Wonkery vs. Reality

The concentration of policy wonks in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor produces skewed analysis.

Megan McArdle argues that the concentration of policy wonks in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor produces skewed analysis.  Her starting point is the recurring debate over admissions to the country’s most prestigious institutions of higher education.

For most of the country, going to college at all is a more important goal than getting into Harvard, and everything I’ve read on the subject indicates that parents who have not finished college themselves are much less likely to understand how to navigate the system, or to make fine distinctions between various schools.

Moreover, outside of that handful of cities, you don’t necessarily see the Northeastern phenomenon of nice houses in bad school districts, and vice versa.  In newer cities, you don’t get the scads of beautiful old neighborhoods full of run-down quasi-mansions, because the newer cities were, for one reason or another, unsuitable for mass development before the advent of things like air conditioning, motor cars, or modern building materials.  The building boom of the 1950s was followed by roughly a doubling of the average new American home, which means that unless you live in a city that was already pretty large around 1910, the nicest housing stock is often some of the newest.  It’s also where the best schools in town tend to be.  So it’s not so easy to tell whether people were seeking more house or better schools; in lots of places, those are the same thing.

But these are tradeoffs that virtually everyone who works in the policy community thinks about a lot, because they live in places where there’s often an enormous tradeoff between size and school district.  It’s not surprising that this colors how they think about the rise in housing expenditure over the last fifty or so years.

This also explains why wonks are so fascinated with public transit, which is simply unworkable in most the the country, and the faith in central planning in general.   Things that just seem so obvious when you live in high density areas often make little sense when extrapolated to a very sprawled and heterogeneous continental country.

That said, wonkish types in the rest of the country do seem to be interested in the same issues.   Maybe that’s just a function of northeastern institutions setting the agenda.  Or because they tend to pursue degrees in political science, economics, and the law which are pretty much the same wherever you go.  Or because people fascinated with public policy develop a very strong sense of how things ought to work and belief in tinkering to get it just right.

Still, I was interested in the affirmative action policies of elite schools long before I moved from the Deep South to the Washington, DC area.  Is solving the problem of injustice at the margins of admission to Harvard among the top dozen problems facing America?   Nope.  As Matt Yglesias correctly notes,”People who are plausible admission candidates at Harvard and don’t quite make the cut end up at Columbia or Penn. People who don’t get into Berkeley go to UCLA. And they all end up fine.”  Granting that ending up at Columbia rather than Yale likely means you’ll never sit on the Supreme Court, it’s hardly the most pressing issue.

Regardless, it’s a topic that cuts across many interesting and important issue areas:  race, class, standardized testing, access, and so forth.  Wonks — regardless of location — focus on the things that interest them and those aren’t necessarily the things that matter most to regular people.   But, as I constantly remind myself and my readers, those of us who are passionate about public policy aren’t normal.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Politics 101
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    “In newer cities, you don’t get the scads of beautiful old neighborhoods full of run-down quasi-mansions, because the newer cities were, for one reason or another, unsuitable for mass development before the advent of things like air conditioning, motor cars, or modern building materials.”

    What “newer” cities are these? All American cities are new, Chicago was a few cabins and tepees 175 years ago. Obviously you’re not going find Beaux Arts mansions in Las Vegas but most other major American cities that essentially came into being between between 1850 and 1920 (which was only 70 years) have suburbs with these grand homes. Has she never been to the NO Garden district, Pasadena, Cleveland, Atlanta, Savannah, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Kansas City.

    “This also explains why wonks are so fascinated with public transit, which is simply unworkable in most the the country”

    Obviously it’s unworkable in Wyoming or rural GA, but in major urban conurbations where roughly 75% of Americans now actually live?. The interest in mass transit in major population concentrations has nothing to do with wonkery and everything to do with the fact that it makes eminent sense as a transportation strategy. The major proponent of the light rail system in Baltimore, for example, wasn’t a wonk he was an old time machine politician.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    “conurbations”

    oops , that should have been “concentrations”

  3. john personna says:

    What are you, a McArdle rehabilitation campaign? Sorry, I’m maxed out. I can’t take any more MM for at least a month.

  4. john personna says:

    BTW, transit and development have obvious feedback loops. If you build sprawl for cars then it probably will be unsuited to anything else. If you build cities and subways together they tend to work.

    Light rail seems to bridge the gap, in specific locations with specific commuter patterns.

    Of course we could _average_ across the whole country and declare it never works. If we were that dumb, or dishonest.

  5. JKB says:

    Implicit in the NE corridor but also affecting wonkers elsewhere is that the wonks tend to work downtown. So they see mass transit to the urban core as a good idea when in reality in most of the country few work “downtown,” especially those who could benefit from a train system. DC and NYC have industries that keep jobs in the urban core for other than economic viability reasons such as prestige.

    Even in places like DC where the “downtown” employment is retained for prestige rather than economics, few will try to use the Metro to go say to the Navy Yard. I remember Walter Reed had a warning on their website advising not trying to walk from the Silver Spring Metro to the hospital. But if you wanted to go to where the pundits hung their hat, yeah, you could Metro it.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    “So they see mass transit to the urban core as a good idea when in reality in most of the country few work “downtown,”

    Mass transit systems aren’t just geared to working downtown. The oldest and classic ones (Paris Metro, London underground) have far more reach. The Subway and Metro north system have a similar reach although not quite as extensive.

  7. sam says:

    On the Massachusetts-New York-Virginia axis:

    “Wonks — regardless of location — focus on the things that interest them and those aren’t necessarily the things that matter most to regular people. But, as I constantly remind myself and my readers, those of us who are passionate about public policy aren’t normal.”

    Which might account for the United States Constitution. Just sayin…

  8. Mark says:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/megan-mcardle/#toggleBio

    From McArdle’s Atlantic bio:

    “Megan McArdle was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan…”

    So McArdle is skewering the very area in which she was born and raised.

    “Megan holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania..”

    And McArdle is a product of an Ivy League institution, the very sort of college that has spawned the evils about which she has written.

    “After a lifetime as a New Yorker, she now resides in northwest Washington DC…”

    And McArdle now lives in the very town against which she now rails.

    How, one must ask, does McArdle’s own background, upbringing, education, and current place of residence not counter every single one of the (rather feeble and quite boring) arguments that she has now made?

  9. James Joyner says:

    How, one must ask, does McArdle’s own background, upbringing, education, and current place of residence not counter every single one of the (rather feeble and quite boring) arguments that she has now made?

    She’s surely quite well aware that she’s a Northeastern elite. She’s just noting that this provides a skewed view of reality.