How Can We Learn If Decisions Are Disconnected from Impact?

Two years ago, there was a ballot initiative in California, Proposition 10, which would enable city governments to enact rent control on any buildings. I had no idea whether or not this was a good idea, and I was going to go to my default in situations like this, which is to vote no. But I decided to check with my friend, Steph, who works in affordable housing. She was thoughtful, knowledgeable, and even, and after my conversation with her, I decided to vote Yes.

This year, there was a similar ballot initiative, Proposition 21, which would enable city governments to enact rent control on buildings that was first occupied over 15 years ago. Once again, I had no idea whether this was a good idea or not. Once again, I turned to Steph. Once again, I voted Yes.

Here’s what troubled me about finding myself in almost the exact same situation two years later: I had learned absolutely nothing. I didn’t even remember whether or not Proposition 10 had passed. (It didn’t. Neither did Proposition 21.) Even if it had, I would have had no idea what the impact of that measure was.

I believe strongly in collaboration, democracy, and the wisdom of crowds. It’s why I do what I do. And I understand why folks don’t have faith in a population’s ability to govern itself. Our track record, especially recently, is terrible.

Here’s the thing: In order to act in intelligent ways, people need to be responsible for the impact of their decisions. If we don’t know the impact of our decisions, we are not going to make good decisions.

In his book, The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver explains that pundits are terrible at predicting financial markets, but meteorologists are exceptional at predicting the weather. Why? For starters, we are more likely to remember a meteorologist’s track record, because the feedback loop is tighter. Last night, the weatherperson said it would be sunny. Today, it rained. You’re going to remember that.

If we could figure out better ways to tie decisions with impact, I think we would find society generally doing the right things. This is obviously incredibly hard, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

Don’t Edit the Insurgency out of Martin Luther King, Jr.

For the past three years, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, David Meyer, a sociology and public policy professor at UC Irvine, has reposted a piece on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insurgency and how this day ostensibly celebrating this man, his values, and his actions came about. King was not popular in his day, he was growing even more unpopular before he was assassinated, and even when Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a national holiday in 1983, there was large-scale ambivalence or worse (to put it lightly) about celebrating this man. Meyer writes:

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man. King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally. I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

Meyer concludes:

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

How do we not edit out the insurgency? My friend, Pendarvis Harshaw, models this beautifully in his piece, “Moms 4 Housing and MLK’s Case for Running ‘Red Lights.'” It is a sharp, incisive, and moving piece about the housing crisis in California and its impact on African-Americans in particular.