Quote: Reddit founder on nerdy government

Alexis Ohanian Reflections-Projections ACM 2009

We don’t have enough people in government who understand the Internet and how much Americans care about Internet freedom and digital privacy. But there are things we can do to change that: Part of it is fixing a political system that seems to operate largely on returning favors. Part of it is electing more people who understand this technology. I’d like to see more nerds in office.

–Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, to Wired Magazine, when asked what threatens innovation.

How cities can cultivate genius

I just got the new Wired magazine in the mail (March 2012), and it has an interesting article called “Cultivating Genius” by Jonah Lehrer. (Sorry, no online link yet.) The article starts by essentially making the same point that Edward Glaeser makes in Triumph of the City about how innovators and creators tend to congregate, especially in cities, which allow for the quick spread of ideas.

But not all places attract and cultivate geniuses. Lehrer points to three “meta-ideas” places adopt that seem to encourage genius:

  1. Human mixing, i.e., diversity. I see three areas where this point is important. First, the debate about immigration, because, as Lehrer points out, “in the overall population, a 1 percent increase in the number of immigrants with college degrees leads to a 9 to 18 percent rise in patent production.” Second, to me, it is also important to affirmative-action policies, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to revisit, because colleges and universities are where many of our new ideas are generated. Third, it may have implications for general diversity in the US. For more on that, see this 2000 diversity-index map from the Census Bureau (the trends haven’t shifted too much in the past decade, according to this USAToday map):diversity in the US
  2. Education. Lehrer believes that effectively educating the lower and middle class will waste less genius. I agree. For an interesting visual on education in the US, see this graphic from Good Magazine comparing education levels to salary:
  3. Risk taking. Lehrer suggests that we do a better job developing institutions that encourage risk taking. He makes the point that we develop great athletes because we have institutions that take risks to develop them, with the result that even small towns often produce at least one or two great athletes once in awhile. We should do the same with other types of genius, he says.

It is this third point that I think deserves the most attention from cities. As I’ve previously said, cities may be the best place for government innovation and risk-taking, for four reasons:

  1. Cities tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than other levels of government.
  2. Density of human potential that hastens the spread of ideas.
  3. Less bureaucracy (smaller government) lets cities respond more quickly.
  4. There is less aftermath if a new innovation fails in one city than in a whole state or country.

Lehrer’s article is thought provoking (and short), so I encourage you to check it out (I’d add a link when it’s up).

Is federalism a useful concept for state and city interactions?

9780226736624As a follow up to yesterday’s book review, I’d like to discuss whether a certain theory of federalism—that is, the interaction of state and federal government—applies with equal force to city and state interactions. That theory is “polyphonic federalism.”

Let me explain. “Polyphony”—a musical term describing independent voices singing together—was applied to federalism by Emory Professor Robert Schapiro in his 2009 book Polyphonic Federalism. Schapiro argues that federalism’s beauty lies in it enabling independent levels of governments to conflict or coordinate in route to achieving national goals. This interaction benefits America, he argues, by allowing the two levels of government to vigorously raise their voices and hash out important policies in a way that reflects both national and state concerns.

Is this theory useful to our understanding the relationship between city and state?

No, say some. In City Bound, Gerald Frug and David Barron criticize the concept of federalism as applied to cities and local autonomy. They argue that federalism (and its European Union cousin “subsidiarity”) provide “no clean way to divide matters into discrete ‘local’ and ‘central’ spheres” and thus “have been used to justify denying powers to localities.”

Yet while I agree that federalism is sometimes used this way, I also believe the concept is useful to empowering beneficial state and city interactions. Of course, state and city interactions can never be exactly the same as those between federal and state government because cities derive their power from the state, so interactions will always be weighted in favor of the state. But since most states have enacted some from of home-rule legislation—giving broad authority to cities over local concerns—the two systems (federal to state, and state to city) do model each other to some extent.

And to the extent they do model each other, I believe polyphony is a useful concept. States and cities, working together, can accomplish far more than either could accomplish alone. Cities have citizen engagement and can act as important laboratories of innovation. States, in turn, have the ability to regulate regional concerns—such as transportation, environmental concerns, and housing, among many other things—just as the federal government can step in an control matters of national concern. But can a city really push back at the state government? I think so, especially in states where a major city has a relatively large number of political delegates in the state government (as with Chicago) or where the state government is centered in the state’s major city (as with Atlanta). As Frug and Barron point out, Denver (and probably other cities) actually has the power to pass ordinances that override state law.

Is polyphony a useful concept to state and city interactions? Please send me your thoughts.

 

Featured App: OkCopay

Wanted to highlight an app from last year’s Apps for Metro Chicago competition called OkCopay.

The app compares the cash price of medical services. It’s primary for people to shop around for those services not covered by insurance. It also compares other variables, such as years of experience and distance from your geographic area, though, unfortunately, I didn’t see a place where users could rate their medical care (which would be helpful). Nonetheless, it’s a great effort because cash prices vary widely, and people need to know that. Here’s an example they gave during the App Contest: “the cash price for an Abdominal MRI in downtown Chicago at accredited imaging facilities can range from $420 to $2093, and an eyeglass exam can range from $44 to $300.”

The Chicago Tribune recently interviewed OkCopay’s founder, Toure McCluskey, about being one of a few black startup founders in Chicago. And here’s another interview about the more technical aspects of the site, and the announcement that the company won the “Innovate Illinois” award in the Apps Contest.

I think that this is a great idea; there are a lot of services not covered by basic insurance, including vision and dental care, and around 12% of Illinois residents don’t have health insurance in the first place, according to this Chicago Tribune article, though that number is expected to decrease when Obama’s healthcare law kicks in. Providing this data helps citizens make smart choices in choosing private healthcare, and that’s a win-win for government and the public.

Reducing inmates, saving money – plans for America’s largest jail

Electronic monitoring get out of jail freeThe Cook County jail is currently the largest single-site jail in the nation. (Jails, as opposed to prisons, house inmates sentenced to less than a year imprisonment or who are awaiting trial, which can last for multiple years.) The Cook County jail can house nearly 10,000 inmates at a time and holds about 100,000 annually. (Interestingly, I learned on a recent tour of the jail that it also operates the state’s largest mental-health facility, just for inmates.)

Running a jail that big is very expensive; not to mention that overcrowding increases the risk of bad conditions and violence. Cook County Board of Commissioners president Toni Preckwinkle says the cost is $143 per inmate per day. With nearly 10,000 inmates, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars. Preckwinkle wants to cut the cost, as reported by the New York Times:

She set a goal of reducing the average daily population at the jail from about 8,500 to 7,500 in the next fiscal year [2012], which begins Dec. 1, to save about $5 million.

That’s a pretty ambitious goal for a county to take on.

The county can’t rewrite the criminal laws; nor does it generally choose who to prosecute. Those decisions are left to the state and federal government. But the county does get to choose how it restrains people: a spokesman for the county sheriff says they are working to enhance their approach to electronic monitoring, particularly for nonviolent first-time offenders. Apparently 70% of the jail’s inmates are there for nonviolent crimes, and Preckwinkle wants to see more of those people put on electronic monitoring rather than incarcerated. Chicago estimates the cost of home surveillance is $65 per day, so it seems like a good plan. (I’ve seen estimates that electronic surveillance can cost as little as $5 per day.) The cost can even be charged to offenders, who, in most cases, would be glad to pay $65 for a get-out-of-jail card.

This seems like a great idea to me, and one that highlights the potential for municipalities to help solve problems that the state and federal government can’t seem to figure out. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. This costs us more than just the price of housing inmates: inmates bring hundreds of civil-rights cases a year against prison officials for constitutional violations (some caused by overcrowding), which add cost to the state and federal government and, of course, human potential is wasted. But no politician wants to be the one to let off more criminals, so there is a lack of support for reforming our prison system. Preckwinkle’s plan makes sense; it targets those awaiting trial (people aren’t getting off too easy in the end), and those who are the least likely to be a risk to society.

What are your thoughts?