Local Government Reform

An excerpt from Jim DeAngelis's most recent Metro Commentary:
For myself, I find the argument -- that a more effective and efficient delivery of local government services (including public education, garbage, police, etc…) combined with more coordinated inter-municipal ordinances, procedures, fees, etc.. will be more valued by potential investors and homeowners when they make their complex decisions about where to be or whether to stay put -- very appealing because its logic is strong. I also think the Louisville mayor’s points about consolidation are significant simply because he points out that in a consolidated situation, questions get asked and often answered that would never have been posed in the former fragmented government structure. This is powerful political and management reality. The research with which I’m familiar that has been done on the economic impacts of building new highways finds essentially that building a new highway MAY be a necessary BUT IS NOT a sufficient condition for investments being attracted to a metropolitan area – i.e., there’s much more to the story thus making the conclusions unclear! Social scientists can’t control enough of the variables to make definitive statements that would rise to the level of “science.” So, if we can’t even make an objective case for a significant public investment like a highway, how are we going to address the potential impacts of local government reform “objectively,” I think we’re left with arguing logic like the Louisville mayor!.
Here's what I wrote to Jim:

I suspect that the choice between "objective" or "scientific" support for a connection between local governmenet reform and sustainable prosperity, on the one hand, and arguing from "logic," on the other hand, is a false dichotomy. If firm evidence of a connection is the threshold, then we won't see local government reform in your lifetime, or mine, or that of my grandchildren-yet-to-be-born. The standard is just too high. The political and government worlds can't be run according to the evidentiary standards of rigorous social science, and it doesn't need to be run by logic alone. There must be intermediate thresholds. We (like our elected and unelected representatives) are dealing with probabilities and risk. Given what we know, and given what we don't know, what is the *likelihood* that local government reform *in this region* will have beneficial effects on the economy? On investing? On entrepreneurship? On tax rates? On social services? On social structure? What is the comparative likelihood that reform will have no effect? That it will have a negative effect? The character of these effects may be strong, it may be weak, and/or it may be nonexistent. The effects may be felt in the short term or only in the long term, if they are felt at all. The effects may be indirect rather than direct. Local government reform might affect investment and relocation decisions not because local government actually becomes more efficient, but because local government reform may have a signaling function in certain communities. Government reform may signal the existence of a welcoming business climate, even though nothing has changed in the local business community.

Not all of these questions have answers; not all of them even have probabilities associated with them. But I strongly suspect that some do have answers, and many of them have probabilities. This region -- any region -- can move forward from this sort of information base. It has to. The alternative is permanent stagnation.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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