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Monday, June 13, 2011

Parking Tickets, Merit Pay, and Affirmative Action - Why Bureaucratic Incentives Matter

(by Matthew Knee)

I recently managed to get a few parking tickets dismissed. My parking permit fell off my mirror, resulting in about 4 tickets overnight. The parking office told me there was no rule against duplicate citations, and so did whomever processed my written appeal, which was rejected. When I went to me in-person appeal, however, I was told that there are in fact rules against repeated tickets within an 8 hour period for the same violation in the same place.

What relevance does this story have (Other than emphasizing that one should be persistent in appealing parking tickets)? It says a lot about bureaucracy and policy implementation. Bureaucrats are people doing jobs. They have a role to play and people to answer to, and like most office workers are generally concerned with clearing their in-boxes or to-do lists and avoiding the wrath of an angry boss, usually by complying with organizational goals or pressures and trying the succeed at whatever part of their job is being measured. In my case, the people who work in the parking office are there to collect payments and keep complainers from complicating things. The people who process written appeals are tasked with clearing huge numbers of mostly-frivolous parking appeals. The people who conduct in-person appeals are in the business of talking one-on-one with individuals who on average have better cases (because they haven't given up yet), and occasionally granting mercy. All behaved as expected.

Bureaucratic behavior has implications for a variety of policies. The two I will discuss today are affirmative action in state university admissions, and K-12 teaching.

Several states have passed bans on affirmative action, but many public universities theoretically banned from using racial preferences continue to do so by other means, particularly by considering variables known to correlate with race, systems that combine racial signals with subjectivity, or using other methods to facilitate a desired racial balance. This can be explained in part by the behavior of bureaucrats. There do not exist compliance officers whose role it is to ensure that these laws are followed, but there do exist federal affirmative action compliance officers who focus on non-preference federal policies beyond state control, and run offices of affirmative action with varying powers, scopes, and budgets. These are people that must be answered to.

Similarly, academic senates, admissions officers, and administrators have liberal pressure groups, each other, sometimes government officials, and their own often-liberal ideology telling them that they need to achieve some desired racial balance. Many don't want to comply with racial preference bans anyway, and even if they were not so inclined, doing so could complicate their jobs significantly.

There are rarely internal controls to counter these forces. At UCLA in 2008, a professor on the academic senate committee charged with admissions oversight asked to conduct a study to determine whether their new admissions policy was being used for racial discrimination. He was unceremoniously denied the right to do so and run off the committee, despite support from the committee's undergraduate representatives.

All opponents of racial preferences have is the slow and unwieldy legal system - and generally the laws aren't properly worded to rule out current tactics anyway.

K-12 education faces similar, more straightforward, problems. Teachers in a union-based seniority system are simply incentivized to stick around, not do anything utterly egregious, and demand their contractual rights. This has the dangerous side-effect of making teachers dependent on the union for their livelihood rather than their skill at their work. Solidarity and union rights are the way to success, not performance and internal competition. Some have varying incentives to raise very specific test scores (which can lead to its own problematic "teaching to the test" incentives), but in stronger union areas merit pay is far from the norm.

What are we to learn from this? When seeking the correct policies, conventional wisdom emphasizes the importance of examining at how the public will respond to changes in incentives. However, it is also important to examine how government officials will respond to a change in incentives. Good government policy requires building functioning systems that resist being undermined or swept aside by circumstance or bureaucratic resistance. Good laws and policies must go beyond mere declarations.


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  1. During the 80s I worked in an Embassy in Washington DC. The staff owned vehicles had a State Department tags similar to diplomatic tags.

    The DC Police or parking inspectors had a nice little con going to get their numbers up. They would write bogus tickets using State Dept tag numbers, on the supposition that no-one would ever check.

    The s..t hit the fan when the city pushed the State Department to do something about the scofflaws.

    Boy, was I shocked to discover I had parking tickets for parts of DC where you wouldn't go in an armored car. We had to appear in front of an administrative judge to get the tickets cancelled.

  2. Affirmative action was intended to give chances to candidates for opportunities who, it is assumed, would otherwise be denied a fair chance because of discrimination due to some attribute they possess. Race is an example of such an attribute. When affirmative action programs provide people of a given race an opportunity they would otherwise not be deemed to qualify for, the main criteria by which the person is then given a chance and advanced, is their race. Thus, one person is given an opportunity because of their race and another person is correspondingly denied an opportunity because of their race. Although the advancement of one candidate is deemed to be of merit because it advances a “disadvantaged” person, it is widely ignored that the same action simultaneously constitutes discrimination against a second person, and artificially makes that person disadvantaged because of their race. Proponents of affirmative action conveniently ignore that the disadvantage bestowed upon the second candidate is essentially an act of discrimination that is no less improper because it is advanced by those trying to right a societal wrong.

    What few people ever consider is that candidates for a given opportunity have many other attributes besides the ones that may be deemed to be criteria for discrimination. When a given candidate is advanced because of their race, for example, it is the entire person that is advanced along with all of their attributes other than race. When this happens, the candidate advanced mostly because of their race rarely develops their other personality attributes because they have systematically been isolated from incurring any negative consequences of their other attributes. Thus, people like Barack Obama obtain a pass if they are arrogant because when they were advanced because of their race, their arrogance was overlooked. Such people never learn to modulate their behavior due to negative feedback which other people commonly encounter. Such people who were advanced mostly because of their race often fail to develop in many other areas because they rarely encounter negative performance reviews which may negate advancing that person, thereby countering the act of preference they were given in the first place because of their race.

    We see these issues in people like Obama who have little ability to learn from their mistakes and who are extremely intolerant of negative feedback. The irony of all of this is that by giving people a pass because of their race, or some other isolated attribute, these people often find themselves elevated to positions for which they are very unqualified, because they were systematically isolated from the difficult character building experiences most other people experience in the natural course of their lives.

    Unions today no longer serve as instruments to give labor greater bargaining power. They clearly function to isolate employees from the negative consequences of their own wanting behaviors. Thus, union labor today is typically perceived to be less productive, less cooperative and more defiant.

    In both cases above, the incentives to behave in a manner that leads to people realizing their fullest potential is supplanted, and people instead become preoccupied with the development of manipulation techniques to distract others from the truth.

    The truth is that affirmative action and bureaucracies are instruments which ultimately serve to perpetuate our decline and hinder our advancement as a nation and a society. Affirmative action actually serves to hinder the development of people that could benefit from development because they are denied the benefits of incentives. Government bureaucracies eliminate incentives and thus produce people that no longer have to sing for their supper, but instead, resort to perpetuating the franchise from which they derive their pay. And the efficiency of that franchise be damned.