Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Ugly Little Bank

I joined several other Town Meeting folks last night at Barts, and we talked a little bit about the Kentucky Fried Bank at the corner of Triangle and North Pleasant streets (picture credit: Larry Kelley, I swiped it from his blog).

The consensus was that Bank of America was stupid not to be more creative when developing it-- that's a valuable piece of real estate, close to downtown and UMass. Maybe they could've built a nice two-story building with a bank and maybe a shop downstairs, an apartment or two upstairs.

Only I'm not sure banks are allowed to do that kind of thing. Banks are still heavily regulated; for example, the Bank Holding Company Act:
...generally prohibited a bank holding company from engaging in most non-banking activities
Part of that Federal law has been repealed (banks are allowed to merge across state lines now), but I think most of the regulations are still in effect. And then there are all the state banking regulations.

Is our Ugly Little Bank an unintended consequence of our banking regulations? I dunno, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if it was...


Fall Town Meeting is over! I thought for sure we'd have one more session in December, but I was wrong. Thank you, Mr. Moderator, for keeping things moving and wrapping it up!

Overall, my Town Meeting Crystal Ball worked pretty well-- all of the articles that I thought would pass, passed, and all of the articles I thought wouldn't pass didn't. I did get some of the details wrong, though-- we did not see pretty pictures of happy Fair Trade workers at any point during Town Meeting, and I had no idea zoning articles could be broken up into lots of tiny pieces.

I got lots of positive feedback on the Google Earth maps I created to illustrate a couple of the zoning articles (click on the picture in this blog post to see a full-sized version of the College/SouthEast street zoning changes). I like maps; maybe in a future Town Meeting I'll create and show an animated fly-by (maps are even spiffier when they move).

I'll publically post my predictions for Spring Town Meeting before it starts, just because (as I said before) it's fun to pretend to be psychic. Gazing into my crystal ball I see... structural budget deficits... chicken-counting while staring at eggs... Larry Kelley... Vince O'Connor... hard questions about "found" money in the school budgets... pointless debate over the Comprehensive Plan...

At least it won't be so dark and cold; I generally ride my unicycle to Town Meeting, and that's a lot more fun in the Spring.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Smart People Talking

I just finished listening to Cass Sunstein and Russ Roberts talk about how we react to low-probability potential catastrophes. Their conversation was the latest episode of the "EconTalk" (visit podcast, and they talk about why our government spends hundreds of billions of dollars after 9/11, and why it doesn't spend billions of dollars fighting global warming.

At the end of the podcast they have a fascinating discussion about how to think about spending money now to prevent Bad Things from happening in the future. The key insight (which was new to me), is that one human life today should be equivalent to one human life 100 years from now; but, one dollar today is equivalent to a whole lot less than a dollar 100 years from now.

I'd highly recommend you listen to the podcast. You don't need an iPod, you should be able to play it right from the web page.

I've been very pleased with the quality of the information from other EconTalk episodes; try any of these for some really great "brain food":It is really refreshing to hear smart people talking to each other without arguing, seriously considering alternative viewpoints, and just simply searching for the truth.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Slow News Day at the NY Times?

I read the Sunday New York Times almost every Sunday morning, and the story on the top-left of the front page bothered me.

The story is about how renters can be forced to move if their landlord defaults on the mortgage and the property is foreclosed.

My first impression was "this is front-page news???" Renters get kicked out of the place they're renting for all sorts of reasons, all the time. It is one of the drawbacks of renting. Sure, it's one more side effect of the bursting of the housing bubble, but I find it hard to believe that there aren't more important stories that could have made the front page.

The story itself left me with lots of questions, too. I'd like to know what percentage of renters per year nationwide are likely to face this situation, and what percentages are forced to move for other reasons (apartments turning into condos, getting condemned, etc).

It tells of renters in Las Vegas being given 72 hours notice to pack up and get out. I'd really like to know if Nevada's "renters rights" laws are typical of the rest of the nation.

I'd also like to hear from some legal experts on whether or not it's appropriate for the federal government to start passing laws on renter's rights. This article from the Boston Globe mentions that there's legislation proposed at both the state and federal level.

All that said-- my problem is really with what I think was sloppy reporting, and a bias by the New York Times to "hype" a hot story (the housing/credit crunch thing). I agree with the overall direction of the article-- renter's rights shouldn't be thrown out the window just because their landlord screwed up and their apartment got repossessed by a bank. The (state) laws should be changed (it ain't no free lunch, though-- banks will charge landlords slightly higher interest rates to cover their increased costs when foreclosing, and the landlords will, in turn, charge tenants a teeny bit more in rent...).

Monday, November 12, 2007

Intellectual Honesty

I'm deeply skeptical of people who are absolutely, positively convinced that they're right. If you're intellectually honest, then you've got to admit that there's a possibility that you're wrong; that there exists (at least in theory) some collection of evidence that would make you change your opinion.

For example, I believe that all life on earth evolved naturally from primitive organisms. It's possible I'm wrong, and if (for example) an advanced race of aliens landed on the White House lawn and then showed us how they genetically engineered the first tribe of Homo Sapiens then I'd have to reassess my opinion on where humans came from.

I also distrust people with an "us" versus "them" mentality, where "we" must be right and "they" are misguided or stupid or just plain stubborn and wrong. Reasonable people can be completely rational and still disagree about important issues, because they might start with different values or assumptions.

For example, I'm mostly a libertarian. I believe it is morally wrong to force people to do things that they don't want to do, if they're not harming (or threatening to harm) other people.

You might be more utilitarian, and believe that it's OK to force people to do things that they don't want to do as long as doing so is for the greater good of society as a whole. You're not unreasonable, or stupid, or stubborn, or misguided-- you're just starting with different assumptions than I am.

So, what collection of evidence would make me change my mostly-libertarian assumptions? Certainly if Socialist societies had higher productivity or innovation or health or wealth or happiness than Capitalist societies I might change my mind. But they don't.

I'm very interested in behavioral economics; maybe we are hard-wired in ways that cause us to make bad decisions on our own, and maybe our collective "hive mind" can do a better job of making the world a better place. Maybe. If you see any solid, data-driven pieces of evidence supporting that hypothesis, please send them my way!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Vince, Mary, Ben: can't you Just Vote No?

I think I just figured out why last night's Town Meeting session felt so... wrong, even though I was happy about the way all the votes turned out (and none were close enough to require either standing or tally votes).

It seemed to me that instead of simply voting NO for the articles they didn't like, certain Town Meeting members instead proposed (or thought about proposing) various procedural motions that would have the same effect.

It started with Vince O'Connor and the proposal to use $100,000 in CPAC money to help fix Town Hall. He had a little discussion at the podium with Mr. Moderator before he spoke, apparently about whether or not he would be offering some kind of amendment. I guess reason prevailed, and, instead, he just argued (unsuccessfully) against the article.

It continued with Mary Wentworth proposing an amendment to the R&D overlay district article that, essentially, made the R&D overlay district do nothing at all. What the heck is that all about? If you don't like the article, then JUST VOTE NO. Making me vote twice (four times, if you count the votes to "call the question") just makes me cranky.

Finally, on that SAME article, Ben Grosscup made a motion to refer the article back to the Planning Board. Umm, yeah-- the planning board unaminously recommended the article after a bunch of work and public discussion. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. -- Benjamin Franklin"

So, if I'm counting correctly, we had to vote three times (six if you count the "call the question" votes) to say Yes to this article.

I suppose I should gird my loins for a whole lot more of this; the Zoning Board of Appeals is gonna get into a turf war with the Planning Board, and is proposing amendments of their own. Zoning articles are complicated enough; add in proposed amendments and the associated "I call the motion to the previous question to amend motion B of Article 63..." complexity of Town Meeting procedure and it's just a big hairy mess that makes me really cranky. If you don't like it-- can't you keep it simple and Just Vote No?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Anthropogenic Climate Change

We moved around a lot when I was growing up. I went to six different schools by the time I was in sixth grade, and lived in Melbourne (mild, like a California down-under), Seattle (rainy, lots of slugs), Anchorage (often quite cold indeed, but a great place to be a kid) and just Northeast of Santa Barbara (perfect weather almost all the time).

Maybe that's why Global Warming doesn't freak me out. I'm pretty confident about the human species' ability to adapt; I wouldn't choose to live in the snow like an Inuit or in the desert like a Las Vegan or behind a dike like a Netherlander, but I would adapt if forced.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm not a Global Warming Denier. The scientific evidence is pretty convincing that Global Warming is happening, and that we're almost certainly the cause.

I'm just skeptical that it will be a Global Environmental Crisis, and that it requires Drastic and Immediate Action. I think it would be easy to over-react and spend (say) a trillion or three dollars on a War on Global Warming. The War on Terror and the War on Drugs haven't exactly been shining examples of efficiency and effectiveness.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, so if we spend heaps of money fighting global warming that means we're not spending that money on something else. If the "something else" is a war overseas, then sign me up! Coming up with clean (or cleaner) energy solutions is certainly a more productive use of resources than killing people and blowing stuff up.

I'm not smart enough to figure out where the War on Warming should be on the list of Global Issues-- I have no idea if we should spend more money finding a cure for cancer, finding a way to burn coal that doesn't put carbon dioxide into the air, growing more corn for ethanol, producing solar cells to put on our houses, or banning cars that get less than 42 miles per gallon.

Nobody is that smart. I think the best we can do is create a society where smart, creative, dedicated people can work on the issues that they care about, and be confident that some of those smart people will figure it out.

PS: Looks like we're going to get biofuels in our home heating oil soon, just like we get ethanol in our gasoline-- not because it makes environmental or economic sense (it probably doesn't), but because somebody in our government thinks they're smart enough to know that doing so is The Right Answer.

I like making wild-ass predictions, so here are two:
1. Biofuels (of the sort they're mandating that we use now) will turn out to be worse for the environment, and more expensive, than oil/gas/coal, once all of the hidden costs are accounted for.
2. Within 25 years some smart person somewhere will figure out an insanely great way of creating energy, that's a lot cheaper and cleaner than anything we're using today.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Killer Cell Phones?

So these four Swedish guys (and one guy from Berkeley) are saying that using cell phones a lot for a long time increases your risk of getting brain cancer by 20-30% (here's the link to the paper).

They're probably wrong, but let's assume they're right. Does that mean your iPhone is gonna kill you in ten years?

Probably not. Imagine 100,000 people-- say two pro football stadiums chock-full of people, or three towns the size of Amherst. About 8 of them will get brain cancer per year.

So the study says that if all those 100,000 people use cell phones for an hour or more a day for, like, a decade, then two or three more will get brain cancer. Or, to think about it another way-- if you use your cell phone a lot, the Swedish guys think it has a 1 in 50,000 chance per year of giving you cancer.

But according to some British guy, using a cell phone when you're driving makes you four times (400% !) more likely to crash. Assuming those heavy cell phone users are on their phones half the time they're driving:

100,000 non-cell-phone folks: 15 will die in car accidents. 8 will die from brain cancer.
100,000 cell-phone maniacs: 30 will die in car accidents. 10 will die from brain cancer.

I don't use my cell phone much, but if I did, I wouldn't worry about getting brain cancer-- the risk is pretty darn small. You should be a lot more worried about talking on your cell phone while driving and killing yourself or an innocent bystander...