Quick Hits 04-21-2011

One of the drawbacks to blogging while maintaining a “real job” (and, yes, government work is a real job!) is that I fall behind on my posting more often than I would like – especially during flood season.  I also get “scooped” by some of the other great government bloggers and Twitterers (say that five times fast) who catch on to some of the same stories.  That being said, here is this week’s (and last week’s) rundown of some items that caught my eye.

Tourists” on the levees

 I was a bit surprised at the vociferous discussion that took place in the Grand Forks Herald editorial pages regarding folks on the levies who want to take in the river depths up close and personal.  Ultimately, of course, both cities try as best as possible to maintain public safety during an emergency time.  Once again, my primary reflection on this discourse is that our cities are incredibly fortunate that we have levies about which we can debate.  It sure beats throwing millions of sandbags.

Where’s the leadership?

Various levels of government have had trouble filling vacant seats on public boards and commissions.  Recently, the City had six well-qualified applicants to replace the late Dick Grassel on the City Council.  But, this influx of potential lately has been the exception rather than the rule.  In addition to busy lives etc., I was surprised to learn in this Minnesota Public Radio piece that Minnesota averages one public seat of some kind (Council, School board, commissions,etc) community group, etc) for every 24 citizens.  No wonder we have trouble recruiting new members.

US Debt Outlook

Standard and Poor’s recently downgraded the United States long-term debt outlook from “Stable” to “Negative.”  One should note that this is an outlook, or a future prognostication.  This is not a downgrade in  the actual bond ratings.

Apparently, I was not the only one who had the initial reaction of (in so many words ): “Yeah, right.”  My faith in rating agencies has wavered significantly since the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) crisis of 2008-09 when the ratings agencies rated thousands of MBS’s as AAA.  Meanwhile, the outlooks for local government bonds have received similar ratings outlooks even though General Obligation bond default rates are miniscule historically – 0.25 percent nationally for tax-backed bonds.  It is lower than that in Minnesota. 

Further suggested reading: The Big Short, by Michael Lewis. 

Gravel roads making a comeback

Many of you probably saw this one in the Grand Forks Herald or other media outlets.  Most governments are facing similar isssues with street maintenance.  Governments have fewer dollars than decades earlier; and infrastructure costs are much higher even when adjusted for inflation.  Something has to give.  For some areas, that something is paved streets.  This puts in perspective some of the discussion occuring in the city regarding the State Aid Task Force.  The task force has proffered one option.  There are other options available.  But, they all involve money – and lots of it.  As more of our infrastructure hits that 40, 50, and 60 year age benchmark, the maintenance issues will become every more critical. 

Blog Round-up

A few of my favorite sources that I “re-discovered” include the Freakonomics blog, Dan Ariely, and Jonah Lehrer.  Here are some recent highlights. 

Is Twitter a two-way street?

Apparently, some people suggest that it is courteous to follow folks who follow you on Twitter? To me, this suggestion makes Twitter virtually identical to Facebook with its “friends” and “likes.”  Then again, perhaps it is not a coincident that my miniscule number of Twitter followers is very close to the number of those that I follow.  Another interesting factoid: almost half of the overall Twitter traffic is generated by 0.05 percent (or one half of one-tenth of one percent for literal readers) of Twitter accounts.  So, just like in the real world, a select few dominate the medium.  So much for the new democracy.

The economics of water

One can fill a 99-cent convenience store bottle of water every day for 3-4 years with tap water before it would equal 99 cents.  Who says the government is inefficient?

Red rooms vs blue rooms

Architecture and design can affect productivity.  Need a rigorous task in the work place done efficiently, quickly, and without interruption? Use a red room with short ceilings.  Need more creativity for a brainstorming session? Apparently, blue walls with high ceilings work best. 

Don’t meet on an empty stomach

According to a recent study, potential parolees have a greatly reduced chance of receiving parole if the hearing board members are tired or hungry.  When minds are fatigued, the default choice (denial of parole) becomes more pallatable.  It’s just easier that way.  One may wonder if 5:00 p.m. (after a full day’s work and right before dinner) is the best time to hold a Council meeting.

Sometimes we need a shove

For fans of behavioral economics (like me), Lehrer also argues that sometimes subtle persuasion is not enough.  Public policy sometimes needs a shove.

That gets me caught up to about three days ago.  More good stuff coming soon.  And, I hope to roll out more original content in the near future.  Meanwhile, we’ll keep watching the river recede. Thanks.

Bonus coverage: if you are reconfiguing your tax withholdings and family budgets based on recently-completed federal income tax returns, read this gem from Dan Ariely.