Thursday, October 28, 2010

Election 2010: Measures 73 & 76

It may seem strange to write a single post about Measures 73 and 76 as they are so different, but they do have one common aspect that I dislike: they reduce the flexibility and responsiveness of government to deal with changing economic circumstances.

My wife is passionate about environmental and education issues and she considered a 'yes' vote on Measure 76 a no-brainer.  Who doesn't like funding for parks and beaches and wildlife?  So I posed a question: "at this moment, if there was one thing you had to cut for a couple of years until the economy improves, which of the two things, education and parks, do you think can best weather a temporary cut?"  My answer is clear: parks and wildlife.  There is convincing evidence that temporary disruptions like shorter school years, larger class sizes, etc. create long-term consequences for kids.  Thus if I have to make a difficult choice, I would protect schools above just about anything else.

I also don't like the idea of telling the criminal justice system how to do their jobs, having virtually no knowledge of the actual tradeoffs between spending more money on education, early childhood intervention and other things that will spur economic growth and thus provide non-criminal opportunities, versus spending more money on incarceration.  Measure 73 not only ties up money that might be better spent elsewhere, but it also reduces the ability of the justice system to deal on a case-by-case basis with recidivists.

Which is why I am weary of Measures like 73 and 76 which essentially tie-up state resources.  I believe that the state government needs more flexibility, not less, to deal with serious downturns like the one we are in.  I have faith that the good folks who make up our state legislature take their jobs seriously and try and do their best with the evidence they have (though I am always advocating for better evidence for them to work with).  In short, I believe in representative democracy.  Normally the trade-offs would not be so stark, but this recession is, and will continue to be, very severe and the cuts are going to have to be deep.
That said, there are arguments for both that essentially come from the same principle: there has been a failure of government (or the criminal justice system) to properly deal with to things that have substantial externalities.  Parks, beaches and wildlife have substantial positive externalities and as such are chronically underfunded.  Sex offenders and drunk drivers cause substantial negative externalities to society and as such there we have a system that allows too much of them.  I don't necessarily disagree with either statement.  But public education may have the biggest external benefit of all and to address the aforementioned two at the expense of education is the real trade-off.

In the end, things that look good in isolation start to become less clear when the trade-offs are explicit - which is a big point of economics in general.  Will schools benefit if these two do not pass?  I don't know, but given that K-12 is THE massive chunk of the state's general fund and a major part of the lottery fund account, it is hard to see how they won't.

Hard choices.

1 comment:

Dann Cutter said...

So, as I study for an Econ 311 midterm later today, I question the marginal utility effects of measure 73 on those to which it would target:

First, sex offenders - if we consider this as a violent crime, then clearly this is to societies' benefit, but whether 100 months or 300, likely the sex offender is an irrational actor who is not risk adverse - thus, increasing the punishment will truly only have the effect of keeping these people in prison more, and not on reducing the incidents (unless we consider the fewer incidents in being paroled and recidivism). As such, it would have cost to society, but likely not result in 'substantially' fewer sex crimes. So, a vote should consider the utility value between lost opportunity cost of incarceration vs societal externality of satisfaction of punishment and perception of greater safety.

Drunk drivers, on the other hand, are far more common recidivists. More importantly, often repeat offenders ARE rational actors, and have risk aversion. 90 days is trivial in terms of service time, but a felony conviction and consequences which follow are not. As such, this measure can have two distinct effects - a) lower the Drunk driver incidents, b) give DAs a much better tool to handle revisit actors. Balanced against the real costs of drunk drivers in society, I find I am anchor-biased in this regard having lost a friend to a repeat DUII offender. But rationally, utility cost on this seems effectively balanced with actual social benefits to deterrence and real social consequence.

Hence I find I am inclined to vote affirmative; I find my utility still not satisfied vs cost on the first issue (I am in favor of chemical or physical castration requirements though - but I find the proposed solution likely to not have a substantial effect in sex crime reduction vs the cost) - however on the second issue, i find a great utility in the measure giving prosecutors a better tool to secure lesser convictions which might lead to deterrence, and possibly better treatment of those in need. This flexibility outweighs the loss of resource control.

The overall concern with subtracting from education funding is a serious one: and one frankly I have avoided in this post. I will leave it unargued and just say that while I share similar views on the criticality of education funding, I am in favor of cataclysmic overall in education in our country, as the current model no longer makes sense.