Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Biofuel Doubts

I'm a biofuel skeptic.

It seems to me most biofuels are Rube Goldberg contraptions-- first you take plants that convert sunlight into glucose or cellulose or whatever, then you harvest them and run them through some process to convert them into fuel.

Why not just cut out the middleman and convert the sunlight directly to energy? Solar panels are a whole lot more efficient at converting sunlight into energy than plants. True, solar panels don't grow themselves (yet?), but you don't have to use tractors and huge factories to convert solar panels into usable energy.

I predict that in, oh, 25 years biofuels will be a niche energy technology, used only in places where there's an abundance of organic material available to process that would otherwise just be thrown away (maybe food processing factories will derive their energy from biofuels made from seeds and stalks and stems).

I wonder how much tax money will be sunk into subsidizing biofuels between now and then...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fall Town Meeting

Fall Town Meeting is done after two three-hour-long meetings. I didn't do much homework beforehand, because I just didn't care terribly much about most of the articles-- there was the usual administrivia and then a few zoning tweaks which I thought would be uncontroversial.

I did do a little homework on the proposal to require 1,000 square feet of recreation space for new multi-unit developments. If people want recreation space, then they'll buy condos or rent apartments that provide it. This requirement may be well-intentioned, but it seems to me it would just have the unintended consequence of encouraging sprawl.

So I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to see how much sprawl it might cause, worst case. Take the 10,000 or so households in Amherst, count each as a "dwelling unit", multiple by 1,000 square feet, and you get: about 230 acres. Which is just a little over 1% of the total acreage in Amherst.

Eh. Not enough to get worked up over. But I'm still glad this article didn't pass (see Clare's post for details).

I suppose one of these years I'll figure out that anything can be controversial here in Amherst. Two examples:

First, I thought the establishment of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund would sail through with little discussion. Who would vote against Affordable Housing, especially when it was unanimously supported by the Select Board, Finance Committee, and Fair Housing Committee?

Well... me and a majority of other Town Meeting members, it turns out. I voted against it for three reasons:
1. There were a couple of wording problems that made me think maybe nobody had really thought hard about what it really said. For example: "at least one [trustee] shall be the Town Manager..." Huh?
2. I didn't hear any compelling reasons why we need this right now. I heard "this will be another valuable tool in our arsenal..." I wanted to hear an example of something that would be difficult or impossible to do without a Trust Fund.
3. I'm pretty skeptical of most Affordable Housing Projects. If you want to make housing more affordable for everybody, then let developers BUILD MORE HOUSING.

Many of the arguments against this article were petty (there seemed to be a turf war going on, with Hwei-Ling trying to guarantee a trustee spot to a Homelessness Committed person and Vince seeming to argue that we don't need no stinking Trust because the Affordable Housing is the Community Preservation Act Committee's job...) or ridiculous (arguing that the Town might be legally liable for something the Trust does right after Town Counsel stands up and says the opposite is just blatant fear-mongering). Sigh.

The other Article that was surprisingly controversial was to allow "predominantly by appointment" visits to offices in the Light Industrial zoning district. Town Meeting approved a similar change for a bunch of other zoning districts last year, and Light Industrial was (I gather) accidentally left out. Amherst has just a teeny-tiny bit of land zoned LI, it's easy to miss.

It eventually passed, but man! It seemed to take forever! All to allow by-appointment-only visits, and only after getting a Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

To get a little perspective: the Light Industrial zone is the only Zone in Amherst where "Storage and Processing of Radioactive Waste" is allowed-- by Special Permit, of course. If the article had failed, then Town Meeting would have essentially been saying that Radioactive Waste was less of a danger or nuisance than having people visit an office building by appointment.

Which, come to think of it, might actually be true-- a lot more people die every year in car accidents than die from radioactive waste...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Democrats Seek Help for Automakers

I stole the title of this blog post from this morning's New York Times. I don't get it-- we're going to send money to the same people who have consistently opposed higher fuel economy standards and decided to invest in lobbyists and building more SUVs and trucks instead? I thought the Democrats were AGAINST corporate welfare; maybe I'm misremembering.

No, here it is, in the official Democratic Party Platform, 2008 edition, page 25:
We have let the special interests put their thumbs on the economic scales. We do not believe that government should stand in the way of innovation, or turn back the clock to an older era of regulation. But we do believe that government has a role to play in advancing our common prosperity: by providing stable macroeconomic and financial conditions for sustained growth; by demanding transparency; and by ensuring fair competition in the marketplace. ...To make our communities stronger and more livable, and to meet the challenges of increasing global competitiveness, America will lead innovation in corporate responsibility to create jobs and leverage our private sector entrepreneurial leadership to help build a better world.
Giving billions of dollars to three big companies sure sounds like a special interest putting their thumbs on the economic scales.

As does propping up companies that have failed to match the innovation of their competitors. How is that "ensuring fair competition in the marketplace?"

As for corporate responsibility: we'll get responsible corporations when we require them to bear the cost of their failures. Let them go bankrupt.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Big Picture Economics

Politicians love to talk about how they're going to make us better off. They'll give the middle class a tax cut, or declare War on Poverty, or stimulate the economy or spend money and create jobs.

But most of what they do is just a shell game, moving money around. It's either Robin Hood (taking from the rich to give to the poor), Robber Baron (taking from the disenfranchised and giving to the powerful), or just plain robber (taking hard-earned money from people who earned it and giving it to lazy people who don't deserve it), depending on your point of view and whether or not you belong to the party that won the last election.

In the grand scheme of things, it's all about productivity. We are wealthier than our ancestors because our parents and grandparents figured out how to be more productive-- how to produce more with less. We produce more food on an acre of land, more cameras with less raw materials, and drive further using a gallon of gasoline than before.

Our environment is cleaner and healthier than it used to be, too, because they figured out cleaner, safer, more efficient ways of producing goods and energy and entertainment.

Whenever I think about what the government should be doing in the current financial and economic crisis, I try to see things through the "productivity lens"-- what policies will make us more productive?

Does increasing the minimum wage make us more productive? (no, it looks like it just raises teenage unemployment, and unemployment is bad for productivity.)

Does lengthening unemployment benefits increase productivity? (these researchers say yes, although these ones find that it is mostly wealthier people who take advantage of extended unemployment insurance-- and since everybody pays into the unemployment insurance system lengthening benefits might just end up being Yet Another Regressive Tax.)

Does spending money on public works projects make us more productive? (yes, if they're fulfilling an actual need and aren't just make-work projects or pork-barrel projects designed to make politically connected contractors rich.)

Is it better for productivity to tax when money is spent or earned, or does it not matter? (I don't know. I do know that a simpler tax system would make us all more productive, because we'd spend less time and money on the unproductive task of filling out forms to make the IRS happy.)

The economy is a huge, complex, chaotic system that nobody fully understands. I think the best the government can do is create policies that will encourage and reward productive behavior, and then stand back and get out of the way.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Vote for Aaron

When you're voting for Change on Tuesday, be sure to get a Special Town Election ballot (it's different from the ballot that has the presidential race and all the ballot questions on it) and vote for Aaron Hayden for Select Board.

He's smart, reasonable, consensus-builder who did a great job on the Planning Board and will make a great SelectPerson. Go to his website for more information.

(And just because I like to pretend I'm a psychic: I predict he'll win by a landslide; he'll get 70% of the vote, Mr. Morales will get 25%, and Mr. Brower and Mr. Keenan will split the rest)

Post-election update: So, I once again prove that I am not psychic. Aaron won with a little over 50% of the vote.

So many questions... (on the ballot)

Here in Amherst we'll get to vote on six different ballot questions. The conversation at my son's soccer game went something like:
Dogs are number 3, I think-- does voting for it mean you're FOR or AGAINST the dogs?

Is marijuana question 2?
For the record, I'm going to vote No, Yes, No, No, No, and No. But I don't really feel very strongly about questions 3 through 6.

I'm going to vote No on question 1, because it would cause a lot of short-term chaos and pain to completely eliminate the state income tax. And I'd rather phase out regressive taxes like the sales tax first. I predict most people will agree with me and vote no.

I'm going to vote Yes on question 2, because I don't think it makes sense to throw people in jail for using marijuana. As long as you don't hurt anybody else, I think you should be free to do whatever you like to your own body (just don't come crying to me if you do something stupid). I have no idea how this will turn out; I've been surprised in the past at how much Puritanism there is left in various parts of this state.

Question 3 is to prohibit greyhound racing. I'm going to vote no, but it's a weak no-- I don't really care if there's greyhound racing in Massachusetts or not, and if we wait a while, it looks like greyhound racing will die a natural death. If dogs are being mistreated or abused, then it seems to me we need to strengthen our animal welfare laws. But I predict the combination of people who don't like gambling and people who like cute dogs will be enough to get this one passed.

Question 4 is to double the CPA surcharge here in Amherst. If it passes, my family will pay something like $50 or $100 more per year in property taxes-- not a big deal. I don't really feel strongly one way or the other, but I'm swayed by the argument that passing this may make it less likely that voters will agree to an override in the future.

Question 5 is about single-payer health insurance. I agree that our health care system is screwed up and needs some major fixing, but relying on government bureaucrats to decide what health care we all get for "free" seems like a really bad idea to me. I think the medical and drug company lobbyists are already too powerful; give them a single place to focus their efforts and they'll get even more powerful.

And question 6 asks the legislature to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in the next 12 years and promote local businesses doing green stuff. Umm, yeah:
More than half the energy-related emissions come from large sources such as power plants and factories, while about a third comes from transportation.
So if we close all our power plants and factories, and then drive one-tenth as much as we do now we'll reduce our greenhous gas emissions by 80%. I'm gonna vote no, because I don't believe in wishing for ponies.