Green Energy and Land Use: The Flip Side

29 08 2011

In my post about the resistance of locals to wind farms, I noted that the power locals can exert over these kinds of major planning initiatives is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can give ill-informed or myopic ad-hoc groups significant power to derail what is a national economic objective.

On the other hand, consider the Longview. The Longview export facility, that is.

In that instance, it was local environmentalists, with help from larger regional and national organizations, fighting a export facility that was to handle millions of tons of coal a year. Their contention was that moving that much coal through the area and storing it at the facility in Longview would have deleterious public health effects, and also contribute generally to the (particularly Chinese) appetite for coal, contributing to global warming. The developer for their part insisted that the coal was cleaner coal from the Midwest and that intensive measures were being taken to ensure that transport and storage weren’t a problem–and that it was self-defeating to just sit back while Chinese factories burned dirtier coal from elsewhere.

These groups organized locally to pressure County and State officials, and (temporarily) won. They used local and state land use regulatory systems to engage with the developer.

It seems to me that most people reading this would look more favorably on what happened in the latter case than what landowners do to keep wind farms from being developed–but they are perfectly identical, at least as to process and democratic participation. Given the significant degree of discretion in such permitting situations–there are rarely hard thresholds that would automatically preclude a “bad” project versus a “good” one–I’m not certain what a structural fix to the this problem for green energy would be. Taking permitting power away from localities would impermissibly disenfranchise local communities.

Green Energy and Land Use

25 08 2011

If you’re like me, when you drive past a wind farm it’s a little cheery. They have a calming, old-timey look, they’re good for the Earth, they’re innovative but intuitive. A simple machine with huge potential.

But you may be surprised to find out that there are people who hate wind farms. Loathe them. And they are notoriously difficult to build. There are a bunch of reasons for this that touch on a variety of political and policy issues:

1. Permitting. You build wind farms in rural places. County governments dominate rural places because most of the land is not incorporated into municipal governments. County governments therefore have to promulgate regulations for building wind farms. Now, these farms are typically huge, and they have to be sited according to the performance of the wind–you can’t just plop them anywhere. These two facts together mean that you often have to deal with several counties at a time, which may have different rules–and different demands. The major regulations are the zoning permits–how do you zone for a wind farm, which is essentially a non-contiguous collection of 0.1 acre sites spread across miles? Well, you have to get either a conditional permit, conditional use permit, or special use permit (same thing, different names). Special use permits are a “higher” designation, and thus compel greater scrutiny–including quasi-judicial hearings–and usually allow governments to put conditions on passage–for example, they can require developers to dedicate money for road repairs, emergency response, and other public services. They can also limit site selection–for example proximity to property lines–and spacing, often to accommodate aerial pesticide planes. Obviously onerous conditions like these can kill a project.
Read the rest of this entry »

Labor’s Need for Surpluses

24 08 2011

Beer and neoliberalism:

But I do hear a lot more from people who think of themselves as being “to my left,” who seem to me to spend a lot more time talking about the desirability of being more supportive of labor unions than they do talking about what concrete steps they want to take to achieve this mission. In a highly competitive market, there’s not much surplus for unions to get a share of.

It really, really annoys this man that anybody consider themselves “to [his] left.” He is determined to prove that anybody who does so is irrational or unserious.

This has to be one of the most profoundly frustrating things I’ve ever read on this topic that wasn’t in a comments section of Crain’s. Presumably Yglesias knows how labor markets and collective bargaining work, and he realizes that surpluses have precisely nothing to do with either the process of unionization or the right entailed by collective bargaining.

Ignoring for a moment the tone deafness of making his point about surpluses by using the socially necessary and universally identifiable world of craft beers, Yglesias says that cartelization of an industry (in this case, the beer market) makes unions stronger because they’re in a position to demand more of the rents. Yes, sometimes. So? Does that mean you can’t have competitive firms with heavily unionized workforces? For example, Southwest Airlines, or any of scores of other examples? Alternately, when single firms enjoy massive marketshare, does that make them somehow more amenable to unionization in the first place? I’ll pick an example out of the blue–Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is immensely profitable not thanks to any cartelization but in part because it is able to keep wages and benefits shockingly low while its competitors, particularly in the grocery markets, cannot–because they are unionized.

The argument being made here is that if unions go around unionizing small, barely profitable firms, they aren’t going to get much cash. Or that unions need cartels to grow. Or something. This misunderstands two key things: first, collective bargaining isn’t about skimming cream, it’s about a more even bargaining position for wage earners at firms, particularly large firms; second, it is getting to the point of collective bargaining–where the issues of profitability and “surplus” kick in–that is the hard part. When we talk about the need to grow unionization, we mean we need to make it easier to organize in the first place. The question of the competitiveness of unionized firms relates directly to the difficulty of unionization.

The problem labor has in competitive market places is not the lack of this “surplus,” it is the fact that firms whose union-busting is more efficient are able to force prices downward to a point that drowns their union competitors. Wal-Mart provides a perfect example of this, but you can look at any market. This was the entire concept behind SEIU’s infamous Justice for Janitors campaigns of the 1990s–going after the largest employers in a market simultaneously to prevent a situation where unionized firms were starved out of the market by union-busting firms. The lack of enforcement of collective bargaining rights on par with property rights puts union firms at short-term competitive disadvantages. But Yglesias starts his kvetch at the bargaining table, not the boss fight–in other words, after the hardest part is over. So when we–we loony, unserious, left-wing supporters of collective bargaining rights–talk about “concrete steps” that are “workable” what we mean is that we need to enforce worker rights as property rights precisely so that union-busting does not provide such a short-term advantage to firms. The reason SEIU went in and organized the largest employers in metropolitan janitorial markets all at once was to preclude the emergence of this comparative advantage for better union busters.

The right to unionize is not protected in this country–not by legislatures, not by administrative bodies, and not by the courts. That needs to change. How? Well, one start would be for people who claim they are progressives to stop talking about unionization as an abstract market strategy and realize that it is a fundamental human right. But more importantly, when unionization is easy, employers will no longer have such a strong pressure to bust unions, and the comparative advantage of staying union-free disappears. There are any number of big picture, fundamental reforms that progressive leadership could pursue–amending or abolishing the doctrine of at-will employment state-by-state, exactly as the right wing did with right-to-work; comprehensive reform of the Wagner Act; labor participation in corporate governance; funding for enforcement.

Here’s a start though: Democrats and their progressive enablers at think tanks could stop shrugging off every betrayal of workers’ rights–whether Striker Replacement, Employee Free Choice, or the creation of “free trade agreements” with nations that tolerate violence against union organizers.

I understand his point that unions can drive up costs (though this is a function of corporate governance as well), and that this puts union firms at a comparative disadvantage. But this takes as a given the difficulty of unionizing in the first place. The idea that unions need cartels to thrive, and with cartels we’d have no Rogue Ale, is simply not factual.

Transparency Ex Post and Ex Ante

24 08 2011

Since taking office just about a hundred days ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pleased open government and transparency activists by creating a myriad of tools and data portals to open government information. All city employee salaries have been made easily accessible by the public, as well as 311 service requests, building permits, lobbyist data, and more.

At the risk of acquiring a John Kass-style cheap hater reputation, I had a good amount of fun making light of these actually impressive initiatives on Twitter, where I may or may not have referred to them as “democracy by spreadsheet.” Recently, WBEZ ran a report looking at whether the Mayor’s transparency initiatives were more appearance than reality.
Read the rest of this entry »

Does Affluence Emphasize Gene Expression?

23 08 2011

This would be controversial if it were advanced in a more scientifically rigorous way:

If it turns out that the heritability of intelligence is relatively high in the developed world, then it may be that the Left-progressive project of ameliorating class based differences in access to cognitively enhancing environments has succeeded to a large extent. Barring genetic engineering this is the “end of history” for this project. It is a matter of when, not if (i.e., if you reject that the project has hit sharply diminishing marginal returns, logically it should at some point if the Left-progressive project succeeds). Assortative mating and more transparent meritocracy should allow for cleaner sorting within the population, and inter-generational class churn should decrease and stabilize at a basal level dictated by the random environmental variables which no amount of social engineering can squeeze out of the system. A perfect meritocracy would replace cultural class with biological caste.

I’d like to come back to this later, but what Khan is arguing is pretty straightforward: that relative affluence having been achieved, those environmental factors that prohibit the full expression of genes for intelligence–i.e., how they would express themselves given an optimal environment–are removed, and those with purely better intelligence genes will rise to the top. The analogy is to height, where given appropriate nutrition and air quality, which the West largely enjoys, the nearly 1.0 factor that determines your height is your genes.

I think what Khan misses is that gene expression is not quite so clean. There are different optimal environments for different genes. Genes are not single units but usually bundles of different individual genetic units, and they operate in not only the physical environment, but also their own genetic environment. For each organism, genes will thrive in different types of environments depending on the various other genes they have.

In other words, the “nature versus nurture” debate is probably incoherent. Gene expression is too complex, and where “gene” begins and “the environment” ends.

Heritability of Height

Counterfactual as Counter Argument (With Update)

3 08 2011

A couple of projects–a Moot Court appellate advocacy competition and beginning production on a sketch comedy show–have kept me away from my beloved Same Subject. This post, unfortunately, deals with something I read on Matt Yglesias’ blog. I put off writing it because I don’t want to turn my Same Subject into “one sided arguments with Matt Yglesias.” But he makes a point that so perfectly distills Beltway myopia that I had to point it out:

Quoted at length:

I was reading Corey Robin’s rountable discussion of lefties wondering what the deal is with Barack Obama and kind of choked over the idea, expressed by one participant, that “I really see no daylight between his and both [Irving] Kristols’ politics.”

This kind of thing always makes me want to pursue the follow-up question: “compared to what?” I remember well the contention that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between George W Bush and Al Gore. And, indeed, there wasn’t. Both wholeheartedly embraced American military hegemony as a foreign policy and the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” approach to international economic policy. Both emphasized improved education as the key to long-term prosperity, both valorized capitalism as an engine of growth, and neither in any meaningful way challenged the various prevailing economic and social dogmas of the era. And yet looking back in concrete terms, it seems to me that the 2000 election turns out to have been one of the most consequential in American history. That’s because while both Bush and Bill Clinton pursued policies from within the paradigm of the elite American ideological consensus of the post-Cold War era they actually pursued very different policies….In a sense, all American Presidents have been cut from the same bland consensual cloth. But in another sense, American public policy obviously changes from time to time often in important ways.

I’m going to admit off the bat I don’t know what “consensual cloth” is. But other than that, I think there’s something to Yglesias’ thinking that the left and center-left needs to accept: we can’t prove any of that stuff about Gore being better than Bush. And as evidence, I’ll point to the presidency of Barack Obama.
Read the rest of this entry »