Big city mayors ought to be the shock troops of efficiency. The incentives are right. Ordinary mayors have little chance of becoming governor, much less President. But someone who made NYC or Chicago work again might unite city dwellers and corporate republicans and have a punchers chance at higher office.

The broader question is why do so few successful politicians take risks? Why aren’t a couple Republican senators arguing for taxing the rich and a couple Democratic governors experimenting with second trimester abortion restrictions and abundant energy? The existence of a vital center depends upon goring the sacred cows of the parties, and the only people willing to do that seem to be commenters and talk radio hosts.

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Your point about the construction cost overruns killing the chance of construction projects reminds of a joke a Nigerian told me years ago.

A Nigerian and an Indonesian are finishing college in the US together. They have been both been sponsored by their governments and are about to return to their jobs as civil servants

"If you ever come to Indonesia, call me and we can hang out!" says the Indonesian official.

"Really? Cool! Same to you. If you ever come to Nigeria, call me and we can hang out!" says the Nigerian official.

4 years later, the Nigerian comes to Indonesia, remembering about his Indonesian official and decides to call him.

"Hey, I'm coming to Indonesia, want to hang out?" he asks.

"Sure! Just a question, where are you staying?" the Indonesian official asks.

"The Hilton." the Nigerian replies.

"Nah, meet me at the airport. You can live with me for your trip."

"Sounds good."

The Indonesian official pulls up to the airport with a BMW, the latest model. The Nigerian gets in and the Indonesian official takes him on the freeway to his condo. On the freeway, the Nigerian admires the beautiful scenery. Once at the condominium, the Nigerian is impressed at how big the condo is: 5 rooms, 3 bathrooms, and much more that he was baffled about. There's a 2nd BMW parked outside.

The Nigerian official goes to the master bedroom and asks

"You are just a humble official, how do you have enough?"

The Indonesian official tells him to come to the window and asks, "What do you see outside?"

"Houses, apartments, and people."

"You see that freeway?” Rubs finger and thumb together. "I took 10%".

“Aha” winks the Nigerian. “Say no more”

Fast forward 3 months when the Indonesian official comes to Nigeria to return the visit. He arranges to meet his friend at the airport. The Nigerian official pulls up to the airport in a Lamborghini. The Indonesian official gets in and the Nigerian takes him. The Indonesian official is really excited, wanting to see the beautiful place Nigeria is. They drive and drive when suddenly the road turns into a muddy unpaved road going into the bush. Huts and children running around. The Indonesian official is shocked until they get to the Nigerian's place: a mansion in a beautiful clearing. The mansion is gorgeous, 35 bedrooms, completed with a slide to the pool from the 2nd floor to the 1st. Two Rolls Royces are parked outside

The Indonesian official goes to the master bedroom and checks the toilet, in disbelief. The toilet seat is pure gold.He then asks,

"You are just a humble official, how do you have enough?"

The Nigerian official tells him to come to the window, points at the jungle and asks,

"You see that freeway?"


Rubs finger and thumb together. "100%!"

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A large chunk of this post is about what's known as the "curb cut effect" - a lot of the time, when you design for people with disabilities, you make things better for everyone (or, at least, for an awful lot of other people without disabilities).

Level boarding, elevator access, curb cuts - also things like closed captions (very popular, especially with the currently fashionable mushy sound on TV and film) - all of these benefit a lot of users who aren't in any normal sense disabled. Audiobooks used to be something that existed only for a small number of blind readers: now we have a cheap distribution system and they are popular with all sorts of people.

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These adversarial “solutions” often produce things that technically make it usable, but only in an emergency. Like a pedestrian bridge over the freeway that you have to go up three floors of ramps for, or a multi-elevator trip to the subway station through unventilated elevators filled with a combination of urine and cleaning product fumes, or a bus system that technically gets within a couple blocks of every point in town but only once an hour and on winding routes.

In all these cases, if access had been built in from the start, I’m sure a much better solution could have been arrived at, but it would require some sort of serious change to the project itself. Instead they just throw millions of dollars at it.

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Too many lawyers and not enough engineers going into politics?

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When I think of ADA, the first thing that comes to mind is a sleazy lawyer shaking down a small business because the bathroom grab handle is located two inches too low.

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Bathrooms are my favourite personally-relevant "a-commode-ation"; as much as it's a flippantly dismissive response to a deeply entrenched incentive status quo, "just make all bathrooms single stall unisex!" led to a lot of nice outcomes locally. It really is nice having more square footage to squat in, it's plenty of room for ADA grab bars and the like, more baby-changing stations (dads shop with kids too!), and - biggest single benefit for me - I never have to experience the degradation of urinals ever again. Yes, there are some aggregate tradeoffs vs. traditional sex-segregated designs, but each individual accommodation is strictly superior. (Although for the life of me, I will never understand why men leave the seat up in coed bathrooms. Social norms take time to catch up to physical reality.)

The converse of this principle: instead of special accommodations, disfavoured groups get anti-accommodations. I'm thinking of hostile architecture, those weird random bumps to deter skateboard grinding, etc. I think the same solution entails here as well: rather than making an exceptional punishment targeting a specific group, with spillover effects harming everyone else too, it'd be better to ask for __more__. Housing and shelter space for the homeless, skate parks for the Hawkish Tonys. There's only so much land to go around, but devoting too little of it to meet specific market demands inevitably means, the public commons gets used for those specialty purposes instead. To everyone's detriment. Scarcity mindset is bad, actually!

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The basic point here is correct but I'm struggling to see why any of these train station problems show that "adversarial legalism" is so weird. The ADA just creates a floor. Yes it doesn't solve every problem, but the floor is an incentive to seek more elegant solutions. Sometimes society does that successfully: there have been all kinds of general innovations in accessible technology over the years. Sometimes it doesn't, and where people stubbornly resist innovation for one reason or another, that's when you see examples like the Union Station thing. But there's nothing weird about that. Creating that "weirdness" is precisely how you get people to find general solutions. It's not for nothing that the adversarially legal US is, on the whole, better on accessibility than its non-adversarial Western counterparts, and not just because those countries tend to have older stuff.

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“Right now the government, sadly, has lost any sense of urgency about developing next-generation Covid-19 vaccines that could target multiple variants at once and block transmission by putting defenses in our noses. Better vaccines would reduce Covid-19 just by virtue of being better. But better vaccines would also be more widely used, so the social efficacy of superior vaccines would be dramatically higher.”

This is a very interesting use of resources for something which is likely to converge with the lethality of the other common cold strains over the next half-generation or so.

Maybe it passes muster from a cost-benefit analysis in isolation, but set against all the other demands on our research funding, I think not. I’d rather be spending more money on a universal flu vaccine against the day when a really bad recombinant event gives us a *real* pandemic to worry about, among other things.

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I think the scale of all problems is so huge, that people just psychologically give up. Why is the cost of putting elevators so high in mass transit stations? Well, that is likely a mixture of political, corporate and union corruption. When you see monumentally bad decisions occurring time after time, you can but shrug your shoulders.

Also, the only people still talking about Covid-19 on Twitter are the covid forever and covid denialist people. Everyone else has moved on. Biden needs to shut up about vaccinations.

Edit: I should have been clearer that it is covid vaccination I was referring to.

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I think a lot of things you’re framing as “not accommodations” would be considered accommodations by others. For example, “ nearsighted people don’t need special affordances because we can get glasses and contact lenses.” the glasses here ARE the accommodation.

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On the subject of accommodations, I’m not usually a ‘government waste’ guy, but shouldn’t the feds do some serious soul searching about this insane Havana Syndrome fiasco?

At a minimum it seems highly inappropriate that we gave hundreds of thousands to individuals on the basis of a conspiracy theory. More narrowly, it seems like there need to be some real changes at the CIA. Now only were their own personnel among the “victims” of Havana Syndrome, the Agency validated the theory! It’s even more ludicrous (though more anodyne) than Hussein’s WMDs!

Somehow (I think because of the parallels to Long COVID or some Trump drama), Havana syndrome got left-right coded, but it really shouldn’t be. It’s worth getting to the bottom of how the entire foreign policy wing of the government lost their minds on this.

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Sep 29, 2022·edited Sep 29, 2022

I've seen many situations where ADA has led to some strange outcomes due to the "adversarial legalism" discussed here. Take handicapped parking spaces at hiking trails, for instance. What's supposed to be accommodations for the disabled effectively amounts to a perk given to spouses or parents of the disabled, where if they want to go hiking at a popular trailhead, they don't need to leave as early as everybody else to find parking. Of all the ways government can help the disabled, this type of perk feels exceedingly strange. Yet, it's commonplace, perhaps because the trailhead restroom is technically considered a "public building" in the eyes of the law, never mind that it's always dirty and smelly, and handicapped people driving by have much better places to stop in and use the bathroom.

The transit system is another example. In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, a transit agency near me removed all Sunday service for several years; they justified it by the fact that it was operationally efficient; not running regular buses on Sunday meant the feds would allow them to not run paratransit on Sunday either. Under the law, running regular buses without special ADA paratransit buses is considered a big no-no, but not running any buses at all, so that all transit riders have to suffer together, the law says that's ok. In fact, there even exists some exurban/rural transit systems where ADA paratransit is their *only* service, and your ability to ride the bus anywhere at all requires being disabled. Again, this is what happens when well-meaning laws come with twisted incentive structures. If the federal government really wants transit to be accessible to the disabled, they should provide money to help pay for it (carrots), rather than arbitrary rules that force small agencies to cut all other service to accommodate it (sticks).

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"Something that a lot of people who I like and respect are probably too good at is explaining why this or that problem can’t be solved because of dysfunctional contracting relationships or bad labor unions or whatever.

What I always want to say in response is that while of course these problems would’ve been solved already if they were easy to solve, I reject the idea that they are genuinely unsolvable."

I cannot endorse this statement and subsequent follow up enough. It might be at the core as to why I consider myself a left of center person. Namely, problems, no matter how intractable, can be solved and solutions often involve some sort of government action, even if that action is literally removing government from the equation (i.e. zoning reform).

I give this anecdote a lot, but it really speaks to my worldview (and the sentiments above). My mother told me back in 2008 there was three things she was 100% sure would not happen in her lifetime when I was born in 1983; fall of the Berlin wall, peace in Northern Ireland and election of a black President. In retrospect, these events may not look that shocking when we look back at some basic facts of recent history (the economic structure of the Soviet Union was doomed to fail once oil prices fell, Americans views on race have slowly but surely become more accepting over time since the 60s etc.). But in 1983, you could have won a lot of money betting on one of these three things happening let alone all three.

My point is, I just fundamentally reject the idea that problems can't solved. As sort of of a coda to this sentiment, I remember thinking maybe 6 months ago why is that of all the people on twitter, why is it Megan McCardle boils my blood the most. There are certainly countless number of people way more terrible or odious in about a thousand different ways on twitter. But I realized its because she more than anyone I can think of (with exception of maybe certain very lefty environmentalists), is a complete cynic about the ability of anything to change for the better and most especially that government can be an agent of change for the better. And I just fundamentally reject that premise.

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Is it possible that many (though not all) of these problems are downstream of the fact that we have an astoundingly slow legal system? How much of an outlier are we in that regard?

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I think about this a lot when I see those little curb cut ramps off the sidewalk into a crosswalk: sued into existence for wheelchair users, but really so nice for strollers, the elderly, or when you’re pulling a suitcase...

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