the EU’s 28 member states, Duncan Robinson of the Financial Times tweeted a series of grainy equations from the annex of a proposed European regulation, which establishes a mechanism for relocating asylum-seekers during emergency situations beyond today’s acute crisis. Robinson’s message: “So, how do they decide how many refugees each country should receive? ‘Well, it’s very simple…’”

In an FAQ posted on Wednesday, the European Commission expanded on the thinking behind the elaborate math. Under the proposed plan, if the Commission determines at some point in the future that there is a refugee crisis in a given country (as there is today in Greece, Hungary, and Italy, the countries migrants reach first upon arriving in Europe), it will set a number for how many refugees in that country should be relocated throughout the EU. That number will be “not higher than 40% of the number of [asylum] applications made [in that country] in the past six months.”…

What’s most striking to me is the contrast between the sigmas and subscripts in the refugee formula—the inhumanity of technocratic compromise by mathematical equation—and the raw, tragic, heroic humanity on display in recent coverage of the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and elsewhere who are pouring into Europe.

The writer hints at the end here that the bureaucratic formula and stories of human lives at stake are incompatible. How could we translate people who need help into cold, impersonal numbers? This is a common claim: statistics take away human stories and dignity. They are unfeeling. They can’t sum the experiences of individuals. One online quote sums this up: “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.

Yet, we need both the stories and the numbers to truly address the situation. Individual stories are important and interesting. Tragic cases tend to draw people’s attention, particularly if presented in attractive ways. But, it is difficult to convey all the stories of the refugees and migrants. Where would they be told and who would sit through them all? The statistics and formulas help give us the big picture. Just how many refugees are there? (Imagine a situation where there are only 10 refugees but with very compelling stories. Would this compel nations to act.) How can they be slotted into existing countries and systems?

On top of that, you can’t really have the nations of today without bureaucracies. We might not like that they are slow moving or inefficient at times or can be overwhelming. How can you run a major social system without a bureaucratic structure? Would we like to go to a hospital that was not a bureaucracy? How do you keep millions of citizens in a country moving in a similar direction? Decentralization or non-hierarchical systems can only go so far in addressing major tasks.

With that said, the formula looks complicated but the explanation in the text is fairly easy to understand: there are a set of weighted factors that dictate how many refugees will be assigned to each country.

“Normal accidents” and black swans in the complex systems of today

A sociological idea about the problems that can arise in complex systems is related to Taleb’s ideas of black swans:

This near brush with nuclear catastrophe, brought on by a single foraging bear, is an example of what sociologist Charles Perrow calls a “normal accident.” These frightening incidents are “normal” not because they happen often, but because they are almost certain to occur in any tightly connected complex system.

Today, our highly wired global financial markets are just such as system. And in recent years, aggressive traders have repeatedly played the role of the hungry bear, setting off potential disaster after potential disaster through a combination of human blunders and network failures…

In his book Normal Accidents, Perrow stresses the role that human error and mismanagement play in these scenarios. The important lesson: failures in complex systems are caused not only by the hardware and software problems but by people and their motivations.

See an earlier post dealing with the same sociological ideas. Nassim Taleb discusses this quite a bit and suggests knowing about this complexity should lead us to different kinds of actions where we try to minimize the disastrous risks and find opportunities for extraordinary success (if there are inevitable yet unknown opportunities for crisis, there could also be moments where low risk investments can pay off spectacularly).

If these are inherent traits of complex systems, does this mean more people will argue against such systems in the future? I could imagine some claiming this means we should have smaller systems and more local control. However, we may be at the point where even much smaller groups can’t escape a highly interdependent world. And, as sociologist Max Weber noted, bureaucratic structures (a classic example of complex organizations or systems) may have lots of downsides but they are relatively efficient at dealing with complex concerns. Take the recent arguments about health care: people might not like the government handling more of it but even without government control, there are still plenty of bureaucracies involved, it is a complex system, and there is plenty of potential for things to go wrong.

Paperwork makes bureaucracy go, for better or for worse

Max Weber would be interested: here is a review of a new book that explains how paperwork both enables and hinders bureaucracy.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (the abbé Sieyès), one of the principal theorists of the revolution, had thought that the resolution of this riddle would be achieved by combining a division of governmental labor into numerous areas of narrowly demarcated responsibility, together with scrupulous attention to recordkeeping—which is to say, paperwork. As Kafka notes, however, its praxis in the revolutionary period involved an intrinsic contradiction: The greater the revolutionary regime’s attempts to wield its power, the more impeded it was in the exercise of that power by the need to precisely document its every deed with the requisite paperwork…

Paperwork presented a means of resistance to the power of the state, while remaining the means of the state’s assertion of that very power.

The refractory power of paperwork drew the serious attention of Tocqueville, Marx, and Freud, each of whom receives Kafka’s extended attention. Tocqueville struggled with the contradictions of bureaucracy to the point of eschewing the very use of the word, though not its substantive import. He asks: “How to reconcile the extreme centralization that [the bureaucratic regime] consecrates with the reality and morality of representative government?” Tocqueville’s comments on the relative absence of paperwork in America—and on the greater appeal to ambitious Americans of trade and industry over service in “official appointments”—are timely, and Kafka’s discussion of the evolution of Tocqueville’s thoughts on bureaucracy makes for fascinating reading.

From a lesser-known early work of Marx concerning a dispute between the Prussian tax authorities and winemakers of the Mosel region—a dispute that was to generate innumerable notes, dossiers, and reports, but no just resolution of the winemakers’ claims—Kafka educes a theory of the praxis of paperwork. Here, we have Karl Marx as media theorist, propounding a conception of paperwork as “a refractive medium [in which] power and knowledge inevitably change their speed and shape when they enter it.” In its unpredictability, paperwork “accelerates and decelerates power [and] syncopates its rhythms, disrupts its cycles, which is why paperwork always seems to be either overdue or underdone.”

This is enough to give one pause when waiting in line to fill out forms of any kind. It is very difficult to imagine just how much paperwork is generated within bureaucracies today, even in the age of computers: think of the local hospital, the city clerk’s office, the local university. From my own limited experience in a few universities, paperwork makes the whole college system work. Actually, if you think about it, much of the modern world is made possible because of paperwork we all (from individuals to groups to corporations to governments) fill out and file….

Zappos CEO says office space should be designed like cities

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh argues office space would work better if it were organized like cities:

Tony Hsieh talks about his Internet juggernaut Zappos in the same way that urban planners talk about cities. In fact, the language is uncanny. He believes the best ideas – and the best form of productivity – come from “collisions,” from employees caroming ideas off one another in the serendipity of constant casual contact.

This is only achievable through density, with desks pushed close together in the office, or – in the case of Hsieh’s ambitious plans to leverage the new Zappos headquarters to remake downtown Las Vegas – with company employees and community members colliding into each other on the street. For the kind of “collisionable” density he’s looking for in downtown Vegas around his company, he figures the neglected area (not to be confused with the Vegas Strip) needs at least 100 residents per acre…

The typical office has about 200 or 300 square feet of space per employee. When Zappos moves into its new headquarters in the former Las Vegas City Hall in about six months, Hsieh is aiming for something closer to 100 square feet per employee. He’s also planning to decommission a skywalk into the building to force people to enter through (and collide with) the street.

In the context of offices, this kind of density bucks conventional wisdom. Most companies think employees will perform best, or at least be happiest, if as many of them as possible can have their own spacious corner office (with closable door!). This thinking has even influenced the architecture of office towers.

“That’s analogous to people wanting to live in the suburbs and live in a big house,” Hsieh says. “And what they don’t realize is that they end up trading two hours of commute time for more time with friends or relaxing or whatever.”

Interesting comparisons: corner offices are like suburbs. While Hsieh cites research, how come other companies haven’t figured this out yet? I also wonder if this is more about corporate cultures established in more traditional firms versus newer startups or high-tech firms. This reminds of a video I show in my Introduction to Sociology class to illustrate the differences between more bureaucratic structures and more flat, disc-shaped structures. In the clip from Nightline, the design firm IDEO is shown working through designing a new shopping cart. The atmosphere is both less hierarchical in terms of authority and space; people seem to be closer together and common collaborative space is important.

This conversation also lines up with talk on college campuses about interdisciplinary research and collaborative activity. Just how much can redesigned offices and common spaces contribute to this? Are we missing something major by building office buildings more like suburbs than cities?

Multiplicity of Illinois governments just symptomatic of American government overall?

Whet Moser at the 312 Blog links Illinois’ long-standing issue of having lots of government bodies with how government works at the national level:

Yesterday I went on CNBC to talk with Rick Santelli about the unusually large number of governments (not just cities and counties and townships, but school districts and mosquito abatement districts and whatnot) the state of Illinois has. It’s a lot—more than any other state, including states with bigger populations and more square mileage. I wrote about this awhile ago; the BGA did a report last year; it’s been a political issue for awhile, one that both Kirk Dillard and Pat Quinn have floated…

It’s not big government; it’s kludge government. I loved this passage from Teles (emphasis mine):

Conservatives over the last few years have increasingly claimed that America is, in Hayek’s terms, on the road to serfdom. This is ridiculous, for it ascribes vastly greater coherence to American government than we have ever achieved. If anything, we have arrived at a form of government with no ideological justification whatsoever…

This comes from Suzanne Mettler’s “submerged state” thesis. It’s a kludge in action: keeping the political system functioning by burying the actual actions of government under a confusing web of laws. And the greater the number of laws, the more nooks and crannies for the “kludge industry” to embed itself: “having pulled the fundamental knowledge needed for government out of the state and into the private sector, thus becomes nearly indispensable.”

This argument could provide a way between the current debate about whether to have a big or limited federal government: let’s just make sure the system actually works rather than burying itself under a blizzard of rules and exceptions that few people can fully understand. Both small and big government can be run poorly or in less efficient ways.

This also provides good insight into the nature of complex social systems. When institutions become larger and larger (and don’t forget American government today is setting policy for over 300 million people), it is really hard to keep things simple. This reminds me of Max Weber’s warnings one hundred years ago about the threats of bureaucracy. While such systems might be the best way to deal with complex problems on a broad scale, they can become bloated and reified. Weber was pessimistic about the options but the fate of modern nation states like the United States might just depend on being able to cut through some of the complicated structures.