Posts tagged ‘HBO’

No Surprise To Anyone Who Is a Fan of "The Wire"

One of the recurring themes in HBO's fabulous series "the Wire" was how well-intentioned government officials could be led astray by perverse incentives, and, tied to this, the overwhelming pressure that can build up in government to fix the metrics rather than the problem.

In Charleston, they apparently thought they had a real public school success story on their hands:

Sanders-Clyde is a school in downtown Charleston that serves some of
the poorest students in the county. Most of its children come from the
nearby homeless shelter or public housing apartments. Its test scores
once were the worst in the county, and its future was so bleak that the
county board planned to close it.

Then MiShawna Moore became
the school's principal in 2003. She tailored lessons for students,
helped their parents pay bills, washed students' clothes and opened the
school building on weekends. The school's test scores began to rise.

By
2007, the school outscored state and district averages, far exceeding
the progress of schools with students from similar backgrounds.
Educators hailed Moore as a model for other principals, the community
showered her school with praise, and federal and state awards went to
the school in recognition of its achievement. Moore was so successful
that she was asked to lead a second downtown school, Fraser Elementary,
to duplicate her accomplishments.

But suddenly, the bottom dropped out:

This year, the school's PACT results fell sharply in every subject and at every grade level.

So what changed?  The curriculum?  The students?  No, what changed was who was in charge of compiling the scores.  For the first time, they took the measurement process out of the hands of the person being rewarded for the measure:

This was the first time that the school district monitored the school's
testing. District officials took tests away from the school each night
and put monitors in classrooms daily. Janet Rose, the district's
executive director of assessment and accountability, told The Post and
Courier in May that the extra scrutiny would validate the school's
scores.

Oops.  It seems the former high-flying principal suddenly needs to spend more time with her family

A few weeks after the tests this spring, in a move that surprised
parents and officials, Moore announced that she was leaving Charleston
County.

Hat tip to Andrew Coulson

Interesting Story on Housing and Crime

A reader sent me a link to what was a pretty interesting story on housing programs and crime in the most recent issue of the Atlantic.  In short, federal housing policy over the last 20-30 years has been to blow up central housing projects (fans of the Wire on HBO will have a good idea of this type of place) that tended to concentrate poverty in a few neighborhoods in favor of voucher programs that would spread the very poor around.  The idea was to get the poor into middle class neighborhoods, with the hope that middle class schools, support networks, and values might be infused in the poor.

Some now seem to be worried that exactly the opposite is happening.  As the article relates, city centers are being revitalized by sending the poor and associated criminal elements outwards.  But in turn, certain here-to-fore quiet suburbs are seeing crime spikes, and these crime waves seem to line up well with where the housing vouchers are being used.

A couple of thoughts:

  • [insert libertarian rant on government playing god with poor people's lives, drug prohibition, government schools, etc.]
  • The people of Houston would not be at all surprised by this, and might call it the Katrina effect.  It may well be that the dispersion of poor families will eventually result in reductions in total crime (say in the next generation or two), but hardened criminals of today don't stop being criminals just because they move to new neighborhoods -- certainly Houston has found this having inherited many criminals from New Orleans.
  • I still think that if we are going to give out subsidized housing, that this in the long-run is a better approach.  The authors of the article seem to fear that the poor, having been dispersed, lost their support networks.  But it strikes me that it was this same network that reinforced all the worst cultural aspects of the old projects, and long-term I think fewer new criminals and poorly motivated kids will exist in the next generation if we can break some of this critical mass up. 
  • The article is an interesting example of how new attitudes about race can get in the way of discussion as much as the old ones.  Stories about increasing crime in the suburbs after an influx of black poor is just too similar to the old integration fears held by whites in the 1960s and 1970s. 

The Wire

I really like the HBO series "the Wire" about the Baltimore police force and the pursuit of various drug gangs, which I have been catching up on via DVD.  While season 2 and 3 were not quite as good as 1, they still are quite good.

In many respects, this is a very libertarian series in outlook.  A central part of the show is that government officials nearly universally do wrong and wasteful things.  However, only a few of them are overtly corrupt.  The vast majority are regular folks responding rationally to the types of incentives government employees are given and which result in really bad outcomes.

In fact, I may just be screwed up from too many years in a past life working on corporate performance metrics, but at some level the show is all about incentives.  Even within the drug gangs, there is an interesting interplay between Avon and Stringer due mainly to the fact that though they face roughly the same circumstances and inputs, one has a goal of making money while the other has a goal of reputation and street cred.  I can see now why the Freakonomics blog discusses the show so often.

Oh, and the season 3 experiment with effective drug legalization is also interesting.

Highly recommended.

Politically Correct Medicine

I am always floored by the number of progressives who embrace all kinds of wacky non-scientific health theories.  These are the same folks who criticize creationists as being anti-scientific.  I am not a creationist, but I might be able to embrace it faster than I could, say, the insanity that is homeopathic medicine**. 

Unfortunately, these are the same folks who will likely make up the backbone of the socialized medicine bureaucracy when and if the US finally decides to hand health care over to a consortium of the Post Office and Walther Reed.  So here is a preview of what we will get:

Tom and Donna (not their real names) are professional
shamen. They teach classes in shamanism at a "foundation", where you
can learn "soul retrieval healing", help the dead "continue their
journey into the Hereafter", and investigate "the Fairy Kingdom". These
soul retrievers and Fairy Kingdom investigators also work for the NHS "”
where, according to Tom's foundation profile, they "use complementary
therapies to help those with mental health difficulties". Shaman
therapies are not the only unorthodox treatments for which the NHS will
gladly pay.

Taxpayers are also subsidising Emotional
Freedom Technique (EFT) "therapy", in which, according to one NHS
trust, "subtle energies" are reordered via "tapping with the fingertips
to stimulate certain meridian energy points while the client is "˜tuned
in' to the problem". "¦If EFT doesn't do the job, an NHS foot massage
might help. Reflexologists believe that each part of the foot maps to a
different organ, and that massaging a particular point can treat that
organ. Medical doctors think it's absurd. "¦Most depressing of all for
the rational taxpayer is the NHS Directory for Alternative and
Complementary Medicine, which aims to promote "dowsers", "flower
therapists" and "crystal healers". We've just learnt that some
hospitals are removing every third light bulb to save money, and that
nurses are being paid half the minimum wage "” or being asked to work
for nothing "” at others. That's how bad the financial crisis has
become. Meanwhile, the National Health Service is employing shaman
fairy enthusiasts as psychological counsellors, enthusiastically
providing treatments invented by "an ordained minister and a personal
performance coach" who thinks tapping your body can cure diabetes,
promoting dowsers and crystal healers and spending vast amounts on
therapies that can't be scientifically supported.

Just as with the Walther Reed mess, the left wants to write off this stuff as just bad management, as an exception.  But unfortunately, this is the rule for government management.  It always goes bad.  Mismatched incentives + lack of individual choice + strong unionized bureaucracy most concerned with its own job security + impossibly complex information flows = mess.  Always.  I get very tired of the excuse, as I wrote here, that "if only we were in charge, everything would work great." 

Throughout these years, libertarians like myself argued that there
were at least three problems with all of this technocratic statism:

  • You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you
    are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values,
    etc., and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the
    Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.
  • Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may
    feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
    technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
    idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the
    technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
    take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
    another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

Everyone has had a turn running the place (except libertarians, I might observe) and everyone has screwed things up.

** I am amazed I have not posted a rant on homeopathic medicine, but searching through my archives, I don't find anything.  If you don't know, here is the fast answer why homeopathy is silly.  Advocates of homeopathy argue that they can make certain substances more effective by diluting them, and the more they dilute them, the more effective they are.  Go to one of their web sites, and you will see dilution rations that translate into having less than one molecule of the active ingredient in a mass of water the volume of all the world's oceans.  Advocates argue that even though the molecules are gone, some sort of resonance remains.  Uhh, right.

Repeat After Me ... Its Not Just One Party

Kevin Drum opines:

What happens when you combine "fast track" procurement, minimal
oversight, pork-based contracting, and a comprehensive lack of
responsibility for results? Well, you get the Bush administration, of
course. More specifically, you get the Coast Guard's disastrous
Deepwater program. Nadezhda runs through the grim details.

This is perhaps the single greatest fallacy that props up big government.  Specifically, the notion that corruption, inefficiency, and stupidity are failures in government related to certain individuals.  The implication is that if only "our party" was in control, big government would be great.  Except that both parties have had their chances in alternating fashion for 70 years (what I would call the era of really big government) and government has been a mess regardless of who has been in control. 

People like Hayek and Friedman have written who books about it, so I want try to elucidate the whole theory, except to summarize that the nature of incentives in government, particularly the big sacrifice-one-group-for-another government we have today, will ALWAYS lead to massive failures.  Period.

I wrote over a year ago that statism always comes back to bite its creators, because no matter how beautiful the machinery of government control, you can never control for the human beings who get behind the levers.  At that time I pointed to three fallacies, of which the third is particularly relevant to this post:

  • You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you
    are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values,
    etc., and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the
    Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.
  • Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may
    feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the
    technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of
    idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the
    technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys
    take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on
    another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

Statism Comes Back to Bite Technocrats

Over the past fifty years, a powerful driving force for statism in this country has come from technocrats, mainly on the left, who felt that the country would be better off if a few smart people (ie them) made the important decisions and imposed them on the public at large, who were too dumb to make quality decision for themselves.  People aren't smart enough,they felt, to make medication risk trade-off decision for themselves, so the FDA was created to tell them what procedures and compounds they could and could not have access to.  People couldn't be trusted to teach their kids the right things, so technocrats in the left defended government-run schools and fought school choice at every juncture.  People can't be trusted to save for their own retirement, so  the government takes control with Social Security and the left fights giving any control back to individuals.  The technocrats told us what safety equipment our car had to have, what gas mileage it should get, when we needed to where a helmet, what foods to eat, when we could smoke, what wages we could and could not accept, what was and was not acceptable speech on public college campuses, etc. etc.

Throughout these years, libertarians like myself argued that there were at least three problems with all of this technocratic statism:

  • You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values, etc., and thus make trade-offs differently.  Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.
  • Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game.  It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left.  Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control".  No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man.  Everything after that was inevitable.

I am reminded of all this because the technocrats that built our regulatory state are starting to see the danger of what they created.  A public school system was great as long as it was teaching the right things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.  Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place - it always falls into the wrong hands.  Maybe its time for me to again invite the left to reconsider school choice.

Today, via Instapundit, comes this story about the GAO audit of the decision by the FDA to not allow the plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter.  And, knock me over with a feather, it appears that the decision was political, based on a conservative administration's opposition to abortion.  And again the technocrats on the left are freaked.  Well, what did you expect?  You applauded the Clinton FDA's politically motivated ban on breast implants as a sop to NOW and the trial lawyers.  In establishing the FDA, it was you on the left that established the principal, contradictory to the left's own stand on abortion, that the government does indeed trump the individual on decision making for their own body  (other thoughts here).  Again we hear the lament that the game was great until these conservative yahoos took over.  No, it wasn't.  It was unjust to scheme to control other people's lives, and just plain stupid to expect that the machinery of control you created would never fall into your political enemy's hands.

OK, rant over.  No one wants to hear "you asked for it", but that is indeed my answer to many of the left's laments today about conservatives taking over their treasured instruments of state control.  I hate to be a geek here, but even Star Trek figured out this whole technocrat losing control of the fascist state thing 40 years ago.

Update:  Wow, I am not that skilled with reading academix-speak, but I am pretty sure that Ed Glaeser via Margina Revolution is saying the same thing:

Soft paternalism requires a government bureaucracy that is skilled in
manipulating beliefs.  A persuasive government bureaucracy is inherently
dangerous because that apparatus can be used in contexts far away from the
initial paternalistic domain.  Political leaders have a number of goals, only
some of which relate to improving individual well-being.  Investing in the tools
of persuasion enables the government to change perceptions of many things, not
only the behavior in question.  There is great potential for abuse.

Update:  Cafe Hayek discusses how the FDA is failing even technocratic objectives and this is an amazing data-rich in-depth analysis of the FDA vs. markets in managing drug risk/reward choices:

The debate over off-label prescribing is not about perfect safety; it is about
whether unavoidable trade-offs are best made for everyone by a centralized authority
such as the FDA or whether those decisions are best made by patients and doctors
acting independently. Whoever makes a decision to try (patient), prescribe (doctor),
or approve (FDA) a drug must face the trade-off between the costs of prescribing a
potentially unsafe medicine (a type II cost) and the costs of not prescribing a drug
that could have saved a life (a type I cost)....

The FDA tends to overemphasize the cost of using a potentially unsafe medicine,
because type II costs are highly visible and result in punishment of the FDA, whereas
type I costs are invisible and do not result in punishment.

If the FDA approved a drug that killed thousands of people, that story would make
the front page of every newspaper in the nation. Congressional hearings would certainly he held, the head of the FDA would probably lose his or her job, and the agency would be reorganized. But if the FDA rejected a drug that could save thousands of people, who would complain? When a drug kills a patient, that person is identifiable, and family and friends may learn the cause of the death. In contrast, the patient who would have lived, had new drugs been available, is identifiable only in a statistical sense. Family and friends will never know whether their loved one could have survived had the FDA not delayed the introduction of a new drug. In some cases the drug that could have saved the patient's life is never created, because the costs of the FDA's testing procedures make the necessary research and development appear unprofitable...

Patients and doctors do not face the same biased incentives as the FDA and thus
tend to pay more attention to the costs of not using a drug that could save a life.

My Favorite Howard Hughes Story

Given the recent fascination with the upcoming Howard Hughes biopic, as well as any number of other articles on his life (this article covers some of the more eccentric parts left out of the movie)  I remembered my favorite Hughes story. 

Howard Hughes loved watching movies at night.  Now, this won't seem too odd to most of us, since many people, myself included, have spent a few late nights watching an old movie on cable or on the DVD player.  However, Hughes had a problem.  He liked to watch movies of his choosing in his own room on top of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas before anyone had dreamed up HBO or the VCR. 

Hughes was not daunted by this small problem.  This is the man that bought the Desert Inn when they threatened to evict him.  So, Hughes bought a local TV station.  Each week, the TV station would publish its weekly schedule, including the movies it planned to show each evening;  however, it seldom followed this schedule, because each evening Howard Hughes would call his station and tell them what movie he wanted to see, and that would be what they broadcast.  So, in a sense, Howard Hughes invented pay per view TV, though his version was kind of expensive.  Also, the TV station apparently got a lot of complaints for never showing the movie listed in the TV guide.