Monday, July 18, 2011

Decisions, decisions...

Jess and I are probably going to find a new place to live pretty soon, and the timing of the situation is one of these frustrating things that's forced us to make a decision affecting us for the next year based on quite temporary circumstances. We currently live right by a freeway entrance, in what's something like a small border vacuum. It's a very convenient location because it's close to one of the few bus stops useful to get to my workplace, and it's a pretty quick walk to both the U District and Wallingford commercial districts. Unfortunately it's not a very pleasant place. The freeway is loud, and there's an abandoned lot next door that, along with the large number of people passing through, make it a haven for panhandlers. Most of the panhandlers are alright (I got some gardening advice from one dude), but a few are drunk and violent, and there's a constant stream of litter coming from the bus shelter. And then there are the drug dealers, though it's not quite 3rd and Pike.

Long story short, we've been hoping to move soon, but not too far. We were hoping to make the decision where and when to move in about a month, because in a few weeks we'll know some things that could significantly open up our apartment search. But our lease is ending mid-August and we can't go month-to-month. We're near the University, where the yearly leasing cycle is very regular, and our landlord, understandably, doesn't want to try to put a unit on the market midway through September or October. So we have to seek out a year-long contract, either here or at some other place, before knowing whether we're still going to be as constrained geographically.

My last job search had some similar elements to it; I was waiting on some companies, and others were waiting to hear from me. There was one point where my parents were visiting Jessica and me in Wyoming, and I knew I'd be moving in little over a week, but I didn't know which state I'd be moving to! In these situations I feel like I'm stumbling around the country, rather than making intentional decisions about my future. I guide the stumbling steps as well as I can. And I've ended up in a city I like (despite all its flaws), married to someone I love a lot, doing things I like to do. Maybe I really have all the control anyone could expect to have, maybe more.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Transportation, Subsidy, Environment, Future, Rambling

I've been following Seattle Transit Blog lately, and thinking about the constant mass transit crises going on in American cities. It's not just Seattle, with its high-powered NIMBYs preventing dense inner-city development, lack of state income tax (and resulting extremely regressive tax impacts), and tortuous geography... just for a few of the obstacles faced by transit here. Chicago and New York seem to constantly have transit funding problems, too.

The root of the problem, from an economic perspective, might be that mass transit service is offered to the public below-cost. Expanding the system to serve more users means the transit agency has greater losses instead of greater profits like most businesses. But raising fares up to the level of per-rider costs doesn't really look so good in most places either — think $6 bus fares in most of Seattle. Maybe popular commuter routes to employment centers with scarce parking could cover their costs from the farebox, because they'd still be a good deal compared to paying for parking.

The government subsidy for transit service is one of the biggest targets for transit opponents. Transit proponents hearing this will shout back that the road networks are given away to drivers, mostly for free. A tiring argument follows, filled with conjecture, over who is subsidized more, transit users or drivers. I don't think there can be an answer to this question — surely it varies considerably in different circumstances, which doesn't help much if you're trying to create cost-effective transportation strategies.

Maybe the answer is that we shouldn't subsidize transportation very much at all. All motorized transportation requires lots of energy, and subsidizing lots of energy usage is about the last thing we need to do. If all the major highways were tolled to cover road construction and maintenance costs (probably with the toll roughly tied to vehicle weight, as heavy vehicles including city buses put a lot of stress on the roads), and transit fares reflected the cost of offering the service, all the costs of traveling would be included in the price for traveling instead of being externalized onto everyone else. The incentive, then, would be to act in ways that lower everyone's total costs. If mass transit is the most cost-effective way to get around, its fares will be cheaper than the cost of driving.

Another thing that's pretty obvious and affects thinking about transportation generally is climate change. People don't really like talking about this, but greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, the earth has a limited supply of carbon sinks, and given past and present levels of emission, rich countries like the US have something like a moral imperative to reduce emissions. Because of this, we probably need to set something like a price on pollution itself. The goal would be to set the price of polluting at a level so that we weren't taking more than our fair share of the earth's ability to take carbon emissions. The incentive then becomes to travel when necessary, but to avoid unnecessary travel that adds cost and environmental damage.

In a place like Washington state, where taxes are extremely regressive, subsidies on transportation are probably, in terms of benefit distribution by income, one of the more progressive things going. King County's proposed $20 car tab fee puts this in relief: a regressive tax to provide a progressive benefit. This might be mitigated by replacing general sales taxes with general income taxes. Another thought is that after a truly significant carbon tax is in place (which would have to be at the federal level, not the state), the government would not have to raise as much money through income tax. Per-head refunds from this extra money would be a good mitigation for regressiveness of carbon taxes. The overall problem is not one to overlook; largely removing subsidies on an area as broad as transportation without fixing wealth distribution is basically a non-starter.

Ultimately, all this stuff would be a heavy disincentive towards economic activity, compared to the status quo. We don't just use energy because it's there, we use it to do stuff. But if we're really serious about fixing our emissions problems we might have to set markets to work in slowing down the economy in the wisest possible ways...

I'm currently reading Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom, which, among other things, makes the case that it isn't always economic growth that brings development (he, as the title suggests, measures development by people's freedom to live in a way they have reason to prefer). What we'd have to do in a world with less travel and less economic activity is to thoughtfully choose the things that matter most to us. We might choose to take this action ourselves to stem climate change; we might have it thrust upon us by environmental collapse or peak oil. Either way, I really believe we'll have to consider it within my lifetime.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Awkwardness dreams

I have been having social awkwardness dreams a lot lately, after not having them for a while. Old friends will enter a room and say something to me, and I'll respond by non-sequitur, as if they had said something different. Then they'll walk away and do something else.

I'm mostly posting this so I remember to fold this image into a song at some point, probably In The Morning, but maybe instead God (Abdicated), replacing weird references to Seattle urban development history...

Monday, July 11, 2011

I just joined Google+

LOL.

I may quit if it annoys me, like I did with Facebook. The big G doesn't seem to give off the same predatory vibe Facebook does. I never thought of it this way before, but it might be an east coast-west coast thing. I grew up in the midwest, but with more connections to the west than the east, and I've lived on the west coast twice now. I'm probably somewhat more comfortable with west coast social cues than east coast ones.

Anyway, I'm starting to get lots of email from stuff happening on Google+, and probably that's going to get annoying fast. Iunno. Weirdly, I don't think Google+ has Blogger integration, and Facebook did back in the day. Maybe blogging is old balls now.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

On the radio this morning I heard a discussion of the economic effects of environmental regulations. An economist that had studied the matter claimed that in the long run the level of environmental regulation didn't effect employment levels much either way (though it has other sorts of impacts), but of course proponents tout “green jobs” programs and opponents call any public policy that recognizes the environment at all a “job killer”. It's like this with just about every policy discussion today. Every program has to be judged solely on the merit of whether or not it creates jobs.

In our society we must sometimes act in self-interest and sometimes in civic interest. If our leaders focus only on job creation they're only serving a very narrow section of civic interest. And if we only vote on the basis of job creation we're basically voting by self-interest. Self interest isn't always easy to determine, but it's usually a lot easier to determine than civic interest. The “duh” case of voting for something that creates jobs makes it a perfect way for politicians to get a knee-jerk vote.

But, ultimately, it's a pretty big failure of imagination. We're told that we should support “green jobs“ programs because cleaner production “is the future” or something similarly vague. But environmental protection is hardly a natural law — it's only the future if we choose it. Why are we trying to become the leader in green jobs instead of choosing to protect the environment?

Friday, July 1, 2011

I feel safer...

... after reading that due to post-9/11 security concerns, the sidewalk on a bridge between Detroit and Windsor was closed. Because it's so much easier to conceal terrorist materials on foot or on a bike than in a car. Yeah, that. Mentioned on this page.