Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hero Worship and the Kinder Houston Area Survey

No lack of "interesting times" in Houston, Lisa Gray, Chron.com
Friday night, "Interesting Times" will be the centerpiece of a free Discovery Green party celebrating the release of this year's survey results. The mayor will give a short speech, and there will be performances by singers, dancers and bands such as Los Pistoleros de Texas and Diunna Greenleaf & Blue Mercy. Klineberg will take questions, but really, the idea isn't to do serious data analysis out there in the grass. It's to celebrate Houston, and the survey that tells us each year who we are.
Except that the survey doesn't do that. It tells us what we would want to be if there wasn't reality in the way. It's a dream, an investment with no potential risk. According to the KHAS a majority of people want to move inside the Loop from the Suburbs, yet a majority of people are moving out to the suburbs in reality. Why?

Because the cost of real estate inside the Loop is prohibitively high for most. As designed the KHAS is unable to address this. To be fair, this problem is inherent in most "quality of life" surveys you will find. People want a LOT of things, they just don't want to what is often a very high price for them.

Pollution free air?

Sure, but that would mean that a majority of people in Houston would lose their jobs, because completely removing pollutants would mean shutting down the petroleum industry, the paper industry, plastics, tech, all of the things that people like. Things that allow people to earn money, save lives, store food.

The problem with this idea is when policy makers tend to believe that people's dreams are what they want to settle for in reality. This kind of thinking leads to public policy boondoggles such as MetroRail, Houston Pavilions and Downtown hotels funded, in part, by public dollars and languishing at less than 50% occupancy rates.

This is not to say that Professor Klineburg is a bad guy, or that he's trying to lead Houston down the wrong path. I don't believe that at all. What I do believe has happened is that City government officials and our sub-standard news outlets have taken the easy route and placed too much policy-making weight on a simplistic survey that was never meant to be used in that manner.

The KHAS is a snapshot of what people dream to be. Potentially it could be the foundation for additional cost/benefit research to see if the stuff of dreams is fiscally doable, or if there are other, cheaper, alternatives that would work better and smarter.

The Survey should not be ignored, but it should not be treated as Gospel either.

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