Brian Gongol Show on WHO Radio - June 16, 2013
Brian Gongol

Getting it right
One of my favorite books is by an economist named Robert Barro; it's titled "Getting it Right". The book explores the conventions for making economic decisions and making economies grow. I look at "getting it right" as a matter not only of results, but equally of process.

In terms of the big story of the week -- government surveillance -- I think process makes all the difference. The way you feel about the government surveillance story right now can probably be predicted by how you answer one simple question: Is the process at least as important as the result? It's very close to the question about whether the ends justify the means, though they're not exactly the same.

I think so. Maybe I've been exposed too long to management philosophies like the Toyota Way, which says "The right process will produce the right results", but I think that personal life, public life, business, politics, government, and even science are all guided by that same core principle. Sure, it's possible to get bad results from a good system, and good results from a bad system. But over the long term, if the system itself isn't built and tuned right, it's going to produce the wrong outputs.

Now, in business, that's a matter of building the right widgets the right way. But in law and in government, I think the right process is more important than anywhere else. That's why we defend matters like due process, even for people we despise. If the criminal-justice system doesn't follow the right process -- even for people we're sure are guilty -- we can't be sure of the result, especially when innocent people can get caught up in the system.

So when it's reported that the government is preparing to release a list of terrorist attacks that were stopped by government surveillance programs, that's fine. We can all celebrate the fact these events never came to pass. But if the process that yielded them wasn't right, then we should only consider it a lucky coincidence that they were thwarted.

We have to get the process right. And if the process we're using seems to be right but produces outcomes we don't like, then we have to ask ourselves whether something is wrong with the process. In this case, we're talking about "process" in a big way: Is the Bill of Rights the right "process" for a free society? Is it the right "process" in the 21st Century? I think so. And I think that when bad things happen -- like terrorism -- we have to look at whether changing the process is likely to make those bad things go away, or whether instead they're just inevitable byproducts of something else.

Whether a government program gets results is not the only thing that matters. China's one-family, one-child policy has definitely gotten results, but at what cost to self-determination and personal liberty? Fascists made a myth out of getting the trains to run on time (even though they were lying), trying to justify the awful things they did by claiming that they got desirable results. Huey Long got roads built in Louisiana, but at a terrible cost of corruption. Policies can be effective without being right.

Put another way, we should always care about the process, even if we like how things turn out. The political process once chose our Presidents and others inside "smoke-filled rooms"; today, we have a messy and contentious -- but very public -- process for picking our Presidential nominees. Iowa defends it first-in-the-nation caucuses in part because they encourage a process of "retail" politics that's a great deal more intimate than just broadcasting multi-million-dollar ad campaigns in a handful of major cities. And in the same vein, it's why nobody in Iowa should ever support a push for a "national popular vote". Changing the electoral system here to something that favors just a total number of votes might prevent outcomes like the 2000 Bush-versus-Gore election. But switching the process would surrender almost everything that small states gained from the Great Compromise that got the Constitution approved in the first place. It's why we insist that the First Amendment prohibits prior restraint of speech or publication in almost all cases, even if that means some things are published that are objectionable.

If we allow people to set the agenda by talking only about their results, that means they get to (a) set the metric for success, (b) measure whether success was achieved, and (c) dismiss whatever happened in the process as necessary to achieving the result.

One of the reasons people in education (and education reform) worry about top-down regulation is that it leads to "teaching to the test". Secretive government policy is the ultimate example of "teaching to the test" -- especially if we're not consulted about the process. It may be entirely true that the surveillance was necessary, and it may be entirely true that many lives were saved in the process. But it's also true that if we disregard the importance of the process, we sacrifice some of what makes the American system great. We're not great because we're of a certain skin color or religion or creed, but because we subscribe to a common set of values. Those values are very much about process -- due process in the justice system, equality under the law, and the freedom to enjoy privacy for its own sake. That sets a very, very high bar for justifying action that appears to violate (or even come close to challenging) those principles.

How much do cities owe their growth to the industries already there?
According to one research paper, not as much as we'd likely think. It's an interesting question for a city as concentrated on a few industries as Des Moines. The argument for what are called "agglomeration economies" is that a town with a specialty in one industry should try to attract other businesses from the same industry because that will enhance the economic growth of the city. Des Moines, for instance, is an insurance town. Agglomeration economics suggests that trying to get more insurance companies to reside here would make the city grow, attracting more insurance companies, in a virtuous feedback loop. But, aside from a few outlier cases like Los Angeles, it turns out that the feedback loop is only one of many factors, and not the most important one. On a related note, we're hearing now that yet another data center may be opening up shop in Des Moines soon.

Vaccinations save lives
My position on government intervention should be relatively clear from my thoughts on surveillance: I want government to do what it does well, and for the right reasons, but to do no more than it must. One of those things that government has a compelling reason to do and do well is promote vaccinations in the interest of herd immunity. There's no escaping the facts: People who feed on paranoia about vaccines are putting themselves and others at risk, including innocent children. It's unconscionable, when the science is clearly in favor of vaccination.