Posted by: bkivey | 18 May 2011

Bigger Is Better?

In the 23 April edition of the local paper of record, ECONorthwest President John Tapogna wrote an op-ed piece in which he called for the elimination of local governments in favor of larger, regional governments. His thesis is that small, local government institutions are an inefficient use of scarce resources, and that citizens would be better served by larger government organizations that could take advantages of the economies of scale.

ECONorthwest is a Portland-based economic consulting firm and when I saw the name it rang a bell. Sure enough, they’d made the news last December when the city of Portland commissioned a quality-of-life study to gin up selling points for local politicians and Chamber of Commerce types. ECONorthwest made the mistake of actually performing an objective study, rather than the biased study the city wanted. Their report, while factually accurate, was rejected by Mayor Sam Adams because: 

“While we at the city and PDC have great respect for ECONorthwest as an organization and for the quality of work and analysis the firm produces, we do not believe the deliverable presented to PDC captures the intent of what was requested or the creativity and comprehensiveness of what was expected.”

For those who don’t live in Portland, this is the way the current leadership conducts business. They’re not exactly Chicago –  or New Orleans – corrupt, but they’re not straight shooters, either.

So I have some respect for ECONorthwest for their professional integrity, but I have to wonder about their president’s ability to think things through and overcome his own biases.

A recurring theme throughout Mr. Tapogna’s argument for larger government is that many of the government entities extant today are rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a very old, and very common, rhetorical trope. If something’s old, it must be obsolete and no longer useful. While it may very well be true that in some cases age engenders obsolescence, it’s by no means true in all cases. To assert so is to engage in a genetic fallacy.

After establishing that most government institutions were organized long ago, Mr. Tapogna mentions that individual entities are exploring their own solutions to economic challenges. Yet this point effectively undermines his hypothesis that larger organizations are better at meeting challenges. While there are advantages to economies of scale after a solution has been decided on, there are distinct disadvantages in attempting to find solutions through the blunt-force approach of the large bureaucracy. In his essay Mr. Topagna says:

“To survive, these little boxes of government will have to figure out — collectively — how to deliver local choice at a lower price.”

Ah yes, the collective, that favored institution of statists and children. How much better, how much more efficient, for the Anointed to decide on a solution and then require a one-size-fits-all solution. Apparently Mr. Topagna doesn’t entertain the notion that institutions can and do share information regarding best practices, which they then tailor to their individual circumstances. If it makes sense to combine resources in order to take advantages of economies of scale, then local institutions should have that option, but no one will take kindly to having that action forced on them.

Mr. Topagna speculates that the reason a myriad of government institutions exist is because people in Oregon like small government. I understand that he was writing for a local audience, but even the most cursory examination of human history shows that the specific case can be expanded to the general: the larger the governing unit, the unhappier the individual. People are tribal. A few pretty words aren’t going to erase 3 million years of evolution, no matter how earnest the speaker may be.

I don’t know what the ideal population is that can be effectively governed while allowing the citizens a sense of participation and control. In the Laws, Plato put the number of the ideal city-state at 5186, although this was done more for ease of division for tasks than by any rigorous study. I do know that humans are not particularly logical or efficient creatures. I also know that there are several types of efficiencies, and to look at human institutions from a purely economic viewpoint isn’t going to capture the situational dynamics.


31 years ago today Mt. St. Helens blew up. Actually, it blew sideways, but to the 58 people killed, technicalities made no difference. In a few seconds 1300 feet of the mountain disappeared along with thousands of acres of forest. I was living clear across the country at the time, so I wasn’t directly affected. Later I got to know a guy who was going to school in Spokane when the eruption occurred, and he said they thought is it was the end of the world. By his account, all they could see on western horizon was a black wall moving toward them.

The volcano is clearly visible to the north of Portland (part of the year, anyway), and in 2004 there was a minor eruption that made people nervous. There are 14 large volcanoes stretching from the Canadian border to northern California, and I don’t think any of them are officially dead. Mt. Ranier outside Seattle is of particular concern.

There’s a cool animation of the eruption using weather satellite photos here. I also enjoyed the Wikipedia article statement describing the purpose of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument as being to “. . . preserve the volcano”. One wonders if the scientists plan on preventing future eruptions.

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