How the status quo bias warps our politics

How much should the city of Austin be spending on policing, based on its size and crime rate? How many police officers should it employ? How many patrol officers should be out at any given time?

If you stopped 100 people on the street and asked them those questions without providing any further context, would any of them feel any degree of confidence providing an answer? 

Consider some other public policy questions: 

  • What should be the starting salary of an Austin public school teacher? 
  • What is the appropriate sentence for someone convicted of armed robbery? 
  • How many swimming pools per capita should the city of Austin have? 
  • How much should the city spend per year to maintain its parks?
  • What’s the minimum level of math knowledge that a high school graduate should have?  
  • What percentage of city land should be zoned for single-family homes? 
  • How much should the owner of a $400,000 home expect to pay a year in property taxes?

In almost every case, few people will have strong answers to these questions if they’re presented in the abstract. Many will, however, have strong opinions in response to the following:

  • Austin City Council has slashed its police budget by $20 million. 
  • The school district board has proposed cutting teacher salaries by 10%. 
  • The state has proposed reducing sentences for those convicted of violent crimes, such as armed robbery. 
  • The city is shutting down a quarter of its pools, including your neighborhood pool
  •  The city is rezoning single-family properties on the edge of your neighborhood to allow as many as eight units per lot
  • AISD will no longer require students to take trigonometry to graduate 
  • Your taxes are going up by $700 this year 

(TO BE CLEAR: Except for the police budget issue, all of the above are imaginary scenarios. I have no idea what the AISD math requirements are, for instance)

In public policy debates, there’s always a bias for the status quo. There’s always an assumption that things are the way they are for a reason.

If a property has been zoned single-family for 40 years, then many elected officials in Austin believe that it should not be rezoned unless the developer requesting the change offers a basket of “community benefits” in return. It rarely occurs to anyone that there was never any good reason for the property to be zoned single-family to begin with. Austin is less densely populated than Dallas, Houston and San Antonio and yet efforts to modestly densify the city are portrayed as an attempt to turn Austin into New York –– or Calcutta

If the city of Austin spends more per capita on police than every other major Texas city and has a far lower crime rate, cutting the police budget still prompts outrage. Those driving the outrage –– notably Greg Abbott –– don’t have any ideas about how much Austin should spend on policing. They just know that the city is cutting, and that’s bad. They’re proposing to punish the city for cutting, but they’re not proposing to punish Houston, Dallas and San Antonio for spending less than Austin has for all of these years. 

My favorite example of the status quo bias is in transportation policy. For instance, autonomous cars are probably already safer than driver-operated cars but they will undoubtedly have to be much, much, much safer before society will fully embrace them. The tens of thousands who die each year in driver-operated cars are taken for granted. Any casualty attributed to driverless cars, however, will likely prompt widespread panic about their safety.  

Similarly, those who oppose major investments in alternatives to cars will invariably point to the fact that the great majority of Austinites rely on cars. Of course, they do so simply because that’s the only decent option we’ve provided them. Thus, an $8 billion expansion of I-35 is viewed as logical and an $8 billion investment in public transit is viewed as radical.

This is just a small sample of what you get EVERY weekday if you subscribe to the Austin Politics Newsletter

One thought on “How the status quo bias warps our politics

  1. Jack,

    I re-read this item concerning the cuts made by the City in the numbers of officers as well as moving some functions out of policing. As we discussed, my concern is that the most important function of policing is to be quickly available when needs occur. That is the core of community policing. These cuts reduce community policing.

    Michael Lauderdale

Leave a Reply