Tuesday, April 29, 2008

She don't remember the queen of soul...

Let's see. I have a bunch of random, disjointed thoughts I feel like sharing, but none really deserve their own post. Hmm. If only there were a predetermined blog post template/format I could use…

Yeeeeee-Haw!

Maintaining my substance-free, noncommittal style, I'm not going to say much about the General Growth show last night, but David Wissing shares many of my same thoughts on the presentation and Wordbones has a preliminary rundown of the plan's first phase. I will say that the Merriweather stuff kinda makes me what to do silly things, like use smiley-face emoticons, but I'll refrain.

No I won't: :-)

So instead of augmenting the thoughts of my Brothers in Blogging, I will only add a small anecdote from last night's three hour tour show. Towards the beginning, MC Hamm(er) asked under-35 members of the crowd to raise their hands, a request presumably designed to show the significant age imbalance of the assembled group. Predictably, only a handful of the nearly 500 folks raised their hands.

Although I've wrung my hands in the past about the lack of young people involved in the Downtown planning process, that's not my intention in sharing this anecdote. Rather, it's to highlight the disdain this hand-raising exercise spurred in the dude sitting behind me.

"What's the point of that question," he blustered. "Parents come to these meetings. Kids should be home doing homework. What a stupid question."

Run along, kiddies. The grown-ups need to talk about important stuff.

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Are you anxious for more extensive coverage of local happenings? I mean, sure, there are the local blogs. They're great and all, but if you're like me – and I think you are – than you're looking for something that's a bit more, um, "establishment."

Well, then have we got something for you. By "we," of course, I'm not including myself or anyone directly affiliated with me, but instead Patuxent Publishing, which is set to drop some Explore Howard goodness on the unsuspecting web-surfers of our fair community. The nascent "blog" that had been occupying www.explorehoward.com address has been replaced with this promising message: "explorehoward.com - arriving 05/01/2008."

It feels like Christmas.

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Speaking of Christmas, it's been like that around here for me. In addition to getting three awesome new fillings for my poor, dying teeth, I picked up a new lens for my camera on Saturday, finally getting some decent tele-ability back into my photography. How about a shot?


Woo-hoo! Zoom!

Monday, April 28, 2008

More than a lot...

So, yeah, how ya been? Anything going on? I've been (not literally) away for a couple weeks. Did I miss something?

Oh, right, there was the whole Columbia Council election thingamajig on Saturday. He didn't win, but I'm happy to see my neighbor Phil Engelke put up a good fight, losing by only eight votes to Alex Hekemian. I'm also happy to see my friend Bill Santos win a seat on the Wilde Lake Village Board. There were some other races, but you can read about those here.

Is that it? Just the elections? I think I'm missing something.

Lookie here.

Yes, that's it! Tonight (Monday) General Growth will be releasing its plan for more "sidewalk caf├ęs and whatever" in Town Center. (By the way, "Sidewalk Cafes and Whatever" – great name for a band).

I guess this is kind of a big deal. As such, feel free to share the love/hate in the comments. Me: I'm withholding any opinion on the plan until I'm assured of an adequate balance between whatever and cafes. I'm told their plan is far too heavy on the whatever.

I know. I'm taking it too far.

Really, I have a serious point to make. Thanks to the playfulness of providence (or the wicked sense of humor of the Puppet Master), Columbia is in the midst of a rather eventful week. There are a lot of important things happening now, many of which will have impacts on our fair city for years to come.

A big player in this ongoing saga is the Columbia Council. As in all groups, the interpersonal/political dynamics of this assemblage of individuals will factor heavily in the policies it passes. Over the past several years, we have seen the Downtown-specific partisanship of this board reach a point where members are now generally perceived, for better or worse, as pro-Downtown-development or anti-Downtown-development, largely to the exclusion of their positions on other matters. Now, I know that at least one board member would scoff at this distinction, but when lines are drawn – and, boy, are they ever – you can't straddle them; such is the nature of these kinds of lines.

Unfortunately, Downtown ain't the only name on Columbia's dance card. Also vying for the board's eye are environmental and open space issues, financial and assessment cap considerations, and the persistent aging (is there any other kind?) of our shared facilities and community resources, among other things. On these matters, board alliances will be drastically different than the One Alliance to Rule Them All.

My fear is that the Town Center groupings – however tenuous their foundations – may carry over into completely unrelated matters, especially as the Downtown issue really starts to sizzle again. This wouldn't be good governance and probably wouldn't yield the best outcomes. This is one of the reasons why the debates about Town Center and the role of the Columbia Council in the process need to be reframed and taken to a more positive and (yes) opportunistic place.

I am, however, hopeful that board members will find common cause with those on the other side of the Town Center debate and work towards shared goals in other areas; indeed, we have already seen this happen on several issues, but I'd still like to see more. Since I'm making requests, I'd also like to see the artificial Downtown distinctions dropped in favor of a truly open dialogue.

Never hurts to ask, right?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

School's out forever!

It seems like every year with the onset of the spring heat – yeah, I'm calling it heat – I go through a bout of restless sleep.

For me, the ideal ambient sleeping temperature is somewhere around freezing and the ideal ambient household temperature is not much higher. Seriously…kind of.

During the winter, we keep the thermostat at a toasty 61ish degrees during the day and 57ish at night. Most people find this too cold. Most people are crazy. It's heaven.

But now, it's getting warmer, hot even, and as much as I love and, now, need cold air to sleep right, I can't bring myself to crank the A/C. Sure, I could open a window but (say what you will about this) I'm not really that comfortable leaving my first-floor bedroom window open with only a lovingly lackadaisical Husky for home protection.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I've had trouble falling asleep recently. And when I have trouble falling asleep, I think about stuff that generally makes me happy (I'm a 7), stuff like kickball, the Orioles, vacations I can't afford, mountain biking, taco night, my wife, dog, etc. (not necessarily in that order, but pretty close…).

So last night, after working through several kickball scenarios involving dramatic catches and exceptional base-running, my mind drifted onto a topic that's been hotly discussed on Freemarket's blog: school funding.

Although I've been known to in the past, I don't want to beat a dead horse here. I'm not going anywhere near the population control or kid propaganda machine issues. But all this talk about who pays for schools and who benefits stirred the not-quite-sleeping economist in me.

On the face of it, having parents pay for their kids' education seems like a pretty straightforward idea based on economics and fairness. Education is a tangible service provided at a cost. As with most services in society, if you want the benefit of it, you foot the bill.

Of course, education ain't massage therapy.

Rather, education, like many goods and services, places all sorts of externalities on our society, many of which cannot be quantified. For instance, how do you measure the benefit of living in a well-educated society? I'm sure someone's tried, but I don't feel like hopping down that Google-hole and I don't really think the results would be that conclusive.

But our educational system also provides direct services to residents, even those who aren't parents or children. And while lying awake last night, I came up with a pretty healthy list of services that I value. To wit:

  • Fields for practicing kickball with my friends
  • Fields for playing the annual Turkey Bowl football with my friends
  • Subjects for photograph
  • Hunting grounds for local hawks
  • Places for me to see local hawks hunting
  • Places where my dog can run in circles with 25-foot radii
  • Basketball hoops
  • Polling place
  • Shortcuts to various locations
  • Places where additional houses cannot be built
  • Places for community meetings
  • Chances to connect my neighbors while walking their kids to and from school
I could go on, but it's getting kind of absurd and might cloud the point. After all, the point is not what I value or how much I value these things. It's that I do. If these things were taken away from me, if I could not access the fields or take pictures of the school, my life would be poorer and I would be less happy.

I'll admit to being uncomfortable about monetizing everything in life, but if we're playing the economics game, let's play by the rules. As I said, how much I value these things is largely irrelevant, although I will say some are likely worth as little as a couple dollars and some much more so. Regardless, if it came down to losing the right to access these services or paying to keep them, I would be more than willing to throw at least a few – probably more – dollars in the hat.

Disentangling the value of these services from the broader collection of things I pay for with my tax dollars is probably impossible. But all of it is in there, internalized in the price I'm willing to pay to live in this community and therefore the amount of property taxes I pay each year to support the network of publicly provided goods.

So this is why I can't agree with argument that parents shoulder 100 percent of the burden for the cost of their child's education. Even if I'm the only one who practices kickball on school fields – and I know I'm not – everyone in this community derives some value from the school system. And if you value something that you don't pay for, you're a free rider. And in theoretical economics-speak, free riders lead to Pareto inefficient market outcomes – or, they screw things up.

Given the imperfections of identifying the value each individual places on our public schools, deriving a system where funding is entirely proportional to the benefits they receive is beyond our political and policy capacities. This is not to say there isn't a better system out there; it's just that, thus far, I haven't heard of one.

But who knows? Give me a few more warm, restless nights and I might come up with a plan. Either that or the perfect kickball line-up. Both are of generally the same value to me.

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A couple notes: My family shares a pretty strong commitment to fairness. This, I think, explains why I love sports and economics. At least in theory, both create somewhat-artificial contexts where "fair" is the initial condition and then let independent actors duke it out for whatever it is they're seeking, constrained only by the rules of "the game" and how they play it.

My interest in both however is less in the rules or theories, but in the performance. When the situation changes, how do people react? How does something that happens in the beginning of the situation play out at the end. I'm genuinely fascinated by the decisions people make when faced with a set of circumstances, resources and constraints they only partially control.

Also, let's say we did charge people the full cost for educating their kids, what would happen? My guess: A lot more home-schooling, as well as, unfortunately, "home-schooling."

Finally, I think someone mentioned this but I don't have the time to look it up: Isn't it true that you most likely pay off the costs of your public education over the course of your life? I spent 18 years in Maryland public schools and universities and I'm thankful everyday for the education and opportunities I received. While interviewing for a job with the State of Maryland out of graduate school, I mentioned that the debt I owed to taxpayers for my education was a factor in my decision to work in the public sector.

If, all of a sudden, you stopped charging general taxpayers for educational costs, wouldn't at least some of them be getting off with a pretty sweet deal?

Monday, April 07, 2008

When the streams are ripe and swelled with rain...

Just some odds and ends for a dreary April Monday…

I cleaned my deck yesterday. It looks very nice, thanks for asking. On the advice of some friends who know these things, I opted to scrub with soap rather than power wash.

Friends who recommended this: You have temporarily lost my trust.

Cleaning a deck is prolonged misery. Seriously.

With most of the work around the house that I do – even the arduous stuff – there are usually milestones along the path to completion that bolster my spirit and keep me going. Not so with the deck cleaning.

Upon completing the task, I hobbled inside and collapsed on the couch, drawing inexplicable laughter from my usually-supportive wife. Feebly, I asked her what was so funny.

"People wash decks everyday for a living," she said.

"Yeah, but ours is bigger than most."

"So."

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"We knew we were going to win."

The sweet reward of yesterday's work was watching the Orioles game on the DVR. I dutifully watched them fail to muster any offense against Felix Hernandez for eight innings, and not once thought of stopping the game. Probably because I couldn't move my arm enough to lift the remote.

Nevertheless, as soon as Nick Markakis hit a double to lead off the ninth, I paused the game and called Abbzug into the room. Something's going to happen, I thought.

And, sure enough, with a few singles, a passed ball and a little bit of luck the Worst Team In Baseball (this year's Orioles) had managed to win their fourth-straight (now five, after another one-run win today!) since losing on opening day.

I know I'm usually the first in line for the orange Kool-Aid, but damn if it didn't feel great to get this win and, more importantly, to hear Dave Trembely say afterward in his press conference: "When Markakis hit that double, we knew we were going to win."

The Orioles have been quitters for the past decade – see last year's 13-31 record in one-run games for starters, then try the annual mid-summer collapse for your main course.

But maybe things really are starting to change.

Now, does anyone have a napkin I can use to wipe off this orange moustache?

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Our local politics reporter from The Sun has a great piece totally unrelated to our county. In this Op/Ed, Larry Carson writes about his experience covering the city beat in Baltimore for the News American during the riots that followed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

Walking up Gay Street - past burning storefronts, past looters carrying suitcases through the broken display window of a pawn shop, and past Baltimore police cars racing by on their way from one riot call to another - I could hardly take it all in.

That Monday after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder was chaos in East Baltimore, where I struggled as a raw, 23-year-old police reporter for the News American to gather information. Strangely, none of the looters gave me a second glance, and I was calm and unafraid. Young, white, with short hair and wearing a sportcoat and tie, I probably looked like a police officer. I overheard several actual officers lamenting that since the new emphasis on civil rights, they had to arrest suspects instead of taking them around a corner and beating them.

One black man who passed me shook his head and said it was a "shame" what was happening all around us.

And it was. Nobody deserved to have his business ruined, his home burned, his possessions stolen. It was tragic, but then so were the years of injustices to Baltimore's African-Americans - confined to "their" schools and neighborhoods by racial prejudice, unable to find the kinds of jobs and opportunities whites had, yet spurred by the hopes that Dr. King aroused in all of us.
It's actually much more than a snapshot of that time and those riots, however, as it delves into Carson's experience growing up in a segregated Baltimore. You should probably just go ahead and read the whole thing.