Saturday, December 01, 2007

Questioning King Coal

I drove by some U.Va. students in Student Environmental Action protesting on the Corner yesterday. They were criticizing Bank of America for funding the construction of new coal plants. They are also encouraging people to sign a petition on the subject. Not this one or this one, but this one. Wow, Bank of America ticks a lot of different people off. And who knew March of Dimes did animal testing?

I'm thinking a lot about coal these days too. Here's a nice little service that tells if you are paying for mountain top removal with pictures of the sites and where the coal is being burned with Google Maps and Google Earth.

And here's a service that tells how much your energy company contributes to global warming and how carbon efficient it is (set to Dominion, but you can change it).

If you want to buy renewable energy, you can look here.

Or just contact Dominion and ask why they still aren't offering a green power option for green-savvy consumers.

Great job SEA, I hope you heard me honk when I went by.

The picture is copywrited by the Hook, used here strictly for educational purposes. Please don't sue me, I'm a student.
Is Range Right?

A few months ago, I commented that our voting system is flawed and that proportional representation or instant runoff voting may be superior. I believe now that I was incorrect, thanks to some help from Clay Shentrup and the information over at
My main concern with the winner-takes-all style of voting currently dominant in the US is its tendency to establish unbeatable incumbent politicians and parties. Government is only effective if it is legitimate, and its legitimacy is based on responsiveness to voters. The security blanket offered to incumbents by the winner-takes-all system eliminates that responsiveness in many cases and thus the legitimacy and effectiveness of government itself.
That seems like a bad idea.
I studied runoff voting as one potential alternative. This remedy was pushed hard by the Green Party a few years ago as a way to eliminate the "wasted vote" concept. The idea is that you prioritize each candidate running, giving each a number. If your number one choice gets the fewest votes in the first round, that candidate is eliminated and your vote turns to your number two.
As it turns out though, in Ireland and Australia, where it's used, Instant Runoff Voting produces the same two party dominance as winner-takes-all.
And fundamentally, the problem isn't how many important parties there are, it's how responsive government is to the needs of the governed, and IRV doesn't offer solutions here and can actually increase problems, such as situations where a candidate is selected where a majority of voters prefer another because of arbitrary cutoffs.
I thought perhaps Proportional Representation might solve this problem. In this system, voters vote for a party, and then however many votes that party gets is how many seats they get in a government body. The party selects who goes in those seats.
The evidence is unclear that this system is better, except that there is some evidence that countries with more PR like Ireland and Switzerland have a superior quality of life than per capita GNP would suggest. I don't like that this system prevents voting directly for candidates. I think that people are more important than parties.
This other option, range voting seems more promising. In range voting, voters rank each candidate from 0 to 100 based on their personal preference. Then the numbers are all added and whoever has the highers numbers wins.
Mathematically, this system comes closest to a state where God comes down and personally selects the candidate that best represents the people, which everyone immediately agrees with. In one analysis, the switch from a plurality winner-takes all system to a range voting system produced a superior improvement in democracy than the difference between the plurality system and picking candidate's names randomly out of a hat. This suggests that a global switch from plurality to range voting might usher in a Renaissance of good government and associated economic boom as better decisions lead to less waste and greater opportunity.

Can it happen in Charlottesville?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dear Representative Kucinich,

I was proud to support you in 2004 and am appreciative of your good work for our country, but I have a few concerns this time that I would like to share. I was shaken when a colleague told me that on environmental issues, Edwards is offering a better platform. I have grown to expect you to be well ahead of the curve on these issues, as I still believe you are on other critical topics. MoveOn's embracing of Edwards on his excellent (though still insufficient) climate change plan was a wake-up call for me, as I hope it was for you.
I think all of this is pointing to what I see as a cleavage in the environmental community, what some call dark green and bright green. Dark green is traditional environmentalism, with an emphasis on pollution prevention and cleanup. This is where I started as an environmental activist, and I believe this is roughly where you are, based on your platform. Bright green is the next step, which people like Bill McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Alex Steffen at are promoting. I see this philosophy as essential to our future success as individuals, as Americans, and as a species.
I understand that you're absurdly busy right now, but is there someone in the campaign I can speak with about updating your green platform? I think you'll agree that green democrats and independents are essential to your base, and if you spin it right, a new green platform could be a very positive media event.
Related: Your veganism. It comes up all the time, and it's very dark green. It says that you think that meat and dairy are bad. In the main, you're correct, but there are ethical alternatives: local, organic, humane. I was vegan too, I understand where you're coming from, but you'll win a lot more support by advocating best practices and local farming than by dismissing a massive industry and the majority of Americans. Also, local organic is much tastier, healthier, much greener, and more enjoyable in every way. I had the good fortune of studying this recently with Tim Beatley, reading Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and meeting with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. This is a fundamental issue, and it points to the difference between dark green and light green. Dark green says that to be sustainable, we need to make do with less. Sacrifice. Bright green says that to be sustainable, we need to live better. We have work to do.
I hope that you'll agree that you want to position yourself as a bright green, competitive candidate.
Thank you so much for your good work and the hope you have given me and many others. I hope you will take this message with an open heart.

Best Regards,

Lyle Solla-Yates
Planning Graduate Student '08
University of Virginia

P.S. I would love to see you start that blog you have on the site.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Public Health Bit

One major government priority, public health, has been giving me trouble. Seeing Sicko (excellent film) convinced me that publicly funded health care was potentially superior to the U.S.'s existing profit-maximizing system. I was convinced of the improved equity (an essential government priority), public health improvements, and economic efficiency of the systems employed in France, England, Canada, and Cuba.
So transitioning to publicly funded health care well would create a public benefit and create savings. Good, the policy makes sense, but how to pay for it?
One idea I had immediately was a Pigouvian tax on pollution. This would focus on major public health hazards like cigarettes, mercury, auto exhaust, lead, and trans fats. This health tax would not ban health hazards, but would price them at their true cost. This would cut pollution and pay for its effects on people, a double benefit.
Still, I didn't have a good sense of how to pay for the majority of health costs not directly attributable to pollution.
Katherine Mason, my girlfriend, gave me the solution. People could pay a flat amount for insurance, which would then come down based on positive steps they took for their own health. Instead of costing money, regular checkups and exams would save money off the insurance. Overweight people who lost weight in a healthy way or people who quit smoking would enjoy an insurance break. In this way, people would be rewarded for making the right decisions, and pay a fair (instead of devastating) economic price otherwise. People already making smart decisions like maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking would enjoy the same low rate, similar to some existing insurance programs. There would still be a nominal fee to discourage excessive visits, like a dollar or two.
I would be curious to see a mixed system where private insurers and hospitals would compete with and complement a publicly funded system. I suspect that there are places where private industry could introduce efficiencies into a system geared towards public health and safety over profit.
I suspect that a system like this might also cut down the cost of Medicare, though extended lifespans might eat up those efficiencies. Still, not a bad trade at all.
I should also point out that this system would offer a significant rise in overall lifespans, quality of life, productivity, and general wellbeing and happiness. It would also increase the productivity of land, causing a small boost in land prices to make up the difference. A land tax would capture that additional value and, if significant, it could be used to help cover the health system or go into general revenue.
After reading some Thomas Jefferson: Also, the baseline cost to premium holders would vary according to income level. Someone with little or no income but doing everything to maintain good health would pay very little, while others would pay up to market rate. Low income premium holders would be assisted with revenue from land taxes on value drawn from the program's improvements and profits from market rate premium holders.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Money Solution BETA
(at least for government, but maybe it will help you too)

Some interesting discussion over at Bacon's Rebellion got me thinking about a couple of new ideas, and I felt like reprinting my comments here.

(In response to criticism of the concept of infrastructure that pays for itself, instead of being subsidized by people who do not benefit from it equally or at all)

Is self-funding infrastructure possible? Absolutely, we're doing it every day. When government builds infrastructure, two kinds of benefits are created with two different revenue streams. The first is the actual service of the infrastructure, like better schools or fast transit. We can put a user fee on that and get some revenue, but collecting it is often expensive and with deadweight loss can actively erode the benefits sought by the project in the first place. Still, user fees like congestion pricing can create enormous value by regulating supply and demand for services, creating a double benefit.
The second source of value created by infrastructure is improved productivity of nearby land. A piece of farmland is a much better place to live after the school and transit station go up next door. That land becomes much more valuable, regardless of whether the owner or lessees actually use the services or not. We can put a user fee on that land and harness some of that increase in value. Just like other user fees, the land fee can create enormous value by regulating supply and demand for land, creating a double benefit. Affordable housing and a clear edge are part of that created value.
By putting smart fees on government services, we can pay our fair share for what we need, what we want, have some extra left over if we apply ROI, and don't need taxes, meaning no deadweight loss on consumption and employment.
How's that for self-funding infrastructure?"

I missed some points:
1. Government services can also create efficiencies. For example, free neighborhood medical care would encourage preventative treatment and catch illness early on, before health and economic risks grow. This creates efficiencies such as lower medical costs, fewer sick days, and longer lifespan. This is a critical part of why policies like brownfields redevelopment and energy efficiency make economic sense, by reducing costs.
Some programs, such as brownfields redevelopment, create all three types of value, by providing services (risk abatement), raising land value (safe land is more productive), and creating efficiencies (medical costs avoided). A Return on Investment (ROI) analysis can show the total benefit of a program like this or others, quantifying costs and projected revenue, allowing people to make the best decisions on what to do with their collective political power.

2. There is still room for Pigouvian tax ideas, where the cost of an activity is raised to meet its social cost. Carbon taxes and Virginia's recently enacted abuser fees for drivers are good examples. This strategy is an enormously effective use of police power to address market externalities, as well as a nice source of extra revenue, laying down a nice double benefit. There is not a triple benefit like government services offer, so ROI on these may be lower, but still excellent.

3. As citizens push government in this direction, revenues from services and Pigouvian taxes will replace all taxes and their deadweight costs on earnings and employment, jump starting the economy in a green direction. As efficiencies and productivity accelerate, revenues will outpace spending, creating the delightful problem of what to do with this largess. Alaska addressed this issue with its Permanent Fund. This is an investment fund fed by revenues from oil rights, a government service. The fund forms a cushion to help the state transition as the oil runs out, and in the meantime the interest is used to subsidize other government services and to share with the citizens of Alaska. Governments experiencing revenue beyond useful spending needs would do well with a similar approach, creating a cushion against risk and sharing with citizens.

4. As communities succeed in establishing truly green (profitable) governments, they will have to decide what to do with their individual surpluses. Personal investment (time with family, new businesses, education, stocks and bonds, capital acquisition) and cultural consumption (play, theater, music, film, television, other arts) will dominate over increased family size given high levels of female education (an excellent government service). In this way, the challenges of unsustainable population growth can be avoided, and we can have communities that, as architect Bill McDonough says, "love all children, of all species, for all time."

5. In case of absolute disaster, government can still (ick) put traditional taxes on consumption or (uck) even employment to meet its debt obligations. I note this only because it makes government debt enormously low risk compared with other investments.

Simple, right?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Exciting News!

As part of a package of Earth Day proposals to green the city of New York, Mayor Bloomberg has announced a proposal to introduce congestion pricing in New York City, based on London's successful model.

The New York Observer offers the map above showing the proposal.

I believe that this sort of solution would be enormously beneficial to dealing effectively with Charlottesville traffic. As Governor Tim Kaine pointed out, we can't pave our way out of our transportation problems. Instead, we should be taxing our problems to pay for our solutions. We should tax congestion and we should tax wasteful land use. This makes sure that if people are contributing to common problems, they are paying their fair share for it.

I strongly encourage you, dear reader, to look further into this and to tell your elected representatives about it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Charlottesville City Council meets tonight to discuss shifting two thirds of a $1 million tax windfall slated for repaving to new sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails. I hope you'll join me in e-mailing to encourage this exciting step.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A fellow Green Drinks attendee is interested in a housemate for her apartment near downtown Charlottesville. If you or someone you know is looking for a good place in town, check it out.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Basics of Urban Planning

After I said I intended to make the world a better place through urban planning, I was asked the best way that urban planning could do that, and whether urban planning could also make the world a worse place. Jane Jacobs was also brought up. My response:

The best way that urban planning makes the world a better place is when it works with policy to make doing the right thing (preserving and promoting neighborhood quality, preserving farmland, preserving habitat, and empowering communities) easy and profitable and doing the wrong thing difficult and expensive. In other words, reversing the polarity.

And yes, traditionally urban planning makes the world a worse place. The history of the profession is a history of arbitrary restrictions established for conflicting political agendas producing distressing side effects. American auto dependence is one example, urban renewal is another. American suburbs are the way they are because of urban planning.

My current thesis is that urban planning makes the world a worse place when it is controlled by political elites who are corruptible and have incomplete information. When urban planning is controlled by the communities it is intended to serve, it makes the world a better place. Democracy. That's actually not bad, I don't think anyone's written that book yet, though I bet there's plenty of research to back it up.

Jane Jacobs is brilliant. I'm actually more interested in her foil Robert Moses though. Moses was planning to run an expressway through her neighborhood, forcing her to prove why that was a bad idea. Moses made a lot of mistakes, but he did a lot of amazing things also. I'm interested in how to marry Moses's vision and Jacobs's heart. Synthesis.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Cut-through Pricing

Sorry I've disappeared a bit recently. I'm in graduate school at U.Va. but hopefully I'll be getting involved in city issues again soon.
Anyway, I read the recent article in the C-Ville about cut-through traffic, and I wanted to share an idea with you.
It appears that there is broad agreement that cut-through traffic is a big problem in the city, and most of it isn't city residents and almost none of it is residents/employees in the relevant area.
An economist would suggest that this situation is a hidden subsidy of transportation to a few drivers, at the expense of neighborhood safety and quality, meaning public health, safety, and welfare. I propose that we could have a better system if we taxed that subsidy away, and used the proceeds to fund multimodal transportation improvements in the city and put a percentage into the affordable housing fund. Cut-through pricing is a regressive tax, since the pricing is the same regardless of income or wealth, so it's important that the funds be used to promote better transportation and housing options for low-income people to balance that.
I think the best way to do it would be to set up electronic tolls on roads that neighborhoods nominate. Neighborhood residents and employees would not be charged for using those roads, but people who neither live nor work there, who are cutting through to another destination, would pay a dollar or so. In high traffic, it's a fair price to avoid congestion. When there isn't high traffic, cut-throughs aren't necessary (though people are still free to do it).
I'm not sure how much this system would cost to set up. Similar systems have been set up in places like London and Singapore to manage congestion efficiently (and we could do that also, perhaps obviating the need for cut-through traffic in the first place), but I've never seen a system initiated to protect neighborhood quality.
I like that this idea supports neighborhoods in that they choose which roads get pricing, and they don't pay for their own roads. Neighborhoods could also decide how much each road should be charging.
What do you think?

top left photo: one local solution for cut-through traffic is to block off streets for everyone. photo by Bill Emory.
lower right photo: signs indicating electronic road pricing in london. traffic is not slowed or stopped. photo by Nevilley From.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Woolen Mills News Roundup

My neighbor Bill Emory posted a nice roundup of all the tv news the Woolen Mills Architectural Survey received. That's me in the hat towards the end.