Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cities and surplus, take 2

So first of all, thanks for the awesome response to my last post! It even made it on Rustwire thanks to a great couple of friends.

Second, the comments both here and on Facebook posts made me think a little harder about what I was wondering more specifically and I think it was two things. First, if you could separate eds and meds activities into those designated to create additional surplus and those serving a different set of needs, which chunk is driving the "eds and meds" idea? The second, which I want to talk more about here, is how to operate cities and bits of cities with unalienated surplus (where surplus is those resources above and beyond those needed for the reproduction of society and unalienated means those whose labor is directly responsible for generating the surplus are not divorced from the decisions about its use).

This week, the New York Times had two articles that made me think about different aspects of this question. The first one talked about the Occupy movement's efforts during Hurricane Sandy and how tensions had arisen about the use of remaining donations once basic cleanup and recovery had been achieved (as well as discussions about partnering with government agencies), while the second was about Cairo residents' establishing their "right to the city" both literally and figuratively. In one example, the article describes a group of residents, frustrated with their lack of access to a major highway, constructing their own onramp. Similarly, the Occupy Sandy group established their own recovery network to help underserved neighborhoods after Sandy. In their own way, they mobilized unalienated surplus to improve the city.

Now, Occupy Sandy faces some extra surplus, and has continued to utilize it though the mission has changed somewhat. The lack of awareness by some donors as to what their money is now being used for as led to tension, perhaps signalling a level of alienation from the new process. Should Occupy give back the money, or put the use to some sort of vote among the donors, or is the money now theirs and subject to no additional approval? I don't know.

Combined, the two stories had me wondering, how could you mobilize surplus for infrastructure without taxes or bonds? I can't really imagine US drivers being ok with an unregulated onramp, though perhaps I am underselling them. What I came up with was the Kickstarter concept, used most famously by the producers of the Veronica Mars movie but more generally designed to crowdsource funding directly from fans for creative projects. Could we kickstart infrastructure?

Turns out, I'm not the first to have this idea, unsurprisingly. It is what's behind, which started in Kansas City, MO and has expanded to other cities. Currently, it appears to be starting small, and I can see any number of free rider problems, but it also could be the start of something. What if you actually could select where you wanted your tax dollars to go, the way the New York Times infographics let you "solve" the budget problem? Would we end up with more public transit, better healthcare, and less military or just a bunch of uncoordinated special interest projects?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eds and meds and cities and capitalism

I've been doing some pre-grad school reading now that applications are done. Before getting to the awesome list of LA centric books sourced from parents and family friends, I set myself the task of reading Social Justice and the City, by David Harvey. I'm not finished yet, but I'm up to the second-to-last chapter of the original text (my edition has the 2008 right to the city essay at the back) on urbanism and the city.

On the T tonight, I came across this section: "In a capitalist economy, accumulated surplus value is in large part put to work to create even greater quantities of surplus value. This process does not occur with similar intensity in all sectors or territories of the capitalist economy. Its intensity depends, among other things, on the degree of market penetration in the sector or territory in question." As the chapter is largely on the relationship between cities and surplus value, an idea popped into my head, and I'm hoping/guessing that it is not original, but I'm curious to know what's out there on the topic, so here goes.

 "Eds and meds" have been touted as the saviors of rust belt cities. Major hospitals and universities have led turnarounds in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, among others, and are looked to in any number of cities as the sectors that will at least stabilize, if not reverse the end-of-manufacturing decline. My idea/question is: Does the use of eds and meds as urban growth engines actually signal the penetration of health care and academia by the market, meaning that, potentially, much of the rising cost of healthcare and education is due to the institutions being put in place to ensure health care providers and universities are operated as a business/extract additional surplus value, rather than as a doctor's office and a school? In healthcare, examples I can think of would be the biopharmaceutical industry, the patenting (or commodification) of genes and procedures, and the proliferation of shiny new hospital wings and research centers for things. In academia, in addition to the insanity that is textbooks, which economists keep trying to explain away as a incentives problem (the assigners of the books don't pay for them, but that doesn't explain why young economists need new editions every 2 years), there's the idea that schools need to sell themselves with buildings, and study abroad, and all manner of bits of education that you consume rather than, I don't know, grapple with in a good conversation with other smart people.    

Second, if that is the case (and I think it is), how does thinking about it that way lead to better solutions? I think that among its key usefulness is that it shifts focus from the bits of the institutions that are still trying to operate like doctor's offices and schools to the bits that are operating like businesses. In other words, if you're looking to cut costs in healthcare, cut profits in biopharm and hospitals by making them less market-based rather than more. This means stop patenting plants and genes and allow the government, not "the market" to set prices for procedures, rather than blaming doctors or patients or emergency rooms. Stop the ballooning administrative positions, building construction, and degrees created to make money university tactics in favor of supporting faculty and student research, and stop trying to create performance measures and standard methods of evaluating the productivity of faculties and departments. None of those ideas are particularly novel, but I don't know that I recognized their importance relative to other strategies that don't specifically target the market penetration problem until I started thinking about surplus value.

That brings me to the last part of the thought, though. I like cities. I prefer cities that don't have multiple sections that could be zombie movie sets (no offense meant, Cincinnati). If I'm against the collection of surplus value from the eds and meds sectors because it puts people I know and love into serious debt and makes others fear that they have outlived their funds and are a burden to their family, am I also then, without knowing it, calling for Pittsburgh and Cleveland and even Cambridge to be less vibrant and enticing places to live?

My current answer is I don't think so. My two favorite quotes from Marx so far in this book are "All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature" and "The productiveness of labor that serves as its [capital's, I think] foundation and starting point, is a gift, not of Nature, but of a history embracing thousands of centuries." We know more than we have ever known about the way the world works (and can/should work), and we can get to a point where the idea that people work to feel fulfilled and there is enough to meet everyone's needs does not make the reader of this blog shake their head at my naivete. We have learned that we like cities, and that people think great big thoughts best in cities, and that while cities may have arisen because they were located at necessary transhipment points and were a place where capitalists could capture value as goods were transported (among other reasons), they are also awesome places to try to cure cancer and teach yoga and have science museums and aquariums and Japanese burritos and kosher gluten-free dim sum and stores devoted entirely to lox. Therefore, even in a world where workers were not as alienated from the surplus they produced, surplus would likely still be used by many to support the cities we have come to love.

I think.

What do you think? 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Regulation of hazardous material by rail

So I learned something new today, and I thought I'd share it with you all.

As far as I can tell, there is no government regulation of hazardous material routing by rail.*

Why is this important? Let me give an example, and the reason I went fishing for this information.

Global Partners, an oil and gas company with a refinery in Revere and an transhipment point in Albany, among others, mixes ethanol and gas at the Revere refinery. Currently, it receives ethanol inputs by barge from Motiva in the Port of Providence, which receives ethanol both by barge and rail from Global's Albany facility. Rail shipments meander through Connecticut and Massachusetts before heading into Providence.** Both Albany and Providence have made significant investments in their ports in recent years to facilitate this trade. Providence also receives ethanol by barge from international ports.

A couple of years ago, Global proposed a project with PanAm Railways, which owns the spur that directly serves Global's facility, to improve the spur and create a space on their property to store ethanol cars, enabling them to receive ethanol by rail as well as by barge. They would share the costs, PanAm gets new freight service on the northern east-west route it just partnered with Norfolk Southern and MassDOT to improve, Global gets a redundancy in its supply chain, and everyone wins.

Well, no.

Any route to Global's facility passes through the most densely populated areas of Massachusetts, areas which also happen to be rather lacking in the alcohol fire fighting foam that a derailment would necessitate. Perhaps not coincidentally, with the exception of Belmont and West Somerville, nearly every census tract the routes pass through are designated environmental justice areas, with significant concentrations of minority and low-income populations. One route that passes through somewhat fewer EJ areas is instead on a railroad that is not up to the Class 3 standard that the MBTA commuter rail tracks maintain. Speaking of MBTA commuter rail, all potential routes include significant commuter rail traffic.

In other words, PanAm's and Global's sweet deal is a sweet deal only because all risk and payment for risk mitigation falls on someone else. Understandably, the local communities are raising their voices to the agencies they assume should have some say (MassDOT and MassDEP), and even managed to get a bill through the Mass legislature asking for further study.

Mass DOT did a study, and identified many of these concerns. It wasn't perfect (no study is), but it highlighted the EJ populations, noted the lack of foam and poor track conditions, and made a number of recommendations and identified sources of public funds for mitigation.

Yes, public funds. Why? Because MassDOT has zero leverage against the companies, as far as I can tell. MassDEP gets to permit the site, but not the route taken, so it can ensure state of the art storage once the ethanol makes it to Revere, but I don't think it can require that PanAm and Global buy the Revere Fire Department foam trucks or pay to upgrade tracks and improve grade crossings. Sprinkled throughout the federal hazmat transportation regulations (49 CFR 171,172, and 174) is federal preemption of state regulation, specifically forbidding things like prohibiting the transportation of hazmat on certain routes.

Now, such a clause isn't totally crazy, and it's one of the reasons a federalist system has a lot of merit. Without such a clause, at worst, every state and community with political power bans hazmat transportation immediately and relegates it to those areas, often EJ areas, with little political power, and at best, results in disjointed and mismatched networks. It makes sense to have a managed and planned network, where one can assemble resources, assure shortest distances and minimum damages, and prepare contingency plans nationwide.

Such a system (mostly) exists on the highways. Each state designates hazmat routes, free from tunnels and avoiding populated areas where possible, runs them through a public outreach process, and submits them to the federal government, which then reviews and approves. Boston just had a run-in with this following completion of the Big Dig, when the truckers leaving Revere refineries wanted to take surface streets over the Dig and Boston wanted them to go around. The truckers lost that one.

For rail though, there's no such procedure. Even though the MBTA owns nearly all the track within the densely population areas, the contracts they made with the former freight owners long ago gave the former owners exclusive freight rights to the track. While the MBTA and other passenger trains take priority, the MBTA cannot refuse a particular shipment. Therefore, even though Mass DOT reviewed three route alternatives and clearly showed (though did not tell) a clear winner safety-wise, they can't ensure that it is the one selected, nor will any sort of environmental impact statement be conducted.

Perhaps less important but equally intriguing to me, there is also no one looking at the impact this may have (beneficial or not) on Providence. On the one hand, if rail shipments of ethanol there decrease, theoretically there's a safety benefit to residents, and given the meandering route nature, there may be just as many affected residents. On the other, there's also investment that may now go to waste and barge owners in Providence sitting empty.

That second part is all the more reason for the feds to be involved. Mass DOT should be allowed to select an alternative and require that the private companies provide mitigation, but the feds should both a) verify that Mass DOT isn't squashing interstate commerce (setting aside for now the valid question of whether more ethanol is worth squashing) and b) that this more direct route to the customer is not putting more lives at risk both from fire and from an economic and job loss standard.

I yearn for the day when an environmental impact assessment gets to really ask questions like, "What is the net job loss?" "Where are those jobs?" "What are prospects for laid off employees getting rehired?" and so on, as well as "Really, Global? You're betting on ethanol now? Would you still make that bet if you covered rescue costs in the event of an emergency, as well as yearly training costs for fire personnel and track improvements? Don't those barges just suddenly gleam?"

*Rail carriers self assess routes with explosives and poisonous vapors. Assessments are yearly reviews of routes with shipments and alternative routes, and are secret/classified unless specifically requested by certain government officials. Not at all the same thing (49 CFR 172.820).
**If I can make the map work, I will post it. I'm not kidding about the meander. It crosses the Mass border like three times, all to avoid being charged an arm and a leg by Amtrak.