Monday, December 25, 2006

There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays

The .08 Acres household is spending this week out-of-state with family. Expect light posting until the New Year.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Romney Playing Defense

Outgoing governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been hard at work trying to counter recent reports that he's shifted hard to the right on conservative bread-and-butter issues like gay rights, abortion and stem cell research. While his right turn is not a surprise to anyone who's lived in Massachusetts for the past four years, people outside the commonwealth are just now learning that the Rommney who is running for president is very different from the Romney who ran for Senate in 1994 and who ran for governor in 2002. He was up in New Hampshire yesterday, defending his conservative evolution. Not everyone was impressed, however:

"When I first heard his answer about his journey of becoming prolife, I began to feel better about the questions being asked of him lately," said Shannon McGinley of Bedford, N.H. "After talking with him in person, though, it is hard to figure out what he does believe."
That's got to be discouraging. Luckily for Romney, he won't get a chance to talk to every potential voter. Still, if he's coming off as disingenuous in person, it will be that much easier for his opponents to paint him as another bona-fide Massachusetts Flip-Flopper.

In his defense, Romney had this to say:
"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "People will have a chance to look at my record as governor of Massachusetts and see what I've done there. Talk is cheap, but action is not."
His record in Massachusetts? I'm sorry, but I don't think that people out of state are going to much care that he got Billy Bulger to resign and that he renamed the DCR.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Keep the Fast Lane Discounts

Tucked in at the end of today's Globe story about Deval Patrick's opposition to toll removal on the MassPike, is this little bit of information about Fast Lane discounts.

The cost of continuing the Fast Lane discounts, estimated at $12.2 million annually, is increasingly viewed as a luxury when the authority faces a number of financial unknowns, including the final cost of repairing the Sumner and Callahan tunnels and the annual cost of maintaining Interstate 93, which the authority has budgeted at $25 million but could go as high as $80 million, according to a board member. The authority would not make public its 2007 operating budget or give the size of its operating deficit.

The one-time cost of repairing the collapsed ceiling in the I-90 connector will be at least $34 million, officials said yesterday.

Patrick offered qualified support for the Fast Lane discount program, which takes 25 cents off the $1 toll on the turnpike extension in Boston, and 50 cents off the $3 toll at the Boston Harbor tunnels.

"If the discount can be sustained, I think it ought to be sustained," Patrick said.
I've mentioned this before. If we're going to have tolls, we should be doing everything in our power to make transponders widespread. More people using transponders reduces the cost of taking tolls and means that more of the money collected goes towards the actual roads, rather than to overhead. Part of that means keeping, and perhaps even expanding the Fast Lane discounts.

I'm also a little confused as to why people are surprised that Patrick is opposing the toll removal. If I recall correctly, he came out against this about a month ago. There needs to be some way to make up the $114 million in yearly revenue, which is required for highway maintenance. Even Republican state Senator Bob Hedlund (R-Weymouth) admitted today on WGBH's Greater Boston that if we took down the tolls, we'd have to raise the gas tax to make up the lost revenue.

Continuing Climate Change Week

Continuing this week's theme of climate change, Congressman Marty Meehan (D-Lowell) and Dr. Paul Epstein, the associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, have an op-ed in today's Boston Globe. The piece is a condensed version of the speeches that both made at Saturday's town meeting, and is a good overview of the dangers of increased carbon in the atmosphere and the inaction thus far from the federal government in combating it. Towards the end of the article, Meehan outlines the next steps that he hopes the government will be able to enact to combat global climate change:

Instead of silencing government climate experts, the federal government should take a cue from states like Massachusetts and become an active leader and partner in efforts to combat global warming. The president, working with Congress, should raise automotive fuel efficiency standards and increase support for public transportation; promote "green buildings" or green homes, schools and businesses; institute a RGGI-style federal program to cap greenhouse gas emissions and encourage trade and cooperation; eliminate "perverse" subsidies for fossil fuels; and institute significant financial incentives for producers and consumers to adopt energy-efficient and green technologies.
Of course, given the current occupant of the White House, none of the above is likely to happen with help from the federal government in the short term. My hope, though, is that with Democrats in control of Congress, we can at least start to have a long-overdue national conversation on renewable energy and efficiency.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Why Ban Trans Fats?

Today's Boston Herald had some fun with Rep. Peter Koutoujian's (D-Waltham) proposal to ban trans fats in Massachusetts. Koutoujian's bill mirrors the one passed in New York City earlier this year, and he claims that since NY paved the way, it would be very easy for local restauranteurs to comply. Personally, I'm unconvinced that we need to ban trans fats in our restaurants. I'd be more sympathetic if they wanted to make sure menu items containing trans fats were labeled as such. That way people could make up their own minds. Restaurants would likely start eliminating the fats by themselves as people became more informed about how bad they were for you. That said, with the undercooked food warning already on menus, one can imagine a day where the health advisories take up more space than the entrees. Generally, I hate slippery-slope arguments, but there are so many unhealthy things that people can buy at restaurants, where do you draw the line?

Speaking of Global Warming

On Saturday, Congressman Meehan noted that the town meeting was carbon neutral. That is the carbon produced by the event -- including the 50 pounds of CO2 from my car, I hope -- was being offset by a donation to some sort of wind power concern. There was a piece in Sunday's Globe Ideas section that I finally got a chance to read outline the problems of carbon neutrality. I admit that I am intrigued by a market-based solution to reducing emissions, but the article gives us reasons to be skeptical. Here's why:

[T]o Robert Stavins, director of Harvard's environmental economics program, if an offset system actually were reducing emissions there'd be no reason to worry about people buying offsets for their Gulfstreams and Hummers. If it's worth the price of an offset to someone to drive their SUV, and the money they're paying actually buys a reduction elsewhere, that's the definition of economic efficiency. "That's the system working," says Stavins. The point, as he sees it, is to reduce emissions, not to reward individual virtue.

The real problem with offsets, for Stavins and other economists, is that they fail to do this. Even if all of the carbon offset companies held themselves to the highest standards -- and in what is still a completely unregulated industry that is a big if -- economists doubt that offset vendors can assure that a certain amount of money paid by an individual will buy a certain amount of greenhouse gas reduction.

"What you have," says Stavins, "is a comparison to an unobserved and unobservable hypothetical." How does an offset company know that a landowner wasn't going to preserve his forest anyway, perhaps because the timber market was weak? Or that an electric utility hadn't decided to build the wind farm long before it got the offset money? In such cases, the offset money is simply allowing the forest owner or utility to make more money for a decision already arrived at.
I did some research into offsets when I first heard that Al Gore used them to make the promotional tour of An Inconvenient Truth carbon neutral. Some of the companies doing this seemed sketchy, and given that this line of business is brand new and completely unregulated, my impressions may have been correct.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Saturday's Climate Change Town Meeting

On Saturday, I attended a Town Meeting on Global Warming hosted by Congressman Marty Meehan (D-Lowell) at UMass Lowell. Around 1000 of us crammed ourselves into an auditorium with only one more Saturday left before Christmas to hear what Bay State leaders and experts had to say on the topic. You can read the Lowell Sun's description of the event, or the one from the Associated Press. Lynne from Left in Lowell was also there, though I don't think she's blogged about it yet.

Meehan told the crowd that a typical car emits about a pound of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per mile. That made me feel a little guilty for making the 25-mile trek each way from Watertown. It reminded me of when my wife and I went to see An Inconvenient Truth because our air conditioner was broken. Meehan's speech cribbed heavily from that film, and he not only played a scene from it, but he got Al Gore himself to shoot a five minute video welcoming us to the event.

One thing that Meehan kept repeating that I thought was interesting was that this should not be a political debate. What debate there is should be a scientific one, and that one has pretty much been decided. In Meehan's words, "the verdict is in." He expressed some optimism that climate change skeptics were no longer in charge of the House and the Senate, but he still expected resistance from the White House.

Following Meehan's remarks was Dr. Paul Epstein from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Ken Geiser and Dr. Amy Cannon from UMass Lowell and Lee Ketelsen from Clean Water Action. The doctors were all heavy on the science, with Epstein reciting a litany of dire consequences should we fail to act to combat global climate change. Geiser and Cannon spoke about the outstanding work on alternative energy that is currently going on at UMass Lowell, particularly in the new field of green chemistry, which I had never heard of before. Ketelsen -- an activist, not a scientist -- gave a political pitch. Rather than preach to the choir, she spoke of the importance of massive citizen pressure to get action from Washington. In order to do that, we need to convince our friends and neighbors that clean energy is not only good for the planet, but it's good for their pocketbook as well.

Deval Patrick spoke after the panel and those familiar with his alternative energy ideas would find his speech familiar. He repeated his desire for Massachusetts to become a center for development of renewable energy because, "if we get that right, the whole world is our customer." He also pledged that he would enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) which Governor Romney had opposed.

By the way, for anyone worried that Patrick has lost any support from activists over the past month, there was no evidence of this in the auditorium. I think he managed to get three standing ovations -- once when he entered the hall, once when he began his speech and once afterwards.

Meehan promised to use his web page as a portal for more information. As of now, the invitation to this event is all that's there. I'm not sure what they have in mind, but at the very least I hope they make the materials from Saturday available online. There was a lot of energy in that room for a Saturday morning, and it would be a shame if it could not be harnessed.

Friday, December 15, 2006

In Defense of the Inauguration

I was going to write a post on my feelings about the 'controversy' surrounding Deval Patrick's inauguration plans, but this morning I found that George Bachrach has written them for me. He talked about some of the same things he mentioned at the Cambridge forum, Tuesday, and I'm glad to see him making those points to a wider audience. Here's a bit from the piece:

The galas are picked apart as excessive and costly, spread over several days at a cost of more than a million dollars. But this is a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't story. No matter what Patrick does, he can't win.

Patrick won the election, in part, based on a huge grass-roots organization. If he seeks to include people, it's a large and costly enterprise. If he limits the event, he looks elitist, or stingy, or ungrateful. If he opens the State House doors to everyone, someone will write about security issues, long lines, lousy food, and poor planning.

[. . .]

Take the issue of funding the inaugural. One day the media encourage public-private partnerships, demanding greater corporate civic participation. The next day they vilify Patrick for seeking contributions to underwrite the inaugural. Should the taxpayer pay for the inaugural festivities?
Deval Patrick will be criticized no matter what he does. If it's a small event, he's a hypocrite for talking about wider participation, but turning his inaugural into an insider's party. As it stands now, it's too big and too expensive and the wrong people are paying for it. Well, more people worked on and donated to and were involved in Deval Patrick's campaign than any other in recent memory. How many of them should be excluded? Inviting 40,000 people to a party is going to be expensive and unless you're going to price them out, there needs to be some other source of funds. The inauguration as planned is the most inclusive the Commonwealth has seen, and that's something that I think should be celebrated.

Let's save the criticism of Patrick until he actually does something that matters. Let's see what his first budget looks like before we get worked up about what message he's sending.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tolls for Thee

On Monday, Edward L. Glaeser, economics professor at Harvard and director of the the Kennedy School's Rappaport Institute, wrote a Boston Globe op/ed detailing some of the reasons why tolls should not be removed on the Mass. Turnpike. I agree with almost everything in the piece, but I particularly wanted to highlight two ideas Glaeser had for making those tolls work better:

First, we should acknowledge that, because congestion changes from hour to hour, the social cost of driving varies over the day. Time-sensitive tolls can help move drivers from commuting during peak hours to less congested periods. We could double tolls during peak hours and cut them to zero during off-peak hours. Alternatively, the toll could rise slowly from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then decline as traffic eases off. Since trucks use up the most space, tolls should rise particularly steeply for trucks driving during rush hour.

Second, we should recognize that the administrative costs for cash payments are about three times higher than the same costs for payments made with fast lane devices. Since people who use fast lanes save the system money, their tolls should be reduced. Tolls on those who pay cash should be substantially increased, perhaps even doubled. Already, some tolls are lower for fast lane users, but this effort needs to be expanded. Alternatively, higher tolls on cash-paying drivers can be used to make transponders free.
This is exactly right, I think. The Turnpike Authority should be pushing those fast lane transponders on the public. In my opinion, they've been very slow to move away from toll collectors to electronic payments, and they've really offered very little by way of incentive for drivers to switch. Increasing the use of the transponders would make Glaeser's first point easier to implement. The computerized payment system would allow us to do creative things with the tolls, such as separate peak and off-peak tolls, or discount programs for commuters.

It only makes sense -- roads should be paid for in part if not in total by the people who drive on them. Tolls are the way to accomplish this, and there are ways we should be using them to make them more efficient and more fair.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Notes From "Where Do We Go From Here?" Forum

Last night I attended a public forum sponsored by the Cambridge Democratic City Committee entitled "The Deval Patrick Administration: Where Do We Go From Here?" The forum was moderated by former state Senator and Friend of the Blog, George Bachrach. The panel included Mass. Democratic Superwoman Kate Donaghue, MassINC co-founder Tripp Jones, and Mass. Council of Human Service Providers President Michael Weekes.

Bachrach, who now teaches journalism at Boston University, opened the event with a scathing rebuke of the local media, so much so that Tripp Jones later jokingly suggested that Bachrach be appointed media watchdog for the Patrick administration. He pointed out the latest silliness where the leaked report of the cost of Patrick's inauguration, an event that would be over in the first week of January, on the front page while the announcement that Leslie Kirwan would be the Secretary of Administration and Finance and be responsible for the budget for the next four years was relegated to page 28 (or thereabouts).

The question and answer session covered a variety of topics. There were a couple of themes that came up. First was that there were a lot of unmet needs after four years of neglect under outgoing Governor Mitt Romney. As such, a lot of people are being set up for disappointment that their particular interest may not be the new governor's highest priority. That said, the consensus was that Deval Patrick really means it when he says he wants input from everyone, and wants to include the citizens of Massachusetts in the decision-making process.

The final question of the evening came from Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge) who was in the audience for the entire meeting. She asked whether ecouraging participation would lead to those who were engaged having "realistic expectations" regarding what the Patrick administration could actually accomplish. Weekes had what I thought was one of the best lines of the night in response: "Democracy doesn't mean we all get what we want at the same time." Of course, that's a small comfort for those who find their pet issue at the bottom of the pile. Jones made a point then that I think nicely intersects with my post from yesterday, but on a macro level. He noted that to accomplish goals, Patrick would have to broaden the vision of how the state tackles problems. We need to take a hard look at what state government can actually do and see how we can leverage the thriving private sector -- both for-profit and not-for-profit -- in Massachusetts. How can we best encourage the private sector to be good corporate citizens and help address the commonwealth's unmet needs? Patrick himself is almost uniquely suited to do this given his knack for bringing people with diverse interests together.

In all, it was a fantastic forum. My thanks go out to the participants and to the Cambridge DCC for organizing it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Thoughts on Civic Engagement

This Sunday, Dave Denison, the former editor of CommonWealth magazine, had a piece in the Boston Globe's Ideas section about what exactly grassroots governing really means. If you haven't yet gotten a chance to read it, I recommend checking it out.

I think he spends a little too much time talking about the ballot initiative process as a grassroots tool in the article. While you could certainly say that the gay marriage ballot is the product of a grassroots movement, I don't think you could say the same about the ballot initiatives we voted on just this past November. Does anyone really think that Question 1, which would have allowed wine to be sold in grocery stores, was the product of a public clamoring for such sales? If it were, I imagine that it would have passed.

In any event, the most important part of the article, in my opinion, comes at the end, where Denison makes the point that there's more to encouraging an engaged grassroots than just getting people to vote.

Nevertheless, [Benjamin] Barber, who directs CivWorld, a New York-based organization that promotes democratic innovation, contends that a governor must take a bold approach if he wants to expand citizen democracy. The answer, Barber says, is in moving beyond "let the people vote."
[ . . . ]
"Part of the point of direct democracy and strong democracy is not just to get citizens to vote on things but to get individuals to turn into citizens," Barber says. "And that's a process that is more than just about voting."
This is particularly relevant in light of the Civic Engagement community meeting I attended last week. Blue Mass Group has posted the transcript of that meeting and Charley has his thoughts on the meeting as well. What struck me was how much of the testimony focused on increasing voter registration or voting machines and how little of it focused on how to get people more involved in their communities. To my recollection, only one person's testimony gave us any examples of what they did to get people involved locally. While certainly voting is an important part of civic engagement, I would argue that it is the bare minimum required of citizens in a democracy and when Patrick talked about a return to civic life, I feel like he was talking about what we as citizens can do for ourselves, not what programs or reforms the government should enact to encourage them to come out on election day. The classic anecdote he would tell was that of Ms. Jones, the neighbor who would whup you just as if you were one of her own children. This was a community where people looked out for each other, not where the government looked out for them.

Denison speaks to this aspect of civic engagement at the end of the annotated version of his article (though, if you're going to annotate something on the web, Dave, you may want to make your footnotes into links):
Patrick's rhetoric was mostly that of a "civic republican." Perhaps he's closer to Harvard government professor Michael Sandel than to Ben Barber in his thinking. As Sandel writes in Democracy's Discontent (1996), "the republican tradition emphasizes the need to cultivate citizenship through particular ties and attachments . . . [which requires] a concern for the whole, an orientation to the common good." That's Patrick's language, too.
This, I think, is that part of civic engagement that can help Patrick deliver on his promises. The more people who are involved in local civic organizations, the more likely that they are to be filling the needs of the community that are currently unmet by the state. If my experience is any indicator, Patrick has already had some success in this area. Previous to my work on the campaign, I was not particularly involved in local issues here in Watertown. Now that I've met so many people in town, I've started not only becoming involved more locally, but also donating to local causes. This is the sort of civic engagement that I imagine the governor-elect is most concerned with.

As an aside, I really do like the idea of authors posting their own annotated work on the web. That's a great use of the Internet! Kudos to Dave Denison for taking advantage of the medium.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bloggers Should Blog

If there's one thing that I regret about the past election cycle -- and given how everything went, there might just be only one thing -- it's that I wasn't able to fully reconcile my work with the campaign and my writing here on this blog. As it got closer to election day, I was doing more and more interesting things, but writing about them less and less. Even now, with the election a month in the past, it's been hard for me to get back in the swing of things.

The title of this post I stole from one written by kid oakland back in October. He argued that "the best thing any blogger can do as an election approaches is to do what they do best year round." That stuck with me during the time between the primary and the general election. I started this blog because I was vaguely aware that there were a lot of political events happening that were not being covered by the media and that you would never know what had happened unless you were there. I decided that part of my mission would be to go to them and write about it. For the past few months, I've been going to things, but not writing about it, or about much of anything else. All last year, I was in a position to make politics more accessible to people, yet I did not find the time or the energy to do so.

There are only so many hours in a day, and perhaps if I had the ability to stop time, I would have been able to blog more during the campaign. I made the decision to spend my free time on the campaign rather than on the Internet. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure I made the right choice, but it got me thinking about how to blog as part of a campaign. What would be interesting for people to read? Perhaps I should have focused less on documenting whatever atrocities the state GOP had committed that day and written more about what being a town coordinator was like. People might be interested in what we did and how we did it, but I always felt that I shouldn't be giving the strategy away. It's silly, really, given that everyone knew that Deval Patrick's strategy was to get as many people involved as possible and get them to convince their friends and neighbors to do likewise. At the same time, before becoming involved in this campaign, I never really thought about what a campaign's field organization did. Maybe if I had read someone's campaign diary, it wouldn't have been so scary to get involved in the first place.

Does anyone have any examples of really good campaign blogging from this cycle or others? Not simply using a blog to get the message out, but something that goes through what it's actually like to work on a campaign.