Freakonomics

What if mayors ruled the world?

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (Photo: Eric Garcetti)

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (Photo: Eric Garcetti)

Freakonomics Radio has a great episode on the dynamics of mayors and their ability (compared to governors and presidents) to directly and immediately impact the lives of citizens, primarily because they deal with tactical issues with relatively less political obstacles.

The segment, “If Mayors Ruled the World,” features mayors Eric Garcetti (Los Angeles), Toni Harp (New Haven), Richard Berry (Albuquerque) and Marty Walsh (Boston), and riffs off a new book by the same name, “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities” by Benjamin Barber.

One interesting anecdote is that a significant number of mayors start out as legislators, and very few (only three) have gone on to become presidents, the theory being that the mindset for a successful national political campaign takes bigger-picture vision, whereas being the executive of a city is entails mostly operations, tactical thinking and execution.

Related excerpt:

DUBNER: You’d think that the traits make someone successful as a mayor would be incredibly valuable, however, at a state or federal level. Being an executive getting things done, understanding that you are going to tick off certain constituencies in order to serve the greater good. And yet, it seems like when we look at this moment in time at least in the U.S. at state and federal governance we see on one hand people who love to shout at their enemies across the aisle, but it’s not like they are shouting in service of great accomplishment, are they? It seems like if you had to measure what’s getting done on a daily basis I’d think that most mayors are getting a whole lot more done than most governors and federal officials, yeah?

SMITH: Yeah, but this is probably another reason why mayors, particularly in New York City, haven’t gone on to higher office historically, is that the conditions that allow them to be autocratic here don’t exist at the national level. It is very much more at the national level about building some, you hope, sense of compromise. You know you’ve got to work with the Senate and the House in a way that doesn’t exist at the local level. And so to Obama’s frustration, obviously, he’d like to operate more like a mayor, more sort of unilaterally. And so maybe that’s the quality that does not transfer very well.

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The Freakonomics of ‘Government Employees Gone Wild’

I’ve been on a podcast kick lately and stumbled on an old Freakonomics Radio episode highlighting the U.S. Department of Defense ethics guide, “The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.”

Freakonomics interviews the publication’s editor, Jeff Green, senior attorney in DOD’s Standards of Conduct office, and its founding editor, Steve Epstein, who is now Boeing Company ethics and compliance chief counsel.

The episode, “Government Employees Gone Wild,” aired in July 2013, but it’s a refreshing approach at how DOD culls news stories, press releases and inspector general reports to highlight how federal employees cross ethical lines in the most egregious and sometimes humorous ways.

Interview excerpt:

DUBNER: Do either of you ever worry that this “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure” could be read not so much as a set of cautionary tales but instead as a handbook for, oh there’s something I hadn’t thought of doing, there’s a way to wrangle a little extra money or influence of whatnot?

EPSTEIN: Well it’s funny, it’s a good point you raise there. I don’t see that because in most of these cases you’re seeing people who made very poor judgment calls. And they weren’t very successful in a criminal manner. So it would hardly be a handbook for how to be a successful criminal. As a matter of fact it’s more of a handbook of how to be an unsuccessful criminal.

DUBNER: The lessons of the “Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure” are pretty straightforward – and helpful whether you work in government or not. Don’t steal stuff from your office and sell it at home in a yard sale. Don’t spend all day in a bar if you’re supposed to be working. Don’t pay a kickback with hookers. And if you are going to do any of these things, don’t lie about it and then pretend you’re dead. That just won’t work. Now it’s impossible to say how successful the Encyclopedia has been, if at all, in preventing ethical failures. One thing it has going for it is that it tells stories. It doesn’t dwell on the rule that gets broken; it tells us who does what, to whom, and how, and sometimes why. Nobody wants to read a set of rules. But all of us like a good story – and we’ll remember it, too.

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