Friday, January 3, 2020

Fragmentation of public authority - progressivism gone too far?

Marginal Revolution points to this fascinating article which uses the example of the troubles of New York's Penn Station to show how progressive thinking has made it hard for governments to do big things,
The roadblocks that prevent projects like Penn Station from quick completion were erected after a quiet but enormously consequential shift in progressive thinking—a transformation that began in the 1960s and still reverberates today. For the previous century, reformers ranging from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson had sought to combat the pernicious influence of political machines and corporate trusts by consolidating public power in the hands of expert technocrats, men (and, to be clear, they were mostly white men) driven to pursue the broader public interest. But by the early 1970s, the old progressive vision had shattered. No single event may have pointed the new way more clearly than the publication, mere months before Richard Nixon’s resignation, of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.
Caro’s 45-year-old masterpiece, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, is often billed as a biography of New York’s most important 20th-century builder, an unelected official who remade the city’s landscape between the mid-1920s and the late 1960s. But the 1,296-page book was also an indictment of government power that has since become a core tenet of progressive thinking. Since the 1970s, even as progressives have championed Big Government, they’ve worked tirelessly to put new checks on its power—to pull it away from imperious technocrats who might use government to bulldoze hapless communities. And it’s that impulse to protect the powerless from the abuse of public power that is most responsible for the morass that is Penn Station.
Since the mid-1960s—really since the opening of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island—no major new piece of public infrastructure has been built within the five boroughs of New York City. New York has managed to rebuild when bridges and subways failed and, in the case of the World Trade Center, when buildings were destroyed by terrorists. A handful of new subway stops have opened on Second Avenue, and the 7 Line was extended into Manhattan’s Far West Side. Gov. Andrew Cuomo managed to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. And he’s rebuilding terminals at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. But those changes are a pittance of what New York once built year upon year, and just a fraction of the public infrastructure a booming city demands. The subway system is falling apart. Entire neighborhoods are transit deserts. Century-old tunnels that connect New York and New Jersey are beginning to fail...
Penn Station, like so much of the region’s infrastructure, remains in tatters today not because men like Robert Moses are no longer on the scene, but because the system in which Moses operated has been replaced by an entirely new, and remarkably dysfunctional, architecture. Beneath America’s deep frustration with government is something else: a deep-seated aversion to power. Progressives resolved decades ago to prevent the public from being bulldozed by another Robert Moses—and the project to diffuse power to the public has succeeded. But the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The left’s zeal to hamstring government has helped to burnish the right’s argument that government would mess up a one-car parade. The new protections erected to guard against Moses’ second coming have condemned new generations to live in civic infrastructure that is frozen in time...
In the first decade of the 20th century, it had taken New York a mere four years and seven months to build the first leg of the subway, running from City Hall to upper Manhattan. In more than double that time nearly 100 years later, the city had made next to no progress on Penn Station... If the progressive movement’s original project had been to use centralized authority to pursue the greater good, in the 1970s the left’s new mission was to prevent public power from trampling the powerless. And with that shift, The Power Broker’s indictment of government became a pillar of Democratic Party gospel.
In the decades since, that gospel has been used to justify a whole choirbook of incantations—efforts to require projects to mitigate even the slightest environmental effects, to preserve landmarked buildings no matter the cost, to democratize land use decisions so that not-in-my-backyard stakeholders can reject even projects of great public benefit, and much more. By many measures, the movement to devolve power has been wildly successful. But more than four decades later, the trade-offs have become more evident. Nowhere is the evidence starker than at Penn Station. In New York, and in other cities, government power is now spread so thin that places once incapable of stopping bad projects now cannot get good projects off the ground. Today, neighborhoods use newly established checks on government to protect themselves from unwelcome interference... Legislators had enacted new environmental regulations, established landmark standards, empowered community boards, created new review processes and more—all in an effort to diffuse power to protect the public interest.
To get a sense of the fragmentation and attendant decision paralysis,
A state-run commuter service, the Long Island Railroad, is the federally owned facility’s most significant tenant—with New York state’s commuter line dwarfing the number of passengers that Amtrak ferries into Manhattan from more distant points of departure... In the mid-1970s, an escalator between tracks 15 and 16 ground to a stop. Engineers determined that the work would cost $82,000. For four years, executives at the two railroads stood at a stalemate, unable to resolve how to split the bill. Finally, Amtrak grudgingly agreed to cover 80 percent of the tab in March 1979, and maintenance workers were deployed to bring the escalator back into service. 
The article points to instances over the years of how turf-issues and fragmentation came in the way of efforts to redevelop the Penn Station. It also highlights how in the absence of any government convening power, private developers are forced to co-ordinate with numerous other private parties (in addition to government). More importantly, this fragmentation has bequeathed several people and entities with the power to delay, often inordinately, even simple decisions. 

This is a much under-appreciated conclusion,
For anyone convinced that government is an indispensable tool in the progressive mission to improve peoples’ lives, Penn Station is a monument to conservatism. If public officials can’t even clear the way for a serviceable facility at the nation’s busiest transit hub, why give them any more authority? “Medicare for All,” debt-free college and a clean-energy revolution all require government intervention. Who wants to hand more power to the people incapable of fixing the Western Hemisphere’s most heavily-trafficked transit hub? Better, some will conclude, to hand the reins to someone willing to whip an impossible bureaucracy into shape—someone, perhaps, like Donald Trump.
The existence of a trade-off between efficiency/effectiveness of implementation, and procedural safeguards and checks and balances is a universal challenge. But for far too long, public debates have been biased towards the latter with limited acknowledgement of the importance of the former. A more nuanced appreciation, atleast among policy makers and opinion leaders, is required if we are to succeed with addressing important public issues.

Complicating matters, this does also have its resonance in the debate about the relative merits of autocratic and democratic systems. Clearly there are no comforting answers.

Update 1 (31.01.2020)

Even as housing affordability looms large as a public policy problem, the NYT reports of California Legislature's decision to reject an attempt to ease the problem,
A bill challenging California’s devotion to both single-family housing and motor vehicles by stripping away limits on housing density near public transit... On Thursday, one day before the deadline for action on the hotly debated bill, it failed to muster majority support in a Senate vote. In the end, in a Legislature where consensus can be elusive despite a lopsided Democratic majority, the effort drew opposition from two key constituencies: suburbanites keen on preserving their lifestyle and less affluent city dwellers seeing a Trojan horse of gentrification... Senate Bill 50, would have overridden local zoning rules to allow high-density housing near transit lines, high-performing school districts and other amenity-laden areas. Supporters portrayed it as a big but necessary step toward reducing the state’s housing deficit — and helping to curb carbon emissions from long-distance driving — by fostering development in dense urban corridors. Opponents decried it as state overreach into local land-use rules.
This is one more example of how progressive and democratic politics is coming in the way of addressing serious public policy challenges. 

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