Excessive government paperwork–meta edition

An earlier post described the sclerotic impact of excessive regulatory documentation requirements on real-estate development projects. it turns out that the private sector isn’t the only victim of this tendency:

I think we all know what the logical response to the GAO meta-meta-study is…

H/t Instapundit.

The History Tax

Try to guess the context for this piece of writing. Is it part of a scholarly study on the history of convention centers? A tourist guidebook? Is it the catalogue to a museum display on convention-center architecture?

In order to attract growing numbers of conventions in the
second half of the twentieth century, cities incorporated
convention center construction within urban renewal and
redevelopment schemes, usually at the edge of core urban
areas where space would be available for construction of
large buildings with contiguous, flat-floor space.

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Urban Strategy Fads

Mario Polese provides a nice short history (up to the present) of oversold urban revitalization strategies in City Journal. Interestingly, these theories succeed with municipal decision makers for the same kinds of reasons that pop-strategy notions flourish with company managers: They fit the zeitgeist, they flatter the preconceptions and prejudices of the decision-making class, they claim to magically bypass the obstacles to success, and they enable the rent seeking of powerful coalitions. Their obvious theoretical and empirical drawbacks as all-purpose nostrums have little effect on their propagation, and their promoters often flourish despite a complete lack of proven efficacy.

One useful thought exercise for assessing urban development strategies is to imagine yourself the monopoly landowner in a city and think about what policies would maximize the value of your holdings (or rent stream). It quickly becomes apparent that for cities of any size or complexity, your chances of picking sectoral, much less firm-level, “winners” are very low, unlike the owner of, say, a shopping mall. The peculiar difficulty is that cities have both the “internal” complexity of closed systems and the “external” complexity of open systems in a turbulent environment.

Centrally planning complementarities and synergies within the city overwhelms the monopoly landowner’s knowledge and modeling prowess, because 1) the interactions are manifold and hard to decompose and 2) the city itself is what Hayek called an order (or cosmos) with different people pursuing different objectives, not an organization (or taxis) where a single hierarchy of objectives can be imposed; the denizens of the city don’t work for the landowner and are not deployable resources. The best you can do is provide the most effective sector-neutral institutions and infrastructure you can think of given your geographic and historic legacy. Any “natural” advantages a city has in specific sectors can be accommodated by policy (e.g., tourism-friendly policing in a natural tourist area), but trying to create such advantages from scratch seems foolhardy.

Deliberately positioning the city as a competitor against other cities then becomes something of a fool’s errand. The very sort of maneuverable, focused tradeoff-making needed to pursue competitive “good strategy” as an open system with shared objectives (a taxis) in a turbulent environment conflicts with the efficient policy neutrality needed to manage the city’s internal complexity as a cosmos.

Interesting question: How big does a piece of land have to be before planned synergy-mongering and focused strategy should give way to neutral governance? There are large master-planned communities put up by real-estate companies that include residential, commercial, and office components. I conjecture that that size is about the limit of effectiveness for guided, synergy-conscious development strategy.

Grand strategies

I’ve been reading Charles Hill’s (Yale) book Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order.  The book is rather aggressive. It is essentially an effort to provide a tutorial for how big-picture thinking and decision-making at the global level might be informed by literature, specifically the classics.

The premise of the field of “grand strategy” (essentially an off-shoot of political science and history) is that this type of practical big-picture thinking–strategic decisions under uncertainty–can’t be taught and understood by focusing on the minutiae that extant social science studies.  Well, that’s the story anyways.  So, in this book Hill turns to the classics.

Throughout the book Hill discusses the influence that specific classics have had on various leaders (Leaves of Grass and Lincoln, The Dream of the Red Chamber and Mao, Don Quixote and Mann, etc) and also vets the analogies between fictional events and narratives in the classics and real-world correlates.  You get sort of a dazzling history of modernity (post Thirty Years’ War), where various classics essentially provide possibilities, foreshadow or mirror emergent realities about wars, nation states, forms of governance, etc.   The result is a pretty breath-taking tour de force where fiction and reality blend all too readily.  Hill’s book seems to imply both a great man theory as well as a (Campbellian, of sorts) great narrative(s) theory of, well, everything.  I should note – Hill’s political stripes are pretty evident from the book, so that might bother some readers.

But I am really enjoying the book.  I’m of the mind that the classics indeed have much to teach us, strategy included.  I would recommend this book over most of the practitioner strategy books that you might pick up at your local bookstore.

I’ll put up another post about the book once I finish it.

Here are some reviews of the book – WSJForeign AffairsOpen Letters Monthly.

Bonus material:

Here’s a paper by John Gaddis on “What is Grand Strategy.”  John Gaddis lecture on “What is Grand Strategy?” Here’s a shorter Foreign Policy piece on “what is grand strategy and why do we need it?

Below the fold you’ll find a video of Charles Hill speaking about the above book. Read the rest of this entry »