Welcome back to Sunday reading. This week, I’d like to start off with a great bit of investigative journalism that Stuff produced at the end of last year: “Private business, public failure: Inside our prisons“. While it’s not directly related to transport or urban policy, it has a lot to say about how our society runs. Here’s an excerpt from the first of six parts:
Since this is the story of an incarceration nation, it’s important to look back at where that started.
Auckland University sociologist Dr Tracey McIntosh points out that if we go right back to European settlement, there’s a long history of locking up Maori. “There was a desire to incarcerate significant numbers of our people,” she says.
It’s a salient point, given the fact that more than half of the prison population today, is Maori.
The recent rise in prison growth begins in the mid-1970s. The muster bounced around about 2800, a rate of about 90 per 100,000 people, before New Zealand embarked on a remarkable period of emptying out cells.
By 1985, the muster was down to 2200, a rate of 67 per 100,000. Consider that if this was our rate now, we’d be on a par with Scandinavian countries praised for their low imprisonment.
Instead, between the mid-80s and the mid-2000s, the number of prison sentences handed down jumped 47 per cent. By 2007 the prison muster was about 8300.
A focus on community sentences saw numbers flatten somewhat for the next few years.
But now, prisons are a growth industry again. And the rate of imprisonment is more than 200 per 100,000.
That means more prisons cells, more prison staff – 1800 more beds at a cost of $1 billion are on the way, and there’s a recruitment drive for 600 extra Corrections officers, extra staff for a department which is already the 15th biggest employer in the country.
Criminologist Dr Liam Martin, from Victoria University, says the expansion is linked directly to decisions being made on our behalf, as a country.
“The rhetoric for the past 30 or 40 years is, ‘we have to build another prison to meet expected rises in the number of people we incarcerate’. But it is the Government’s choices that mean the prison population is rising.
“Prison populations rise when you make choices that make them rise – restricting bail access which we’ve done recently, restricting parole, lengthening prisons sentences.”
Read the whole series. It’s a bit disturbing. But is there a better way?
Our new Prime Minister, Bill English, thinks so. As Simon Wilson reports in The Spinoff, he’s been talking about ‘social investment’ as an alternative model: using powerful new datasets to identify opportunities to intervene early and improve people’s life outcomes. This idea has caused some controversy – also in The Spinoff, Keith Ng writes about his “fear” of “Bill English’s datatopia”:
The alternative isn’t to ignore evidence, but to consider the evidence in the context of its limitations, to weigh up conflicting information, and to look beyond what’s immediately apparent. That’s the part of the job that English’s “12 year old” can’t do. That is why we have university systems to train people in public policy. That is why what they do is complex and special.You can open up numbers to people, and a 12 year old can figure out which number is bigger, and whether the trend is going up or down. But suggesting that’s how decisions get made – or even that a modern society could make real decisions like this – is just plain wrong. It’s a cargo cult to believe that because policymakers have “data”, therefore if you have “data” you can/are meaningfully engaging with policy.
Don’t get me wrong, open data is really important. I make a living off open data. Some of my best friends are open data. And data have many uses beyond policy. But in policy, data is just an important link in a very long chain; in democracy 2.0 (or whatever version we’re on now), open data is also just a link in a very long chain.
The links on either side of that chain are academics and politicians, journalists and spin-doctors, all vying to interpret that data. Opening data makes it more available to these people, and potentially makes them more effective, but it doesn’t empower anyone who wasn’t empowered before.
If we’re to democratise policymaking, we need to democratise expertise and time. And we aren’t doing that. In fact, as we advance into the brave new world of data, data expertise becomes ever more inaccessible.
Decisionmakers have rarely been technical experts, and it’s always been assumed that they don’t need to be – that’s what briefings are for. But this isn’t just a subject matter, this is the tool that we use to understand the world. A fuzzy understanding of data is a fuzzy understanding of everything that the data describes, everything that data touches.
I tend to agree with Keith about the opportunities and pitfalls. I spend a reasonable amount of time delving around in big datasets and trying to understand what they’re telling me. This is not a straightforward process. Even once I’ve got a bunch of data and some statistical tools to analyse it with, choosing how to analyse it requires a lot of thought and, usually, a degree of practical experience with the thing I’m studying.
Forecasting models, like transport models, are much the same. Small decisions about how to design and calibrate them can have large impacts on the results, which means that model users must be well-informed about the underlying workings in order to use the results intelligently.
In other words, data analysis isn’t something that you can simply outsource to a computer. It doesn’t work that way. We will continue to rely upon human judgment in policymaking – with luck, supplemented and occasionally challenged by new data and better analysis.
Or perhaps I’m just protecting my own patch?
A city is only full when it chooses to be. Tough luck to anyone who isn't a homeowner when that choice is made https://t.co/MjA6lAHfuU
— L.A. Times Opinion (@latimesopinion) January 17, 2017
Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith hits upon some similar themes in a recent column: “Sometimes it’s hard to explain market failures“:
Lots of economic policy debates end up going like this: First, one economist or policy wonk will propose a government intervention — a minimum wage increase, a tax on sugar or subsidies for solar electricity. Another person, usually someone of a more free-market bent, will demand to know exactly which market failure justifies the intervention. A market failure, in the parlance of economics, means a situation in which free markets produce wasteful outcomes. If the advocate can’t produce a theory justifying the policy, the critic claims triumph.
…I propose we minimize our use of the show-me-the-market-failure argument. Sometimes there are policies that people have tried in the past, which seem to work even though it’s hard to tell exactly why. Public education is a great example. It seems to make economies more prosperous, and most economists support it, but no one can point to just why the free market doesn’t educate enough people on its own. Road-building is another — there are essentially no countries with mostly private high-quality road systems, and economists struggle to explain why.
We know these government interventions work; figuring out why they work is a task for the future. Like the people who chewed tree bark to relieve pain long before the discovery of aspirin, or the engineers who used lithium-ion batteries without quite understanding the physics, sometimes it pays to go with evidence even before you have a theory in hand.
Speaking of data, a coworker recently pointed me towards an interesting website set up by MIT to understand how humans would prefer driverless cars to behave in situations where somebody must be harmed: Moral Machine. It should appeal to everyone who likes trolley problems:
Try it out! Remember, someday your responses may be used to design a machine that will kill or injure your family members!
Speaking of designing things that kill, Charles Marohn (StrongTowns) has an interesting perspective on federal infrastructure spending in the US: “Five ways federal infrastructure spending makes cities poorer“. While New Zealand has a substantially different funding model, some of his points are worth considering here as well. I particularly liked:
2. Federal infrastructure spending goes primarily to the least financially productive parts of the American development pattern.
In the early days of constructing the interstate system, the return on our national infrastructure investments was very high. We were connecting places remote from each other and transforming the entire economy in the process. Those returns have steadily diminished, for obvious reasons: a community’s fifth interchange, sixth mile of frontage road or seventh river crossing cannot possibly be as transformative as the first, despite costing magnitudes more.
Joe Minicozzi and the team at Urban 3 have done the most thorough job today of documenting the productive parts of the American development pattern (wealth per acre). In hundreds of cities across the country that have been modeled, the trend is clear: the newer the development the higher the cost and the lower the financial productivity.
Control of both houses of Congress is now aligned with suburban and exurban development interests, areas with the highest cost and lowest returning infrastructure investments. Small towns and urban areas — particularly when they are making better use of existing infrastructure — present far higher returning alternatives.
David Roberts at Vox has a complementary take on the same issue: We’re building places that make us socially isolated and unhappy: “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult“:
Why do we form such strong friendships in high school and college and form comparatively fewer as the years go on?
I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was that the key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in school — because we are forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows. […]
Say you’re a family with children and you don’t regularly attend church (as is increasingly common). There are basically two ways to have regular, spontaneous encounters with people. Both are rare in America.
One is living in a real place, a walkable area with lots of shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely and effectively without a car. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. […] Walkable communities are very difficult to find in the US, and because there is such paucity of supply relative to demand, they are expensive, accessible only to the high-income. Places where they exist tend to have absurd zoning restrictions that prevent growing them. (Our own Matt Yglesias has much to say on these issues.)
The second, even more rare, is some form of co-housing. There are many kinds of co-housing, too many to get into in this post, but my favorite, a common model in Germany, is baugruppen, or building groups… [which] are basically like condos, but with much more robust shared spaces and collective ownership rather than developer ownership. (If you want to know much more about them, passivhaus designer Mike Eliason has a seven-part series I highly recommend. He summarizes it as “private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects.”)
But, you know, it’s not all bad. It doesn’t take much to start (or improve) a community. Consider this 2014 story in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Buddha seems to bring tranquility to Oakland neighbourhood“:
Dan Stevenson is neither a Buddhist nor a follower of any organized religion.
The 11th Avenue resident in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood was simply feeling hopeful in 2009 when he went to an Ace hardware store, purchased a 2-foot-high stone Buddha and installed it on a median strip in a residential area at 11th Avenue and 19th Street.
He hoped that just maybe his small gesture would bring tranquillity to a neighborhood marred by crime: dumping, graffiti, drug dealing, prostitution, robberies, aggravated assault and burglaries.
What happened next was nothing short of stunning. Area residents began to leave offerings at the base of the Buddha: flowers, food, candles. A group of Vietnamese women in prayer robes began to gather at the statue to pray.
And the neighborhood changed. People stopped dumping garbage. They stopped vandalizing walls with graffiti. And the drug dealers stopped using that area to deal. The prostitutes went away.
I asked police to check their crime statistics for the block radius around the statue, and here’s what they found: Since 2012, when worshipers began showing up for daily prayers, overall year-to-date crime has dropped by 82 percent. Robbery reports went from 14 to three, aggravated assaults from five to zero, burglaries from eight to four, narcotics from three to none, and prostitution from three to none.
There’s probably a lot more that we can do to make our places more neighbourly. In the New York Times, Christophere Mele writes about a new trend: repair cafes:
If you’ve ever despaired of getting your vacuum cleaner fixed or thought that your broken lamp was a lost cause, there’s hope. A worldwide movement is trying to reform our throwaway approach to possessions.
The movement’s foundation is the Repair Cafe, a local meeting place that brings together people with broken items and repair coaches, or volunteers, with the expertise to fix them. […]
The cafes invite people to bring their “beloved but broken” possessions to the gatherings, which are hosted in church basements, libraries, town halls and senior centers. The cafes make no guarantees that items will be fixed.
“All we can guarantee is that you will have an interesting time,” Mr. Wackman said.
How are you going to make your neighbourhood – or your whole city – better this year?