Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The revolt against the technocrats

Perhaps it is one of those things that if you blinked you missed it, but in the 1980s and perhaps even the early 90s, there were a few books out there talking about the abdication of the political process to technical experts and policy wonks, i.e. technocrats.  And no question there are a fair number of transportation authorities that were set up explicitly to take technical decisions out of the political realm.  (Doig's Empire on the Hudson is all about the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  No question that unchecked authority is a problem (as well as the tunnel vision (pun intended) of many engineers), though all evidence points to the complete inability of politicians to actually process complex decisions).

In any event, the pendulum has definitely swung back the other way with a vengeance, especially in the U.S. but also in Canada and somewhat surprisingly the U.K. (i.e. Brexit).  Experts are routinely derided by political sorts and their followers, though it is also obvious that it is predominantly right-wing movements that are currently ignoring scientific and even most economic evidence.  (Sadly, the one sphere where experts still seem to have their own way is in trade deals where perhaps a bit of populism or at least taking a broader view of the impacts on the whole of society and not merely corporate interests would be a good thing.  As should be evident, I'm clearly in a major funk right now.)

I am actually sick to my stomach after watching the City Council debate the transit file.  Final decisions aside, it has been distressing watching the politicians refuse to listen to any evidence that doesn't back their view, as well as hear mis-statements and outright lies presented during the arguments.  On top of everything, the staff has been basically ordered to come up with absurd arguments to justify the unjustifiable.  (According to Bent Flyvbjerg, that is what consultants are for...)

I recall many years ago, one of my colleagues was forced to justify a terrible decision on circumferential suburban transit (basically always a terrible idea...) and he did it, but felt that he had pointed out in the footnotes that the assumptions made no sense and thus the numbers were not to be trusted.  I don't know what I would have done.  That doesn't seem to go quite far enough in righting a wrong.  At the same time, one can't always be resigning over one's principle, especially as a consultant.  I suppose I was fortunate that most of my career has been spent a bit earlier in the process developing travel demand models and then letting other people run them and look over the results and justify (or not) the ideas with political backing.  I can only think of one case where my professional judgement was completely ignored even in the setting up of the travel demand model, and I built that model under protest, as it were.  I had a good laugh at the client's expense, when not six months later, they realized that the model should have been developed the way I suggested in the first place.

I haven't reached that place of detachment where I can just accept really heinous decisions being made in a biased way by politicians who have chosen to ignore the evidence.  I probably will have to figure it out if I am going to finish out my career, particularly in an era where the no-nothings are firmly in control.  (I realize this makes me a thorough elitist and one who thinks technocrats should be in charge, but if you haven't gathered that already from reading this blog (the elitism at least), it really shouldn't be a surprise.)  There really isn't much point in going on much further along these lines.  I'll just take a break from it all and lick my wounds and realize that, aside from the waste of tax funds, I won't really be affected by what happens further east.  The people who will really suffer are the people who voted for those suburban-minded councilors, so they in a sense deserve the crappy transit service they will be getting down the road.

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