Stamatakis: Government should take lessons from Mom on spending

By Nick Stamatakis

You are 4 and have a sassy attitude and a knack for googling. You also have a fear of monsters… You are 4 and have a sassy attitude and a knack for googling. You also have a fear of monsters under the bed.

A likely course of action for you would be to storm up to your mom waving some printout from a website for a monster-catching machine, demanding that you need the protection offered by the device.

But mother knows best. A machine would not decrease the frequency of monster attacks in your room — monsters are notoriously difficult to catch. Plus, the money she saves from not buying what is essentially just a giant box with blinking lights can now go toward a book explaining how monsters are not real and 13 boxes of Fruit Gushers.

Now replace your mother with government, the 4-year-old version of yourself with various advocacy and citizens’ groups, and the monsters with crime, obesity and other social ills and you have a situation analogous to today, with one exception: Mother buys you the monster machine, and instead of Gushers, we get big boxes of blinking lights.

For those who lost track of this analogy a while ago, I am saying that the government puts too many resources toward things that only make us feel safer, healthier or better, but don’t actually do anything to improve our daily life.

One example of this is politically placed four-way stop signs. Before you roll your eyes at the idiocy of complaining about stop-sign conspiracies, I’ll admit that the problem is a lot smaller than say, terrorism. But it exemplifies my point very clearly.

To clarify, by politically placed stop signs, I mean the unnecessary four-way stop signs located in many residential neighborhoods that have nothing to do with traffic control and are only meant to slow drivers ­— the signs on rarely traveled roads that only seem to test your patience and your ability to follow the law. Many of these signs are the result of mothers and neighborhood-advocacy groups lobbying for signs to protect little Joey and Julia Ann. Local governments, not wanting to unnecessarily anger people, often capitulate.

Unfortunately, four-way stop signs like this are no more effective than monster-catching machines. They don’t reduce accidents or protect Joey. In fact, they often make it more dangerous for him. As noted by Martin Bretherton at a recent Institute of Transportation Engineers meeting, drivers often don’t feel obligated to stop at these stop signs, and when they do, they often resort to wild acceleration and braking to compensate for stopping. These intersections become less safe, and the admittedly small cost of a stop sign is needlessly added to the city’s budget.

The quick moral of this story is that the signs make mothers feel great but actually make things worse. It is a case where what we want makes us worse off. In personal issues, this is fine — spend your afternoon drinking lead milkshakes if it makes you happy. But at higher levels, the policies should be more data-driven. This story is repeated very often in other policy areas.

Concerned about crime? If a 2008 British survey of its citizens is any indication, residents of the United Kingdom are concerned, even though crime rates have been dropping for more than 10 years. The Conservative and Labour parties, therefore, have to out-do each other and advocate stronger, more expensive positions on crime to not appear weak. As of 2008, this had pushed crime spending to 2.5 percent of the country’s GDP, an even greater percentage than the United States’.

But considering the actual crime rate and the budget situation the country faces, this spending is increasingly unjustifiable. Determining spending based on the perception of crime is wasteful, just as spending based on the perception of monsters is.

Finally, we have all heard the stories about schools pulling chocolate milk from cafeterias and increasing the intensity of gym classes to combat childhood obesity. The idea is that these actions, which limit choice and cut into academic time, are justifiable because they will turn children into beautiful, fit GapKids models.

Too bad these programs don’t work either. As Dr. Leann Birch points out in her recent work on childhood obesity, childhood weight problems stem more from the home than from school. Yet this doesn’t seem to be stopping the onslaught of school programs — we all feel better when we at least appear to improve the situation.

So if you are scared of monsters, fat kids, crazy drivers or phantom crime but you don’t want to do anything to actually improve circumstances — or would like to spend way too much money on it — then be consoled that governments everywhere are on your side. I, however, do not sleep any more soundly knowing of the wasted spending.

Then again, that could be the monster under my bed.

E-mail Nick at [email protected]