Friday, May 21, 2010

Progressive Doom and Gloom

Last week the Pioneer Valley chapter of MassBike celebrated bike-to-work week by showing off a bunch of cool bikes and screening some cool videos at the Jones library.

One of the videos they showed was a compelling little video by Annie Leonard called The Story of Stuff.

"The Story of Stuff Project’s mission is to build a strong, diverse, decentralized, cross-sector movement to transform systems of production and consumption to serve ecological sustainability and social wellbeing."

I agree with their mission; who wouldn't? I even agree with their premise-- that parts of our current system are broken; we've got plenty of laws and regulations that harm the environment and create social ills-- and I agree with their conclusion: that we're overly obsessed with "stuff."

But... the video gives me the skeptical willies. I've seen enough propaganda videos to have a pretty good sense of when I'm being manipulated with cherry-picked facts and carefully worded half-truths that reinforce my pre-existing beliefs and fears.

For example, in the first minute of the video, the narrator claims that we're running out of resources-- "the truth is it’s a system in crisis. And the reason it is in crisis is that it is a linear system and we live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely."

Ummm, no, that's a straw-man argument. We're getting better and better at creating better and better things with the stuff we have. We're not going to run out of trees or atoms or electrons or ideas any time soon.

The capitalist materials production system adapts. It is not linear; price signals move up and down the production chain, creating feedback loops that make the whole thing wonderfully efficient at giving people what they want.

I'm with Russ Roberts; I think a lot of things people spend money on are dumb and wasteful and useless. I don't spend money on beanie-baby collectibles or fine art or fancy cars, and I think we'd all be better off if people spent less money on sports memorabilia and donated more to worthwhile charities.

But claiming that our consumerist culture is headed for a crisis because we're subjected to too much advertising or because we're not recycling more is wrong.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Electronic voting Luddite

After Town Meeting ended Monday night I stayed for a demonstration of an electronic voting system. The idea is that maybe investing some money in high-tech gadgets will make Amherst Town Meeting faster and will save the Town Clerk the work of recording the paper ballots we use for Tally votes.

That's a good idea, and I'm glad electronic voting is being considered. But like a lot of good ideas, I think it might be destroyed on the rocks of reality.

First, it took something like 20 minutes to get the electronic voting software up and running. Not a good start!

Once running, I thought the system was pretty darn spiffy, and easy to use. But a few people had trouble, and managed to be confused even after what I thought was a clear explanation of how the voting works (press the button to vote: your name on the screen changes color. Press an invalid button: your name turns yellow, otherwise it cycles
through a rainbow of colors every time you push.)

Once people understood it, it is extremely fast; we completed a test vote in 30 seconds.

If the system was going to be used for dozens of votes per year, then the costs might justify the benefits. The first one or two TM sessions would likely be chaotic as people are trained or re-trained on how to use the clickers, but after using them a few times I think people would figure them out.

If it's used to just to replace Tally/Standing votes, then I think it's a bad idea. We're more likely to spend more time fussing with the technology ("Point of Order: my battery is dead") and training new Town Meeting members how to use the clickers than the time saved. If I recall correctly, we had just one Tally vote and three (or was it two?) standing votes at the past Town Meeting.

And the up-front cost isn't trivial ($12,000-$22,000).

I was going to write about possible security concerns, but assuming all vote results would become public (just as tally votes are made public), I don't think that would be a problem. What WOULD be a problem is people accidentally pressing the wrong buttons on their clickers, and then suspecting that the system got hacked (or that there's a bug) when they see the vote results and their vote is the opposite of what they intended. With no paper trail, it will be impossible to know what happened, and it will take just a couple of incidents for people to lose confidence in the system.

So I guess I'm an electronic voting Luddite. Keep the paper ballots, and instead of spending more time on electronic voting spend some time figuring out how to make the sound system at Town Meeting better.

Real-time captioning would be wonderful, too-- that'd give us a transcript of the meeting, accessibility for the hearing impaired, and closed captioning for the ACTV broadcast...

Monday, May 17, 2010

To Solar or Not to Solar...

Last week Town Meeting approved giving Community Preservation Act money to Habitat for Humanity to help build affordable housing. $20,000 or so will go towards solar panels on the roof.

I've been tempted to install solar panels (either photovoltaic or hot-water or maybe both) on our roof, so the fact that Habitat decided it's a good idea caught my interest.

It is definitely a good idea for them; it is a very clever way of pre-paying the electricity bill for the lower-income homeowners. Pay $20,000 now in capital costs (which, because solar panels are "stuff" and not a "service", are eligible for all sorts of subsidies) and save the homeowners $X-thousand dollars in electricity bills over the next Y years. Even if it doesn't make economic sense (if the net-present-value of X is less than $20,000) it fits their charitable mission to make home ownership more affordable for lower-income folks and it gives their donors the warm fuzzies to know their money is building green houses.

I don't know if it is a good idea for me. Should I spend a bunch of money and install solar panels on my roof now? Lots of people who will tell me "Yes! Absolutely!" ... but they're either well-meaning-but-possibly-misguided environmentalists or companies that want me to pay them a bunch of money to do the installation. Maybe I'd pay $20,000 to a company who will go out of business in a year or three, and maybe the system I buy is obsolete or breaks in a year or three. Maybe I won't save as much in electricity costs as they claim because most of our electricity usage is at night.

Maybe I'll end up paying an extra couple thousand bucks in a few years when we need to reshingle our roof because the roofers have to disassemble and then reassemble the solar panels.

If solar power is a slam-dunk financial win, they why isn't every Wal-Mart in America covered in solar panels?

I'm a technological optimist, and I think that solar panels will be a slam-dunk financial win pretty soon. They probably already are in sunny places like Arizona. The fact that companies are springing up with "residential solar lease" plans is a really good sign, and if I can find a residential solar lease company that operates in Western Massachusetts, offers leases of less than 10 years, and can point me to some satisfied customers I'd definitely sign up.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Pension Problem

So we've promised our public employees pension packages that were supposed to be funded with profits from AAA-rated, regulator-approved investments.


The Town of Amherst (and Hampshire County and just about every other public pension system around the country and the world) has a big, looming pension problem. Last week at Town Meeting we were urged by the chair of the Select Board to support a bill that gives towns ten more years to fully fund their pension plans (from 2030 to 2040).

I'm a "pull the band-aid off fast" kind of guy, so my first reaction is that's a bad idea. If we've promised benefits that we can't afford, well, tough cookies! A promise is a promise, and we should cut spending now to ensure we can fulfill our long-term obligations.

But the very fact that this is a widespread problem makes me wonder what is really going to happen. It is great to be fiscally responsible, until you're forced to take your hard-earned savings and give it to your irresponsible neighbors.

So I wonder: maybe Massachusetts should push off the day of reckoning until 2040. If I had to bet, I'd wager that the next major financial crisis and Federal bailout will involve public employee pensions, and I'd wager that the more irresponsible states (California, I'm looking at you) will benefit more.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bravo Mr. Shaffer!

The most controversial issue on this season's Town Meeting warrant is sure to be the "Patterson property."

Mr. Shaffer, Amherst's Town Manager, wants to spend up to $120,000 to jump-start the development of some land in North Amherst. This is controversial for at least two reasons: first, there's a minority of town meeting that is against any development anywhere in Amherst. And then there's another group of people who just don't like the idea of giving tax money to a private landowner to help them sell and develop their property.

I might be in that second group-- I haven't entirely made up my mind. I'm generally skeptical of top-down, "if we build it the tax revenue will come" plans, but I do think that a big research park on this property would be good for the Town (it is a good location, near the University and highway 116, and would diversify the Town's tax base, which I suspect we'll find out is important if the State budget gets worse and Beacon Hill decides to drastically cut the UMass budget).

But even though I might vote against the warrant article, I'm glad the Town Manager proposed it. He's consistently shown an entrepreneurial streak that I think is great for the Town:
  • He got lambasted a few years back for questioning the Boy Scout's use of Kendrick Park to sell Christmas trees. Messing with a cherished Amherst tradition was probably a bad idea, but I think it is OK to experiment and fail, and it is OK to ask hard questions like "what's the policy for private use of public spaces?"
  • Speaking of Kendrick Park, he's had the department of public works create an ice skating rink by flooding a flat spot in the winter. That's after a failed experiment to create a rink on the Town Common (turns out the Common isn't flat enough for a rink).
  • He's actively working on developing or redeveloping places in Town where it makes sense, like the former "fraternity row" on North Pleasant Street.
  • And, best of all, he's implemented rewards for Town employees who come up with ideas that generate revenue, save the Town money, or improve services.
So: Bravo, Mr. Shaffer! Keep experimenting; I think you've done a great job trying out low-cost ways of making Amherst a better place.

UPDATE 12 May: I'm wrong again! The Patterson property isn't the most controversial issue, because the Town Manager (wisely, I think) saw the confusion and controversy and decided to withdraw it from consideration this time around.