Incentive-aware Policy

As the mid-term elections concentrate minds in their usual wonderful way, the administration is showing admirable receptivity to reality-based policy models. New York and Washington have been known since late 2001 to be much more prone than the rest of the country to hosting terrorist attacks; finally, DHS has figured out that if you reward bad behavior with money, you just “encourage them”, just as giving sick people medical care will only make them more likely to be expensively ill, like the British.

It’s always good to kill two birds with one stone, and in this case we note that New York, at least, proposed to waste its security grant money on blue-collar workers who will never be able to pony up meaningful amounts at the contribution window. Much better to be helping places who will buy hardware, especially from our friends who have done so well, and so well for us, at the nation-building trough. Body armor, humvees, and the artillery urban peace officers so desperately lack, that’s what federal money is for. Sole-source contracts are OK, if you really insist on buying services.

And if you can kill three, a hat trick: New York per capita grant funding is down to less than $3 per goddam blue-voting-liberal-free-thinking capita; we’re paying $15 each to save Wyoming folks, who know how to vote properly, which certainly seems like a sound judgment of relative individual worth.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

8 thoughts on “Incentive-aware Policy”

  1. As we get closer to the political season, I look forward to the red state theives debating who can steal more for their state. Some of those places make the English Victorean rotten boroughs look positively overpopulated and its time they went bact to being territories. That way everyone would be happy, they would pay no federal taxes and the rest of us would not be burdened by their welfare demands.

  2. What an odd post. I mean, reading this one wouldn't believe that CA, of all states, received the most money. Significantly more than NY. Is that unwise, given that CA hasn't hosted a significant terrorist attack recently? I don't know. Were I living in CA, I might find it appropriate, but no one sensible lives in CA.
    If one actually, you know, looks at the data–which isn't required to spout off, so I'm not suggesting that anyone do it–the only states that really jumps out as receiving a disproportionate amount are TX and MN. Both receive significantly less than one might expect from a population or risk analysis or from a political process. MN, after all, is receiving about what IA is receiving in total grants, despite having a Republican governor and a Republican senator. TX, the second largest state by population, with significant energy infrastructure and large cities and a border and ports, and two Republican senators and a Republican governor, received much less than one might expect if the process were guided by inappropriate politics.
    But there I go again, talking about facts to a member of the "reality based community." No need to talk about facts when there's a larger truth, is there?

  3. And New Orleans gets screwed (again) while Florida (surprise!) wins the jackpot.

  4. "If I lived in California…." I guess one theory of policy choice is to maximize one's personal welfare in the most immediate sense, but it's not mine. California's big take would, I hope, have something to do with its population, population centers, and ports, but the fourth 9/11 plane wasn't going there, it was going to DC, and the California grant might well be too large.
    This year's distribution is here:… and I defy anyone to make sense of it; what exactly are Florida's uniquely attractive terrorism targets and vulnerabilities that gets it half again as much per person as New York? Mississippi's, to justify two and a half times as much?
    Of course 9/11 shouldn't be the only indicator of risk, but the numbers in this table are just silly; DHS isn't doing risk reduction, it's serving pork. People in Wyoming would be a lot safer overall if their state's grant were spent in places where there's something that might be practically attacked, and might look attractive to an attacker.

  5. CA has LAX, doesn't it? Frustrated terrorist attacks surely count for something, don't they? Given the habit of attacking targets til they fall (e.g., the WTC) I'd be more concerned about an attack on LAX than on anything outside of the DC area.
    Florida has 17 million people; NY has 19 million. Florida received total grants of $100 million; NY received total grants of $183 million. By my calculation, that suggests that Florida is receiving less per person than NY, not more.
    Given that the second most deadly terrorist attack in US history was the Oklahoma City attack, I'd be cautious about assuming that there are no targets of interest outside of major metropolitan areas.
    Maximizing one's personal welfare isn't the point. Only to suggest that people in NY and in DC might not be neutral in their assessment of the risks faced in CA, and that those in CA might be more attuned to the risks they face. Apparently that isn't universally true.
    If the complaint is that all states are receiving funds, well then, that may be a reasonable complaint. Rhode Island and Vermont along with Wyoming and Utah would be reasonable examples. But, then, that doesn't have anything to do with blue states or red states or punishing people or rewarding contributors or any such thing. It's just a complaint about a Congressional directive requiring all states to receive some minimal amount of funds. In other words, it has nothing at all in common with your original post.

  6. I think one big problem is the specific nose-thumbing New York got, when the federal evaluation sheet claimed that it contains no (zero) national monuments or icons of as much significance as Alltel Stadium. ( ) Ok, folks, how many of you can tell me where Alltel Stadium is, or who plays there, without Google help? How many have heard of the Empire State Building?
    It's hard to defend that part of the prioritizing process.

  7. how many of you can tell me where Alltel Stadium is, or who plays there, without Google help
    Me, but until recently my hometown team played in the same division.
    It's not clear to me from the article that DHS classified Alltel etc. as national monuments or icons; that could have been a list of what the reporter judged to be the most significant places in the city.
    Anyway, one of the problems here is that the DHS says that the funding allocations were based on a sophisticated threat analysis, and they've shown themselves to have negative credibility on that sort of thing.

  8. Thomas: So MN has a Republican governor and senator. Big deal. Despite some movement to the right recently, MN is about as blue as a state can be.

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