31 Mar 2011

Politics in DC versus trade in NY

I had a quick working vacation in DC and NYC (many projects), and here are a few random impressions from an ex-pat visiting the home country...
  • Americans are definitely friendlier and more chatty. That can be good (interesting random conversations) or bad (superficial cliches).

  • I found someone's blackberry on a residential street; the screen saver showed some dogs on bricks with ivy behind them. I looked at a few houses nearby, saw similar bricks and ivy and rang the doorbell. Dogs barked, and I was able to give the phone back to its owner. Pretty cool -- and lucky: I would not have been able to call the owner because the phone was locked.

  • World Bank lobby
  • I spent quite a lot of time at the World Bank (I figure the Bank is 25 percent effective). Most of their project financing is useless, but their experts and coordination projects are helpful. The trouble is that many experts cannot access or influence policy makers without some form of project money behind them. That's a strange problem to have when you assume that leaders in developing countries want to help their people (they should be asking for help) but not when they care more about money than good policies.

  • Many people in DC work on dividing the pie, e.g., deciding how to divide the money spent on healthcare among hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, businesses and people. This "work" is not productive in the sense of creating more or better care for more people; it's a fight over fixed spoils that can reduce the size of the pie (benefits) in circumstances where winners create distortions to get a bigger share. Contrast this example with single payer systems (like the UK's national health) where there's less incentive to fight over money. It's possible to argue that these fights improve efficiency via competition, but I think it's more like destructive rent-seeking.

  • Regular folks use natural gas!
  • It's pretty common to see political advertisements in DC. The series by the American Petroleum Institute, in favor of natural gas, is typical. (I've seen ads by unions, defense contractors, et al.) I'm curious to see these ads in the metro, where few Congresscritters but MANY staffers ride. Why does the natural gas industry need to remind staffers that "they are people too"? Because staffers write or modify laws that affect the industry according to what's best "for the people" but without asking actual people. So laws reflect a stereotyped (citizens need to be simplified into stories and demographics) and distorted (stories are told by lobbyists and the media) view of the country. On the one hand, that's necessary in order to get anything done. On the other, it highlights how inadequate laws will be; I'd prefer fewer laws made at a local level (subsidiarity).

  • Zabar's on Broadway and 80th, NYC
  • Speaking of the Bank and lobbying, DC excels at food for rich people and NYC excels at food for poorer people (Amsterdam is better for the middle class). I think these results reflect population demographics: DC has a lot of people eating on someone else's dime (OPM). Zabar's Deli is a lot more plebian than the World Bank.

  • The TSA represents our worst face. The last experience for most visitors leaving the States is an encounter with boring, useless, hostile "security" workers who are more interested in rules and their power than being helpful. Many countries have better and nicer security workers.
Bottom Line: Cities reflect the mix of people and their professions. Go to DC to see the results of competition to divide taxpayer's money. Go to New York to see the results of competition to create value for customers.