improving US governance

=politics =government =institutions



What's wrong with governance in America, and how could it be improved?



part 1: politicians


The New York City subway system has some problems.
Recently, there was flooding.
A single mile of new track has cost $3.5 billion.
What's going wrong? You could try looking at cost breakdowns, and they'll show that there are lots of different costs and they're all really high. Accountants do that kind of thing, so high costs that exist are resistant to that type of inspection.

When that's the case, it can be more effective to look at what happens when someone tries to improve things.

Pedestrian Observations seems to think Andy Byford was doing a good job for 2 years and was removed for political reasons:

after Cuomo pushed him out for being too successful and getting too much credit, Byford returned to his native Britain, where Mayor Sadiq Khan appointed him head of Transport for London


Wikipedia says:

As part of state legislation passed in April 2019, the MTA was supposed to create a plan to reduce costs by the end of that June. A draft of the plan indicated that several departments would be eliminated, undermining Byford's role.


Oddly, Cuomo also insisted on using UWB radio for train signalling. That's stupid and I think it's likely there was some conflict of interest.

Byford was replaced by Sarah Feinberg, a former communications director and PR consultant. Yikes.


Cuomo also did a really bad job with the coronavirus: he ordered sick patients sent to nursing homes, and the majority of people in NYC got infected. Then he covered up the nursing home deaths. Overall, he was just really terrible in general.


In other words, the problems were ultimately the fault of the political leadership and the people who voted for it. Well, Cuomo's not popular anymore, so it's safe to mock him now, but why did people vote for him? It probably has something to do with all the praise he got from media.

Eventually people figured out they were being lied to, and Cuomo is gone, but the media that praised him is unchanged, and I'm sure it will find some more terrible candidates to promote to people.

Cuomo wanted to stay in office, and Byford was popular, so why did Cuomo fire Byford? Because Cuomo was pressured by people who would lose out from Byford eliminating wasteful spending. Voters were at fault not just for voting for Cuomo, but by demonstrating over time that the political ads, endorsements, and media connections that can be gained from corruption are worth more votes than eliminating the corruption.



When media is wrong about something like Cuomo being competent or evidence for Iraqi WMD being even plausibly correct, why don't people switch to different media that was less wrong?

I think this is largely a standard case of lockin via network effects: it's hard to switch your social group off of a bad newspaper the same way it's hard to switch it off of Facebook. But there's another factor with media specifically: collectively, it has some control over which potential alternatives people are aware of.



Just how bad is the selection of politicians?

Which famous youtuber do you think is the worst person? Opinions vary, but I'll nominate Logan Paul. So he's an awful human being, but is he worse than, say...Kevin Spacey? Absolutely not.

Now, Kevin Spacey is a terrible human being, but is he worse than, say...Dick Cheney? Absolutely not.

So, some people argue that randomly selecting representatives from the population would be better than the current system. That might be true, which is a pretty strong condemnation of the current system.

The quality of sortition is a low bar to meet because most people could nominate someone more qualified than themselves. The advantage of sortition over voting, then, is mainly in eliminating the ability of media to manipulate the Schelling points of candidate selection.

We could choose a random person, and then have them choose someone, but this obviously raises the possibility of bribing or coercing the randomly chosen person. But this problem can be mitigated with more randomness: if our random person chooses 10 people they like, then one of those is randomly chosen, then this reduces the benefit of bribery/coercion 10x without reducing the risks.

But in general, people can only evaluate other people within a certain range from themselves. If you want to get really smart and competent people, you need multiple levels of nominations...anyway, this is leading towards me mentioning the process Venice used to select its doges. That sounds pretty weird to most people today but it worked pretty well for hundreds of years.

New regulations for the elections of the doge introduced in 1268 remained in force until the end of the republic in 1797. Their intention was to minimize the influence of individual great families, and this was effected by a complex electoral machinery. Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine, and the nine elected forty-five. These forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who elected the doge.


Well, it's fun to talk about alternative voting systems, but changing, say, the US constitution is a pipe dream. What's more plausible is taking over a political party and making it use some clever system for candidate selection, but still, if you have enough people to do that, they could also just...not vote for terrible people?



part 2: civil service


What's the process the government follows when it starts a $12B project and cost estimates keep rising faster than money spent?


1. Some government officials make a contract specifying what they want built.

2. Some company with good lawyers finds a way to fulfill the letter of the contract cheaply, and submits a low bid.

3. Because those officials had no idea what they're doing, lots of changes are needed.

4. There's no agreement on what changes should cost, so each change goes through the court system.

5. The company makes lots of money.


One such company is the Tutor Perini Corporation. Pedestrian Observations says:

In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum.


A comment notes this statement from a Tutor-Perini conference call:

As I have said before evidenced everyday by the minimum competition in the billion dollar plus projects. There are very few companies in the United States that can successfully build a billion dollar plus infrastructure projects and as in such there are very few bidders as we go forward.


So, if you want to control costs, you need engineering expertise on the government side, so that the government can write decent contracts. The question is, how do you get it?

Fire the incompetent people? Oh no, you can't do that.

How about hiring really competent people? How? Some sort of intellectually demanding standardized test? Well, that's what other countries do, and that's what was done, but courts banned that because of disparate impact. Here's what I'd say to those judges: if you really believe in disparate impact, then apply it equally. Ban the SAT and GRE. Ban leetcode questions at software companies. Ban the military aptitude tests. Do it, cowards.


Considering the limitations in place, I have a radical proposal: government acquihires. Buy some engineering companies and use those engineers to design the contracts.



part 3: judges


In theory, America has laws and judges interpret those laws. But there's really no incentive to judges to follow the laws as written; they just need to pretend they do, even if the reasoning is silly. This is actually necessary, because the laws are incoherent if taken literally. One could argue that America is really ruled by judges rather than political leaders, and because appointment of judges below the Supreme Court has poor public visibility relative to impact that's a big target for certain kinds of lobbying.

The good news is that in America, at least judges never get bribed to make certain rulings...oh wait.



Judges are appointed by politicians, so if you want better judges, then get better politicians, I guess?

But holding the set of judges constant, there's a significant avenue for improvement: case assignment.

There are a lot of cases with national scope where one rogue judge can shut down or require things for a while. Eventually, this gets appealed and overturned, but then the same thing is done again and again with a new lawsuit.

My proposal here is simple: have both sides of a lawsuit write an initial summary of the nature of the case, and have a selection of judges vote on which judge should take the case.



There's also another problem in the American court system: many systems are overscheduled, with long waits for cases. This is bad. There should be excess capacity so cases can usually be heard immediately. There's some combination of local budget issues and political gridlock over adding any new judges that leads to this not happening, but as political problems in the USA go, this seems less unsolvable than most.



part 4: "connections"


Why is the EPA so bad at regulating hazardous chemicals, including ones in consumer products. Because it's corrupt. The corruption takes the form of lucrative jobs being offered to high-level members of agencies after they retire.

This is also why, for example, when Lina Khan came in and decided to actually start enforcing antitrust laws, her staff started quitting, because they didn't want to do their actual jobs, they wanted to be friendly with the corporations they were supposed to oversee so they could get nice jobs afterwards.

So what do you do about this? Ban the EPA from communicating with corporations? That seems problematic. Ban people from taking jobs with the corporations they regulate? That's a problem for lower-level people specialized in an industry, but it seems fair to apply that rule to the leadership - but then, what exactly counts as the "same companies" or "same industry"?

So, what could be done about that? The answer is: aggressive and continuous investigation by outside people, then sending leaders to prison when they're making decisions for later personal benefit.

When people propose rules for leadership of agencies or corporations, the response is often something like, "It's hard to find CEOs, and this will make it impossible!" Nah. I don't believe that the restrictive criteria used to select leadership candidates actually matter: the quality of resulting candidates is pretty poor. Sure, leadership is a skill, but the current system actually seems worse than just picking some random smart folks.



part 5: directors


If you work for a big corporation, its leadership probably has more control over your life than the government. America has lots of big corporations that are monopolistic or somehow quasi-governmental, and I'm not opposed (at least in principle) to them being regulated as such.

Politicians are elected, but what about the leadership of corporations? Well, shareholders vote for a board of directors, and then the board of directors elects executives...but the candidates shareholders vote on are controlled by the current board of directors. That means that to get on a board of directors, what's important is knowing people already on the board. The result is that most board members are on lots of boards, and there's a lot of trading of board positions for other board positions - perhaps for family members - or some other favors.

My solution is simple: have the government require that corporations use a better system. But you can be sure that there'd be intensive lobbying against that.


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