Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Article 14

Should Amherst Town Meeting:
1) Urge Congress to repeal the ban on releasing cleared [Guantanamo] detainees into the United States and
2) Welcome such cleared detainees into our community as soon as the ban is lifted
I'd say No, and Yes.

"No" because I'm a big fan in individuals standing up for what they believe in. Not so much for a group of people to get together, vote, and then pretend that just because a majority of the people voted a certain way EVERYBODY agrees. Or, worse, that a whole town agrees.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it's a grand Town Meeting tradition going back hundreds of years to express collective opinions on all sorts of issues. There are lots of grand old traditions that I disagree with ("marriage is for a man and a woman," for example).

"Yes" because if they've done nothing illegal then they should be free. I might not invite them over to dinner, so "welcome" might not be exactly the right word, but there are lots of people who live in Amherst already that I wouldn't invite over to dinner-- religious zealots of all flavors, obnoxious frat boys and 9/11 truthers spring to mind.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'll miss Zone-A-Palooza 2009

Fall Town Meeting starts up in a couple of weeks, and I'll be unable to attend. I couldn't resist looking through the warrant, though.

There's a lot of stuff in there; 23 pages of mostly zoning changes. Lots of reasonable changes to Amherst's crazy zoning laws (including things that seem obvious to me, like saying that the surface area of a sign doesn't include the sticks you use to hold up the sign or that an office shared by two doctors is NOT the same as a "medical center").

I'm kinda bothered that the crazy zoning laws will get a little bit crazier; half of the warrant (12 pages) describes a brand-new zoning district ("Business-Neighborhood"). Do we really need another zoning district? We've got 15 already, including five different business districts. Maybe it's not completely crazy; Northampton's got 15 zoning districts, too; if the B-N zone passes, Amherst will be one better!

If I were at the TM vote on this, I'd probably abstain. I don't have any evidence that adding yet another zoning district would do any harm; maybe giving planners (and Town Meeting) lots of zoning options so they can pick exactly the right set of regulations for any given piece of land makes the Town a better place.

But I doubt it. I think making the zoning laws more complicated will just make lawyers richer and will decrease the number of people who understand what is allowed where. And will make Town Meeting even more annoying, as we all wonder "what's the difference between the B-N and B-VC districts?" for the seventeenth time.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Just because he's got a Nobel Prize...

I've been reading Paul Krugman's blog for a couple of years now, but the more I read it the more skeptical I become of Professor Krugman's objectivity.

For example, on the topic of climate change he says:
We’re not talking about the ethics of sumo wrestling here; we’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games.
The fate of civilization? Really?

That's exactly the type of exaggerated rhetoric that makes my skeptical hackles rise.

Yes, global warming will likely disrupt the lives of millions of people around the world, and will likely cause local extinctions and permanent migrations. But saying that the "fate of civilization" is at stake makes about as much sense as neo-cons saying that terrorism is an "existential threat" to America.

It all makes perfect sense; the Right exaggerates the terrorism threat so we'll spend more money on the military (mission accomplished on that one!), and the left exaggerates the global warming threat so we'll spend more money on their favorite stuff.

Maybe Krugman doesn't even realize he is biased; in all the time I've read his blog he's certainly never even hinted that his political views might cause him to ignore opposing points of view, cherry-pick evidence or use rationalization to justify his beliefs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Call 000! Wait, no, don't call 000!

The US health system is screwed up because the incentives are screwed up. Doctors want to make as much money as possible. Insurance companies want to pay as little as possible. And patients want as much health care as possible.

The Australian health system is screwed up in pretty much the same way-- just replace "insurance companies" with "the government".

I see the evidence every day on TV here. The Queensland government is running public service announcements encouraging people think twice before calling 000 (the emergency services number in Australia):
Why? Because if you give people something for free some of them will abuse it. In college we had free rolls of toilet paper in the communal bathrooms, and people came up with all sorts of creative uses for them (computer monitor stand, toothbrush holder and, of course, halloween decorations). Give them free paramedic service:
Common minor complaints where QAS paramedics are called to attend
• minor cuts and abrasions
• tooth ache
• ear ache
• boils
• ant bite
• can’t sleep
• hungry

Does asking people nicely keep them from calling the paramedics when they're hungry? The ad campaign started in September of 2008, but they've got a funny way of figuring out whether or not it is effective:
The success of the campaign will be measured by Computer Aided Telephone Interviews (CATI) surveys conducted both pre and post campaign by Roy Morgan Research. The evaluation aims to measure shifts in attitudes towards calling Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance for non-serious issues.
Gee, wouldn't it be cheaper and more effective to just see if people call less? They're already measuring the number of non-urgent incidents per 1,000 population. Their target for June 2008-June 2009 was 51-53, which they missed-- actual was 56.

I bet the number next year is higher.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Defining away recession

Back in December, I predicted that the recession would last all year.

I should have thought more deeply about what economists mean when they talk about "recession." The standard definition is "two down quarters of GDP."

I didn't think about the definition of GDP. According to wikipedia:
The most common approach to measuring and quantifying GDP is the expenditure method:
GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports − imports)
Raise government spending, you raise GDP (by definition, assuming you're not crowding out private investment), and voila-- the recession is over! It's simple!

The government has been spending lots and lots of money, and yet unemployment continues to rise. I think it's time to either redefine "recession" or come up with a more relevant measure of how the economy's doing; the current definition make it way too easy for governments to game the numbers and declare "Mission Accomplished, Economy Back On Track."