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Means Vs. Ends

Heated rhetoric seems the tone of the day, but it is interesting to see where the battle lines get drawn.

On the national stage, nobody wants to see more gun deaths–there is no disagreement about the end goal.  Homelessness? Would like to see less of that, along with poverty and malnutrition. Education? Most Americans want their kids to get the best education possible. Even something more polarizing is probably not as extreme as it seems–nobody wants there to be lots of abortions, though there is a serious disagreement on how close to zero is fair and appropriate. What there is for all these topics is a massive disconnect on the means.  Usually when you agree on a goal there is room to compromise on means (say by some combination of gun purchasing checks and school security or mental health outreach). What is amazing about modern American culture is that so many of the hot-button arguments are over means and not ends.

Its not clear to a mere grumpy geophysicist why this should be.  Certainly there are cases where there are some actors for whom the means are ends (gun manufacturers, say, in a gun control debate have little interest in shrinking their market; public school teacher unions are not eager to support private school vouchers). So it might not be a surprise that some will be acting to make a debate over means as polarized as possible, but why does this seem to push policy makers to the fringes of the debate? Most of us are in the middle somewhere, we all want to get going in more or less the same direction. As Rodney King said long ago (and had placed on his tombstone), can we all just get along? Most of these questions are not winner-take-all; compromise and examining the outcomes of different blends of solutions can move us toward a better world.  As a scientist, a field where we like to see some experimental results to guide us, GG is frustrated by the lack of ability to focus on solving a problem rather than simply arguing over methods and getting nowhere….

That said, there are a few winner-take-all arguments out there. Most of them involve land, and one of them got GG thinking on this.   Read More…

Pay Scales

“Wow, I get to be paid to go to school!”

That was the reaction of GG’s classmate years ago upon learning that, not only had he been accepted as a graduate students at a prestigious university, but that he would actually get paid for the privilege. After four years of shelling out big bucks for a bachelor’s degree, getting to this point seemed amazing.

Last week was “Graduate Student Appreciation Week“, but in contrast to the feeling mentioned above, some would argue the students are hardly appreciated. Consider the recent proposal from the Committee on Rights and Compensation, a CU-Boulder student-run group fighting insufficient wages and a hostile work environment. Their proposal was that graduate student wages be increased 25% instead of the 6% raise that the University of Colorado has budgeted. How should we look at compensation?

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Whither Water?

Although in some ways overexploitation of water resources has faded out a bit as climate change has caught the focus of those worried about the sustainability of civilization, it hasn’t gone away. Water managers in the western U.S. have probably paid closer attention to the possible changes in climate than…well, nearly everybody. And unlike many others, they are looking to act. But how?

The California drought that ended in early 2017 was a preview of all the problems climate change is apt to generate.  While the snowpack and rainfall amounts were not as low as in the late 1970s drought, the heat was noticeably greater, and research found that the intensity of the drought on vegetation was greater than the older, drier drought because of the higher amounts of evaporation and transpiration. And then the drought ended in dramatic fashion, with big snowpacks and rainfalls leading to the erosion of the spillway of the Oroville Dam in late winter of 2017. Basically feast or famine.

So what is the rational response to this? Frankly, it is to have more water storage, ideally with less evaporation. And, somewhat oddly, increasingly variable precipitation puts pressure on the usual alternative of improved water conservation.

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Just Hear “No”

Every now and then the amusing politics of Boulder provides a real reflection of problems at a broader scale. And while the continued principled posturing can get a geophysicist grumpy, there is a lesson in here somewhere.

Boulder, you see, has purchased a lot of open space land. It makes the town a wonderful place to live, but somebody has to set the rules on this land.  Sitting as we do at the base of the Rocky Mountains, at an ecotone between the plains and the mountains, there is real ecological value to much of this land. A considerable amount of the conserved land is agricultural and has been for about 150 years. A fit and outdoorsy population over a quarter million strong in the county wants to recreate on these lands. Balancing these demands is not easy.

What we see are special interest groups that coalesce around specific aspects of open space management.  Mind, all agree that open space is good, but they are fierce adversaries in how the land is used. Dog lovers have a group dedicated to making as many trails as possible open to dog use. Mountain bikers have their own lobbying group dedicated to opening as many trails as possible to bikes. Climbers too will weigh in for access to their special sites. Conservationists lobby to preserve as broad an ecology as possible. Prairie dog advocates seek ever more ground for prairie dogs while agricultural tenants demand their removal.

Three things stand out.  One, obviously nobody will win everything. And two, all these groups feel put-upon. Thus three, the folks making and enforcing the rules are pretty much vilified from all sides.

The funny thing is that most folks in Boulder are in many–or even all–camps. Riding a mountain bike, walking a dog, admiring the wildlife–lots of Boulderites do all of these things. So we aren’t even talking about shades of gray–we are talking about tints of brown from mixing all these paints together just a bit differently. And yet the advocacy groups often use exaggerated language and promises of the end of all that is good on open space if trail XX is not opened or closed to some use. At times it is like watching a bunch of 2 year olds fight over a toy.

So here is where we need to recall a lesson we should have gotten as children: play nice and we all will enjoy our time together; play selfish and nobody has fun. The strategy of exaggeration and vilification may seem effective in the short run, but it is corrosive in the long run. It leads to dog haters putting out poisoned bait, the dog lovers letting Rover roam where sensitive nesting grounds are, to mountains bikers cutting illegal trails in the foothills–all of which have happened here in Boulder. It is time to accept that when society says “no” it means “no.” You don’t make the rules on your own; you have to engage the body public. And this means you need to accept compromise–you have to respect the “no” you disagree with.

The good news from Boulder is that compromise happens.  While every group can lament a loss, they can also tout a gain. Sometimes the compromises are more clever than you might anticipate: a trail that is open to bikes some days and not others. Or a place where dogs can be walked on leash but not to roam free. Sometimes they can be surprisingly strict: there are areas where you are not allowed to walk at all. But they might be balanced by other areas where you and your bike and your dog can prance about at will.

The key to successful compromise is accepting the things you cannot do.  Fail in that and you are no longer credible as a negotiating partner.  And this is the risk of all who promote absolutism in the pursuit of their goals (and it is easy to think of national examples of the same). If you can’t accept “no” for an answer, don’t expect anybody to want to play with you–or let you play on our land.

Irrational Expectations

GG lives sort of in Boulder, Colorado, a place that is struggling to see what it wants to be.  Reading reports of planning meetings feels like watching blind men feel an elephant.

Here’s the short story: Boulder has about 100,000 people; another 60,000 come in from outlying areas to work in Boulder. Housing prices are such that the city estimates that 40% of residents struggle to pay for housing. So arguably there are 60,000 living comfortably in Boulder and well over 100,000 who would like to live there (the 60,000 commuters probably have families in many cases) but have trouble making it work. Boulder has surrounded itself with green space that it prides itself on. The city has a goal of making 10% of its housing affordable. City residents clearly want to keep the city as it is, with largely single family housing and relatively low density.

Here is the irrational part: all the goals stated are impossible to achieve together. To accommodate all the people who would want to live in Boulder with housing they can afford while retaining current open space, the city’s density would have to more than double. If, on the other hand, the housing stock remains as it is, not only will lots of folks still be unable to live in Boulder, but prices will continue to rise, and of course the greater the fraction of housing that is subsidized, the higher the prices will be for the remaining housing. So most of the arguing going on simply ignores that the city has painted itself into a dead end.

There are precisely two ways out: improved transit and higher business taxes.  There is a lot of cheap real estate well to the east on the plains. If people could easily live there and commute to Boulder, the pressure for affordable housing in Boulder would decline. Yes, the city would have a different demographic mix, but that’s life with a free market. Alternatively, the city could really crank up business taxes and basically push a bunch of employers out of the city. Reduced employment in the city would reduce the demand for housing; ideally you’d keep the pressure up until the number of jobs roughly matched the number of workers living in the city.

Realistically, pushing out business isn’t going to happen, so the only plausible solution to Boulder’s problems will be to improve transit far to the east. That there is no plan to do this makes clear that the city and county have no realistic understanding of their situation. This isn’t the only place with problems like this, but it is striking that a community with a lot of well educated people can’t see their way through this.

The Irony of Open Space

A letter writer to Boulder’s Daily Camera pointed out something that should be obvious but seems to escape many on the political left: preserving open space makes housing more expensive.  So if your priorities favor social justice over environmental preservation, you probably should be against purchases of open space.

It is unlikely that many (if any!) residents of Boulder regret decisions over the years to spend tax dollars buying open parcels of land.  It has enhanced the quality of life in Boulder.  But a clear side effect is to increase property values, both because Boulder is now that much nicer to live in and the amount of land available for housing is that much less.  If you are voting in your own self-interest, and if you are a property owner in Boulder, you should always be voting for the purchase of open space. Your property will gain value and the quality of life will stay about the same or improve.

Of course there are other options for lowering housing prices than building on open space: you can increase density within the existing built-up area. Here in Boulder one option might be for the University to build enough high-density housing (apartments and dorms) for the 30,000 students so there isn’t the pressure on surrounding neighborhood rentals.  You can remove height limits, you can remove limits on how many unrelated people can live in a house, etc.

A longer view, though, might suggest that the open space dilemma might be resolved when population starts to decline.  Although it is hard to imagine in growth-happy Colorado, but the demographics point to populations declining over time. When population pressures relax, how happy will the remaining residents of Boulder be there isn’t that open space remaining?  You could tear down abandoned buildings and replace them with something more useful, but built-over open space is unlikely to be restored to a more nearly natural condition.

Hyperbole Battle

One purpose of this blog is for GG to get grumpy things out of the way, and this is entirely a local topic most readers will want to bypass (though the New York Times has lately had a spate of Boulder articles, so maybe this is really national news). GG has the pleasure of a near front row seat featuring great bouts of hyperbole.  On one side sits NIMBY, on the other government overreach.  GG is not sure which is making him grumpier but wishes the whole thing would just go away.

The battle is over two undeveloped fields.  One was owned by the Catholic church in Boulder, the other the school district.  Both have remained open many years after the subdivisions around them were completed; both are within the county and do not touch the city. A few years ago (2006), the church considered selling their valuable downtown property and moving out here. At the time, noises started emerging within the neighborhood: this would bring too much traffic and noise and bother and affect the neighborhood (an actual quote: “This development will have a negative impact on property values due to the large increase of traffic, parking, car pollution, crowding and noise, not to mention the loss of scenic open space”).  Nascent NIMBY-ism was nipped in the bud when the congregation demanded the church stay in town; happiness was in the neighborhood, but GG’s feeling was, be careful what you wish for. A church could be lots better than something else….

Unbeknownst to the neighborhood, the church discussed with the county up zoning the land so the church could build senior housing.  The county pointed out that the land did not abut city land and so could not be up zoned to the density the church needed.  Instead, the church put the land on the market by early 2012, eventually selling the land to the county prior to early 2013.

It is about at this point where all the fun truly begins.

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