Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Score one for Brady: The Mayoral Candidates and the Leaf Fee

Roger Jensen/The Oregonian

I have been underwhelmed by the current crop of candidates for the Mayor of Portland: Hales has come across as a crass opportunist; Smith seems far to eager to be a politician and thus do stuff to make a name for himself regardless of whether stuff needs to be done; and Brady has played the businessperson card which always makes me suspicious that they don't get the difference between markets and market failures.

What I mean by that last statement is that running a business that operates in a private goods markets is all about understanding how free markets work, appreciating the discipline of the market and so on.  And, indeed, early on Brady made a statement about understanding the hard realities of the market as an attribute that would make her a good Mayor.  But government is all about what economics calls market failures: instances in which the free market does not reach an efficient outcome because of things like public goods, asymmetric information and externalities.  In these situations government has a role to play so that efficiency can be achieved, think providing police for example.

So it is not at all clear to me why having been a businessperson is such a positive trait for a Mayoral candidate in my view.  It also seems there are as many examples of businesspeople-turned-politicians failing as succeeding.  Though I will say that Portland's crazy system of government with the stove-piped bureaus causes residents and businesses fits and any reform would probably be a positive thing. And it may be that a former businessperson would be more likely to push for reform.  Though the other crazy thing about the governance of Portland is that the Mayor has almost no power to achieve meaningful reform.  Still I would rather a Mayor pined for reform than embraced the current system.

When asked recently by The Oregonian about Portland's new leaf removal fee, however, Brady nailed it and in so doing revealed an understanding of market failures and incentives that trumped the other candidates:

"Leaf collection is a basic city service that should be funded through existing revenue streams," Brady wrote in an email. "And frankly, I want citizens to have incentives - not disincentives - for planting trees. As mayor, I will put an end to the leaf collection fee."

Wow, I couldn't have said it much better myself. In fact, I did. City streets are a public good and the maintenance of them is, rightly, a public problem. Once you start to carve out private responsibility you distort incentives and cause new problems.

Disappointingly, Hales responded thusly:

"The goal is to have storm drains free from clogs, not filling the city's coffers from homeowners who already pay a lot in property taxes. That being said, I think that the city has done a good job in trying to work the kinks out as they gear up for this year's collections. A streamlined opt-out system and the new addition of being able to rake all your leaves into the street seem like a good thing to try. Again, the goal is a public safety one, not a revenue-production one -- if this new system doesn't work then we need to explore other options."

Yes the goal is to have safe and navigable city streets: a public good.  But no, the proper response is not to make the provision of such streets a private responsibility. Economics 101.

The worst response is Smith's non-response.  This gives the impression at least that he wanted to know what the best political answer was before responding.  Boo.

And good call by the O, by the way, for getting a response to this specific policy.  It is in the details that we begin to really learn about candidates.  Just reporting on their campaign rhetoric does no one any good.


MPPBrian said...

One of the reasons that I like Eileen Brady's business background is that Portland City Commissioners are not just legislators, but executives in charge of some city bureaus. I think that management experience on the City Council has been lacking in the past. Of course, as you mention, the commission form of government means that no one person is accountable for all city operations, like a city manager is in cities like Corvallis.

I share your concern that many business people go into politics with an expectation that government can be run like a business, and then struggle when they find out it is a lot more complicated than that with interest groups and power shared among a variety of officials. One of the reasons I am optimistic about Brady is from her experience serving on the Oregon Health Fund Board, which promoted health policy reforms that were adopted by the legislature, and chairing the Oregon Health Policy Board that was created as part of those reforms. That experience working with a complex set of interests and actually getting some important work done will be valuable to her if she is elected Mayor.

Patrick Emerson said...

Good point about the running of the bureaus.

BJCefola said...

I second the comments about executive experience- leadership matters.

Leadership is about more then being right, it's about getting people to follow you to the right place. Emphasis on "follow", as in willingly under their own power rather then being dragged kicking and screaming by the threat of coercion. The leaf fee and composting are striking examples of doing otherwise.

Torrid said...

I agree that leaf collection should be Basic Public Expenditures 101--but there are lots of things that used to be covered by the commons that are now fee-based. Much of this, I believe, is a function of reduced revenue and the stigma of the word "taxes" (as opposed to "fees", which sounds more fair to some because it suggests you only pay if you use it).

So while it may be admirable for Brady to say she'd can the leaf fee, she leaves other begged questions unanswered: what revenues will she raise to cover those costs, or what expenditures will she eliminate (or move to fee-based!) in its place? I have a hard time believing that Adams just decided one morning to begin charging folks for leaf pickup; there is a budgetary rationale clearly afoot, I'd say. So for Brady to say she'd reverse the policy is fine, but amounts to castigating the solution without then readdressing the problem.

I think Jeff's non-response, if intentional or strategically reached (as you imply), is actually the best response for his campaign, which I think wants to avoid small-bore issues that speak to divergent interests within the city. Frankly, leaf collection may be a stark issue if you live in Laurelhurst or Grant Park or Eastmoreland. Montavilla, Lents, Sullivan's Gulch? Not so much maybe. While invariably the mayor will have to deal with such minutiae of governance, I'm not sure it's necessary or even productive to turn the election on those minutiae. It feels like candidates would be issuing a series of checks their butts may or may not be able to (or wish to) cash once in office, and that's less important to me than their cohesive vision of governance, which should then guide their handling of the day-to-day problems of Council.

Jeff Alworth said...

I would echo Brian's point and say that it's next to impossible to evaluate a mayoral candidate before they're elected. Mayors are generally judged by idiosyncratic metrics. The city has to function competently as a baseline, but the mayor doesn't have a huge amount of control over that. What they're judged on are special initiatives, developments, sports franchises, and so on. Do they have the qualities that allow them to coalition-build, speak engagingly to the public, and strike hard-nosed back room deals? That's what it takes, but damned if I know how to evaluate it.

Carla said...

Without an actual comment on the Portland Mayor's race (which I follow in a cursory manner, at best), I love what you said in the last graph:

" It is in the details that we begin to really learn about candidates. Just reporting on their campaign rhetoric does no one any good."

From your pixels to the ears of the Oregon media--to the candidates of the First Congressional District.