Thursday, July 9, 2009

Or more likely...

I'll blog more about the community meeting held at Mount Hebron later, but right now I will weigh in on something that Ulman had to say to the press. He was referring to the low turnout (only 16 people showed up to speak):
The meeting was shorter than the previous two, with fewer citizens in attendance, but Ulman vowed to continue the sessions next summer.

"It's an important opportunity," he said, interpreting the lower participation as a good sign.

"People seemed to be reasonably pleased with the county," he said.

Well, I guess that one possible interpretation of the paltry turnout is that people are happy with the county. I personally don't think that is a very likely explanation. I think the low turnout is evidence that most citizens are rationally ignorant. In fact, I would be willing to bet that more than half the residents of Howard County could not even name their councilperson or the CE.

Another explanation is that most people have better things to do. Each speaker was only allowed two minutes. Who would be willing to sit around for several hours at some old-fashioned community gathering to get two minutes worth of someone's ear?


Anonymous said...

County residents who can't name the exec is closer to 80%. And the rational ignorance is based on the cost to get answers--which is very high because there is no forthcoming and unbiased source for that information.

Anonymous said...

The rational ignorance argument does not account for the decreased turnout. That may apply if it were low, but constant over the last few years.

wordbones said...


This all too true. I truly believe that the average county resident is clueless when it comes to their local elected representatives. And while it may be hard to fathom, the situation is even worse with the CA Board who now wants to have planning and zoning authority.


Freemarket said...

Anon 9:57- it is fair to say that the turnout has been low and constant over the last few years. Wouldn't you agree?

Anonymous said...

I'm not Anon 9:57, but I don't think it's fair to say that at all. I was there last year and the room was packed full of people, most of whom were complaining about the awful septic situation at Cattail Creek. I didn't go this year, but reading the news reports, it is clear that this event was significantly smaller. Why there was such a drop is a question that probably has multiple answers. However, your notion that people would have to "sit around for several hours" in order to speak doesn't square with your assertion that these events have all been sparsely attended.

This contradictory thinking and in particular your use of the term "rational ignorance" remind of another textbook term that seems to apply to you: confirmation bias. You have a clear and rigid ideology, and you regularly interpret facts to fit your view of the world, both as it is and as it "should" be. This is unfortunate. Critical thinking skills are sadly under-used in our society. Contrarianism is no substitute and often it can be even worse than relying on conventional wisdom.

Freemarket said...

Well Anon, I appreciate your intelligent and respectful comment, but I have to disagree. Even if attendance was 200 last year (which doubled the approximate 100 folks who attended this year), that is still a pretty sparse turnout and constant turnout, IMHO. You could say that such a drop is 50% which sounds significant, but these numbers aren’t that large where talking about percent changes makes a whole lot of sense.

If the events were well attended, people would absolutely have to sit around for hours and that is what I was referring to. It took over an hour to hear 16 people- nine of which were complaining about the exact same issue. That translates to about 4 or 5 minutes a piece. Is that really enough time to respond to a citizen inquiry? How long would it take to hear 100 people? Maybe the sharp decline in attendance is a reflection of public opinion that this type of forum is ineffective.

I disagree that this is an example of confirmation bias. I am not deliberately seeking only the evidence that supports my worldview. I was simply offering alternative hypotheses for Ulman’s theory that low attendance means that people are happy with the county. I even specifically stated that Ulman’s theory could be correct, although I thought it was unlikely. You could perhaps legitimately accuse Ulman of confirmation bias more so than me. After all, he interpreted the same evidence to fit his worldview that he is doing a great job

Btw, rational ignorance is a well known and commonly accepted problem of democracy.

Anonymous said...

The CA Board, which is comprised of people often elected with a few hundred votes (versus Council members who are often elected with about 10 – 11 thousand votes), has a long history of being dysfunctional.

What are the top 5 things they have accomplished in the last 5 years? How is this group of volunteers, who claimed they did not have enough time to consider CB 29 (which was originally filed as ZRA 102 in August of 2008), because they were unwilling to meet as frequently and as long as it took, more representative and more equipped to handle Columbia-wide zoning issues?

boborama said...

Well, this has been an interesting discussion. On the whole, i have to agree with freemarket on this, and I think it's an outgrowth of the system of government here in Maryland, where are local public services are administered and accomplished at the country level.

I'm a native of rural/suburban New Jersey, and that state's constitution mandates that all public decision making is pushed down to the lowest level. Therefore decisions regarding government are usually made at the town level, and those holding public office are, literally, your neighbors: the mayor, the town council, the school board, the zoning board, the police chief, and so on, live in your town, know you, and have to answer to you directly because you'll probably see them at a little league game or when you're picking your kids up at school.

The Maryland system of providing local government services may have worked well when this was a sparsely populated agrarian state, but it no longer does. In contrast to having a truly "local" government, as I described above, pushing local services like schools, police, planning and zoning, up a level creates a barrier between those governing and those being governed--there is no direct accountability, and citizens are not just rationally ignorant about their local government, they are actually kept ignorant about it, by being held at arms length.

For example, I live in Ellicott City, a town that is very different from Columbia or Laurel in texture. All three of these towns have different demographics, different designs (or lack thereof), and different problems that need to be solved. It's a shame that there is often only a "one-size fit's all" set of solutions from the county government.