Friday, January 9. 2009
As some of you probably know, the University of North Carolina was in the process of trying to establish an airport in rural Orange County . . . and the most likely sites were within two miles of my house. The airport was ostensibly to serve the university's AHEC program for flying doctors to underserved rural areas, but was actually a stealthy attempt of wealthy owners of private planes to have their own convenient airport for coming to Carolina sports events.
I am so happy to say, "was in the process," in the past tense. Today UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp held a press conference to announce that UNC would call off the creation of an airport authority, and instead relocate its AHEC program from Horace Williams Airport to RDU instead.
Phew. That was close.
So what made Thorp change his mind? His official statements were fairly opaque, referencing "a great deal of distrust . . . of the process by which [the airport authority] came to be" and that "it's in the best interest of the University and our community not to form the authority." But I can guess to some other factors:
Whatever the reason, Chancellor Thorp, my family and I extend our heartfelt thanks to you.
Saturday, December 13. 2008
(continued from yesterday)
So, the Board of Orange County Commissioners, using a supposedly fair process, decides to haul the county's trash eleven miles back and forth across two-lane roads just to get it packed up and hauled off. And they're packing it up next to Chapel Hill's drinking water supply. How did we arrive at such a bad decision?
Well, the commissioners were pretty candid about it, when pressed. "Everyone agrees that, were technical considerations the only factor, the Eubanks Road dump site would be the best place to put the waste transfer station," said Commissioner Mike Nelson towards the end of the meeting. "But we also agreed, as a community, that we didn't want to go in that direction." What he was referring to, cautiously, was the fact that community organizers in the Rogers neighborhood adjoining the Eubanks Road dump had pilloried the commissioners for years with accusations of "environmental racism," as the predominantly black neighborhood dealt with the consequences of having to live next to trash. Rather than endure the political pressure of being the oppressive bad guys, the commissioners decided to look for another site.
"Where a site like this belongs is near the interstates," said Commissioner Barry Jacobs. "But Hillsborough immediately threatened to annex anything we tried to put close to them. And believe me, that's not an idle threat."
Ah. Now I see. I started out thinking that this was a fair, objective process that just happened to have landed a trash site near my home. Here I was thinking about what's fair, and what's right. But then I find out that the objectively best possible options were taken off the table from the start – either by individual interests who made the loudest noise, or the brute application of political power, public interest be damned. I'm starting to feel like a schmuck for even thinking about fairness. "Ok, if that's the way this game is played, fine: not in my backyard, dammit." Time to scream and yell, time to call in the lawyers. Did I say democracy was people talking out their issues? Democracy is the art of defending your selfish interests while appearing to serve the good of the whole.
Am I more cynical now? No, not really. I still believe our system is the best, in spite of really sucking. After all the acrimony and impassioned pleas in the public hearing, it's important to remember that everybody went home. There were no fights, no arrests. In other parts of the world, the county office would probably be on fire by now, and people like me would be in jail, or shot by police, or disappeared in the night. Power politics sucks . . . but the alternatives are tyranny, or anarchy, or usually both.
Friday, December 12. 2008
(continued from yesterday)
The county staff were invited to make a brief statement ("please, brief," said the acting chair) about the site that they were voting on tonight. (Uh-oh, I thought. They're going through the motions here. They've already made up their minds.) The staff ran through their talking points for the site: a willing seller, not near any schools or churches, access to Highway 54, no current agriculture, heavily wooded, yada yada.
Then the public (who had been waiting around for three hours to speak) had their say. Many made appeals to preserving a beautiful rural area, which had emotional appeal but didn't seem to carry the weight people hoped they would. The better arguments (I thought) were on the technical merits: how could you possibly decide the best way to deal with trash is to truck it eleven miles down two-lane roads away from the interstates, and put it right next to our drinking water supply? Why put an industrial facility in a place with no infrastructure?
The commissioners were extremely reluctant to talk about the issue. And who can blame them, when a hostile room is facing them? (I have no doubt they had put the waste transfer station at the end of long agenda to try to blunt the edge of the opposition; if you have to face an angry crowd, at least let it be an exhausted one.) One commissioner (Pam Hemminger) was swayed by the public arguments and thought the proposed site was a bad one. The others, however, appealed to the necessity of having a fair and transparent process, and that this site was the best that their fair process could generate, and now they were slam out of time to find a better site, or even a better process to find a better site. The general sentiment of the commissioners was, "Yes, I know, this sucks, but we have no other realistic choice at this point."
Most of the public crowd had no patience with talk of 'process'. "That's the way heartless bureaucrats talk – 'sorry, gotta follow the process.' It's a bad decision, dammit!" But I listened very carefully, because I think I actually understood what the commissioners meant, and it's not an easy point to grasp.
Normally, when a group of people are trying to make a decision that affects everyone -- like, "Where shall we go out to eat?"-- they follow a process of ad-hoc suggestions, followed by counter-suggestions, followed by a call for consensus:
"How about the steak house?"
"Joey's vegetarian. Maybe the Panda Palace?"
(Pause . . . no one's seconded the motion . . . Chinese isn't going over well.)
"Winston's? Yes? Everyone? Ok then, Winston's it is."
That decision-making process works really well . . . when everyone affected is in the room. Everyone has a chance to speak up, raise objections, make suggestions, and ultimately converge on a solution. It's very easy for anyone to propose an alternative at any time in the process . . . and the stakes of the decision are relatively low. But what about when everyone isn't in the room, and can never all be in the room? And the outcome will inevitably be unacceptable to someone? Like, when choosing where to put the county's trash?
Big decisions like that face a logistical problem, and a fairness problem, when it comes to proposing alternatives. Logistical, because there are a huge number of potential solutions that could be considered, and if you argued each one individually you would never finish. Fairness, because just suggesting one alternative ("how about putting the trash over there?") immediately puts people affected by that suggestion at a disadvantage that other equivalent sites do not have to face, just by the accident of it being considered. Another fairness question involved is usually called "the tyranny of the majority" – since everyone has an interest in not having trash located near them, and votes in their self-interest, the site ultimately falls on those with the least political power.
To get around these logistical and fairness issues, the county commissioners (and politicians around the world) have to resort to a process where the criteria for selecting a site are established before any particular site is considered. This is as close as we can get to John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" – we try to figure out what's fair before we find out whose ox is getting gored. Then, those criteria get applied to every possible site: not just one or two or ten or a hundred, but every possible site in the county, because it would be unfair to include some for consideration and not include others.
So, we have a collision of decision-making models. Most of the public standing by is saying, "That's a lousy choice for a site – let's find another one. What about that one over there?" The model they are using is not that different from the one used to decide which restaurant to go to; they assume they can keep generating alternatives until something fits. They assume that the limiting factor is that not enough options have been considered; if they keep making suggestions, a better option will eventually become apparent.
The commissioners, however, use a different model. They know that they can't just pull another site out of a hat at the last minute, without completely compromising the fairness of the whole process. They would have to start over from the beginning, this time with a new set of criteria, and spend another year applying those criteria to every possible site. And, no matter what criteria they use, they know they will inevitably wind up at the same conclusion: a room full of angry citizens, telling them to find another site.
So . . . assuming the process used by the commissioners is the most fair one, how did we wind up with a lousy decision? (to be continued)
Thursday, December 11. 2008
Tonight I went to a meeting of the Board of Orange County Commissioners (BOCC), since one of my neighbors urged me to attend since they were voting on the waste transfer station. If you've never experienced local politics like this, I would encourage you to do so; it will open your eyes to the nature of politics.
A little background:
Orange County's landfill on Eubanks Road is running out of room. By 2011, the landfill will be out of space and the county's daily 170 tons of trash will have to go someplace else. County officials eventually settled on building a waste transfer station: a place where garbage is packed up, put on to big trucks, and hauled off to someplace else with more land than money. A waste transfer station is not as bad as a dump, but it still means an awful lot of garbage is going to be sitting around nearby (and potentially contaminating ground water), and lots of trucks will be coming and going.
So, the county has been going through a long, drawn-out process of figuring out where to put this waste transfer station. After a number of false starts (something I'll talk about later) the final site the commissions were set to approve was about three miles from where I live. So, I had a personal interest in this particular meeting.
What it was like:
There's a room -- not a very big room, maybe large enough to seat 80 people -- where the commissioners conduct their meetings. The six commissioners (one was absent) sat in an elevated panel, with microphones and name plates in front of them. Not that different from the sort of C-SPAN segments you see for Senate hearings. To either side of the commissioners were a couple broad tables, where the county management staff sat: a clerk who recorded the proceedings, a county manager who seemed to be running the docket, and a lawyer who provided counsel when needed. Some big computer projection screens were up front as well, so staff or visiting parties could present information. A gallery of chairs was set out for the public, and a podium sat in the middle of the chairs from which individuals could address the commissioners.
You could pretty much tell who was who by the way they dressed. The commissioners, being local politicians, had a mostly business-casual look to them: shirts and khakis, some with ties and some without, maybe a tweedy jacket here and there. The staff, being professional bureaucrats, wore the uniform of government: suits that were anything but casual but still managed to look cheap. The lawyers (and no matter what the commissioners were discussing, there was always a lawyer or two involved) wore dark silk suits, which did look expensive and seemed to gleam menacingly. The public -- well, they looked like you and me, mostly: people in jeans, loafers, raincoats, workboots. Everyone in the public gallery looked unhappy and bored -- because, I soon learned, nobody comes to a county commissioners meeting without cause to be unhappy, and anyone who sit through such a meeting is doomed to be bored out their skulls.
The proceedings went something like this:
It went like that from 7:00 pm . . . to 8:00 pm . . . to 9:00 pm . . . to 10:00 pm. Finally, at about a quarter past 10 pm, the waste transfer station issue was brought to the floor.
Local politics, evidently, is an endurance game. I'm glad I came early and got a seat. Half the people there couldn't even sit down the whole time. (to be continued)
Thursday, November 13. 2008
Facing declines in membership and influence, the United Auto Workers union approached the U.S. Congress with an appeal for a fresh infusion of cash to avoid immanent extinction.
"I would not call it a bailout," said UAW president Ron Gettelfinger. "It's an investment in greener, more efficient union technology. Companies like GM and Chrysler are fossils, and their available cash reserves and shareholder value are a finite resource. Unions cannot continue to tap those limited resources forever, if we want to pass on to our children a world of cushy $70 per hour semi-skilled jobs. We need to reduce our dependence on the American consumer, and develop alternative, renewable sources of graft like government largess at taxpayer expense, and redistribution of wealth from economic enterprises that actually make money."
"The Europeans are way ahead of us on this front," Gettelfinger added.
The sought-for aid would funnel $80 billion dollars directly into the pockets of UAW bosses, which are expected to flow over into aiding the 1 million union "workers" in the form of wages and benefits they couldn't dream of getting anywhere else. The cash will also go a long way towards making the UAW competitive against rapidly encroaching foreign concepts like fair-market value and quality manufacturing.
Without the aid, UAW officials predicted an extremely dire future for Big Labor. "We cannot afford to have our domestic unions perish. The U.S. might never recover its sense of unrealistic entitlement again without the unions."
Friday, November 7. 2008
When some new progress is made in society, science, or technology, there is usually a lot of fanfare around it. People cheer, people "wow!", people get happy. But the truest measure of progress being absorbed into the society is when it loses the "wow" -- when it becomes completely normal and accepted and utterly taken for granted. And because it becomes quickly taken for granted, people often have the sense no progress is being made at all.
We're used to seeing this in technology all the time. Technologies that happened in the previous generation -- commercial air travel, space flight, central heating and air conditioning -- are not even thought of as "technological breakthroughs" in our consciousness. Even most technologies that emerged in our own lifetimes are utterly taken for granted. I remember when I was six years old, a salesman came to our house to give a demonstration of an amazing device called a microwave oven. That was a brand new consumer item in my lifetime. When was the last time you heard someone say, "God, aren't microwaves great!" I had lost all consciousness of their greatness until I lived in an apartment in Houston that didn't have one. (Apparently the restaurant scene in downtown Houston was so great that no one ever ate at home.) For some reason, boiling water on a stove for coffee or tea seemed primitive and strange . . . Even though I myself did that, in my own lifetime.
Computers! The desktop computer happened in my lifetime! The tool that I spend most of my waking hours in front of . . . In my lifetime! Nobody says anymore, "Gosh I love computers." Instead they say, "My %^&^&*/! computer hung again this morning . . . Could you resend that attachment?"
The Internet happened in my adult lifetime. I remember being in the workforce before email. You still occasionally hear people say, "Wow, I love the internet!" but only because of Google -- something that only happened in the last decade but is rapidly becoming routine. "Duh, why didn't you just google it?" is commonly heard in schools and offices.
Cell phones, iPods, cable TV, really good coffee . . . All very recent, all utterly taken for granted. They are so taken for granted, in fact, that many college students sit around (surrounded by cell phones and iPods and TVs and double-shot-lattes) thinking that the economic standard living for the average joe has decreased. "The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer" . . . And yet nearly everyone is enjoying enormous lifestyle boosts that couldn't have been foreseen even ten years ago.
Why do I bother cataloging all these changes? It's because of the way people have greeted the results of this election. The same sort of changes have been happening in our social sphere for the past sixty years, with steady regularity . . . And yet everyone in the whole world is standing around gawking, like we reinvented ourselves overnight, because, "holy shit, we just elected our first black president!" Yes, yes, yes, it's an important milestone, but why is everyone so surprised?
I was so gratified to hear an interview on NPR with singer/songwriter Janis Ian, who voiced exactly the same sentiment. "I hear people say, 'We haven't made any real social progress,' and I tell them, oh my gosh, you have no idea how far we've come. In my lifetime an outed homosexual could be put in an institution and lobotomized."
Does no one remember that a couple years ago the "inevitable" candidate for the Democratic nomination was a woman? We have been expecting history to happen for some time now.
I do not mean to trivialize the accomplishment of Obama's election. I know that civil rights, equality under the law, and broad acceptance into society has been a long hard journey for African Americans . . . and women . . . and homosexuals. It took a lot of work, perseverance, and sacrifice. But then again, so did the cell phone. And black leaders might be mildly disappointed when the children or grand-children of our generation hear of the first African-American president, and they don't say, "Wow." They will say: "So?" The ultimate victory will be won when it is completely forgotten.
Thursday, November 6. 2008
#10: Garrison Keillor will finally stop making cheap political digs and get back to being genuinely funny.
#9: Black leaders who capitalized on racial victimhood, especially the Rev. Al Sharpton, temporarily stunned into silence.
#8: Empty rhetoric will finally settle down while Obama administration desperately tries to diminish expectations.
#7: International community, long used to demonizing the U.S. as evil white oppressor, temporarily obliged to be nice to us again.
#6: After a couple of days of congratulating themselves, liberals will finally have nothing to talk about.
#5: U.S. will finally get out this war, but someone else will have to deal with the consequences of ending it.
#4: Hey, it's only money, anyway . . . it's not like you can take it with you when you retire.
#3: Feel smug knowing the country was not as racist as everyone made it out to be.
#2: Maybe the "Party of Ideas" will finally get a clue, and get back to the principles that once made it great: fiscal responsibility, smaller government, lower taxes, education, and equal opportunity for all.
And the number one way conservatives can console themselves about the election . . .
#1: No more W.
Monday, April 21. 2008
Last week the New Yorker had an interesting review of several books about the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers, and how they have played out in the formation of the Constitution and the First Amendment. When it comes to the topic of law and religion, I have several possibly contradictory currents competing within me:
So what does the New Yorker's literature review have to say about it? Firstly, they cast some doubt in both directions, both for those who would claim we were founded as a "Christian nation," and those who would elevate secularism as the highest value in society. The founding fathers were not the sort of Christians your average fundamentalist would identify with â€“ they were deists, who recognized a spiritual reality and at the same time were skeptical of dogma and superstition. (They were, I dare say, not that different from me.) At a time when most states explicitly established an official religion in their constitutions and had religious tests for holding office, the Constitution is remarkable for explicitly refusing such tests, and, for that matter, not even mentioning God at all. It is an emphatic exclusion â€“ they clearly wanted Reason to be the foundation of their political system, and to keep religion out of it.
At the same time, they Founders were not anti-religion. They were explicit in saying the purpose of the disestablishment clause was not so much to protect secularism from religion, but rather to protect religions from each other. They very much wanted the free expression of religion, and thought it most likely to happen if no religion could establish itself above any other. And so far they have been right: America has been significantly more religious than its European peers since its independence, and indeed even more religious than the founding fathers themselves.
In a nutshell, the Founding Fathers had faith in freedom. They believed that people, and institutions, would arrive at the truth if given the freedom to do so. The coercion of an official religion was antithetical to their notion of religion itself, which had to be the individual's free and direct recognition of the Deity. Most interestingly, the Founding Fathers were not even that thrilled that we should care what they think. As Jefferson put it: "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human."
Friday, April 18. 2008
The progressive, "enlightened" energy policy of recent years goes something like this:
And that's what we did.
Unfortunately . . .
Oy. Suddenly the position that looked so green, so thoughtful and compassionate, turns out to very, very wrong. We start out thinking we're going to save the environment, make a few changes, and suddenly things are drastically worse. What can we learn from this?
Wednesday, March 26. 2008
[I sent this letter to the Wall Street Journal Letters to the Editor for publication.]
In response to your March 22 editorial "Certifying Parents":
So the California courts think that every parent who home schools their children should have government certification, to ensure the quality of education their children receive. Ok, fine. I can understand wanting to control standards for education. Just do one more thing: pay those home-schooling parents the $8,000 per child that is currently going to the public school system from which they are opting out. I think many home schooling parents would gladly undergo whatever certification testing is required, in order to recoup their substantial tax investment in the public schools.
Whenever the public tries to hold the public school teachers accountable to the results of the school, the teachers unions immediately complain about having insufficient resources to do the job, and the unfunded mandates imposed by No Child Left Behind. Well, if the teachers don't like unfunded mandates for themselves, they shouldn't seek to impose them on home schoolers, either. You want professional-grade teachers for every child? Pay for it. Otherwise, leave the home schoolers alone.
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