In the post from yesterday on questions raised by the $100 million over budget and 8-year behind schedule New York City effort to build a golf course in the Bronx, I omitted some of the harder questions, such as why isn't there more public outrage and organized action in response to such news, action that generates changed behavior and improved outcomes? Where, in other words, is the accountability?
These aren't simple questions to answer empirically, but here are some thoughts.
The Spread-the-Burden Effect. One person would have a hard time lifting a Honda Civic by himself. But if 20 people all lift together, it's a do-able task. So, while $100 million sounds like a lot, spread over the 8 million residents of New York City, it's $12.50 a person, which, spread over several years, doesn't seem to many people like all that much money.
The Government-By-the-Interested Effect. Those who devote the most time and energy and money to local politics are the ones with the most at stake – the big municipal unions with tens of thousands of members who have wage and pension and health insurance benefits that depend on city decisions. Next-most-interested are the real estate developers with big projects that depend on government approvals and subsidies, and after that big government contractors such the cable and electric utility companies. Ordinary citizens whose livelihoods don't depend on the government have to focus first on what they do for a living.
The Rising Cynicism and Numbness to Outrage Effect. When the Yankees receive $1.3 billion in subsidies for their new stadium, developer Bruce Ratner receives a subsidy of $2 billion for a Brooklyn project based on renderings by a starchitect, Frank Gehry, who was dumped once the subsidies were approved, when Goldman Sachs receives a subsidy of about $500 million for its new Lower Manhattan headquarters, $100 million for a Bronx golf course starts to seem ho-hum.
The Hazards of Public Service Effect: If someone was so outraged by the golf course episode that they wanted to run for office, they'd have to either spend their own money or raise it in small increments that are strictly limited by campaign finance law. The eventual prize would be a salary that is much less than the most rewarding posts in the private sector, along with requirements or demands to disclose to the public your assets and outside income. Much of your work would require you to meet and mingle with strangers on evenings and weekends. Many of your fellow citizens and the press would assume that you are a crook.
The Limited Amount of Outrage to Go Around Effect. Those who might be tempted to make a public fuss about the golf course are busy organizing "tea parties" and raising a ruckus at health care town meetings.
The Bread-and-Circuses Effect. Living in modern America is actually quite pleasant. You can buy a large-screen television cheaply, along with delicious fast food. A lot of Americans would rather watch television, go out to dinner, or play golf than spend the time going to meetings or running for office or writing letters to the editor or doing the other things that citizens have to volunteer to do to keep their government honest and responsive.
That's not to suggest that there's no hope for improvement. When things get bad enough, citizens do start paying closer attention, especially when politicians or writers emerge to motivate, mobilize, and engage them. But there are hurdles to overcome, too.