Promoting the General Welfare

Promoting the General Welfare: New Perspectives on Government Performance

Alan S. Gerber
Eric M. Patashnik
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Promoting the General Welfare
    Book Description:

    The U.S. Constitution calls on the government to "promote the general welfare." In this provocative and innovative book, a distinguished roster of political scientists and economists evaluates its ability to carry out this task. The first section of the book analyzes government performance in the areas of health, transportation, housing, and education, suggesting why suboptimal policies often prevail. The second set of chapters examines two novel and sometimes controversial tools that can be used to improve policy design: information markets and laboratory experiments. Finally, the third part of the book asks how three key institutions -Congress, the party system, and federalism -affect government's ability to solve important social problems. These chapters also raise the disturbing possibility that recent political developments have contributed to a decline in governmental problem-solving activity. Taken together, the essays in this volume suggest that opportunities to promote the common good are frequently missed in modern American government. But the book also carries a more hopeful message. By identifying possible solutions to the problems created by weak incentives, poor information, and inadequate institutional capacity, Promoting the General Welfare shows how government performance can be improved. Contributors include Eugene Bardach (University of California-Berkeley), Sarah Binder (Brookings Institution and George Washington University), Morris P. Fiorina (Stanford University), Jay P. Greene (University of Arkansas), Robin Hanson (George Mason University), Charles A. Holt (University of Virginia), David R. Mayhew (Yale University), Edgar O. Olsen (University of Virginia), Mark Carl Rom (Georgetown University), Roberta Romano (Yale Law School), William M. Shobe (University of Virginia), Angela M. Smith (University of Virginia), Aidan R. Vining (Simon Fraser University), David L. Weimer (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Clifford Winston (Brookings Institution).

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-3122-1
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Part I. Introduction

    • 1 Government Performance: Missing Opportunities to Solve Problems
      (pp. 3-18)
      Alan S. Gerber and Eric M. Patashnik

      Journalists, activists, and other policy actors have strong incentives to publicize and stir up political conflict. Newspapers frame stories about complex issues around personality battles among the players. Political activists with parochial interests claim to be on the front lines of a “cultural war” that will determine the fate of the nation.¹ And candidates for public office go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from their allegedly extremist opponents.

      Lost in the political system’s focus on conflict and controversy is the tremendous common ground—among ordinary citizens and political elites alike—over government’s role in contemporary American society. No prominent...

    • 2 Policy Analysis in Representative Democracy
      (pp. 19-40)
      David L. Weimer and Aidan R. Vining

      An enlightened philosopher-king would assess how alternative policies affect the welfare of society before choosing among them, but even a rapacious “stationary bandit” would almost certainly assess how alternative policies would affect the actual willingness and capacity of society to be taxed before making policy choices.¹ At either extreme of this dictatorial spectrum, identifying relevant social values, crafting alternative policies, predicting the consequences of the policies, and assessing them in terms of the identified values—the craft of policy analysis—would be useful. A fundamental advantage of representative government, what some would argue isthefundamental advantage,² is that it...

  5. Part II. Documenting Government Performance Failures

    • 3 Sham Surgery: The Problem of Inadequate Medical Evidence
      (pp. 43-73)
      Alan S. Gerber and Eric M. Patashnik

      In a well-functioning health care system, doctors would operate on patients only when there is a strong medical basis for doing so. Researchers would use rigorous methods to evaluate whether specific operations are safe and effective for specific conditions. If scientific evidence emerges to suggest that a surgical procedure is not working as expected, physicians and other health care actors would investigate. Once the truth is discovered, the information would be disseminated to practitioners. In sum, medical treatments would be based on current scientific evidence and important gaps in knowledge would be rapidly identified and filled.

      We explore the performance...

    • 4 Urban Transportation
      (pp. 74-99)
      Clifford Winston

      Public provision of urban transportation is, in theory, socially desirable.¹ Rail and bus operations exhibit economies of traffic density that could lead to destructive competition in an unregulated market. Highways are traditionally perceived as public goods that require enormous capital and maintenance investments that the private sector is unlikely to finance. Improving the urban mobility of elderly and low-income citizens is an important social goal that should be addressed by government. In their official capacity as regulators, service providers, and investors, however, public officials have generally instituted policies that have led to inefficient and inequitable urban transportation. A case for...

    • 5 Achieving Fundamental Housing Policy Reform
      (pp. 100-127)
      Edgar O. Olsen

      Housing assistance is a major part of the U.S. welfare system. Federal, state, and local governments spend about $50 billion a year on it. The most serious shortcoming of the current system of low-income housing assistance is its excessive reliance on unit-based programs that serve about two-thirds of assisted households. Evidence indicates that recipient-based housing vouchers provide equally good housing at a much lower total cost than any program of unit-based assistance. Therefore, it would be possible to serve current recipients equally well (that is, provide them with equally good housing for the same rent), serve many additional families, and...

    • 6 Fixing Special Education
      (pp. 128-148)
      Jay P. Greene

      To produce responsible and effective education for students with disabilities, we must provide schools with a set of balanced incentives that reward good performance while also keeping costs under control, but efforts to put the right kind of incentives into place have been hindered by a lack of understanding that incentives even play a role in this policy area. The strong emotions associated with providing services for students with disabilities clouds many people’s thinking about how those services can best be structured to ensure quality while controlling costs. Powerful interest groups, including trial lawyers, special-education advocates, and teachers’ unions, exploit...

  6. Part III. New Tools for Problem Solving

    • 7 Decision Markets for Policy Advice
      (pp. 151-173)
      Robin Hanson

      The main cause of bad policy decisions is arguably a lack of information. Decisionmakers often do not make use of relevant information about the consequences of the policies they choose. The problem, however, is not simply that public officials do not exploit readily available information. It is also that they do not take full advantage of creative mechanisms that could expand thesupplyof policy-relevant information. Among the most innovative and potentially useful information-generating mechanisms are speculative markets. Speculative markets produce public information about the perceived likelihood of future events as a natural byproduct of voluntary exchange.

      Speculative markets do...

    • 8 An Experimental Basis for Public Policy Initiatives
      (pp. 174-196)
      Charles A. Holt, William M. Shobe and Angela M. Smith

      The joining of experimental economics and market-based policy innovations has resulted in a current of activity that promises to provide public leaders with a revolutionary tool for public policy design. In the past, policymakers have often relied on casual empiricism and implicit economic theorizing to improve their decisionmaking, yet these methods have often been too crude to shed light on the likely consequences of proposed government interventions. One of the most exciting public-sector developments in recent years has been the growing reliance on laboratory experimentation to develop and test new types of economic activity, such as auctions for national broadcast...

  7. Part IV. Political Institutions as Problem Solvers?

    • 9 Can Congress Serve the General Welfare?
      (pp. 199-218)
      Sarah A. Binder

      Does Congress contribute to effective national problem solving? Does it adopt socially efficient solutions to pressing problems? Ample theory and evidence suggest that Congress is ill equipped to adopt policy solutions with net social benefits. In fact, prevailing theoretical models of congressional behaviorrule outthe possibility that Congress could adopt such policies. As numerous chapters in this volume attest—on housing reform, special education, mass transit, and evaluation of surgical procedures—Congress is prone to resist efficient policy solutions that would improve undesirable social conditions facing the American polity.

      Is the case really closed against Congress’s capacity to enact...

    • 10 Congress as Problem Solver
      (pp. 219-236)
      David R. Mayhew

      That was the assignment posed to me by the editors of this volume. In addition, the policy areas of housing, education, and criminal justice were specified as ones in which problems might be solved.

      Let me start with a discussion of the ideas of a “problem” and “problem solving.” What is a problem? It is something like an unfortunate or disordered state of affairs to which there might be a “solution.” Probably a problem is not quite the same thing as a “puzzle,” to which there is always a solution. But in the case of a problem, there is good...

    • 11 Parties as Problem Solvers
      (pp. 237-255)
      Morris P. Fiorina

      Some twenty-five years ago I wrote an article entitled “The Decline of Collective Responsibility in American Politics.”¹ In that article (henceforth referenced as DOCR), I updated the classic arguments for party responsibility in light of which the politics of the 1970s looked seriously deficient. A subsequent article with a similar theme appeared in a 1984 collection edited by Michael Nelson, with a revised version in a second edition four years later, and a final revision in 1990.² In brief, these essays noted that in the 1970s party cohesion had dropped to a level not seen since before the Civil War....

    • 12 Taking the Brandeis Metaphor Seriously: Policy Experimentation within a Federal System
      (pp. 256-281)
      Mark Carl Rom

      The phrase “states as laboratories of democracy” is ubiquitous in the social science literature.¹ It is often alleged—and rarely denied—that the American statesareindeed like laboratories that, through experimentation, learn which policies are effective at remedying public problems and that these lessons then become more widely adopted across the country.

      This wisdom, while conventional, has hardly been demonstrated. Although many have used the phrase, few appear to have actually asked such basic questions as how might we interpret the “laboratories of democracy” metaphor? What would it mean to say these “laboratories” are “effective”? Why might we expect...

    • 13 The States as a Laboratory: Legal Innovation and State Competition for Corporate Charters
      (pp. 282-306)
      Roberta Romano

      Corporate law, the legal rules governing relations between managers and shareholders of for-profit corporations, is an arena in which the metaphor of the “states as a laboratory” describes actual practice, and, for the most part, this is a laboratory that has worked reasonably well. The goal of this chapter is to map out over time the diffusion of corporate law reforms across the states. The lawmaking pattern we observe indicates a dynamic process in which legal innovations originate from several sources, creating a period of legal experimentation that tends to identify a principal statutory formulation that is adopted by a...

  8. Part V. Conclusion

    • 14 Two Perspectives on Governmental Underperformance
      (pp. 309-324)
      Eugene Bardach

      The chapters in this nicely balanced volume on governmental underperformance fall rather neatly into two classes. One class contains chapters written from a “public choice” or “political economy” perspective, which talks about “government failure.” These are written mostly by economists or political scientists trained in economics. The chapter by David Weimer and Aidan Vining nicely summarizes the theoretical ideas in this tradition. The second class contains chapters that talk about the government as a “problem-solver” and assess its performance in terms of “effectiveness.” These are written by political scientists (David Mayhew, Morris Fiorina, Jay Greene, Mark Rom, and Sarah Binder)....

  9. Contributors
    (pp. 325-326)
  10. Index
    (pp. 327-344)