Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Most Absurd Belief

The economists at George Mason University take people to lunch and then ask them "What's your most absurd belief?"

What a great question! I think my most absurd economics-related belief is that we'd have just as much technology and entertainment if we got rid of patents and limited copyright to 20 years after publication...

Socialism, as a philosophy, appeals to me. Why couldn't we all just do our best, share with each other, and all be one big happy family?

Unfortunately, Socialism, as an economic or political system, just doesn't work.

But I've got this little nagging voice in my head that says that maybe the digital economy is different. The marginal cost of reproducing a song or software program or digital textbook is, approximately, zero. The laptop computer I'm writing this on contains my entire music collection; it would take me ten days, nine hours and forty-five minutes to listen to it all.

And I just realized that I'm sharing it with everybody else here at Cushman Market. Why not share? It would be extra work for me to remember to turn off sharing every time I disconnected my laptop from my home network; that's a waste of my time. It's more economical for me to be a digital socialist.

Before we know it, our laptops and iPods will be able to store every song and book ever published. We could make all of that information and entertainment available to everybody in the world; wouldn't that make the world a much better place?

But that's absurd. If artists can't sell their songs, or authors can't sell their books, then artists and authors will stop creating new stuff!

I dunno. I have no idea how, but I think it would actually all work out OK if we got rid of almost all of our current intellectual property protections. Maybe we'd have fewer artists and authors, but maybe that would turn out to be just fine. Maybe if people spent less time working to earn money to buy music and books they'd create more music and books themselves.

Uh-huh. And maybe we could get together to form sustainable local organizations of like-minded people and form an ideal society that's in complete harmony with nature.

(stupid hippies....)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

New (for me) way of blowing off telemarketers...

May I speak to Mr. or Mrs. Anderson?
This is Mr. An DREE sen.
Oh, sorry about that. My name is blah, I'm calling on behalf of Comcast with a valuable offer for you, but first I need to ask you if it's all right if this call is recorded for quality assurance purposes.
Recorded? No.
May I ask why?
I just don't like being recorded.
At this point the telemarketer person (who sounds like a very pleasant young woman) seems a little stunned. I hate telemarketing calls, but I try not to be rude to telemarketers-- they're just ordinary people trying to make some money. So I tell her that I'd be happy to read about the wonderful offer if they sent me information in the mail, she directs me to the Comcast web site, and our little conversation ends.

I'm disappointed I couldn't think of a more creative reason for not wanting to be recorded. It would've been more fun to say something like:
I'm a pastafarian, and some of us believe that our souls are carried in our voices, and I don't want part of my soul imprisoned forever.
Or maybe:
Greedy corporations steal my labor, I'm not about to let them steal my words, too!
Maybe I'll go browse some tinfoil-wearing-hat websites later to get some more ideas...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Energy Efficient Construction

LEED gas station in Los Angeles.
Image by Omar Omar" on Flickr

Town Meeting voted to ask the Planning Board to create a law requiring that new buildings be "green" (energy-efficient and environmentally friendly and such).

Oh, except for single-family homes.

I think a reasonable argument can be made that there's a "market failure" when it comes to building energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly buildings. Most of us aren't well-equipped to figure out if it's worth spending $20,000 more up-front for a super-energy-efficient home that will save us $1,000 a year in energy costs, even if you are the type of person who drives a Prius. How can we possibly know? Maybe Global Warming will mean milder winters in 10 years, so we'll be spending less on heating. Or maybe oil prices will be double what they are today, so we'll be spending a lot more.

And I bet nobody really knows if it's better for the environment to buy a house made of cheap, commercially produced pine, sheetrock and fiberglass insulation or one made from engineered plywood created from bamboo, all-natural vermiculite and clay, and organic hemp fiber. (Note: I mostly made that up, I have no idea what is being touted as the most environmentally friendly building material these days...)

But if you believe that there's a market failure here, then it's really odd that single-family homes are exempt, for two reasons:

1. Single-family homes are the most energy inefficient form of housing. Multi-family dwellings tend to use less energy per person.

2. People buying single-family homes are most likely to be irrational when it comes to considering long-term costs. Businesses and landlords have to be at least reasonably good at weighing short-term costs against long-term benefits, or they'll go out of business.

It makes sense to ask that government buildings be energy efficient and environmentally friendly; the incentives for government-funded construction projects are to build as cheaply as possible-- after all, the laws require that the construction be done by the lowest bidder, and the long-term costs will probably be paid by some other administration (or the tenants if it's a public housing project).

But I think it would be really dumb to put more regulations on businesses and multi-family dwellings in Amherst, and not on single-family houses. I'm quite certain that turning Amherst into a bedroom community with nothing but open space and single-family houses, where everybody has to drive everywhere because businesses decided to relocate to nearby towns that don't make them jump through environmental certification hoops, would not be good for either the Town or the environment.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Can we help the truly poor?

Town Meeting finished early last night, so I had time to finish reading Paul Collier's book The Bottom Billion. I like reading books by people who really know a subject. Professor Collier is an expert on African economies who used to work for the World Bank, not a starry-eyed do-gooder who thinks if we all just tried harder (and donated more money) we could solve all the world's problems. And he's not a hard-hearted Social Darwinist who thinks foreign aid spending is always counterproductive.

He makes a lot of concrete recommendations that, unfortunately, are unlikely to be followed. For example, he points out that most aid organizations are helping out developing countries that probably don't need the help. Most of the world is doing just fine, thank you very much, with economies and standards of living rising.

They should be working on helping the bottom billion-- the countries that are going nowhere (or going backwards). But aid organizations aren't likely to do that, because:
  • They are likely to fail
  • It's dangerous and difficult to work in those countries
  • Some of the policies that will help (free trade, military intervention in certain cases) are politically unpopular
The good news is that our government might be listening; the African Growth and Opportunity Act (passed by Congress and signed into law in 2000) is an example of the type of policy that should help the Bottom Billion. More good news: part of the solution is to make systems more transparent; it's hard to maintain high levels of government corruption in countries that have freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Despite the best efforts of despotic governments around the world, I believe technological innovation will help drive development and freedom, too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Senate Lunch Ladies

It seems Amherst is not alone in struggling with outsourcing food service. The Senate recently voted to privatize it's cafeteria, but not before much hand-wringing:
"I know what happens with privatization. Workers lose jobs, and the next generation of workers make less in wages. These are some of the lowest-paid workers in our country, and I want to help them," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch labor union ally, said recently.
The House privatized years ago, and has better food at better prices (huh, imagine that...).

(Hat tip to the Marginal Revolution blog).

Thursday, June 05, 2008

One step backwards, Three forward...

Spring Town Meeting is done, except for one little article about spending a hundred or two thousand dollars to buy a view of a Big Old House on Main Street. I'll probably vote against it, because I'm a cheapskate.

We rescinded a Town Bylaw! It turns out the Health Department has the authority (granted by the State) to regulate biotechnology stuff, so we don't need a town law that tries (badly) to do the same thing. One or two Town Meeting members (wearing belts and suspenders, if I recall) argued that we should keep the bylaw anyway, but the vote wasn't close to being close.

Jonathan O'Keeffe pointed out that we also passed three new bylaws, so, overall, we've got two more bylaws than when we started. D'oh!

And I voted for all three. Double-d'oh!

Two of the three (the nuisance house and false alarm bylaws) are meant to punish people for doing stupid things that cost the rest of us money. I'm a big believer in being responsible for your actions, and I trust that our Police department will be reasonably fair when deciding whether or not to apply these new laws, so I voted "Aye."

Not without some reservations, though. I'd rather we had a single bylaw that said something like "if you do something stupid that costs the Town money, then you gotta pay" (in proper legalese, of course). The tricky bit would be figuring out who decides what's "stupid" and what's an accident or honest mistake, but I think that's the kind of thing juries are meant to decide.

Image by
"nal from miami"

The third new bylaw is the "Right to Farm" bylaw. I voted for it because it strengthens property rights, basically saying that if you build your house next to a farm (or next to a big piece of land that might one day become a farm), you should expect to smell cow poop, hear tractors, and maybe even be woken up at 5AM every morning when the rooster crows.

Maybe it will make people more tolerant and less whiny. A boy can dream...