Freeway plodders

We would do well to avoid trips down I-5, especially near Seattle, where congestion reigns most hours of the day. One reason for freeway jams is the motorist who moves into the far left lane, then stays there, no matter how many other motorists line up behind the offender.

But it’s illegal to drive in the left lane in Washington state, unless one is passing another vehicle. But the law is rarely enforced.

Vox tells us why you should obey that law.

…It’s not that you’re never allowed in the left lane, just that you should only use it when necessary, for passing, then get back over.

That’s because even if you’re driving fast, there’s always someone going faster. If you promptly get back over after passing, that car will be able to pass you, allowing everyone on the road to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. If you don’t, it’ll inevitably lead to buildups of traffic and likely raise the chance of accidents.

Common sense, of course. But who among us possesses the quality?

Oh, and freeways would be safer if police let speeders go and ticketed the plodders.

research has generally shown that the strongest predictor of an accident isn’t speeding, but variance from the average speed of traffic — and a car going five miles per hour slower than the surrounding traffic has a greater chance of causing an accident than one going five miles per hour faster than it.

Better yet, let’s pool all the money we spend on our individual cars and invest in state-of-the-art rail systems. That would be real common sense.

Out of work

mean unemployment duration


This graph illustrates better than most that the Great Recession exacted an extraordinary toll on those who lost their jobs. Worse, the extended suffering was completely unnecessary.

Efficiency and inequality

Most of us are familiar with fundamental concepts of supply and demand. We tend to consume more of an item when its price falls, and vice versa. The price, in turn, represents the intersection of supply and demand.

Suppose that an area experiences drought, which is most of California these days. One way to induce conservation of water is to increase its price—to reflect lower supply. People in the aggregate respond by using less water.

But there are exceptions. Rich households will probably continue their water-consumption behavior, unaffected by rising prices. Poor households, on the other hand, will very likely cut back on their use of water. They simply cannot afford to pay higher water bills.

The U.S., as we should all know by now, is the most unequal modern industrial society in terms of wealth and income. Very wealthy Americans have so much money that they literally could not possibly spend it all. Meanwhile, the Rest of Us struggle to make ends meet.

In a market-based economy such as ours, in which pricing dominates, the poor will suffer more than the rich in nearly every respect, and even more so when the price of an essential commodity like water rises.

This recent article in Vox provides some insight into efficiency and inequality. Author Matthew Yglesias writes:

When economic inequality is really severe, using prices to regulate the distribution of scarce goods can be seriously unfair. At the same time, using non-price mechanisms can be seriously inefficient.

That means that inequality is preventing us from adopting efficient solutions to a wide variety of problems, ranging from drought response to traffic congestion to climate change.

In countries with lower inequality (he cites Norway and Sweden) price mechanisms work better and more fairly than in those countries with greater inequality like the U.S. Charging motorists to enter urban cores during peak hours will reduce congestion, but in America the reduction will come at the expense of the poor; the rich will pay the higher cost with little or no impact on their overall consumption of goods and services.

Yglesias concludes:

To the extent that inequality undermines arguments for efficient price-based schemes, the correct conclusion is to reject inequality, not reject pricing.

I would have made the deal

Had the Grim Reaper showed himself yesterday, as I wretched and pooped till nothing was left, I would have signed the pact. Better dead, I thought, than this damnable flu, an early Xmas gift from one of my children.

But what a difference a day makes. Up and at ’em. Even got myself a haircut after a single slice of toast for breakfast. I’m glad that there was no pen in sight. I would have regretted the signing.

Reap what you sow [u]

Many years ago the good citizens of Snohomish County decided that it would be a good idea to elect just about everyone to government positions, though I think the dogcatcher is still appointed. On a typical local ballot, there are the usual suspects for state and federal offices. But then near the bottom is a lengthy list of local candidates, people you know nothing about and, frankly, probably don’t care to know. We vote for multiple county officials, including the assessor, the clerk, the sheriff, the executive, the council members, and so on.

Three years ago I was asked to write an op-ed for the Everett Herald. In so many words, I suggested that more local governments be structured and operated like a public utility district, with just three elected board members, who appoint a chief executive officer. I argued that PUD governance was lean and accountable; if citizens (ratepayers) believed that the utility was moving in the wrong direction, throw the bum(s) out.

In that essay I singled out Snohomish County government as the antithesis of PUDs. I wrote:

…Let’s go through the list: county executive, five county council members, the treasurer, the auditor, the court clerk, the sheriff, the assessor, and, finally, the prosecutor. Then there are the judges. Who is accountable to whom?

To be sure, each of these elected officials answers to the voters. But none is accountable to the other. Worse, in my judgment, the council has its staff of aides and policy analysts as does the executive, creating two parallel support teams. That’s got to be expensive, if not also unwieldy.

Then there are the council committees. On Mondays there are an “administrative” committee session, an “operations” committee session, and a “law & justice/human services” committee session. On Tuesdays there are three more sessions, involving the “finance and development committee,” the “planning and community development” committee, and finally, the “public works” committee. The “general legislative” session occurs on Wednesdays. Each of these sessions is chaired by one of the five council members. Also present are separate legislative analysts and the council’s clerk. So un-PUD-like.

Well, with so many elective offices, none accountable to the other, we would expect disagreements and, on occasion, such disagreements can really muck things up. As I write, the county council and the independently elected executive may not be able to reach consensus on a new budget. According to the Herald:

Failing to act could earn the county a dubious distinction as the first in Washington to suffer a government shutdown because elected leaders couldn’t agree on a budget.

Yesterday, following months of public briefings and open hearings, the Snohomish County PUD board adopted next year’s budget. No headlines. Just business as usual.


UPDATE 12/17/2014):

Crisis averted. Budget passed.

Unleash the beast

Ah, ah. You had in mind Marshawn Lynch (Go, Bears!). But you would be wrong.

For several years I studied philosophy in college, a subject that I found liberating, just as the author of this piece for the New York Times does. It can be at times dense, frustrating, illustrative, insightful, and, believe it or not, damn interesting in itself. But, with the author, I felt the academic philosopher caged, insulated, and too often unavailable to ordinary lives. I like this excerpt from the linked essay:

But I think the key difference between science and philosophy is that we need the results of science more than we need everyone in the body politic “doing science.” By contrast, we need everyone “doing philosophy” more than we need the results of philosophy.

Amen. A good read, by the way.

Squeezing out the Rest of Us

Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest a system that enables a small percentage of people to select candidates for the ballot. That sounds familiar. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig remarks:

So, you know, what were they protesting about in Hong Kong? They were protesting a system, a two-stage democracy wherein the first stage, a tiny, tiny group will select the candidates who the rest of Hong Kong get to vote for. A tiny group, .024 percent of that population. Well, that is our democracy too. Because we’ve got a system where a tiny, tiny fraction of America picks the candidates who get to run by funding their campaigns. The relevant funders of campaigns are no more than the number of people proportionately that were picking the candidates in Hong Kong.

Republican operatives are busy now trying to whittle down the list of potential presidential candidates for the 2016 election. They don’t want a repeat of too many office-seekers throwing mud at one another to see which escapes with the least amount of dirt on their face. They’re seeking to coronate rather than congratulate a bludgeoned winner.

On the Democratic side, forces have been marshaled to install Hillary Clinton as the successor to Obama. A recent Nation magazine warns against rushing to judgment, given Clinton’s pro-military record and Wall Street siphoning.

And, I think, therein lies the problem with the Democratic Party. It has morphed from the ostensible defender of the working class into a sycophant of the monied interests. The Nation offers this graphic:

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 10.56.26 AM


Our government, regardless of party, is being brought to you by the plutocrats who insist on a quid pro quo. Their needs will be met first, leaving crumbs for the Rest of Us.

If there is a solution at hand, it’s the old-fashioned one: organize. I’d suggest that the first order of business is reclaiming the party that used to work for us; third parties in America’s electoral system don’t stand a chance.