Wednesday, February 24, 2010

AGW versus GW: why does it matter?

Imagine for a minute that global warming isn't anthropogenic-- that it is happening, but it is happening because of... oh, I dunno, sunspots or an overabundance of squirrels or some other natural cause.

Would we just resign ourselves to dealing with the consequences, or would we try to do something about it?

Would environmentalists be lobbying for geoengineering solutions to save polar bear habitat or would they be protesting proposed geoengineering, waving signs saying "Don't Fool With Mother Nature!"

I bet they'd be waving signs.

If the consequences are the same, why does the cause matter? Would the argument be "we didn't cause the problem, so we don't have to fix it?" Or would it be the Appeal to Nature fallacy ("if it is natural, it must be good; if unnatural, bad")?

There are lots of problems we don't cause that we try hard to fix or prevent (diseases, natural disasters), so I don't think that would be the argument. I think instead there would be a double Appeal to Nature-- if global warming was natural, then it must be good. And geoengineering is unnatural, so it must be bad. So, the argument would go, we should do nothing.

I don't believe in the Appeal to Nature, and I don't think it matters whether or not global warming is "natural" or man-made. I think we should weigh the costs and benefits of global warming and compare them to the costs and benefits of possible solutions to figure out what, if anything, we should do.

And I expect that'll happen when Whole Foods decides to get rid of its Natural and Homeopathic Remedies aisle. I predict we'll have genetically engineered flying pigs before then (on second thought, that's dumb; they'll create chickens that taste like bacon).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Three cool tools

1. Localocracy. Email lists, blogs and online bulletin boards are all used to talk about local politics, but they're all less-than-ideal forums for ideas. Discussions easily wander off topic, anonymous people can make nasty personal attacks and the people with the most time on their hands (or who are the most willing to spend hours reading blogs or mailing lists) can overwhelm the discussion.

Localocracy is an Amherst start-up that's trying a new approach for discussing local issues, and they're using Spring Town Meeting as a "beta test." Any registered Amherst voter can sign up for free and give their opinions, and anybody at all can go and see what people in Amherst are talking about.

2. Dropbox. Create a folder that's shared on all of your Windows, Mac and Linux machines (and on your iPhone, if you like). Michele tried a couple of solutions before settling on Dropbox-- she'd email herself files before heading home (WAY to easy to get confused about which was the latest version) and she tried carrying an external USB disk back and forth to work (inconvenient and losing or dropping the disk or thumb drive would be a minor disaster). Dropbox has been working perfectly for her; it's easy and the first two gigabytes of storage is free.

3. LastPass. One of my technical interests is computer security, but until recently I was pretty lazy about passwords. I used one "low security" password (easily guessed, something like "password123") for all the websites where I didn't really care about security. I'm not terribly worried about somebody guessing my password and adding "The Bad Girls Club" to my viewing queue. And I used a "high security," not-easily-guessed password for everything else (banking sites, online stock broker, etc).

OpenID is starting to solve the "every website in the world wants me to create a new username and password" problem, but until OpenID is supported everywhere I'll be using LastPass. It lets me have a different, super-secure password for every website I visit, all protected by one super-secure password that is all I need to remember. It works on Mac, Windows and Linux (and on your iPhone or BlackBerry if you upgrade to the $1-per-month Premium version), and even though all my passwords are stored encrypted on the Lastpass servers, my master password never leaves my computers so it's as secure as possible.

They even make it easy to export all of your passwords so I can back them up into my safe-deposit box (or in an encrypted folder on my hard drive) just in case LastPass ever goes out of business. Nice!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Why not a billion dollar override?

In 1980 Proposition 2½ was passed by Massachusetts voters.

But Amherst voters were against it by a 3 to 1 margin.

I wonder what would have happened if the 1981 Select Board had asked those same voters to approve a billion dollar override. That would have been an effective way of vetoing Prop 2½. A billion dollar override would mean the Select Board and Town Meeting would have to come up with budgets the way they did before-- decide how much money is needed, how much people were willing to pay, and then convincing a majority of Town Meeting that the budgets are justified.

For true public goods, that's actually a reasonably good process. But Prop 2½ screwed it up.

I wrote about one study that showed some unintended consequences a couple of years ago:
"It takes time for various levels of government to institute and implement changes, but following a brief lag, California and Massachusetts began to make up those lost revenues, largely through rapidly growing non-tax fees and charges. During a period of "tax revolt," these revenue sources were both less constrained and less visible to voters than taxes."
From: A tale of two tax jurisdictions: the surprising effects of California's Proposition 13 and Massachusetts' Proposition 2 ½ - property tax
I think another unintended consequence was the centralization of funding at the State level. Our schools and Towns are increasingly reliant on money from the State instead of local property taxes, and I think Amherst is worse off because of it.

Maybe that's OK-- maybe Holyoke is much better off because more education funding is funneling through the State education bureaucracy and being spread around from rich places like Amherst to poorer places in the state. Ummm, no, after 30 years: Holyoke, Springfield, ranked as 2 lowest performing school districts in Mass. (September 14, 2009)

So: why not a billion dollar override? I'm only half serious, although the more I think about it the more the idea appeals to me. Either we trust the Select Board, School Committee, and Town Meeting to be fiscally responsible... or we're screwed, because even with Prop 2½ they could decide to take all our property taxes and build a monorail to Belchertown.

Monday, February 01, 2010

What part of "shall make no law" don't you understand?

I don't understand the liberal angst over the recent Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend money on political campaigns.

I thought it particularly ironic when my local newspaper ran an editorial saying that allowing corporations to endorse or malign political candidates will skew the democratic process.

From the Massachusetts Corporations Division database:
The exact name of the Domestic Profit Corporation: DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE, INC.
Entity Type: Domestic Profit Corporation
The Gazette routinely endorses candidates and takes political positions. I guess it is OK if you're the right KIND of corporation?

Maybe we could all vote to decide what KIND of corporation should be allowed to spend money to promote their views. I can see it now: Amherst Overwhelmingly Votes to Ban Fox News from Local Cable.

The Supreme Court made the right decision. If you don't like the way a corporation is behaving, then take your business elsewhere. Don't try to pass laws that limit how or when groups of people can get together, pool their money and try to get a message out.