Friday, July 8, 2016

Making policy is so 20th Century

The board for the coop building where I live has issued a memo introducing the idea of making our collective residence a non smoking building.  Evidently, they were spurred into action by a passionate discussion about non smokers' rights during the recent monthly public meeting.  They write:  "owner-expressed concerns about second hand smoke as well as prevailing standards and practices related to smoking informed the discussion."  While the memo neglected to define non smoking building, it asked owners for a yea or nay vote about whether we should "transition" to a non-smoking building.  A better question might have been:  do we need a policy to solve the second hand smoke problem?

There are too many problems with the board's approach to enumerate here.  Initially, the word bungled comes to mind.  They are handling this matter as if they themselves are members of the US Congress or Council of the European Union.  That means chaotic, short-sighted, out of touch with reality, truly uninformed, and motivated by power and hegemony.  Their memo illustrates:  how to stir up angst and competition among neighbors who otherwise live together peacefully.  

The board's actions also illustrate the reckless practice of using policy as an intervention when it's unnecessary and furthermore, without considering how it may cause more harm than good.  In this case, addressing the problem of second hand smoke with a blanket no smoking anywhere policy is like using a cannonball to kill a flea.  Policy implementation is not a panacea for public problems, and in many situations policy effects may be more undesirable than living with the perceived problem.  The field of biomedicine provides a useful example.  Policies that fund and promote vaccine and antibiotic use save lives.  Upon discovery, they revolutionized advances in ability to produce optimal public health.  They reduce human morbidity and mortality, and unquestionably improve quality of life and life expectancy.  However, using them in an unrestrained manner is rendering them ineffective at best and iatrogenic at worst due to sequelae such as, antibiotic resistant bacteria, vaccine side effects, and populations with overall weakened immune responses.

It's worth noting that conventionally recognized strategies for solving public problems are limited to two intervention options:  (1) regulation through public policy or (2) privatization using economic markets.  Alternatively however, Elinor Ostrom reminds us that there are multiple remedies for any public problem and a limitless range of potential solutions for equitable allocation of public resources, referenced by economists as the commons.  Mostly, these approaches can be characterized as self-governing.

In this youtube video, The Role of Culture in Solving Social Dilemmas, Dr. Elinor Ostrom speaks about how local and regional farmers in Africa self-govern to manage access to water, a precious, limited, commons resource that is not owned by any individual or corporation, or regulated by any government.  Interestingly, her comments include exceptional attention to effectiveness and productivity resulting from these interventions.  It's also worth noting that Dr. Ostrom was trained as an anthropologist, not an economist.  Ponder that fact for a minute.  

Another example of self-governing is set in Manhattan.  From the New York TImes, At Strawberry Fields, Feuding Musicians Give Peace a Chance is a story about a group of street musicians who have organized themselves to allocate benefits derived from a famous, magical, coveted park bench.  The musicians rely on access to the bench, a commons resource, to produce income from performing.  By self-governing, they no longer need to call the police to settle disputes or risk being shunned by would-be patrons, who choose to avoid public obscenity and risk of becoming collateral damage from a full blown public brawl, rather than listen to music in Central Park.  The musicians have made a beautiful discovery.  Behaving cooperatively to achieve a common solution to a public problem protects the commons and ultimately their livelihood.

As for the second hand smoke problem at the coop, I'm wondering how to introduce self-governing concepts to my neighbors and the board, without sounding too weird.  It seems to me it's possible to solve the problem of exposure to second hand smoke without:  (1) dividing the community into yea or nay camps, (2) working tirelessly on developing a policy that will never satisfy everyone, and (3) monitoring and enforcing compliance once they implement yet another regulation.  What's irritating me and diminishing my quality of life are my neighbors' car alarms that spontaneously ignite just outside my window at 2 am or any other time for that matter.  These car owners make up the subpopulation I'll call other-side-of-the-building-residents who are oblivious to the noise from unattended auto noise that pollutes my-side-of-the-building environment.  I think the coop may have just opened a Pandora's Box.        

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