The layman’s guide to the new pro-mask research study

Do we now have conclusive proof that masking works?  No.  Do we have data that strongly suggests this to be the case?  Yes.  Is it all wrapped up in questions of how to interpret such studies, and the inherent difficulty of studies that can only attempt to approximate an experiment rather than truly being one?  Also yes.

Here’s the background:  a group of researchers and aid workers from Poverty Action, funded by the charity Give Well, undertook a massive study in Bangladesh to test mask-wearing — but you can’t simply force one group of people to wear masks and prohibit another group, particularly at the village-by-village level, so what they undertook were a series of actions designed to promote mask-wearing.

To begin with, they designated certain villages “control” and others “treatment” in the same way as, with a test of a medication, a certain group would get the placebo and others, the real medicine.  The control villages received, nothing, but the “treatment” village, through a process of randomization, either were given cloth masks or surgical masks, for the duration of a 10-week period, and, with further randomization, were given further inducements to wear masks, such as encouragement from imams and other “village elders,” or texts from experts encouraging mask-wearing as an altruistic action or for one’s own benefit, or other such encouragements.  They then measured the degree to which these inducements resulted in more mask-wearing, by having observers count the number of people wearing masks in public places, and found that they were able to triple the rate at which people wore their masks in public.

Now, to be clear, the entire “package” was implemented for the main test group:  free mask distribution alongside encouragement to wear the masks and role-modeling by public officials and community leaders, which included a video with the head imam and a national cricket star shown when the masks were distributed, as well as promotion by local imams during Friday prayers using a scripted speech and further unspecified “mask promotion in public spaces.”  Some villages also received monetary or non-monetary incentives for village-wide compliance, a program of asking households to commit to mask-wearing with a pledge and a front-door sign, and a set of text messages; and villages were also randomly assigned to receive either cloth or surgical masks.  After 8 weeks, they stopped the “intervention” but kept tallying mask-wearing for a further two weeks.

The result was that mask-wearing in the treatment villages increased by 29 percentage points or, using a different method of analysis, 28.1 points, relative to a baseline of 13.3%.  Surprisingly, the additional boosting efforts had no effect: none of the by-village monetary incentive, text-encouragement, or public front-door sign program made a difference – in fact, these most likely reduced levels of mask-wearing.  The only factors that were associated with greater rates of mask-wearing were being given a surgical (rather than cloth) mask and being given a mask that was blue rather than green or purple rather than red.

(Yes, really – the effect on mask-wearing of having a purple cloth mask was quite substantial.  The mask colors were used to identify people who had received different sorts of “private” nagging in terms of the text messages, but the meaning of the color used was varied between village.  Green symbolizes Islam; was this color seen as sacrilegious?  Was there a different, negative connotation to red, or positive connotation to purple?  This unexpected difference is a bit disconcerting, because it suggests that the researchers did not have the understanding of local culture that they should have to conduct research, even if there’s nothing else fishy about it.)

But this was only the first step in their study.  Their larger objective was to measure the degree to which the free-mask/mask-encouragement-induced greater mask-wearing reduced covid cases – and, indeed, they find substantially lower rates for the treatment than the control groups, based on testing everyone who reports covid symptoms during the study period.  (Two complications here:  first, they only tested those who reported symptoms, and only about 40% of those reporting symptoms agreed to be tested.)

The results here are fairly dramatic, or are so at first glance, at least: relative to the control villages, those villages given surgical masks had an 11% reduction in (symptomatic) covid prevalence over the 10 week period.  For those above 60, those at highest risk, the results are even more dramatic, a decrease in infection of 35%.  Considering that, even with these interventions, fewer than 50% of people observed wore masks, this suggests that consistent mask-wearing by everyone would have an even greater effect.  And, in fact, the authors do the math of how much it cost them to provide the masks, the mask-promotion, and the mask-wearer counting, to conclude that it is entirely feasible, in terms of lives saved, to expand these efforts.

The study also looked at the impact of mask-wearing on physical distancing – not so much because it was their goal to push Bangladeshis into more distancing but because one theory was that mask-wearing would, due to risk-compensation, result in people distancing less.  Instead, within mosques, people distanced as much as before, but in other circumstances, distancing increased.

But the study left a number of questions unanswered – or, at least, I didn’t see the answers.

We know that treatment villages were given masks and non-treatment villages were not – but the latter villages were still surveyed by phone and asked about symptoms, then those reporting covid symptoms were asked to test, which about 40% consented to.  The study did not indicate what percent of villagers responded to the survey, or how they perceived the study, or whether they resented being called and asked questions when only the neighboring village, not they themselves, received masks.

The study also did not report on any issues of variation within the treatment villages, except to the extent that standard errors are reported for mask-wearing (and, honestly, I’m not good enough at the stats part to get a sense of interpretation here).  Was there an (inverse) correlation between village-wide mask-wearing and covid prevalence?  That would make the relationship between masks and covid-reduction clearer.  Is there a reason why this statistical calculation/test would be invalid?  The villages are all also presented as simply generic “one no different than the next” villages, and maybe that’s indeed true, or the randomization process makes differences irrelevant, but I would imagine that there are still real differences, whether they be a matter of some regions of the country being richer or poor than others, or having different age pyramids (different fertility rates, different rates of out-migration to the city).

Also, all observations were conducted outside except for mosques, because there simply weren’t non-mosque indoor spaces.  But it is generally not considered particularly risky to wear masks outdoors, and the paper doesn’t state whether villagers were told to wear masks any time they were outside their own homes, or what instructions in particular they were given regarding times and circumstances in which it was necessary to wear a mask, and when the risk was low enough not to.  Or is Bangladeshi public/outdoor life as crowded as indoor American life?

Another surprising element is the two pilot studies that informed their ultimate large-scale study.  In the first study, they had free masks and an educational campaign, and boosted mask-wearing rates by 10.9 percentage points.  In the second pilot, they added the presence of workers whose role was to “remind” villagers to wear their mask, and they boosted the rate to a level matched in the final study, 28.4 percentage points.  Honestly, I have trouble making sense of this – isn’t a village in Bangladesh exactly the sort of place where outsiders would be very visibly “outside” and not able to persuade much?  Or were “locals” hired in this role?  This seems to be another “cultural” issue.  As it happens, one of the criticisms of the study is that symptoms were self-reported rather than based on objective testing, so that if the villagers in test villages believed that there was a particular reason to minimize symptoms (to prove they were compliant, to avoid dishonoring the village, to show loyalty to village elders, etc.), this would cause problems with the study, and their surprising degree of responsiveness to individual “persuaders” suggests to me that this is possible.

Another issue is the differentiation between surgical and cloth masks.  The key data element is, again, that control villages had a prevalence of covid of 0.76% cloth mask villages had a prevalence of .74%, and surgical mask villages, .67%.  There was therefore no statistically-significant effect from cloth masks – which of course should raise concerns for places such as the US where “even a bandana will do” has been the operative approach.  But in any case, there was a higher rate of mask-wearing for surgical mask villages, even though the difference wasn’t statistically-significant.  It does nonetheless raise the question of whether the surgical mask was what made the difference, or the greater likelihood of mask-wearing in surgical-mask villages.

Another issue:  age group differences.  For surgical mask villages only, they split out covid rates by age.  For those younger than age 50, there was no difference in covid infections between this villages and the control villages.  For those 50 – 60 years old, there was a decrease of 23%.  For those over age 60, there was a decrease of 35%.  What would account for this difference?  The study does not identify different mask-wearing rates for different ages (presumably they did not attempt to guess the age of the mask-wearers or non-mask-wearers they saw), and, in theory, this shouldn’t matter, as the theory of mask-wearing is that it protects others, so that the entire community should see declines.  However, the study (to prove risk compensation was not happening) showed that there were greater degrees of physical distancing in treatment villages.  Did the project of mask-wearing result in overall greater degrees of caution, especially among older Bangladeshis?

This is a point of contention among critics, as well as the general element of the increased physical distancing.  If physical distancing could be the cause of reduced spread, or if other elements explain the reduction only among the old, then did the intervention “work”?  Or, rather, what does it mean to say the intervention “worked” if it was plausibly the knock-on effects of mask-wearing and what we want to demonstrate is that masking can substitute for undesirable alternate interventions like distancing or lockdowns?

Here are some other criticisms I’m seeing.

First, from an anonymous commenter on twitter:  the difference between cloth and surgical mask-wearing isn’t statistically significant when measured with something called an “intervention prevalence ratio,” which is more-or-less the difference in rates provided above.  On this basis, a confidence interval for either cloth or surgical mask shows that there is definitely a decrease in covid prevalence, but, because of the necessary differences in standard error for the smaller sample sizes for each group individually, the confidence intervals for cloth vs. surgical individually are wider, overlap, and are not even definitively proven to be effective, with only the surgical mask being significant at the 10% level.  Even with the large number of villages recruited into the study, the overall prevalence rates were low enough so as to not definitively establish the desired conclusions.  Given the uncertainties in the study in general, you’d really like to see some slam-dunk numbers here.

Second, a substack site “bad cattitude” levies a number of criticisms.  Some of them are, I think, too nit-picky, for example, leaning very heavily into complaints that the authors did not definitively establish that the villages were truly sufficiently identical to each other for the randomization to be effective.  In particular, they did not have a starting value for covid-prevalence, just the ending point.  It seems unlikely to me that there would have been such a difference as to have invalidated the study but he says “this is a tiny signal (7 in 10,000) [so] we need a very high precision in start state” and “even miniscule variance in prior exposure would swamp this.”  It would be helpful to have seen some math demonstrating the possible effect of different levels of variance that are within statistical possibility.

This author’s larger criticism is of the self-reported nature of symptoms that I observed earlier.  Now, we already know that there are two elements of Bangladeshi village culture that are “non-WEIRD” — the fact that mask color has a statistically-significant effect on whether villagers choose to wear them, and that mask-reminders have a dramatic impact on use.  (Just try to imagine that happening in small town USA!)  The substack author also points out that there was a very wide discrepancy between self-reports of mask-wearing (80%) in their own prior survey and actual use.  It seems to me likely that Westerners cannot necessarily predict how Bangladeshi villagers would respond to being given masks, then being called and asked to self-report whether they have any of a set of symptoms, but it also seems to me that there’s a good chance that their response would not be the same as Americans, in one direction or another.  That site also quotes twitter account @Emily_Burns_V, who says, “Is it possible that highly moralistic framing and monetary incentives given to village elders for compliance might dissuade a person from reporting symptoms representing individual and collective moral failure — one that could cost the village money?  Maybe?”  And, indeed, the study’s authors say that there was no effect of the text-nagging or the incentives, on mask-wearing, but do not report whether there are differences between these groups, and the symptom-reporting.

Finally, Bad Cattitude has an interpretation of the age-differences which seems more plausible than “masking had a greater effect on the old”:  “the odds on bet here is that old people were more inclined to please the researchers than young people and that they failed to report symptoms as a result.”

One last set of comments on the study, from researcher Lyman Stone, again via twitter.  He defends the study authors against the accusation that they failed to pre-test to establish a baseline, by saying that the study authors themselves acknowledged that this was still underway, and this was, after all, a working paper, not the final product, and reports that it is the norm to provide preliminary reports even when the data analysis is complete.

Stone also observes that the differences in results between cloth and surgical masks is an indicator that there was a sort of unplanned “blindness” to the study, in that both the cloth and surgical mask recipients were aware they were a part of a study, so if the effects we see are a result of their response to this, we’d see the same effects for both cloth and surgical — but we don’t.  (Of course, Stats with Cats observes that the difference between the two groups is not a slam dunk because of confidence intervals, and, as tempting as it may be to do otherwise, it is important to take the confidence intervals seriously.)  (For what it’s worth, Bad Cattitude rebuts the rebuttal in a follow-up piece.)

The bottom line:  when this study first came across my twitter feed, I enthusiastically retweeted it.  Now I’m disappointed — I would have really liked to have seen more answers, and be left with fewer questions that mean it becomes “one data point among many” rather than the slam-dunk evidence that some of its promoters think it is, especially since the whole debate has now resulted in mask-promoters asserting that mask-wearing is always and everywhere cost-free while ignoring that for some people it creates real health issues and for children, poses risks of developmental delay.

Finally, as a reminder for those who don’t know my background, very early in the pandemic I was not merely an enthusiastic mask-wearer, but a die-hard mask-maker, donating some 150 of them to healthcare workers and others, which means that anyone who judges these comments as those of a crazy anti-masker wholly misunderstands them.


Revisiting the Minimum Wage and a questionable “seminal study”

Yes, readers, I have gone back to school and am studying economics.  And I’m killing two birds with one stone by writing my commentary on a class-assigned paper in blog format.

The paper in question is, in fact, the 1994 paper which shifted economists’ thinking on the minimum wage, because of its claim that minimum wage boosts had no ill effects on employment and were, basically, “free money.”

Here’s how Vox characterized it:

[F]or years many economists assumed, almost without questioning, that minimum wages destroyed jobs. They might be worthwhile, sure, but you have to weigh the harm they do to the demand for labor against their benefits for workers who remain employed.

In a paper first published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1993, Krueger and his co-author Card exploded that conventional wisdom. They sought to evaluate the effects of an increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage, from $4.25 to $5.05 an hour, that took effect on April 1, 1992. (At 2019 prices, that’s equivalent to a hike from $7.70 to $9.15.)

Card and Krueger surveyed more than 400 fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania to see if employment growth was slower in New Jersey following the minimum wage increase. They found no evidence that it was. “Despite the increase in wages, full-time-equivalent employment increased in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania,” they concluded. That increase wasn’t statistically significant, but they certainly found no reason to think that the minimum wage was hurting job growth in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania.

Card and Krueger’s was not the first paper to estimate the empirical effects of the minimum wage. But its compelling methodology, and the fact that it came from two highly respected professors at Princeton, forced orthodox economists to take the conclusion seriously.

And with that in mind, join me as I dig through the meat of the study:  “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”  (This is not actually the “class assignment”; I will need to distill my thoughts even further into 250 – 300 words, which will be harder!)

The core concept of the study was this:  generally speaking, it’s hard to measure the effects of a change in the minimum wage, because there’s so much much else happening at the same time.  For example, the latest change in the US federal minimum wage occurred at the same time as the “Great Recession.”  But in 1992, New Jersey increased its minimum wage to a level above the federal minimum, $5.05 rather than $4.25, and next-door Pennsylvania did not.  The authors believe that looking at changes in employment patterns, wages, costs, etc., at fast-food chains in those two states provide a means of analyzing the impact of the minimum wage hike.

In order to do so, they (or rather their employees) conducted phone surveys of fast-food restaurants in those two states in late February/early March of 1992, just before the minimum wage hike was implemented, and in November-December 1992, after the April 1992 change had had some time for effects to be seen.  They had, all things considered, reasonable response rates to their surveys (72.5% in PA and 91% in NJ, with different numbers of attempts made in the two states) for the first wave, and bolstered their response rate for the second wave with in-person visits as needed.

Their core findings:

In the New Jersey restaurants, the number of employees per store actually increased during this time frame, even as they decreased in Pennsylvania due to the recession at the time.  At the same time, within New Jersey, among stores which had previously had a starting wage equal to the minimum wage, as well as those stores with a starting wage above the minimum but below the new minimum, the number of employees increased; but in those stores where wages were already above the minimum, employment decreased.

The authors then get mathier.  They perform two regressions, one to estimate the effect on employment of a store being in New Jersey, and another to estimate the effect of a store having previously paid less than the new minimum wage.  This is where my interpretation is a bit marginal, but here goes:

The change in the number of FTE employees per fast-food restaurant in NJ compared to the change in PA, was 2.51.  The regression model calculates, stripping out other impacts, that New Jersey-ness accounted for 2.3 new employees per store.  Having to raise wages (compared to NJ restaurants already paying the new minimum) produced a regression factor of 11.91 times the “wage gap” when controlled for differences in different regions within NJ as well as for differences among the different large chains surveyed; this is a high factor because it gets reduced by this gap-factor, which is .11.

They also perform additional statistical tests by fine-tuning their calculations, for example, excluding New Jersey shore area stores because of their tourist economy, adjusting the weightings of part-time employees in calculating full-time equivalents, etc.  These produce different employment impacts but still the same conclusion, that the minimum wage increase actually increased employment.

The authors also assess whether the minimum wage hike affected other aspects of the restaurants’ operations.  There was an increase in full-time workers in New Jersey, but no significant effect with respect to restaurants who had paid less vs. more in NJ.  There was no statistically-significant change in the restaurants’ opening hours, the free/reduced-price meal benefit, the amount of the first raise or the time until that first raise is given.

They did find that prices in New Jersey increased by 4%, a slightly greater increase than would be needed to make up for the higher wages (taking into account the wage increase and the proportion of the restaurant’s costs due to labor), but they discard this as a relevant consideration because prices increased at the same level regardless of whether an individual restaurant was impacted by the wage hike or not (based on whether their starting wage had been below the new minimum or not).

Finally, they assessed whether the wage increase prevented new stores from opening, looking at broader data, and found no statistically-significant evidence.

After presenting their statistical tests, they propose various explanations.  They consider alternate labor-market theories “monopsonistic and job-search models”), but discard them.  They theorize that employers obliged to pay higher wages may decrease their quality (longer lines, reduced cleanliness) or may shift pricing of some products relative to others, but ultimately conclude with the simple statement that “these findings are difficult to explain.”

So what’s to be made of this?

Their analysis is certainly more useful than one without any “control group” and it’s the new “one weird trick” of economists to find and exploit what they consider to be “natural experiments” (though I suppose “new” is all relative).  It also has, I think, particular merit in looking at employment at specific businesses, rather than at unemployment rates across a region, so as to drill down to the question of “how do employer manage an increased labor cost?”

But there are plenty of deficiencies:

One common gripe of Krueger’s critics (e.g., at the Foundation for Economic Education) is that the time frame of Krueger’s analysis is simply too narrow.  By late February, employers already knew they would need to offer a much higher minimum wage, and would likely have been taking that into account by avoiding hiring and reducing staff with attrition.  It could even be that the increase in employees was an indicator that they found, on average, that they had been too cautious in the period leading up to the hike.  It also seems likely that employers wouldn’t have been sitting on some innovation that would allow them to reduce staff which they would suddenly implement immediately upon increasing wages, but that labor-reduction initiatives would take time, so that the long-term effect of the wage hike would take some time to materialize.  (For example, the free refill was introduced by Taco Bell in 1988, but became commonplace in the 90s.  Was this merely a coincidence that this marketing tactic occurred roughly at the same time as a significant nationwide minimum wage increase, with a phase-in that was driven by the time and effort to remodel locations, or did stores find it more advantageous to reduce worker time in this fashion, when labor increased in cost?  Other changes, such as the self-service ordering kiosk, required advances in technology that will presumably be motivated by higher labor cost but not simply “waiting in the wings.”)

It also seems too simplistic to simply discard the increase in prices just because those prices increased at all New Jersey restaurants, including those which had already been paying higher wages. It would seem fairly reasonable that once the previously-lower-paying restaurants had increased their prices, the rest would follow, or that, if certain franchise owners had a mix of higher- and lower-wage restaurants, they might have raised prices in parallel.  Consequently, this consistent price-hike across stores is not the counter-evidence Krueger claims.

In fact, it would seem to merit a closer review, to identify the characteristics of those restaurants previously paying higher wages, especially because they did not boost their wages to remain a “higher wage employer.”  Were these particularly-profitable restaurants?  Restaurants which had difficulty recruiting employees due to locally-tight labor markets?  For instance, restaurants in wealthier suburbs tend to recruit workers from further away and offer higher wages to make the additional travel time worthwhile.  Would they, in the longer term, have difficulty finding workers without boosting that wage differential?

Lastly, they measure the impact of the wage increase on overall work hours by asking whether the opening hours have changed, whether the number of cash registers have changed, and whether the there is a change in the number of cash registers typically open at 11:00 AM.  But it seems likely that a key way that employers will seek to mitigate the effect of a wage hike is by lower staffing at slower times in the day, either by scheduling employers for fewer hours, or by being readier to send employees home.  And they ask whether employees work on a full- or part-time basis but do not actually ask in their survey what the total or average work hours is at each surveyed store.  Perhaps this is a piece of information that they considered too difficult for store managers to provide, so did not ask it so as to ensure they would receive a response to their request, but without knowing this, we simply cannot know whether the study’s data is what it claims to be.

Now, I’ve said that this is considered to be a key study that shifted the debate about the minimum wage, and, it turns out, it wasn’t without pushback.  Richard Berman of the Employment Policies Institute criticized the study in a 1996 report, “The Crippling Flaws in the New Jersey Fast Food Study,” and Krueger and Card responded with their own criticism of Berman’s criticism, as well as a further study by economists William Wascher & David Neumark (not available without paywall), in 2000.  Krueger finds fault with the attempts by Berman and by Wascher and Neumark to re-do the analysis using better or alternate data sources, but does not directly address Berman’s “crippling flaws” (or if they do so, it is so briefly addressed that I missed it).  What were these flaws?  First, that there were significant numbers of stores with clear data errors, such as shifts in the number of part-time and full-time employees as well as a failure to specify, in the price-increase portion, what defines a “regular hamburger” (is it a Big Mac? A Quarter Pounder?  A dollar-menu basic hamburger?).   EPI researchers went back to many of the surveyed restaurants and could not match the employment numbers, and Berman believes this is simply because of inconsistencies in definition of part vs. full-time and the basic fact that the manager or assistant manager answering the survey would have been juggling multiple duties and relying on memory for these numbers.  In any event, Krueger and Card dial back their claims, from 1994’s statement that “we find that the increase in the minimum wage increased employment” to a more cautious, “the increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage probably had no effect on total employment in New Jersey’s fast-food industry, and possibly had a small positive effect.”

public domain




Fact vs. Fiction on the Obama Center’s Economic Impact

I’ve long been a critic of the Obama Museum, which will not be a “presidential library” but literally just a museum as well as ancillary services and programming.  But with the construction now beginning, I finally got around to looking at‘s projection of economic impact, and it’s worth evaluating.

Short-term jobs (construction)

The building is expected to employ 3,682 people, with a total of $214,635,630 in “labor income,” during the course of construction.  That’s an average of about $60,000 per job — because these are mix of various types of jobs, but all short-term.

Ongoing employment

Ongoing payroll for the Obama Center is forecast as $19 million in payroll.  However, Only 43% of the jobs are expected to be held by South Side Chicagoans, with only 16 people employed in “admissions,” for example, and 10 in “Museum Operations and Administration.”  Security guards and janitorial staff will be contracted out rather than directly employed.

Museum revenue

The consultants predict $3.1 million in revenue for the planned four-star restaurant and cafe, but recognize that only 25% of the revenue will be “new” (that is, that many of the diners would have otherwise eaten elsewhere).  They forecast $6 million in gift shop revenue.  They forecast $110K in “net new” private event spending, because 80% of private events held at the venue would have been held elsewhere in Cook County.

The forecast for museum attendance uses an upper bound based on a hypothetical maximum based on the number of opening hours, fire capacity, average visit length, etc., then multiplied by a factor of 30% to reflect utilization, and a “historical and cultural significance multiplier” of 1.15 (that is, the expectation that the Obama museum will be exceptionally popular) — which, honestly, seems fairly suspect.  The lower bound is calculated based on actual visitors to real-world presidential museums for recent presidents — but using some math which determines that, even though the highest visitor counts from any of these (excluding the first opening year) was 426,000 for the Reagan museum after it became the recipient of Air Force One, the Obama Museum would have 50% more visitors than even this high, because of the greater size of the Chicago metro area and the number of tourists.

Ticket prices are expected to be $18 per adult, $11 for children, $10 for out-of-state students, and free for in-state students.  Parking cost would be $22.  In addition, visitors are forecast to spend on average $5 in food purchases and $10 in the gift shop.

Tourist revenue

Outside the museum, they calculate that visitors will spend

$45 per person for lodging, for in-state out-of-town visitors, or $112 for out-of-state visitors.  Why out-of-state visitors would spend more on their hotels is not clear.

$19 per person in retail spending, for in-state out-of-town visitors, or $56 per person for out-of-state visitors.  This category is not at all clear to me.  Are they saying that people will travel to Chicago specifically for the Obama Museum and, once here, will take in a bit of Magnificent Mile shopping?

$32/$102 per person for spending on food.  Again, the only way this makes sense is if they assume the visit will be motivated by the Obama Museum, rather than it being an add-on to an existing visit.  Or do they “take credit” for longer visits on the assumption that the Obama Museum will be the tipping point in people deciding on Chicago in their vacation planning?

Non-tourist visitors

This was the part that was the biggest surprise:  we kept reading about how the Obama Center will contribute to the public good with conferences of various kinds.  But those aren’t free.  However, it is not clear to me to what extent the registration fees are meant to cover the cost of the event, whether it’s subsidized, whether some participants will have a reduced fee, etc.

Their largest event is planned to be an Annual Summit with 5,000 participants.  Each of them will pay on average $577 for the event (the unround number suggests some would be given reduced rates), for a total revenue of $2.9 million for an event expected to cost the Obama Museum $4.2 million.  Where the additional funds come from isn’t explained — is it from the endowment?

Air Force One non-sequitur

Finally, the document closes with a slide on the “possible impact of Air Force One exhibit” — but this is an appendix and we don’t know what the accompanying talking points were.  Is it meant to suggest that the attendance numbers used for calculating estimates, were overstated?  That they hope to get a similar “big draw” here?  Dunno.

What about the rest of the Center?

The Obama Center won’t just have a museum.

There will be a new public library branch there.  Honestly, it is not at all clear whether the money for this is coming from the Obama Foundation or whether the Public Library is simply using their own budget, and, in fact, whether the space will be provided or rented out.  Similarly, there will be a “program, athletic, and activity center” with “recreation, community programming, and events.”  Will these activities be provided free of charge, for a fee, or by means of the Chicago Park District using this as a site for its programming?

None of these other activities are reflected in the impact calculations; if the generosity of donors worldwide was expected to benefit Chicagoans through use of Obama Foundation funds on these activities, you’d expect to see them taking credit for this.  What’s to be made of its absence?

In any case, the fight against the Museum appears to be over.  What remains is a fight to ensure that public funds are not spent on its ongoing expenses.  But, unfortunately, Chicago being Chicago, and Illinois being Illinois, this is likely to be a losing battle.

Obama – public domain (wikimedia commons).

Illinois is Broken, Secretary of State Race edition

Non-Illinoisans, what does your Secretary of State do?

In some instances, state Secretaries of State made national news in the last election, due to the choices they made in modifying state election law or its implementation, due to COVID, and their validation of election results, most notably Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who even now shows up in news reports.

Which means that a non-Illinoisan might not think twice about this promise from Democratic candidate for the Illinois Secretary of State, Alexi Giannoulias (image posted at bottom in case of tweet deletion):

And his website contains similar promises:

He supports Defending Voter Rights:  “We must ensure access to registering to vote and individual rights at the ballot box are protected to prevent disenfranchisement.”

He advocates for Safeguarding Against Financial Fraud:  “With the economic downturn making our most vulnerable citizens susceptible to fraud, deception and unfair practices, we must protect financial well-being of Illinois residents against those who prey on them.”

He promises he will go about Strengthening Ethics Laws:  “With recent corruption scandals plaguing Illinois, we must toughen state ethics laws and reform the system to curb abuse.”

But in Illinois, the Secretary of State’s office is primarily Illinois’ equivalent to the Department of Motor Vehicles elsewhere, administering driving tests and issuing driving licenses and vehicle registrations, as well as secondary duties in administering the registration of corporations, lobbyists, and notaries, as well as overseeing the state archive and the state library.  Were he to be elected, he would have nothing to do with voting (except for the minor element of “motor voter” registration), financial fraud (that’s the Attorney General), or ethics (that’s an office in the executive branch with no particular head other than the governor).

Giannoulias also promises he will “protect our privacy of Illinois residents and safeguard their data, photos and personal information from those who seek to abuse it,” and, sure, to the extent that the Secretary of State’s office holds data on Illinois drivers, there’s a privacy element, but this is small potatoes.

And he promises he will go about “making our roads safer” which sounds fine as far as it goes but then continues that he will do this by “strengthening safety guidelines for motorists and protecting the environment,” which seem to have a lot more to do with legislation than the administrative job of the Secretary of State.

Finally, he claims he will go about Modernizing Services:  “COVID-19 has changed how all offices need to operate and deliver services – with the health and safety of the public a top priority – to improve the customer experience.”  But this is trite and meaningless, all the more so since on his homepage he praises the outgoing Secretary of State, Jesse White’s “outstanding service.”  And, to be honest, the Secretary of State took its time about implementing an appointment system for drivers’ license renewals, but now they have and it appears to work smoothly.  And other than this, the biggest “customer experience” problem were the delays caused by the extreme length of time the office was closed, both in spring of 2020 and again over Christmastime — delays which may have been fine for many of those whose expiration dates were simply extended but caused significant difficulties for those seeking licenses for the first time.  But his emphasis on “health and safety” suggests this is not a concern of his.

What it comes down to is this:

Alexi Giannoulias is not running for the office of Secretary of State.

What does he really want?

He is running to obtain the status of “next-in-line for governor.”

Here’s the Chicago Sun Times, from this past June:

Nevertheless, presiding over that state office is one of the most coveted prizes in Illinois politics.

“Next to being governor, that’s the biggest political office statewide,” said former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. . . .

Political insiders say former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is leading the pack, racking up crucial endorsements and building the most fully stocked political war chest. He is closely followed by Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, who has won her own share of endorsements, but in the money contest has so far been outraised by Giannoulias more than five-to-one. . . .

One of the allures of the office is its potential to serve as a political stepping stone.

Edgar, a former Illinois secretary of state who parlayed his tenure into a successful gubernatorial bid, said the current crop of candidates may be looking to do the same, since the office offers plenty of the tools to do so, from jobs to fill to publicity to take advantage of.

“You also have respect throughout the state. Your name — next to the governor’s — is the most visible name in state government, because you’re on everybody’s driver’s license,” Edgar said. “There’s a lot of political advantages.”

Now, to be sure, Giannoulias isn’t the only one doing this.  Valencia’s website likewise claims new responsibilities for the Secretary of State, usurping the powers of the Illinois State Board of Elections, by calling for an “Illinois Voting Access Commission,” which would “bring together diverse stakeholders from across the State to identify ways to expand and protect voter registration, voting and vote counting. Our stakeholders will include the Illinois State Board of Elections, members of the Illinois General Assembly, County Clerks, community and business leaders, universities and foundations.”  This commission would evaluate expanding Vote By Mail, Automatic Voter Registration, transportation to the polls, election judge recruitment, and would update voting technology — again, nothing that has anything to do with the roles of the Secretary of State.  She would also create an “Illinois Civics Corps” — which would “give Illinois college students a stipend to register and educate their communities on how to become civically engaged.”

Again, none of this has anything to do with the responsibilities of the Illinois Secretary of State.  (And, for that matter, none of the changes in election law in other states has anything to do with Illinois’ own election laws, and in fact, Illinois has been busy legislating expanded ease of voting, including expansion of vote by mail, expanded voting hours, and more.)  Valencia is similarly trying to benefit from voters’ lack of knowledge, and their gullibility in believing that voting access is at risk and their association of state Secretaries of State with voting administration.

Now, in fairness, the three remaining candidates, Mike Hastings, David Moore, and Pat Dowell, make no such promises, touting instead their records of public service and business/oversight experience.  But they are, as the Sun Times article states, the also-rans.  And one of Giannoulias or Valencia will undoubtedly win, with Gianoulias’s ability to plaster the airwaves a definite advantage.  Whether the winner then remembers that their job is limited to properly administering the Secretary of State’s office, or uses their platform to grandstand, or even abandons the public service daily grind in ways that cause hardship to Illinoisans just trying to go about their daily life, remains to be seen, but in any case this election will serve as a reminder that Illinois is fundamentally broken.


Illinois state capitol; public domain

Should, would, could the Bears move? The view from Arlington Heights

When we first moved to Arlington Heights, 23 1/2 years ago, we lived a mere three blocks away from Arlington Park, the race track.  In fact, the neighborhood itself was called Arlington Park, and was platted at the same time as the racetrack, which is just a few years shy of its 100th birthday.  (No houses were actually built until after the war, as only speculators bought lots, but that’s your obscure trivia for the day.)  Shortly after we moved in, the racetrack shut down for two years — Wikipedia states, unfootnoted, this was “due to contract disputes,” but the disputes were not with some sort of union but with the state, as management had said they simply couldn’t run the track at a profit, and the state eventually promised that some cash from casino profits would go to enhanced purses — or maybe that happened later; I’m not sure.  In any case, there were a few concerts held there in the meantime, and there was talk of auto racing or other uses for the property before racing restarted.

Now Churchill Downs, the owner, has announced they are selling the track.  There were suggestions initially that this was just a bargaining position, an attempt to get the state to reduce its taxes, and there were likewise hopes that other investors could purchase the track and keep the tradition of racing alive.  Perhaps it is still possible to make a profit, in terms of operating costs, at the racetrack, but, presumably, such a group of investors wouldn’t be able to top bids of those hoping to put the 350 acre property to more lucrative uses.  Is this a matter of the state unjustly making racetracks unprofitable by expanding casino gambling excessively?  Is this, rather, a matter of the state simply relenting on its prior restrictions on gambling?  Or were the state’s taxes on the racetrack indeed unreasonably high and the difference between profitability and loss, in an era when the number of people who visit the racetrack and the sums of money they spend out of enjoyment of that form of entertainment isn’t supplemented by people who simply want to gamble in any fashion available?  I don’t really know, but in any case, there was no discussion of whether regulations needed re-writing, and we seem to be past that point.

Which brings us to the Bears, who have put out a statement that they have made a bid on the racetrack.  Tom Hayes, the mayor of Arlington Heights, thinks it’s dandy.  Mayor Lightfoot, not so much.  Even a year ago, a columnist at Sports Illustrated addressed the question, concluding that the owners, the McCaskeys, didn’t have the deep pockets necessary to fund a new stadium so would stay with the low-cost deal with Chicago, and the consensus, at least of many people who claim to know what they’re talking about, is that the Bears are just using this threat to push the city for more enhancements to the stadium.

But let’s consider the question: what if they are serious?

On the local Facebook pages, some of my fellow Arlington Heights-ians are getting excited about the prospect. They imagine it would be an engine of prosperity, and bring us a magnificent new entertainment showpiece — but really?  8 games a year and a few concerts are not going to provide enough predictable revenue for restaurants, hotels, etc.  It doesn’t make sense.  To be sure, my fellow Arlington Heights-ians have plenty of other fantasies as well, dreaming of a nature preserve or a botanic garden or a museum, or other uses that require that some billionaire be interested in buying the property just to fritter away money rather than to make a profit off of the investment, but none of this is realistic.

At the same time, well, Soldier Field, or at least its shell, has a 100 year old-ish history, but the Bears have only played there since 1971.  This is not some unbreakable bond.  Is an infrequently-used stadium surrounded by a sea of parking lots really the best use for Chicago’s lakefront?  If it isn’t, Arlington Park is probably as practical a place to locate a new stadium as any, with its proximity to Route 53 and the Metra station — so, given the principle that a city has no business getting in the way of a business transaction if it doesn’t do harm to the community, I don’t see what grounds Mayor Hayes and the city would have for blocking the transaction.

But on the third hand — again bearing in mind that the rebuild from 2002 was $600 million funded by the city, rationalized as money to be paid back by out-of-towners through hotel taxes and the like — I am tremendously leery that the mayor and the trustees will be able to resist the lure of fame, the promise of something that puts Arlington Heights on the map, some consultants’ calculation of enormous sums of money to come in the future, and rationalize tax breaks, bonds the city would be on the hook for, tax hikes crafted in a way that’s meant to hit only out-of-towners (but it never really does), and so on. After all, consider what happened to Bridgeview, which thought it would create a moneymaker by building a stadium for the Chicago Fire soccer team at a cost of $100 million; instead, residents’ tax bills had tripled, as of 2012 reporting, with the expectation that the costs would grow even more.

And it’s easy to say, “oh, Arlington Heights would never be so foolish,” and, indeed, Bridgeview’s decision was as much about corruption as foolishness; as the Trib reported, “Once Bridgeview started borrowing the cash, millions flowed to those who contribute to political funds controlled by town leaders.”  Surely Arlington Heights isn’t corrupt!

But are we really so protected from this sort of bad decision-making?  If the Bears are serious, and if they have made an offer to Churchill Downs that beats their alternatives, and if the Bears condition that offer on tax breaks designed in such a way to allow promoters to claim they “pay for themselves,” then Hayes and the trustees may find it hard to resist the temptation of that national name recognition, especially in their pursuit of something “special” rather than a generic mixed-use development or, heaven forfend, a commercial or (light) industrial use instead.

Which means I’d just as soon not take that chance.; Mike Morbeck, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


The crucial reason why Pritzker should say “no” to an elected school board in Chicago

An elected school board, it would appear, is headed for Chicago.  As Capitol Fax reports, the Illinois House voted for the bill on Wednesday and passed it to Pritzker to sign.  This bill would create a 20 seat bill, initially split between mayoral appointees and elected members, with a phase-in to a fully-elected board and a board president elected by the entire city.

Boards members would be elected from individual districts rather than at-large, which the bill’s supporters claim would help ensure that the candidates are people involved in the community rather than outsiders or special-interest-supported people (and in particular counter claims that the school board will be union-dominated in this way), but each board member would represent about 135,000 people, which is a number that’s far higher than that threshold (whatever it is) at which people are elected by being known in their community vs. being elected by gathering the funds for mailers.  For reference, each state House representative represents about 110,000 people, and no one imagines they are elected by “communities” who choose that one person who most closely represents their concerns due to intimate knowledge of them.  The reality is that when the Democrats were building their maps, they openly stated that their view of the election was “party first” — here’s Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, per Capitol Fax:  “The party is what connects with voters, represents the voters and therefore gets elected by the voters. That is the true essence of being an elected official.”  And here, too, the General Assembly would draw those maps, presumably based similarly on, perhaps not partisan geographies, but concentrations of various ethnic minority groups.  How precisely this all plays out — whether there are factions, parties, and slates even in a nominally non-partisan election, and how much power the board president has and which faction has the power to win that election, is yet to be seen, but in any case, the notion of a community sending as its representative a dedicated parent known and cherished by all, is a bit of a fantasy.

But nonetheless, supporters say that it’s a matter of having “an elected representative school board that is accountable to us,” according to Rep. Delia Ramirez of Chicago and a move towards “providing democracy and voice to students and their families,” according to the CTU’s statement.

Is it really?

Does the current school board structure lack democracy?

Not at all.

You’d think the Chicago Public Schools are run by outsiders, or by some sort of dictator, or maybe a billionaire or two has seized control.  But in fact, it is the elected mayor of the city of Chicago who, at present, controls the schools, who has ultimate authority over key decisions such as union contract negotiations and the recent union negotiations over school reopening processes.  And, frankly, that’s as it should be.

Schools, after all, do not exist in a vacuum.  While they set their property tax revenues independently (more or less), the level of property tax levied is part of a larger picture, and schools cannot simply boost their revenues endlessly and expect the city to moderate its taxes to keep the overall tax burden in check.  And at the same time, especially in a city like Chicago, schools and other governmental bodies work together to provide services: should schools be a source of healthcare for students?  What about mental health treatment or referrals?  Referral for other sorts of social services?  Finally, there are aspects of CPS expenses which are funded by the city.  (Don’t ask me for the details.)  Especially when enhanced social services has been such a key part of Lightfoot’s promises to the community, it makes far more sense for these sorts of decisions are made by a single governmental body, rather than setting up clashes between the mayor and the board president.

So, yes, suburbs have elected school boards.  But that’s more of a historical anomaly, due to the fact that school district borders do not generally pair with city borders, and that even unincorporated areas have school districts.  And (yes, speaking from experience) an elected school board does not ensure community representation; all too often, it is the unions which, through their activism and their money, ensure their candidates win their seats.  This is not a model to follow for a city where it is an uphill battle to ensure that poor students have a level of education that enables them to improve their lot in life.

school bus
school bus, public domain,