A conversation with Dean Misczynski

Dean Misczynski, the longtime Director of the California Research Bureau, retired at the end of August. In this conversation with CSL Connection, Misczynski reflects on 15 years of researching both big issues, and obscure questions, for California’s government officials.

CSL Connection: You helped develop many important policy initiatives while at the Senate Office of Research for 9 years before launching the California Research Bureau in 1991. What drew you into policy research? What has kept you doing it for almost 30 years?

Misczynski: A chronological answer is that I happened to get a job working for the Assembly Agriculture Committee after my first year at Stanford. By the end of the summer, I was addicted to the strange chemistry of intelligence, ideology, perception, ignorance, arrogance, grace, venality, and enormous power that happens in the Capitol. I continued to work for the Assembly every summer through graduate school.

A semi-Freudian answer eludes me. Why do some people care about the public realm, while others despise it? I don’t know. Maybe my case had to do with being raised by my Polish Catholic mother, and exposed to the vast moralistic, but also idealistic authoritarian institution of the church before anybody knew what Christian Right meant. I still like wimples.

Senate Resolution for 
Dean Misczynski

Whereas Dean Misczynski is retiring from state service after 40 years of making significant, creative and literate contributions to public policy in California; and

Whereas Dean began as an Assembly intern in 1965 under Agriculture Committee Chairman John Williamson, contributing to the development of the California Land Conservation Act, and continued there throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies at Stanford,

Whereas Dean co-authored Windfalls to Wipeouts (1978) with his mentor UCLA law Professor Donald G. Hagman, which analyzes the economic underpinnings of land development and is still used in major universities and state policy discussions, and

Whereas Dean served as Deputy Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and was an author of the Urban Strategy for California, which emphasizes limiting sprawl, infill and sustainable growth, an innovative and forward-looking strategy, and authored Paying the Piper: New Ways to Pay for Public Infrastructure in California after the enactment of Proposition 13, and

Whereas Dean contributed to the development of many important policy initiatives while at the Senate Office of Research from 1982 to 1991, using incisive analysis and a clever turn of phrase, notably Financing Infrastructure in Times of Fiscal Fundamentalism, and drafted the Mello-Roos Community Facilities Act, and

Whereas Dean is the founding Director of the California Research Bureau (CRB) in 1991, and under his leadership the CRB has become a trusted and respected source of public policy research and information, publishing over 250 widely consulted public reports on state policy issues, and

Whereas Dean has developed innovative approaches to facilitating state policymakers’ access to timely and useful research, including Studies in the News, which has been published regularly since September 1992, and has over 25,000 items in its database, and

Whereas Dean received the Government Innovation Award from the Sacramento Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration for establishing partnerships with many research organizations to offer lunchtime public policy seminars to state policymakers, and

Whereas Dean has mentored and trained a new generation of policy analysts to think creatively and question constructively,

Resolved that the Senate of the State of California thanks Dean Misczynski for his service to the State and wishes him well in all of his future endeavors. 

CSL Connection: The California Research Bureau published over 250 reports while you were at the helm. Can you describe one or two that you think led to changes that significantly helped the people of California?

Misczynski: My favorite is a series of reports that explored what happens to the kids when a single mother is arrested. The first report surveyed police departments around the state to see what their policies were in these situations. The startling, almost unanimous answer was that they had no policy. The research led to a bill allowing arrested single mothers a second phone call, to arrange for their kids. It took two years to get that passed and signed. Another bill directed the statewide police training commission to produce training videos to teach cops to look for signs of kids, to ask if they were at school, to make the arrest (if it could be done safely) out of sight of the kids, to explain to the kids what was going on, to avoid hauling the kids off in the back of the police cruiser, and lots of other things. CRB staff had starring roles in these videos, which are being used in police stations all around the state. They will probably be used all around the country. There is at least a chance that these changes may make a big difference to some kids, and may even save a life or two.

CSL Connection: We have to ask – what was the kookiest research request you’ve ever received?

Misczynski: Probably the request to examine the causes and impacts of the failure of the Velcro crop in the Central Valley in 1993. See http://home.inreach.com/kumbach/velcro.html

CSL Connection: As Director, your name wasn’t on many of the reports. Do you prefer editing over writing? Or is there a writer lurking beneath the executive exterior?

Misczynski: I like writing. I hate editing. But it’s very hard to write when people come into your office or send you an email demanding an immediate reply every eight minutes. I gradually acceded to the idea that my job wasn’t to write but to do all the other stuff that needed doing.

So I am a frustrated writer. I am hopeful that I will find an arrangement to allow me to write, without many other demands, in my “retirement.”

CSL Connection: Oh – what kind of writing do you plan on doing?

Misczynski: I’m no novelist – that’s way too personal for an anti-introspective guy. My attempts at poetry were confined to my maximal testosterone years, long past. I’m afraid my writing interests are about public policy. I have in mind writing about the roots of our total incapacity to improve transportation in California, and about the connection between spatial demographic changes over the last 30 years and land use patterns here.

CSL Connection: Many young people and college students feel pressure to earn degrees that will help them get jobs. What do you think about that? Is learning how to be a researcher tied to a specific field of study or to the broader liberal arts curriculum?

Misczynski: Both. People with an intense technical background but no sense of historical or cultural context are dangerous as researchers. Liberal arts types who are intimidated by mathematics, regressions, and logical rigor are cut off from too many kinds of useful information.

One of the most imaginative researchers we ever had had an advanced degree in interplanetary atmospherics. That means Martian air. His approaches to automotive air pollution were wonderfully creative, and almost certainly effective, if we can ever convince enough people to take them seriously.

California Research Bureau’s recent foreclosure report and Sept. 18 conference show how CRB stays at forefront of issues affecting Californians most

The Chair of the Assembly Banking Committee requested that the California Research Bureau (CRB) prepare estimates of the number of housing foreclosures in California. CRB author Rani Isaac estimates the number of housing foreclosures in the state during the current cycle (2006–2009) could be as high as 450,000, affecting as many as 8 percent of all homes. These estimates are updates of the CRB report, Foreclosures in California: The current housing crisis is more severe than previous corrections, which is available at http://www.library.ca.gov/crb/08/08-006.pdf 

The report presents a range of estimates for metropolitan counties. As the credit and housing crisis plays out, CRB plans to update its research and publish estimates again in the winter. In the meantime, for the second update, CRB arranged a free conference on the housing crisis and the hurdles to homeownership in California. On September 18, 2008 at the California State Library, researchers from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) addressed the scale of the crisis compared to past cycles, at the national and state levels and in the Central Valley, while panelists from UC Santa Barbara and CRB provided forecasts of home prices and foreclosures.

The afternoon session at the September 18 conference focused on removing barriers to home ownership. Participants learned what new federal and state laws have accomplished and what more might be done to resolve the current crisis. Cynthia Kroll from the UC Berkeley Fisher Center described the federal response. Alan Mallach flew in from the East to discuss a Brookings Institution paper he authored that identifies ten steps for states to take to address the mortgage crisis. The eight presentations were in such demand, that CRB is making them available on its website at http://www.library.ca.gov/crb/index.html.




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