Tag Archives: Environment

High-Speed Rail in the USA: Why Hasn’t it Flourished?

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about high-speed rail in the USA. It was right around the time that the USA had announced that it was going to be improving its high-speed rail system. As someone who enjoys public transportation, it was pretty exciting to see that one would be able to travel from Montreal to San Diego by high-speed train!

While I wrote it over two years ago, it is consistently one of my most popular posts. It’s probably not fair to draw too strong a conclusion from that, but it’s reasonable to think that people are at least interested in high-speed rail in the USA. On that note, I came across a post on Mashable that offers a disheartening update to high-speed rail in the USA:

The not so good news is, if you live in the United States, you’re out of luck when it comes to HSR, thus far. High-speed rail in the U.S. is mired, for the most part, in opposing views about what’s best for the country’s travel infrastructure — and how we should pay for it.

As is the case with many ‘public goods,’ there’s always the question of who’s going to foot the bill. It seems to me, the USA, more than other countries, have a harder time coming to an agreement on who should pay for public transportation. As I mentioned in my post two years ago, most folks say that Europe is much smaller than the USA and that’s why it has public transportation galore and the USA doesn’t — incorrect. Would you believe that Europe actually has more land area than the USA? You should (Europe: 10,180,000 km²; USA: 9,826,675 km²).

After debunking the land area myth, the next logical progression is population. That is, are there enough people that even need to be transported by high-speed rail. Europe’s population is over 700 million, more than double the USA’s population. Of all the points against high-speed rail, this one seems like it’d be the most compelling. With that being said, it still stands to reason that there could be high-speed rail between the large urban centers, right?

At the beginning of the month, Business Insider created a map that showed that half of the United States lives in 146 counties. That is, half of the USA’s population is accounted for in these counties. In looking at the map, you’ll recognize many of the areas. So then why can’t the USA start its high-speed rail adventure by building between some of these urban areas? Well, we’re back at the political issue of who pays for it. Building a high-speed rail line between Chicago and Detroit crosses state lines, so who pays for it: Illinois or Michigan? And this, of course, reinvokes ideological differences.

Like the Mashable article foreshadows, the outlook for those who would find joy in the proliferation of high-speed rail doesn’t look good.

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The Habits of Societies: The Power of Habit, Part 3b

In Part 1a, we had an introduction Duhigg’s book on habits. In Part 1b, we looked at some of the highlights and the key points from the first section (on individuals) of the book. In Part 2, we looked some of the stories that Duhigg shared in the second section about Michael PhelpsAlcoaStarbucks, and the Rhode Island Hospital.  In yesterday’s post, we began our examination of the last section on societies by looking at Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rick Warren. In today’s post, we’ll look at the last chapter of the last section.

The last chapter juxtaposes the stories of Angie Bachmann and Brian Thomas. Bachmann’s story leads us on a journey of the development of a compulsive gambler and all the happenings that follow. Thomas’ story is the accidental murder of his wife. It seems strange that an adjective like accidental would precede a word like murder, but in this case, it seems to fit.

Duhigg uses these two stories to espouse the view that under different circumstances, we should be responsible for the consequences of our habits. To be honest, I didn’t see the oft-used conservative viewpoint that folks need to take ‘personal responsibility‘ coming. Nonetheless, Duhigg makes a pretty good case for it. In the case of Thomas’, there wasn’t much that he could have done to prevent the accidental murder. He “wasn’t himself” when it happened. Of course, Bachmann “wasn’t herself” when she was gambling, but the argument then becomes that Bachmann knew that she had a problem and knew that there were things she could do to prevent herself from destroying her life.

At first, I struggled with this viewpoint. I strongly believe that the environment plays a big part in the way we behave as people in society. Of course, Duhigg does acknowledge this. I’m just saying that I think, even today, we might be underestimating the importance that the environment plays on our ability to make decisions for ourselves.

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After sitting back and reflecting on the last section of this chapter, I’m more ambiguous about what I think. When I read it, I remember thinking that Duhigg made a really convincing case that we need to take personal responsibility for our habits. But in reflecting on some of the other contrary evidence, I don’t know that everyone has the strength/willpower to simply change their habit when their environment continues to support their old habits. For instance, I’m thinking about someone who’s gotten mixed up in recreational drugs. If someone’s trying to change their life such that they no longer use recreational drugs, it’s going to be important that their environment change along with them. Meaning, if they stop using drugs, but they’re still hanging out will all of the same friends (who use drugs) and go to places where drugs are used, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain one’s goal of staying clean. There’s also the neuropsychological component where the chemicals in the drug cause certain reactions in the brain making it that much more difficult to give up.

Like I said, I’m ambiguous as to what exactly I think on this topic, but if you’re interested, I highly recommend reading the last chapter of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg makes an excellent case for personal responsibility.

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If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: America’s Dependence on Mideast Oil

Earlier this morning, I came across a headline that was a bit shocking (to me): “Americans Support the Keystone XL Pipeline by Wide Margin.” All of the data I’d seen regarding polls of Americans showed that there certainly wasn’t a wide margin in support or against the pipeline. So, with my curiosity piqued, I clicked the article to find out that 67% (of the survey respondents) support building the pipeline. That still seemed a bit surprising, as, like I said, most polls I’d seen had stayed in the range of 45/55 or 55/45.

Upon getting to the actual survey, I scrolled to the question that led to the headline. Here’s the question that was read to survey respondents:

The President is deciding whether to build the Keystone X-L Pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the United States. Supporters of the pipeline say it will ease America’s dependence on Mideast oil and create jobs. Opponents fear the environmental impact of building a pipeline. What about you – do you support or oppose building the KeystoneX-L pipeline?

Do you see anything wrong with this question?

Let’s start with the idea that they’re telling respondents what supporters say and opponents say. If the respondent doesn’t really have a strong opinion about the question, they may prefer to identify with one group or the other (and they might even if they have a strong opinion!) One could argue that there’s a response bias present. There has been quite a bit of press about “America’s dependence on foreign oil.” So, someone might not want to oppose that viewpoint in a survey. That is, the respondent wouldn’t want to appear, (to the person conducting the survey), that they don’t think that reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil is as important as the environment.

Juxtaposing the dependence on foreign oil with environmental impact is a bit unfair. As I said in the previous paragraph, I’d bet that most people have heard/read something about the America’s dependence on foreign oil, but they probably don’t know very much about the environmental impact of oil. Now, that could be a messaging problem for the environmental movement, but there hasn’t been a compelling enough case made. (If there were, there certainly wouldn’t have been this many people who were “A-OK” with building the pipeline.)

Lastly, let’s actually examine this so called dependence on foreign oil. From the US Energy Information Administration:

The United States relied on net imports (imports minus exports) for about 40% of the petroleum (crude oil and petroleum products) that we consumed in 2012. Just over half of these imports came from the Western Hemisphere. Our dependence on foreign petroleum has declined since peaking in 2005. [Emphasis added]

In doing the math, 60% of the petroleum (oil) that the US consumed in 2012 was produced domestically — inside the US! In doing some more math, we’re told that just over half of the imports came from the Western Hemisphere. Meaning, less than half of the imports are coming from countries outside of the Western Hemisphere. Meaning, less than half of the imports could be coming from the Mideast and we already know that only 40% of the oil consumed in the US comes from imports. In fact, this same agency tells us just how much oil is imported from Persian Gulf countries: 29%. So, 29% of the imports (40%) is how reliant the US is on Mideast oil. Again, doing the math the total US consumption of Mideast oil: 11.6%. Does 11.6% sound like dependence?

If you recall the last line of the quote from the agency: “Our dependence on foreign petroleum has declined since peaking in 2005.

The next time you read survey data, I hope you’ll remember this post and consider just how construed the results may be.

[Note: The title of this post is a quote that was popularized by Mark Twain.]

Chapter 3 – Fairness and Inequality: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 3

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last finished a chapter in Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I recently completed chapter 3 a couple of nights ago and there were some intriguing things to think about. Let’s get right to it!

For me, there were two important parts to the chapter. The first is the explanation of the two objections to markets. Prof. Sandel explains that the two kinds of objections to markets are fairness and inequality:

The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest… [The corruption objection] points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold. [Emphasis added]

A few pages later, Prof. Sandel explains further what he means:

The fairness and corruption objections differ in their implications for markets: The fairness argument does not object to marketizing certain goods on the grounds that they are precious or sacred or priceless; it objects to buying and selling goods against a background of inequality severe enough to create unfair bargaining conditions… The corruption argument focuses on the character of the goods themselves and the norms that should govern them. So it cannot be met simply by establishing fair bargaining conditions. [Emphasis added]

Reading this was a bit tough to swallow. It seemed unlikely that all arguments against markets could be filtered into one of two categories. Then, I thought about his course that I watched last year, “Justice,” and how many of the students seemed to want to argue for nuance around the edges. While there was still nuance, the arguments they put forth still, for the most part, seemed to fall into a way of thinking that had already been espoused by a philosopher.

Later in the chapter, Prof. Sandel discusses three cases where the marketization of a good crowds out nonmarket norms. That was a bit wordy. Prof. Sandel shares cases where adding a market-like aspect (where there previously wasn’t), changed the way people interacted with the good. One of these cases I found particularly surprising (at least at first).

The case comes from Switzerland in the early 1990s. The country was looking for a place to store its nuclear waste. Of course, no town really wanted to house the nuclear waste, but there was a small village that was picked. Some economists surveyed the village to see if they’d accept it, if the Swiss parliament decided that it was the place to put the waste. Fifty-one percent of residents said they’d accept it. The economists then asked another question. If the parliament also paid each resident, would you then accept it? The idea being that, money is the king incentive for everyone, so adding money to this equation should only get more people accepting of the waste, right? Wrong. By adding the monetary sweetener, support collapsed from 51% to 25%! Even when they added more money, that didn’t seem to affect the outcome. Why?

For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit — a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere. If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden. Against the background of this civic commitment, the offer of cash to residents of the village felt like a bribe, an effort to buy their vote.

This seemed like an incredible story with an important lesson — money isn’t always the solution. There were two other examples, but none that were as powerful for me as this one.

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The second important part of this chapter is the explanation of the “two tenets of market faith”:

The first is that commercializing an activity doesn’t change it. On this assumption, money never corrupts, and market relations never crowd out nonmarket norms… The second tenet of market faith is that ethical behavior is a commodity that needs to be economized. The idea is this: we should not rely too heavily on altruism, generosity, solidarity, or civic duty, because these moral sentiments are scarce resources that are depleted with use. [Emphasis added]

Prof. Sandel already showed earlier in the chapter that money can crowd out nonmarket norms. After this above quoted section, he goes on to show that things like altruism and generosity are not scarce resources and that they are not depleted with use. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Fields like positive psychology have done research on these areas and shown that there’s almost a multiplier effect with things like altruism and generosity.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

 

Room for Innovation in Wind Energy Industry

I was driving down the 401 in Toronto and I noticed a wind turbine setback from the highway. As I looked at it, I remembered seeing it when I used to live in Toronto over 10 years ago. That’s a long time. On one of my first trips across the USA, I drove north through the California desert. As you’d expect, there were lots of wind turbines. When I traveled through New Zealand, there were lots of wind turbines there, too.

The extent of my knowledge (at this point) of wind energy is that the energy is captured through the use of a wind turbine. And because of the structure of the turbines, there are lots of folks who oppose wind turbines. There concerns are understandable and shouldn’t easily be dismissed. That being said, I think about the abundance of wind on the planet I think that there’s gotta be room for innovation in this industry, right?

If I had to choose, my guess is that solar energy is going to be what revolutionizes energy on our planet, but while we’re still trying to perfect energy storage (batteries just won’t cut it), I have a hunch that there’s something we can do about the wind energy industry. I don’t have a grand idea to propose in this post, but there are many inventions or discoveries that come from people who weren’t working inside that industry. My guess is that I don’t have many readers who work in the wind energy industry, so it might be people like you and I who come up with an idea that revolutionizes the wind energy industry.

The next time you get a few minutes, think about the abundance of wind on the planet and how we might capture and store that energy. It just might be a million dollar idea…

Quick Thoughts on “The Continuous Reinventing of the Machinery of Government”

I’m into the last semester of an MBA. For my last two electives, I chose courses that could serve me if I chose to be public servant or if I chose to get into the foreign service (I realize those aren’t mutually exclusive areas). My two electives are International Relations and Administration in Public and Nonprofit Organizations. The IR class is certainly challenging as I never had a political science class during my time as an undergraduate. The Public Admin. class has been really fun so far — I’m learning a lot about how the government functions (and doesn’t). I just finished reading one of the chapters for class tomorrow and I wanted to share a few excerpts and some thoughts. All excerpts come from Shafritz’s/Russel’s/Borick’s Introducing Public Administration, 8th edition, Chapter 3, “The Continuous Reinventing of the Machinery of Government.”

“More than 7 million Americans already live in such closed-off communities, and that number is expected to double over the next decade.” (p. 75)

“These new-fashioned feudalists, who are decidedly libertarian concerning the outside world, are surprisingly socialistic concerning the private, inside world of their gated min-cities.” (p.75)

This reminds of something I saw earlier this year. Glenn Beck wants to create his own city. I remember Jon Stewart doing a bit on Beck contrasting his anti-socialistic views for the outside world, but his downright socialistic tendencies when it came to being inside the walls of his city. This has a, “history repeats itself,” kind of feeling to it, doesn’t it? Not the Stewart bit on Beck, but that there’s a push (is there really?) to return to walled-off cities.

“Government entities, once established, tend to last a long time and not change easily.” (p. 79)

While understandable, it seems that there should be more innovation in the government, shouldn’t there? How can we get more innovation in the government, while carefully preserving those agencies that might quickly be lopped off before they’ve had the time to adequately effect the changes mandated of them?

“There is no federal Department of the Environment…” (p. 84)

Doesn’t this seem a bit unfortunate? Pres. Clinton tried to create this department under his administration, but — naturally — was met with opposition. I understand the fear of Big Government, but some things should transcend partisanship. The really twisted part — folks are calling for the Secretary of State to make climate change (!) his top priority! If there were a Department of the Environment, the Secretary of State could focus on other matters concerning the State. This issue seems misplaced. (Note: I should say that I still think it’s important for the Secretary of State to be concerned with climate change, but with a Department of the Environment, the issue would be more appropriately addressed.)

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There are almost 90,000 (!) governments in the United States when you include county, municipal, towns, school districts, and special districts. (p. 86)

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“Because few citizens ride horses to government offices today, it would seem to make a lot of sense to combine many counties and thus realize substantial savings from having fewer county clerks, county sheriffs, county courts, and so on. But which clerk, sheriff, or judge is going to quietly resign?” (p. 88)

This seems like a really important point. It seems to parallel a problem that is often faced in business — short-term profits vs. long-term gains. In this case, it would be taking short-term losses for long-term gains. If the government bought out those employees in areas where it were merging governments, there would likely be a substantial price tag. Although, in doing so, many (theoretically) efficiencies would be realized. Similarly, there would be a great deal of potential entrepreneurs (in those people who were just bought out). Of course, this is hastily laid out here, but it’d be an interesting proposal to have fleshed out.

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I find it odd that special districts have quadrupled since 1942 (now over 37,000), but school districts have shrunk by 90% (from 108,000 in 1942 to approximately 13,000 today). (p. 90-91)

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“Congress has never drawn — as the Brownlow Committee would have liked — a dichotomy between politics and administration.” (p. 105)

“Members thrive on bureaucratic red tape and the opportunities it creates for constituent service. This is why the ombudsman/ombudswoman movement has never gone very far in the US. This function is happily, even joyously, performed by the elected representatives. It is quite literally what their staffs spend most of their time on — because it is the key to reelection.” (p. 105)

Something’s wrong with this picture — assuming that the authors are correct in their assessment (in that this is what most members spend their time on). It reminds me of an idea I’ve heard before where those elected to Congress were only allowed 1 term (2 years) or something like it.

“To reinvent government, you must also reinvent Congress.” (p. 105)

Great idea! How do we do it?

“Privatization is almost always predicated on assumptions about public sector versus private sector efficiency and productivity rates. The burden of proof is often on public sector managers to explain why they are not inferior to private enterprise managers and why they should retain their functions in the face of private sector alternatives. Perhaps no responsibility is greater for public managers today than developing the evaluation and management assessment tools needed to assure critics that public sector programs and enterprises are being managed efficiently and effectively.” (p. 106)

This reminds me of the Project Management class I had this past Fall. The professor would often take us to the dashboards of the federal government showing us those projects that were on-time, behind schedule, under budget, over budget, etc. I wonder if this elaborate check/balance came as a result of those folks who were trying to prove that the public sector was efficient.

Maybe the burden of proof shouldn’t lie with the public sector. Maybe it should be more a of a philosophical debate. Do we think that these services should be provided by the private sector or by the public sector? And then take action from there.

Environmental Serendipity: A Chance to Rebuild “Green”

With all due respect and condolences, the storm that hit the East Coast of the US is a tragedy, especially for those having to go through it first hand. The things I’m about to say in this post are in no way meant to detract from what is clearly a trying time for a number of citizens.

That being said, I can’t help but think of the ‘environmental serendipity.’ Let me explain: with DEstruction comes the opportunity for CONstruction. That is, after everything is all cleaned up, there will be an opportunity for these areas to rebuild their homes and communities. Given this, there is also the opportunity to rebuild from a more environmentally friendly perspective.

What I find noteworthy here is that if a storm like this hadn’t come through, would any of these areas considered knocking down their homes and rebuilding in a much “greener” way? Probably not. That’s why I see this storm as almost an environmental serendipity in that it gives these communities a chance to be much more mindful of the environment, with respect to its build.

There’s also the perspective that has been taken by some (like Newsweek), in that it brings climate change front and center to the national (USA) discourse. Given that it wasn’t mentioned at all during any of the US presidential debates, this is another “happy” consequence. Storms like these seem to be happening with much greater frequency. As this reality sets in, it will be (hopefully!) harder and harder to deny that our climate is changing… and we should be doing something about it!