“Politics of pavement” amidst the start of construction season

Commuters and taxpayers may be unhappy with annoying roadwork but as this summary of upcoming projects in the Chicago region reminds us, roadwork is political:

With no state budget in sight as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner feuds with Democrats, the idea of a capital plan to fix infrastructure seems as likely as unicorns in hard hats.

That disconnect is not only strangling transportation funding in Illinois, it’s also thwarting a pet project of Rauner’s — adding tolled express lanes to I-55 in Cook and DuPage counties…

For the Illinois tollway, money’s not a problem. But the agency is locked in a dispute with the Canadian Pacific Railroad over land it wants for I-490, a ring road around the west side of O’Hare International Airport.

If Canadian Pacific wins support from federal regulators in a pending case, it’s a potential catastrophe for the tollway.

Roads are power? Any major infrastructure project involves lots of money, voters, and jobs. Additionally, in a country where driving is so important, construction on major roads is a big deal.

So, is anyone winning the political battle through roads in the Chicago region? Big city mayors like to claim that they are different than national politicians because the mayors have to get things done. The same may be true for governors on infrastructure issues. Presumably, limiting the political battles over roads helps everyone win as costs are reduced (prices for big projects only go up over time) and residents can start experiencing the benefits sooner.

Nudging people for good or evil

Like much in today’s polarized world, perhaps you only like nudging when people are being moved in a direction you agree with:

We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.

The behavioral techniques that are being employed by governments and private corporations do not appeal to our reason; they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. Rather, these techniques change behavior by appealing to our nonrational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases. If psychologists could possess a systematic understanding of these nonrational motivations they would have the power to influence the smallest aspects of our lives and the largest aspects of our societies…

But in spite of revealing these deep flaws in our thinking, Lewis supplies a consistently redemptive narrative, insisting that this new psychological knowledge permits us to compensate for human irrationality in ways that can improve human well-being. The field of behavioral economics, a subject pioneered by Richard Thaler and rooted in the work of Kahneman and Tversky, has taken up the task of figuring out how to turn us into better versions of ourselves. If the availability heuristic encourages people to ensure against very unlikely occurrences, “nudges” such as providing vivid reminders of more likely bad outcomes can be used to make their judgments of probability more realistic. If a bias toward the status quo means that people tend not to make changes that would benefit them, for instance by refusing to choose between retirement plans, we can make the more beneficial option available by automatically enrolling people in a plan with the option to withdraw if they choose…

Lewis does not discuss the ways in which the same behavioral science can be used quite deliberately for the purposes of deception and manipulation, though this has been one of its most important applications. Frank Babetski, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence analyst who also holds the Analytical Tradecraft chair at the Sherman Kent School of Intelligence Analysis at the CIA University, has called Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow a “must read” for intelligence officers.

This seems like a reasonable point – people can be pushed toward positive and negative behavior – but it still leaves a crucial question: who gets to decide what is worth pushing people toward? Is it manipulation when it goes a direction you don’t want but progress when it goes your way? The two major examples of this playing out in society don’t help much; we may wish that big corporations and national politicians have less ability to sway people but this is also part of having a lot of power. (Similarly, power can be used to benefit people or harm them.) Are we more okay with an individual having biases rather than larger social actors (who can coerce a lot more people at the same time)? If so, then it may be harder to have a large society that functions well.

When conservatives move to squash local control

Republicans are typically known as the party in favor of more powerful local governments. Yet, this may not be the case in places where local governments limits their quest to power:

The strange spectacle of Republicans trying to roll back local control makes a bit more sense in context. For years, Democrats mostly controlled both the statehouse and the governorship. But Republicans captured the legislature in 2010, and the governor’s mansion two years later. Ever since, they’ve been busily passing a series of very conservative measures, some of which I explained here. The rightward shift inspired a prolonged series of protests in Raleigh and other major cities called “Moral Mondays.”

The large demonstrations, combined with their general impotence to stop the legislature—internecine GOP struggles, and not public opposition, have generally killed the most controversial measures—illuminate what’s going on. Rural-urban divides are a fixture of American politics, and they’re a particularly powerful force in North Carolina right now. Its urban centers tend to be far more liberal, while the rest of the state is far more conservative. The liberals can gather large, impassioned crowds to rally against conservative moves, but they don’t have the numbers (so far) to elect a majority in the state legislature—especially after post-2010 redistricting that made the map more favorable for Republicans. (Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2008 but lost it in 2012.)

Despairing of Raleigh, progressives have often pursued their priorities at the local level. That’s exactly what the state bill was intended to stop. When Congress does this to state and municipal governments, it’s known as preemption—it’s a bedrock constitutional principle that federal laws trump state laws. With a Democrat in the White House, though, there are limits to what the Republican Congress can pass. But the GOP has been gaining seats at the state level for years, and now controls most state legislatures. Cities often tilt left, even in very red states, but conservative state governments around the country have begun passing laws that preempt municipal legislation. Last year, for example, Matt Valentine chronicled how state governments are overturning much stricter gun laws passed by cities with preemption laws…

In other words, it’s a classic case for big-government uniformity. Faced with these bills, Democrats in turn tend to make a strikingly conservative argument: Local people know best, and they ought to have the right to make their own rules about how they live, as long as it isn’t negatively affecting their neighbors.

Local control is very important to many Americans, particularly if you have some means to get to a community where you can have a voice or be assured that local government generally agrees with what you want.

Let’s be honest: both parties today are willing to forgo some (most?) principles if it means that they can use their particular tool of power to get what they want. Opposed to executive power when your party is out of the presidency? Just argue your interests are too important when your party is in office. Control Congress while another branch isn’t doing what you want? Try to bypass their power and/or limit their abilities. This leads to a rhetorical question: how well can these levels of government or different branches work together to get things done if the primary goal is just to exert power?

 

Frank Underwood gets in on the critique of McMansions

The second episode of Season One of House of Cards includes this commentary regarding McMansions:

Frank Underwood: Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power – in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who does not see the difference.

Watch the YouTube clip here.

Underwood’s statement hints at three facets of the criticisms of McMansions:

1. Sarasota represents the booming Sunbelt flooded with new money and new developments. McMansions are often associated with the sprawling suburbs of recent decades that quickly gobbled up land.

2. He suggests McMansions are about money (represented by a lobbyist here) and not about longer-term influence (power in this case). Critics suggest people buy McMansions – which often stretch them beyond their financial means or at least lead to a big mortgage – in order to impress people.

3. Critics argue McMansions are not of the same kind of quality construction as other houses or structures. With builders/developers interested in quick profits and providing as much space for as little money as possible, McMansions won’t stand the test of time. Of course, even stone buildings require some work but people expect them to last longer than suburban tract homes.

Frank Underwood might claim he is everything McMansions are not: he is not worried about first impressions but rather plays the long game of influence and power, he has attended schools like The Sentinel (modeled after The Citadel, a name suggesting stone and permanence) and Harvard Law, and he is from the old traditions of South Carolina (one of the original colonies, not an upstart booming suburb).

Are America’s most admired simply America’s most powerful?

Peter Beinart looks at the most recent Gallup’s most recent Most Admired poll and notices a trend:

Nor is it true that Gallup merely measures celebrity, since athletes and Hollywood icons are largely absent. Looking at the winners across the decades, the most common denominator is power. Indeed, the only female winners not in close proximity to political power are Mother Theresa in the 1980s and 1990s and Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who gained fame treating polio, in 1951.

The men tell a similar story. Presidents almost always win. When they’re deemed weak or unpopular, the public anoints another strong political figure: Douglas MacArthur supplants Harry Truman in 1946 and 1947; Dwight Eisenhower tops Lyndon Johnson in 1967 and 1968; Henry Kissinger replaces Richard Nixon between 1973 and 1975. Even the religious figures who do best are the ones closest to power. Although he never wins, the Reverend Billy Graham—famous for pastoring to presidents—makes the top-10 list more than other man between 1948 and 2005. The other highest-scoring religious figures are popes. Missing are any of the clergy, like William Sloane Coffin or Daniel Berrigan, who made their names fighting the Vietnam War.

In fact, activists protesting injustice rarely rank highly. That includes Martin Luther King. He doesn’t make America’s top 10 most admired men in 1963, the year of the March on Washington. King comes fourth in 1964 and sixth in 1965 but then falls out of the top ten again in 1966 and 1967. The same is true for Nelson Mandela. By the mid-1980s, the global anti-apartheid movement had made Mandela a household name. But as far as I can tell, he doesn’t crack Gallup’s top-10 list until he is elected South Africa’s president in 1994. (To be fair, I was only able to check 1983, 1984 , 1986, 1987, and 1992. For 1993, I could only find the top five. After 1994, Mandela becomes a top-10 regular. But by then, the Cold War is over, the controversy surrounding his communist sympathies has evaporated, and he’s become safe.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised at this. Part of it could be that people get to vote for some of the political positions so they feel like they had a voice. Additionally, the media tends to cover the most powerful a lot. Celebrities may get a lot of attention but they tend not to do too well, whether star athletes or Hollywood stars, in job prestige rankings.

Beinart suggests the American public should pay more attention to activists, people fighting for justice rather than people holding the reins of justice. These two things are not mutually exclusive: powerful leaders can be good leaders. But, this could be a problem if people are admired simply for the power they command rather than for what they actually do with that power.

The Economist calls for more gov’t power to construct needed mass transit in London

London needs more mass transit capacity – and The Economist argues governmental bodies need more power to expand the system.

Whereas the number of people driving in London is falling, Tube and bus use is surging. Each day 3.7m people use the Underground while 6.4m take a bus. Once-quiet routes are crammed. The London Overground, a rebranded and improved railway line, carries 120m passengers a year, up from just 33m in 2008. The Docklands Light Railway carried 66m passengers in 2008. It now carries 100m…

The changing character of the capital makes things trickier. Much of the city’s population growth over the past decade has been in east London, which is poorly served by the Tube. Parts of inner London such as Kensington and Chelsea have lost people. In future, thinks Sir Peter Hendy, TfL’s boss, most population growth will be in the suburbs. Yet jobs are becoming increasingly clustered in the middle—in the City, Canary Wharf and the West End. “If you’re an insurance company, you don’t look at a map and settle on Enfield,” says Sir Peter. London will not just have more people: it will have more people travelling farther to their jobs…

Grand projects help, at huge cost. But there is a simpler, cheaper way of adding capacity, insists Sir Peter: make much better use of London’s huge existing commuter railway network. Which means giving him more control…

London’s transport could be improved even more if the mayor were given control over local taxes. Crossrail is being financed through a combination of government cash, fares and an increase in land values. A business-rate supplement on non-domestic properties with a rateable value of £55,000 ($80,000) or more has supplied £4 billion for the project. This arrangement could be extended for Crossrail 2, and more widely.

This is an interesting look at how London is going about tackling an issue many cities are facing: how to provide more mass transit amidst growing populations. Additionally, as the article notes, numerous interests may have opposition if lines are not placed to their liking or financial pressure falls on them. Large infrastructure projects aren’t necessarily easy to carry out anyway and all of these projects in London will require quite a bit of power to pull off.

The fate of major world cities could depend on these projects: as they continue to grow, they simply can’t provide more roads and many places do not exactly desire more suburban communities for the wealthy (though more of this may happen, including in London). Yet, the more cities grow, the projects become more and more difficult to put together because of hearing from different groups, moving people, and paying for land and higher construction costs.

Who is the most powerful person in the world?

One commentator argues Janet Yellen would become the most powerful female in history as Chair of the Federal Reserve:

The Fed is as powerful as it is boring. (Alright, maybe not that powerful, but you get the point). See, its job is to make sure the U.S. economy stays in the Goldilocks zone: growing neither too fast nor too slow, but just right to keep both unemployment and inflation low. It raises interest rates when it thinks growth is too high, and cuts them when it thinks growth is too low — and it does all this by controlling how much money is in the economy. But the Fed’s interest rate decisions don’t just set the course for the U.S. economy; its decisions set the course for the world economy too. That’s because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, and so many emerging markets have pegged their own to it — which means they’ve decided to import our monetary policy. Think about it this way. If I say my currency will always be worth a certain number of dollars, then I have to print more of it when the Fed prints more dollars. That’s why economists call the Fed a monetary superpower: it’s the world’s central bank all but in name. And, as you can see in the chart below from economist David Beckworth, the Fed’s hegemony isn’t limited to emerging markets. The European Central Bank (light blue line) and the Bank of Japan (black dotted line)  have also followed the Fed’s lead the past 10 years or so.

In other words, Janet Yellen will have more control over the global economy than any other living person once she’s confirmed as Fed Chair. Now, the Fed is a democracy, not a dictatorship, but it’s a funny kind of democracy — the Chair alone sets the agenda. So if Yellen even just talks about slowing down the Fed’s bond-buying, Europe’s troubled economies are liable to see their interest rates rise, and emerging markets are liable to see their currencies collapse.

This might be enough to get conspiracy thinkers going: the Fed Chair, an appointed position, certainly has a lot of international power. This got me to thinking: if Yellen has all this power, who else might be in the conversation for most powerful person in the world? Here are some options:

1. The President of the United States. Political power backed with a lot of economic, military, and cultural power. The “leader of the free world.”

2. The wealthiest person in the world. Bill Gates has $72 billion, the most in the United States, but Carlos Slim has the wealth in the world at $73 billion. Both men are connected to powerful companies. However, just how much can even the wealthiest business leader do compared to the economic prowess of a large country?

3. People that Time names as Person of the Year. It is an American publication so that skews the data with lots of American political leaders. But, still a well-known list.

4. Another Time list: the 100 most influential people in the world. This list tends to make room for more cultural and artistic leaders, in addition to the more typical political and economic leaders.

5. People who subvert international norms on a global scale. Think Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden. With some resources put to more nefarious uses, they are able to dominate policy decisions and cultural understandings.

6. The flip side of #5: people who are leaders of successful large social movements. Think Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. They become icons for helping bring about great good.

7. Whomever currently has the most Twitter followers. Justin Bieber currently tops the list followed by Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Barack Obama. Definitely more about cultural power and Twitter users are still a relatively small percentage of the population.

I’m sure there are more options out there. From a Marxist perspective, we would want to look more at economic leaders while Weber’s addition of status and power are also helpful. And, we could also think of how big of a structure or number of followers a single person can leverage – by themselves, individuals, even the wealthiest, may not be able to do much.