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No Experience? No Problem!

Posted by on January 23, 2009

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

There’s an interesting post on the Freakonomics blog about the computer game SimCity and how it relates to a new web application from the Kansas Department of Transportation.

In SimCity, you play the role of the concerned and active government planner, taxing, zoning, and highway-building your citizens into a better tomorrow. When I was younger I found playing the game very stressful; it was tough to balance an attractive tax rate that will grow the population with satisfactory services, such as sufficient power plants, highways, railways, and appropriate balances of residential, commercial, and industrial zones.

A few years ago, I realized that the reason the game was not fun for me is that I don’t and can’t know what the people really want. I just do the best I can with the limited information I get from them. If they claim to want more industrial zones, the question becomes: “Do they demand industrial zones?” If they do, and it’s efficient to provide them, someone will start some heavy industry plants, hopefully where the people want, or he will be competed out of business by a superiorly located competitor. That’s what the market is all about: many competing actors, each with their own share of limited information, discovering they can reach remarkably efficient arrangements without a central organizing plan (or planner).

The T-Link Calculator is your chance to experience the confounding, hapless charade that is central planning. Try to make predictions about things as varied and likely-outside-your-expertise as “Will existing revenue sources grow slower or faster than they have historically?” and “Will KDOT’s non-construction expenditures grow faster or slower than they have historically?” I suppose someone has to make these tough decisions for all of us, and here’s your chance to be that planner.

I don’t mean to pick on Kansas in particular. Its funding calculator is actually a fun tool that performs the task it was perhaps meant to — namely, it shows the people of Kansas and elsewhere which sorts of decisions go into the roads they use every day. It is a relic of static thinking, however. Roads, like shoes, chicken dinners, and haircuts, are an example of something that can be well handled by private enterprise. Here’s some reading, if you’re interested.

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