Don't Ask

The more thoroughly you measure the depths of any problem, the bigger that problem will appear to be.
July 2007
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is

We really like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. We drop it into conversation every few months and people think we know something about physics. Here's the idea: When scientists try to measure the movement of certain subatomic particles, the very act of observing them actually alters the outcome of the measurement. To be honest, we have only the faintest grasp of why this is true.

One of the reasons we like this idea so much is because it's so similar to a phenomenon that we understand far better and that applies to state and local government. It's the Barrett-Greene Uncertainty Principle: "The more thoroughly you attempt to measure the depths of any problem, the bigger the problem will appear to be."

Consider autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that the rate of parent-reported autism in the United States is now up to about one in 175. No surprise, people are calling autism an epidemic.

Is autism a problem? No question, and our hearts go out to the families who deal with it day after day. But is it an epidemic? Far more likely, a heightened understanding of autism has led to a great many children being identified as autistic who, in the past, would have been diagnosed as having something else. "We've broadened the diagnostic categories," explains Laura Schreibman, director of the Autism Research Program at the University of California, San Diego. An article in the April issue of the well-respected journal Pediatrics echoed this thought: "Higher autism prevalence was significantly associated with corresponding declines in the prevalence of mental retardation and learning disabilities."

Isn't it curious that while the general public has heard about the autism epidemic, much less attention has been paid to the declines in mental retardation and learning disabilities? Not really. To paraphrase Sir Thomas Gresham, "bad news drives out good." In our less philanthropic moments, we've called this the "conspiracy to depress us all."

Other examples abound. In mid-May, a headline in the New York Times stated that the "FBI's Focus on Public Corruption Includes 2,000 Investigations." It's certainly not a bad thing that the FBI has, as the Times reports, "yielded an unexpectedly rich array of cases."

But are we living in an era when our elected and appointed leaders are more corrupt than in the past? Probably not. The FBI has found an ever growing number of cases of public malfeasance by cutting the resources that would have gone to finding other types of criminals-- such as small localized drug rings and nonviolent bank robberies. But if we can make a prediction, it's only a matter of time before we hear about a "corruption epidemic."

This phenomenon has an unfortunate side effect. If a state or a city knows that there's a potentially large problem festering, it may be loath to find out more. Once the statistics exist and people start churning out studies, the problem appears to be a new one and thus attributable to the current administration. Men and women who make their living by winning at the ballot box may shy from turning into the messenger who gets shot.

No wonder many states and cities have been hesitant to do much by way of measuring the cost of post-retirement health care benefits. These bills would wreck the balance sheet. Now that the Governmental Accounting Standards Board has mandated the disclosure of these statistics next year, it will appear that suddenly governments have incurred unfathomable obligations. But they've been there all along. The only change is in identifying the problem.

Similarly, many states and cities have been disinclined to put hard- dollar figures on the cost of their deferred road and bridge maintenance. In early 2005, though, Pennsylvania acknowledged $2.3 billion in needed highway maintenance and $8 billion for bridge rehabilitation and replacement. The state deserves a great deal of credit for tracking these figures, and the stats are helping it make progress on repairs. But on paper, Pennsylvania looks like a broken- down wreck while neighboring New York--well, it doesn't look like anything much. At the time Pennsylvania was admitting to these huge shortcomings, New York had no idea what its deferred maintenance amounted to.

Ignorance may not be bliss. But it sure as heck can look a lot like it.