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Monday, January 5, 2015

NYPD's Reverse Washington Monument Strategy

David R. Henderson

Here's what Richard L. Stroup writes about the Washington Monument Strategy (WMS):

A perennial case in point is the "Washington Monument strategy" of the National Park Service. At budget time, the service frequently threatens to curtail visiting hours at its most popular attractions, such as the Washington Monument, if its budget request is not met, and it threatens to blame Congress and the budget process when tourists complain. Other agencies use this and similar tactics to seek more support for their narrow programs. In doing so, too often they impose enormous costs on society. It is hard to imagine a private firm--even a large, bureaucratic one--responding to hard budget times by curtailing its most popular product or service. The private firm would lose too much business to the competition.

This is from Richard L. Stroup, "Political Behavior," in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. I wrote about what I called the "Washington Monument Strategy on Steroids:"

It would be understandable if the government did not provide Park Service employees. But that's not what the Obama administration did. Instead, it did provide employees to prevent people from getting to the World War II Memorial. In other words, instead of just not providing employees, the U.S. Park Service spent real resources to prevent people from getting access, even though the Memorial is outdoors and, during normal times, has unlimited access.

How does all this apply to police with the New York Police Department? In "The NYPD's Insubordination--and Why the Right Should Oppose It," Conor Friedersdorf, quoting a piece in the New York Post, writes:
The statistics cited suggest significant solidarity among cops. Overall arrests rates fell 66 percent "for the week starting Dec. 22 compared with the same period in 2013, stats show. Citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587, during that time frame. Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent--from 4,831 to 300. Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241."

Much as I like a lot these results, I do worry about the precedent of the police acting essentially as their own agents rather than as agents of the government. Friedersdorf puts it well when he writes:
The right should greet it [the slowdown] with the skepticism they'd typically summon for a rally on behalf of government workers as they seek higher pay, new work rules, and more generous benefits. What's unfolding in New York City is, at its core, a public-employee union using overheated rhetoric and emotional appeals to rile public employees into insubordination. The implied threat to the city's elected leadership and electorate is clear: Cede leverage to the police in the course of negotiating labor agreements or risk an armed, organized army rebelling against civilian control. Such tactics would infuriate the right if deployed by any bureaucracy save law enforcement opposing a left-of-center mayor.

So I have little to add to that part of the discussion. I want to make a different point, though, a positive one about public choice rather than a normative one about the slowdown. Because this is what I find fascinating.
Most people pretty much understand the Washington Monument Strategy: single out the thing that's most popular with the public and threaten to close that down if you don't get their way. But what are the police doing? Almost the opposite. I say "almost" because there are surely many people among the public who want the government to enforce against such things as running red lights or peeing in public. I say "the opposite" because a police force that was truly trying to carry out the WMS would enforce the petty things but cut back on investigating murders and attempted murders. Those latter are things that, almost unanimously, the public would want the police to focus on.
So this strategy makes no sense.
Unless the police do not see the public as important players but, rather, see the city government as the important player to affect. And how would cutting down on traffic tickets matter to the city government? Cherchez la monnaie. The city government, I would guess, gets an enormous amount of its revenue from various fines. And so the police may actually be using the WMS.

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