Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What We Count, Matters; What Matters, We Don't Count

People who want to make money from land development are identifiable (we know who they are). Their interest is easy to quantify in the short term. They have a direct, immediate incentive to work for their goal. There is a limited number of them, which makes it easy and beneficial for them to get together in order to promote their mutual interests.

The general public’s concern with “the environment,” on the other hand, is diffuse: we don’t know exactly who will benefit, or to what extent. An individual’s interest is difficult to quantify: what’s the “value” of breathing clean air? It has a value, but we have never quantified it. What’s the “value” of fish in the river versus fewer fish in the river (for those of us who don't fish for a living)? As a society, we have decided that a healthy salmon run has "value," but we don't know how much. Per capita.

Environmental costs and benefits are calculated in the long term. Lake Whatcom is fine to drink from right now, but who can credibly predict how much will it cost to drink from Lake Whatcom ten years from now? Or how that cost compares to the cost of an ounce of prevention?

The environment, quality of life, community – their “value” is, of course, immense. But on an individual basis, no person’s interest is necessarily greater than anyone else’s, so there’s no reason for any individual to invest time and effort. In fact, if I invest time and effort and nobody else puts in the time and effort, my time and effort are completely lost.

With apologies to John Kenneth Galbraith, whose Culture of Contentment is quoted below, this is how I explain the future of working in environmental and land use jobs to my students.

Bringing it home:

Our current County Council majority only supports short-term, identifiable, quantifiable individual interests.

The rest of us, and surely it is a majority, who care about the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the plants and animals that share the earth with us, can take one small step to preserve our modest stakes in the world.

We can, at least, vote.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence right now that our commitment runs that deep.

Carl Weimer made a rational decision when he decided not to run for County Executive. As much as many of us wanted him to run – to take on the burden of fighting our collective battles – the collective will and support that would allow him to succeed are not in evidence. And by "succeed," I don't just mean "get elected." I mean "do the job of which he is capable."

From John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment.

Subsidies “provide a significant benefit to a small number of people while distributing the costs of providing that benefit over the population as a whole. Thus, those receiving the subsidy have a strong incentive to see it maintained, and a commonality of interests that promotes collective action. Because their numbers are relatively small, the transaction costs of pooling their resources and coordinating their activities are small compared to the benefits of cooperating.

By comparison, each member of the general public shares an infinitesimal portion of the cost of the subsidy. The cost in time and resources of recouping this tiny loss far outweigh the actual return to the individual. Thus, individuals have little incentive to oppose the subsidy. As a result of general public inertia, then, the subsidy-seekers can maintain the subsidy indefinitely to the disadvantage of society as a whole.”


  1. The virtues are lost in self-interest as rivers are lost in the sea. FDR

  2. Good morning,

    Again, an interesting subject.

    I couldn't agree more concerning subsidies. Maybe we could work together regarding what is surely the largest subsidy scam in America; the non-profit corporation.

    A good place to start would be to ask all jurisdictions in our own county to no longer provide funding of any kind for non-profits.

    I'll sign a letter to that effect if you will.


  3. You miss the point, Jack. Funding non-profits is not the problem. The problem is subsidies going to the self-interested, for profits.

    Your friends, the rent-seekers!

  4. I miss no point at all.

    Your approach is, those you support have the interest of the community at heart. Those you do not support are the "self-interested."

    Let's balance it out. No money for the BIA and no money for Restore. No money for... etc

    Funding non-profits is a huge problem. If you ask for funding to support X non-profit because you believe in its mission and you are successful then I am, as Jean ably pointed out, forced to participate in funding your belief system. If we get rid of the funding then each non-profit is forced to ask you for dollars to support what you profess to believe or ask me for dollars to support what I profess to believe. Fair for all.

  5. No, Jack. Actually I support those I believe have the interest of the community at heart (public or general interests); and don't support the self-interested (private, particular interests) being subsidized by the public.

    I even tolerate public support for general initiatives I don't particularly have an interest in. But am galled by private parties seeking financial benefits, directly or indirectly, from the public.

  6. g.h.

    Exactly my point... unless you are defining non-profits as "public" entities it is the case that all non-profit corporations represent private interests. I too am galled by private parties seeking financial benefits.

    If someone wants to found a corporation for whatever purpose, let him or her compete for funds on an equal level with all the other corporations out there. Let's stop the subsidies.

  7. Jean,

    Thank you for writing about this issue, and thank you for continuing to invest your time and effort in safeguarding our community’s quality of life. Even though you, David, and others are small in number, I do not believe your time and effort are completely lost.

    While there is little evidence at this moment that “our commitment [to preserve our modest stakes in the world] runs that deep,” it has been my experience that the communal commitment has tremendous ebbs and flows. What is lacking is the cohesiveness that could exist through effective organization. As long as you do your thing, David does his, Dan does his, Greg does his, Abe does his, Anonymouses do theirs, I do mine, etc., we will lack the focused power that BIA members, for example, derive from their organizing efforts.

    A variety of organizations have popped up from time-to-time, but none have truly harnessed the collective energy of the community. As things get worse, the potential to harness that energy increases. Perhaps the time is right for a genuinely effective grassroots organization to take hold in Whatcom County.

    Have you and David considered bringing others together to add to your own efforts?

    Apathy is difficult to overcome, but effective leadership can make a difference. Would you and David be willing to lead others so that together we can terminate the growth subsidy, protect the natural resources that sustain life, and preserve our quality of life?

    Thanks again for your continuing efforts.


  8. My understanding of the current political clime is that potential candidates are hanging back, thinking 'if no one else runs, I guess I will.' This is poor technique and doomed to fail.

    One thing the 'rent seekers' have done very well is slide their greasy arms around the general public and oozily breathe that their interests are a collective general interest. Their tools are anger and fear, a potent combination, and those tools are effective. They have created an essentially unbreakable County Council majority.

  9. I would invite anyone who thinks that nonprofits don't profit at taxpayers' expense to examine the financial records of BBWARM, just to begin.

  10. Re: BBWARM: Look for ReSources.

  11. Thank you, Greg, for bringing the discussion back to the point of the blog. Jack really needs to start his own blog, rather than trying to hijack every entry into some hobbyhorse of his own.

    My point was the entirely unremarkable fact that the development community profits from the externalization of costs. Economics 101 -- the tragedy of the commons and market failure. Clean air and water are not personal "missions" that Jack doesn't share.

    The problem is that, because these assets aren't quantified, the electorate is complacent. We don't know what we've got till it's gone.

    And then "Anonymous," much like Jack, takes up some weird tangent. The dreaded BBWARM! Wait-- what is it? "Birch Bay Watershed and Aquatic Resources Management (BBWARM) District", "the result of a local effort to resolve flooding and water quality problems within the Birch Bay watershed."

    Ominous? Really?

    If all landowners exercised enough individual stewardship to prevent flooding and water quality problems, there would be no need for an effort like BBWARM. Alas, those externalization opportunities beckon and the better angels of our nature go into hiding.

    Larry and Anonymous36 are describing two sides of a coin. Anon36 points out the lack of an institutional structure to support progressive candidates; Larry kindly suggests that David and I are qualified to fill that role.

    Speaking only for myself, I'm flattered, but that's a full time job. I have too many full time jobs right now, and a part time job keeping track of the wise, wild, and wacky comments that come into this blog. Larry and Anon36 are both right, though. What's lacking isn't interest or passion -- it's organization and structure.

  12. Thoughtful commentary, and much appreciated. I assume you'll be devoting some serious attention to the Gateway Terminal project?

  13. Jean,

    My intention was not to flatter, but to propose a way forward that actually reduces your work load and multiplies your effectiveness. If nothing else, I suggest you and David arrange a single meeting and invite those of us who are interested and passionate to begin to develop a coordinated plan to actually win on some of these issues that are high priority. We need to find a way to all get on the same page.

    If something comes of that single meeting, great. If nothing else, some of us will meet others of a like-mind for the first time and begin cross-networking relationships that wouldn’t have come about without that meeting.

    Would you be willing to at least sponsor a single meeting? I’ll volunteer to help organize it.

    Is anyone else interested in working together to terminate the growth subsidy, protect the natural resources that sustain life, and preserve our quality of life?

  14. I would like to second what Larry Horowitz just said. The curious thing about Whatcom "progressives" is that there is a huge disconnect between either their numbers or their issues passion, on the one hand, and their willingness to grab the reigns of power, on the other hand.

    Big on numbers, big on issues passion (check out the coal issue!), but then nothing- nada! -to actually install change agents in public office.

    It was not always like this. Several years ago, young whippersnappers like Carl Weimer, Dan McShane, Laurie Caskey-Schreiber, and Seth Fleetwood stepped forward, entered the fray, and accomplished several years of progressive governance as regards land planning at least.

    Jean's candidacy was an attempted renewal of this tradition, but the public didn't really care. As a result, at this moment in time, we have essentially complete control of County Council by those seeking a taxpayer subsidy for private enrichment, as so insightfully sketched by Jean.

    Abe Jacobson

    PS: Please don't knock Mr. Petree so cruelly; his diversionary non-sequitors are truly a skilled activity. Should be an olympic sport someday.

  15. Larry and Abe,

    I would love to work with Jean and the two of you to "terminate" any growth subsidy you can demonstrate exists as well as to "...protect the natural resources that sustain life, and preserve our quality of life."

    I find it interesting a suggestion that all public funding of subsidies for private interest groups (i.e. nearly all non-profit corporations) is a "diversionary non-sequitor."

    I make nearly all of my living writing articles about preserving natural resources. I recently attended a conference on urban forestry in San Francisco and would love to begin to introduce an urban forestry element to city and county comprehensive plans right here in Whatcom County.

    As to Abe's comment, the next Olympic sport of the kind you suggest probably will attract participants to use Whatcom County's planning approach 2002 - 2009 as a training tool. We'll call it, "leapfrog development."

  16. What an excellent post. It is always felt by the common citizen working for the common good that we are going against forces vastly larger than ourselves. And we are, as Jean has elegantly pointed out.

    And yet those tables can quickly turn when the public is aroused and interested and engaged. The challenge perhaps is to find a language that manages to light those fuses, to get out from under our expertise and make the argument in the plainest, most hearfelt words possible.

  17. What we need is a monkey wrench gang.

  18. I'm thinking EDPN: Every Developer's Personal Nightmare