Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

THE Unreasonable Man: Tim Wong

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

A very dear friend recently died. For 25 years we were brothers in bikes, water & energy conservation, anti-consumerism and so much else involved in community building.  Below was my contribution to his Celebration of Life last weekend (this is the disco version; my talk was a much more condensed version). I hope to add further posts about all things Wong over the next few weeks. -MB

Tim was THE DEFINITION of The Unreasonable Man. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Progress in Madison toward a better biking future, a more energy sustainable future, a more water efficient future happened in great measure because of Tim and his unreasonable ways.

And the thing is, people hated him for it. But the way some of us saw it, the more people hated him, the more we knew he was on the right track.

Circa 1980, this unreasonable headline blared across the top of the front page of one of his many underground newspapers (a succession of which, he was routinely booted off of, btw): “$5 a Gallon and a Pound of Sugar in Every Gas Tank!”

And the fight against the deathmobile was on. But it was, of course, on before that.

Not long after high school (ca 1860?!), Tim joined in the defense of a minority neighborhood in Washington DC. It was the beginning of Tim vs. the highwaymen. That fight never abated for the entirety of his life. The DC highway fight was moral combat against environmental racism even before there was a term for it. The middle class black neighborhood that was slated for the bulldozer fought back. Tim joined that fight. They won. That neighborhood is still healthy & happy. Compare to the fates of once-successful minority neighborhoods across the country that went under the bulldozers. From Chicago’s Bronzeville to vast swathes of St. Louis, now they are just husks of their former selves.

Tim was in the thick of the fight to unshackle Madison’s minority neighborhoods from their highway entombement. An early 90s example: The Williamsburg Way/Beltline underpass that would have eased highway segregation was fought by the racists on the one side of the highway. Tim was on the other. He was in the thick of the fight to build the underpass and thereby push the all-neighborhood connectivity forward. Another example: The Beltline overpass was denounced by the aristocrats over in the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood on the grounds that “those people” would sneak into their backyards and rape their daughters; their property values would crater. Tim pushed for the overpass and for all-neighborhood connectivity there too. It was built. Crime is still negligible in the surrounding neighborhoods. Property values have soared. Hmmm.

At no point could Tim be construed as a ‘leader’ in any given fight. That would be anathema to him. But he was always there. Providing spine, bombast, data crunching, analysis, and snark. Basically, he was the villager that needed to be destroyed in order for the highwaymen to keep “saving” our villages from traffic. Saving us always meant more traffic, of course.

And they did keep trying to destroy him. At one point, he was the chair of the city’s ped-bike subcommittee. The highwaymen & others tried every strategem possible to shut him down. But they just couldn’t. So they did the midwest nice thing, and did away with the committee altogether.

When he was on the Transit & Parking Commission, he used the city’s own data to show how awfully they were managing Madison Metro’s resources. This really pissed off the powers. Eventually Mayor Pave summarily threw him off of the commission for the crime of analyzing data.

I think the apotheosis of all things Tim came through our neighborhood’s plan, The Schenk-Atwood-Darbo-Worthington-Starkweather Plan of 2000. They made the “mistake” of making him an official appointee. A mistake because he just wouldn’t act at all like an official power broker (as all too often happens with people in appointed positions). It soon became apparent that Tim was not about to accept the boiler plate pro-car neighborhood plan that the Planners wanted to shove down our throats. But what made this the pinnacle of Tim’s power was not Tim’s POWER. He was more about just getting the ideas out there. Bombastically, YES. But he was about putting the onus on others to follow their own consciences to just do the right thing. Vote their own true consciences. The problem is, most people, once in power, even low level power like a little neighborhood committee, believe that it is their duty to submit to powers above them, to the detriment of ethics, morality, just doing the right thing. In most activist endeavors, victories are scarce. But it was different on this committee. It was made up of others who were dedicated to doing the right thing, powers be damned. And almost all could hear past Tim’s bombast and understand that what he was ultimately pushing for was really just a more civilized community and sustainable environment. Every traffic calming measure was a blow for civilization. Every bikeway, another push for the people. In militating against zoning and parking regulations that strangled our neighborhood business district, Tim and the whole committee made this neighborhood the cool place it is today. But the point was, it was the whole committee. That was where Tim was most comfortable: when ordinary citizens banded together as co-equals to push for the good & the just. If someone had made Tim King of the World, he wouldn’t have liked it. Remember his standard salutation: SLAY A LEADER!!!! If he were designated a leader, he would have just killed himself instead of being boss! The most natural order for a dedicated anarchist like Tim: A united front of co-equal citizens working in the trenches together.

Neighborhood was Tim’s laboratory for doing the right thing, for a more sustainable future, a more just future. He never had that liberal angst about other places being “denied” because of our efforts. His idea was that our neighborhood could serve as an exemplary beacon for doing the right thing. Indeed, once our neighborhood plan started making its way through the city committees, alders started asking the planners why their neighborhoods couldn’t have the same pro-community things. The green eyed monster worked for good! And here is what started happening: the zoning regulations that strangled cool neighborhood business districts started getting suspended. Our older hoods started to flourish (and how many of Tim’s beloved micro-brewpubs sprouted because of it?!!!). Eventually, thanks to the successful example of Tim’s collective efforts with his neighborhood, the entire zoning code was scrapped in favor of zoning that allows neighborhoods to look like our old hoods built before the dominance of the deathmobile. Mayor Pave & his powerful sycophants could never understand what was happening over here, but it was Tim and co-equal cohorts that got the ball rolling and transformed this city from a boring highway to the suburbs into the cool place it is now.

His life’s way was a) read everything there is to read about a subject, b) process it through a moral lense (is it good for lowering our pollution output? Is it good for community? Does it reduce the need for engineered bossiness (or any bossiness)? c) to get the truth out there, d) let people follow their own consciences once they have this information. No bossiness allowed. Bombast, yes, bossiness, no. The problem, of course, was that most people couldn’t hear the truth for the bombast. Some of us loved the bombast as much as the underlying truth. Because the bombast was just a wayfinding sign to the truth.

Tim is perhaps best known for his bike advocacy. But his activism went well beyond. In my google perusals I even found a comment Tim left for the Securities & Exchange Commission, excoriating them for some random de-regulation of the banksters. One of his more memorable fights for me is one that probably only 3 people know about: Water conservation policy.

As Dan Melton, former president of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Assn., said in an email around the time of Tim’s death:

Here’s a little “resume” Tim put together, in 2011 (sent at 1:50 AM–one of his favored times to send email).

Of all his many civic activities, one I’d like to call attention to — because not many got to see it — was Tim’s vital involvement in 2011 in the Madison Water Utility’s East Side Water Supply Citizen Advisory Panel (ESWS CAP). It was grueling work, important work — and, frankly, I wasn’t sure Tim was up to it. Boy, WAS he. Former City Engineer Larry Nelson was the eminence grise on the ESWS CAP. Larry knew everything–about everything. If you wanted to challenge Larry, you had to know your stuff–inside-out. Tim did. Tim was the ONLY citizen on the ESWS CAP who would directly challenge Larry. Tim didn’t just spout slogans, he KNEW his printouts. I’m not sure how he did it but Tim would go printout to printout with Larry. Tim made some important points to nudge the City Water Utility towards more conservation–and less willy-nilly well-building. Tim pushed Madison to come up with a water rate structure that would “punish property owners for over-watering their pesticide grass”–(‘their pesticide grass,’ a typical Tim flourish). Tim and Dan Moser (who know lives in NYC) worked hard with Larry to craft a Conservation Advisory statement. Tim suspected the ESWS CAP was “sort of window dressing more than anything” but he was willing to swallow his doubts, and put in the work, work that no one else was willing to do, to help nudge the Water Utility towards more conservation.

From bikes, to water, to people, He was the true Renaissance Man of Activism.

But as with those Renaissance greats of yore, Gallileo, Dante – jailed, run out of town– Tim pissed off just about everyone he came into contact with, most especially the powerful, the sycophants & suckups, the propriety obsessives, the moral peacocks. The snowflakes on every listserv he was on wanted him to drink hemlock. Listmarms were left clutching pearls at Tim’s every e-utterance. For those with a less pinched view of the world, we could listen past his bombast and actually hear the truth of what he was saying. Deathmobile? Well, yeah, it’s the #1 killer of all people ages 4-44. What else you gonna call it? Pesticide grass? Well, why else would suburban lawns look like astroturf?

Tim was very much the community’s moral compass. I will so very much miss him.

To close with another George Bernard Shaw, so channeling Tim:

“I hear you say “Why?” Always “Why?” You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”

 

Trump is Just Symptom of Clinton’s Disease

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

Dunno how this one is going to turn out, but just wanted to get some thoughts down about how badly our “Betters,” the Very Serious People, the élites of the country, have so screwed us, and thus brought us to this pass. And they know it, too. They belatedly realize that “those people” Beyond The Hudson and Outside of the Beltway actually–gasp!–vote. Now our betters are in a panic. And at least paying lip service to the 99%. There have even been some mea culpas trotted out by the old bulls of foreign policy: Please, please, pretty please, ye unwashed, give us just one more chance!

Then there’s this Atlantic article, another in a long series of what I’m calling The Great Panic of Aught 16 (ie, the establishment in a tailspin over The Bern and The Donald):

It’s actually quite good. Basically explains the genesis of the Democratic Leadership Council Democrat (the sellout wing of the party funded by the Koch Bros.) whom I so vehemently abhor. HRC is the latest in a long line of these turncoats. Also helps explain the link between these bankster-friendly neo-liberals and the pro-war neo-cons, a link which I had always found bizarre but understand better now.

But, sorry neo-liberal élites, Hillary et al, you’ve had your chance, and you blew it. Win or lose, you have blown it. You should have read your What’s the Matter with Kansas back in Aught Four and paid attention to its prescience. You should have paid attention to the data which so clearly showed the crushing of the poor and the middle class. Instead of ensuring a more just and equitable America, you just doubled down on:

  • Economics of Cruelty–Your unfair “free” trade pacts and tax policies that crush the 99% while gilding the preciousness of the 0.1%
  • Torture–You let them off the hook, shaming this nation, enfeebling our moral standing.
  • Warmongering–You voted for those wars.
  • Stasiland–You turned the people’s government into a surveillance state, shredding our Constitution. It was a coup and you were part of it.
  • Banksterism–You rescinded Glass-Steagall and other reasonable regulations, allowing the banksters to drive our economy into a ditch, then let them steal people’s houses. And when that wasn’t enough, you let them loot the treasury. And now you cozy up to them. Yes, Hillary, brilliant idea you proposed at that Goldman Sachs dinner: let the banksters regulate the banksters.
  • Global Warmism–You send us into multiple wars for oil to keep cars well-fueled, then the economy goes into a tailspin from sky high fuel prices thanks to your pro-highway policies (remember your ‘drive til you qualify’ housing policies?), your solution is…to build more highways! Thanks to your pro-gluttony transportation policies we are cooking the climate.

You and your party had it all from 2009 to 2011–the presidency, congress, everything– and you did nothing to rectify the worst excesses of the Bush years. Indeed, you people just gave it your Democratic imprimatur.

And then you wonder why the people revolted.  From 2009 to 2011 you had it all. And you just doubled down on the cruelty.

We’ve had quite enough of you people. Even if you eke out a win we’ve had it with you.

Basically, we the people have but one very blunt instrument available, and that is the vote. We couldn’t get the likes of Hillary to hear us, so masses of us voted against her in the primaries. It shook her up and made her adopt a more, shall we say, 99%-friendly posture. But the emails prove that she is busy staying cozy with the banksters and the 0.1%. And I will never be able to forgive her for her Iraq War vote. So, I’m done with her. (Don’t worry, I won’t be voting Trump though.)

 

Madison Water Utility: Materially Incorrect

Monday, August 24th, 2015
From a close follower of all things MWU:
If you have 15 min.’s to devote, you really should read the Baker Tilly Audit 2014 Management Letter.pdf
It really is quite a remarkable and sweeping flat-out slam of the Water Utility for its financial incompetence:
“The Utility does not have internal controls in place that allow for the presentation of materially-correct year-end financial statements.”
“Management has not prepared financial statements that are in conformity with generally-accepted accounting principles.”
“Material misstatements in the general ledger were identified during the financial audit.”
….
Customer billing errors
Cyber attack risk: “Have a plan developed and practiced so that you are prepared in the event of a data breach.”
“Lack of preparedness”: Baker Tilly had “difficulties performing the audit”
I am a big proponent of public ownership of utilities. Madison Gas & Electric’s rampant, ideological pro-carbon agenda is an example of why public accountability is so important.
Unfortunately, our city-owned water utility, through sheer incompetence, combined with an arrogant dismissal of public oversight, is invalidating the goodness that public ownership should bring.

Isthmus: “Citizen: The Real Reason for Atwood Avenue’s Renaissance”

Saturday, November 1st, 2014
Just published at Isthmus.com….
***
Citizen: The real reason for Atwood Avenue’s renaissance
Eliminating parking requirements for small storefronts buoyed business growth

Michael Barrett on Saturday 11/01/2014 10:23 am

“Destination: Atwood Avenue” was a nice little promo piece inIsthmus that should definitely be featured in the Greater Madison Convention and Visitor’s Bureau pamphlets. It lacked, however, a good investigative question: Why has Atwood seen such a revival?

Yes, yes, we are lucky to have so many creative entrepreneurs who have worked hard to make their businesses successful on this once run-down thoroughfare; good on them, and thanks. And yes, the the transition of the Barrymore Theatre from adult movie theater to hip venue was a signal event. But it is a tired old story, because there it sat for nearly 20 years, a lonely beacon, with neighbors of empty storefronts and no resurgence in sight.

The true linchpin of the revitalization of Atwood: city parking policy. Had it not been for the informed, critical activism of a few people in the neighborhood, not one of the hip enterprises that have grown up on Atwood in the last 14 years — the era of sustainable and rapid resurgence — could have ever happened on Atwood. Why? Because the city prohibited it through parking policy.

Until the early 2000s, suburban parking requirements were imposed on dense, parking-light urban business districts such as Atwood. It was a death warrant.

Creativity and entrepreneurship were throttled. Coffee shops were told to brew in strip malls. Boutique beers, ordered to industrial parks. Eclectic restaurants, stymied.

Here’s how it worked: The city required that there be an off-street parking space for every table for two, no exceptions. This meant no fun. No funky. No creative. No nothing.

This went on for decades. As older enterprises faded, the city parking bosses ensured that no new businesses could move in to keep the district vital. It wasn’t the mall that killed Atwood, it was public policy.

By 1999, a (very) small group of visionary citizens had had quite enough of this. These active alt-transportation agitators worked with verve and persistence, at times getting in the faces of hidebound alders and parking bureaucrats, to put a stop to the desertification of Atwood Avenue. Over the shrill warnings of planners and highwaymen, the citizens who crafted the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Worthington Neighborhood Plan (PDF) of 2000 enshrined a provision that prioritized a walkable business district. To that end, it strongly recommended eliminating parking requirements.

Yes, eliminating parking requirements. Altogether. This was a radical notion up to the mid-aughties, believe it or not.

Once passed, these same citizens started showing up at zoning meetings, plan in hand, demanding that cool businesses be allowed to locate on Atwood sans parking.

Cafe Zoma was the first successful — but hard fought — “exemption” under the new neighborhood plan. It featured zero car parking stalls. That set the precedent for all the coolness that followed. Creative entrepreneurship blossomed, and just keeps blossoming.

Under new city leadership in 2003, Atwood Avenue’s successful elimination of parking requirements was recognized and even incorporated into the new zoning code. There are no longer minimum parking requirements for small storefronts anywhere in the city.
Michael D. Barrett is an energy efficiency and community plan analyst with UrbanThoreau LLC and publishes urbanthoreau.com/blog.

1937: Krugman’s Victory Dance

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
How to NOT balance a budget

How to NOT balance a budget

As a Krugman fanboy, I’ve been getting a big kick out of his victory dances of late– rubbing it in the faces of the rightist ideologue economists, the austerians from the Austrian School of Economic Destruction. His latest end zone taunt is a blog post entitled, simply, 1937. (If it really were a football game, he’d have a yellow flag thrown in his face for excessive taunting. Yet the crowd roars for more! The dance goes on to be a huge hit known as The Macro-ena! Ok, sorry.)

As he has so patiently (and not-so-patiently) explained over lo these many years, 1937 was a particularly inauspicious year in applied macro-economics as the Roosevelt administration rapidly pulled back from its alphabet soup economic stimulus programs. It was a futile attempt to balance the budget. As everyone who took Econ 101 should have learned, it had the exact opposite effect, throwing the economy right back into a depressionary tailspin, making budget balancing just that much more difficult/impossible. FDR essentially snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Obama repeated the mistake, rapidly drawing down his somewhat successful–if under-amped–Recovery Act, thereby muting the incipient recovery.

But at least it was something.

The Europeans got straight up austerity from the get-go resulting in all the unmerited, self-inflicted suffering of sky-high unemployment that continues to this day.

Indeed, the oh-so-much-smarter-than-Americans Germans are relearning that lesson–again, and again, and again– even as we speak.

The lessons of 1937 have been a long-running theme of Krugman’s. Every time he references it, I keep thinking back to a very prosaic, but telling remnant literally written in the landscape in an older neighborhood of Norman, Oklahoma…

…I present, my 2013 photos, “1937: The End of Road for the Works Progress Administration’s Work”:

How to NOT balance a budget

How to NOT balance a budget

 

Or, maybe “The Depression that Wasn’t Ended Now”:

IMG_20130506_154428_182

Where was Obama’s Recovery Act when our pedestrian infrastructure needed some help? This is looking pretty shovel-ready to me!

 

I keep thinking Krugman could use these as a centerpiece/banner graphic for his blog….!

MGE’s Pump & Dump Rate Scheme

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Tomorrow is the big showdown at the Public Service Commission to shut down MGE’s outrageous, America-hating rate scheme.

Tomorrow there will be a rally at 9 am at the PSC offices in addition to testimony. Here’s the WhoWhatWhenWhereHow scoop by the RePower folks, followed by my comment:

Madison Gas & Electric proposes big changes to billing rates in 2015 that will increase electric bills for most customers, limit your ability to lower bills through energy efficiency, and penalize clean energy. The MGE billing scheme does not reflect community values and should be withdrawn by MGE or rejected by the Public Service Commission.

The Proposal

Every MGE customer will see a higher fixed charge each month coupled with a slightly lower energy rate. For example, the monthly charge for residential and small commercial customers would rise from $10.29 to $19 (85%), while the electricity rate would decline from 14.4 cents/kilowatt-hour (kWh) to 13.3 cents/kWh (-8%).

The Facts

  • The City of Madison, City of Monona, City of Middleton, Town of Blooming Grove, Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, WI AARP, NAACP and the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and nearly 50 local businesses have opposed the rate proposal.
  • 80% of MGE residential customers will see their electricity bill increase and will harm most seniors, apartment dwellers and those who conserve energy.
  • The proposal to increase the fixed rate and lower variable rate means that you will have less control over your own future energy bills. (Conservation does not cut the fixed rate)
  • Almost 88% of MG&E’s current energy comes from fossil fuels, most of which is coal.  A recent report, The Coal Truth, by RePower Madison details how MGE proposal is a ratepayer bailout disguised as a matter of circumstances beyond the control of the utility. In reality, MGE has “doubled down” on their dirty coal investments.
  • The rate changes will have a disproportional effect on low-income households. Bill Marcus, an expert witness hired by the City of Madison testified that “the MGE proposal will negatively impact equity in the City of Madison”.
Actions You Can TakeRePower Madison is a citizens group whose immediate goal is to persuade MGE to drop their rate proposal and support customer options for rapid expansion of renewable energy and energy savings.We recommend the following immediate actions:

  • Submit your concerns online at www.tinyurl.com/mgeratehike. Online public comments are due before October 8th and a public hearing is scheduled for October 9th at 9:30am at the Public Service Commission (610 N. Whitney Way Madison)
  • Visit and like our facebook page at www.FB.com/repowermadison.  While there, you can RSVP to testify orally and attend our picket at the public hearing on October 8.
  • Local businesses are encouraged to sign a letter opposing this rate case available at –www.wisconsinbusinessalliance.com/mge
  • Share this information with your members, and forward this email to your friends, for their information.

For more information www.repowermadison.org or email to Info@RepowerMadison.org

###

….And here’s the comment I submitted:

Dear Commissioners,

Please scrutinize closely the MGE rate case. It is, quite frankly, appalling. So appalling that I oppose it in the strongest terms.

I am a real estate investor in the Madison Gas & Electric service territory. I am also a decorated veteran, having served overseas as a commissioned officer for four years and discharged honorably, and having attained the rank of captain. As someone who volunteered service to do my part in forming a “more perfect union,” I am horrified that there are corporations such as MGE who are actually militating against the “general welfare” of the citizens I risked my life to defend. I also see a direct link between energy gluttony and the wars we keep fighting. For that reason, I have invested heavily in energy conservation ever since I was discharged.

Their rate proposal denies the dangers of climate change that even the Pentagon has warned is an imminent threat to national security. Indeed, by MGE’s own admission, this proposal actually militates against American citizens who strive to do the right thing by our environment.

Gregory Bollom, MGE’s assistant vice president of energy planning, conceded this point at a Madison city committee meeting in July:

“If you’re a low-energy user, you will probably have less ability to reduce your bill than someone who is a high-energy user,” Bollom told the Sustainable Madison Committee. “We are reducing the incentive for people to reduce their energy use. I’m not going to quibble with that.”

This is the stuff of morons. It does not belong in Madison, Wisconsin, the home of one of the world’s top-flight research institutions.

An enlightened corporate leadership would institute an actuarily sound, progressive rate structure that strongly encourages wasteful users to waste less and reward those who have invested wisely in efficiency and thereby use modestly. “Actuarily sound” means that fixed costs get covered by usage rates while protecting the steady rate of return required to raise capital for said fixed costs (capital infrastructure). This is important because we know that it is the wasteful users who are driving the “need” for more lines and other infrastructure. So those who demand more power should also be paying for the extra infrastructure required to supply it. Thus the need for progressivity in the rate structure. If the usage rates are properly structured–actuarily sound, progressively increased according to usage–that “need” would soon be obviated, as the wasteful would get wise tout de suite. Or they pay for their willful ignorance. The choice would be the customer’s and entirely the customer’s. Consumer free choice and free enterprise–yes, including investments in efficiency and renewables–is what built this country. Why is MGE undermining free enterprise?

MGE’s rate scheme, by eliminating any progressivity, actually *rewards* waste. It undermines all efforts to do the right thing and create a better, energy independent America. This is important to me, because I’m tired of seeing my friends, my former comrades-in-arms get sent off to fight in fossil fuel wars. Sick. And. Tired. Of. It.

Progressive, actuarily sound rates that cover all costs–fixed included–is the most climate-friendly, peaceable way of properly accounting for climate-damaging, war-causing resource usage.
Fixed charges–of any amount–only aid & abet profligate use.

Furthermore, the idea of fixed v. usage costs is fiction. Much of the fixed cost increases goes to ATC’s wasteful expansions of unnecessary power lines. Unnecessary because they were/are being built on assumptions of ever-increasing fossil burning. That hasn’t happened. Electric consumption has gone down. Why? People are making the connections between their personal energy use->fossil burning->climate destruction. They should be rewarded for making that connection and acting to remedy it, not punished.

It’s also an incredibly cruel thing to do to people who thought ahead for their retirement and invested mightily in energy efficiency in their homes. Now they are on modest fixed incomes and getting slammed by these rustbelt rednecks in charge of our ‘community’ utility. Retirees’ investments in conservation are now set to be vaporized on behalf of energy addicts and their dealers.

There isn’t really a middle ground on this. Either we make the decisions to protect the climate–now–or else. (Please read your McKibben! Heed your Hansen!)

Where does the PSC stand?

MGE is now desperately touting a series of “Town Hall-style” meetings to get them out of this pickle of their own making. Approximately 9 years ago MGE held a series of just such meetings all across Madison. There were over a hundred people in attendance at one meeting alone (even though it was inconveniently scheduled at midday on a weekday). People of all backgrounds showed up, ranging in age 8 months to 80+ years. They were all impassioned, knowledgeable and armed with better ideas for delivering clean energy in conjunction with conservation pricing and other strategies. No one testified for more CO2 emissions or more megalomaniacal power lines. Typical was one woman, with a baby in her arms, who gave a most enlightened & impassioned testimony about how we’ve got to start planning *now* [i.e., nine years ago] for reducing our impact on the climate. That the science was well settled. That we can no longer deny the science through our profligate energy policies. She was unbelievably eloquent and *nice* about it. The old gray MGE execs just sat there, stone faced. Clearly, they didn’t want to hear it. A town hall in the sense of an open minded democratic process, it was not.

I gave testimony as well. I was pointed and concise about the importance of a progressive rate structure to reduce demand while maintaining their bottom line through actuarial science.

The gray MGE execs scowled. Again, they didn’t want to hear it.

This was nine years ago.

They did nothing in the interim to change their CO2 spew as usual. Indeed, they doubled down on fossil thinking.

The point is, they have heard all of this before. They have heard it from a variety of people, some paid by advocacy organizations, but mostly just citizen ratepayers doing their civic duty, expressing concern and better ways of doing things. MGE has had their opportunity–over many years–to do the right thing.

They have done nothing.

They chose to ignore reasonable solutions that quite openly acknowledged the necessity of getting a return to shareholders. Now the gray men in gray suits have gotten themselves in a pickle. A quite avoidable pickle. A pickle forewarned.

As for their shareholders, by & large, they don’t care how the dividend check arrives. Fixed charge, no fixed charge (but with a progressive, actuarily sound rate structure)–it doesn’t matter to them. They just want that check to arrive, on time and in a predictably steady amount. And it is perfectly doable with an actuarily sound, progressive rate structure. Indeed, how a shareholder’s dividend is generated is entirely not their concern in the amoral world of the limited liability joint stock company. Only the people’s representative, you, the regulator, the Public Service Commission can force the right, moral choice. Which is why they need to hear from you in the strongest terms possible that they, MGE, need to protect our climate and our ratepayers–not just their lazy, ignorant accountants who can’t calculate out a reasonable rate structure.

Being an energy geek since the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, I have a bad habit of buttonholing the lower-downs at MGE when I get a chance, to find out why the stupidy of the higher-ups continues. One of them, an engineer, basically just shrugs his shoulders, rolls his eyes knowing that better solutions exist. Tiring of this, he gave me one of his utility trade magazines to shut me up for a while. That magazine issue of eight or so years ago was all about innovative demand-managing rate structures that could respond to a dynamic energy environment (dynamic in the sense of either more competition, more emissions regulation, opening the grid to non-utility participants, all of the above, etc.). So the knowledge of how to stay profitable while driving down carbon spew and better managing the grid (etc.) for all comers is out there. It is well documented even in their energy industry trade group! This isn’t just the stuff of crazy hippies, as Paul Fanlund and Gary Wolter would have us believe.

They’ve heard polite, well informed testimony. They’ve heard pointed, well informed testimony. For *many* years. The research and case studies of innovative, conservation-oriented rate structures in place over decades is well-documented by their own trade organization.

At what point do we the people stop giving them the benefit of the doubt?

You heard their own executive speak out against conservation and renewables in the quotes above. You are obviously quite aware of RENEW’s analysis which further confirms MGE’s militantly anti-climate, anti-ratepayer plot.

In the end, it is a bait & switch. For decades, MGE has been encouraging their customers to conserve and install renewables. (See, for example, any number of MGE bill inserts over the last twenty-plus years; see also their gleeful–and very public–celebration of conservation & renewables here.)

Now they want to crush those who followed their investment advice?

As a long time real estate investor who has invested tens of thousands of dollars in conservation measures on several properties, not only do I believe that you should reject their fixed rate plot against their ratepayers, you should also report them to the Securities Exchange Commission for their pump & dump scheme.

I would think that it’s pretty clear that their plans are not benevolent.

Please reject the entirety of MGE’s rate scheme.

Sincerely,
Michael D. Barrett

….

Madison, WI

Like Water for Oil

Friday, September 13th, 2013

Though it is about energy, this article is highly relevant to managing our water resources as well:

Just substitute the word water for “energy”/”natural gas”/”electricity” wherever they appear in the article. The following tract gets at the conundrum the Madison Water Utility seems particularly stymied by:

“In addition, state regulators should reward utilities for helping residential, business and industrial customers use energy more efficiently, and stop the widespread practice of penalizing utilities when their sales level off or decline because customers are using less energy. When regulators set rates, they establish targets for utilities’ allowable revenues, and this unintentionally links the companies’ financial health to robust sales of electricity and natural gas. The problem can be solved if regulators allow modest annual rate adjustments that correct for any unexpected changes in utility sales.

“Half the states have instituted such “decoupling” systems for at least some of their investor-owned natural gas and electric utilities, but the process is taking too long and only one publicly owned utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has adopted these reforms. The rest should step up.”

Indeed. And this a model for conservation that has been promoted by citizens in the past. Unfortunately, this is an economic model (Econ 101-level) that seems to be alien to MWU management. Instead, they perform their incantation rituals for more drought to fill the utility’s coffers:

It will be more than three years since water rates have gone up for Madison Water Utility customers. The Water Utility had planned to file for a 12% increase in 2013, but officials say it was not needed because of high water use during last summer’s drought.

A forward-looking lot over at Olin Ave…..

Federal Highwaymen Paving Our Democracy Asunder

Friday, July 19th, 2013

I recently received this notice regarding, in their words:

…the metropolitan transportation planning process carried out by the Madison Area Transportation Planning Board (TPB), the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), Metro Transit, and local units of government in the Madison metropolitan area….

The full notice was even more gobbledygookey cryptic; even a transportation geek like me had a hard time deciphering it. Specifically, they never cited what laws they were referring to.

Flying blind, I submitted comment anyway. You’ll find it below.

I went to the meeting.

There was only one other citizen there. (He had little to say other than moaning about the counter-flow bike lanes displacing parking spaces on campus.) It was a pitiful showing, but I think more indicative of the cryptic public notice than apathy on the part of citizens.

Federal policies are shaping our communities for decades to come. The question is, shaping those communities for whom? The Feds sent a phalanx of gray, middle aged, male bureaucrats. That’s whom. City/MPO did the same. (The lone woman bureaucrat present had nothing to say, so I assume she was on board with the highways.) It was all about building more, bigger highways for, by and of the dozen or so middle aged, white males present. Indeed, it was a cast worthy of the Soviet nomenklatura.

Oh sure, there was a crumb or two here & there to ameliorate a few of the many barriers to biking and walking presented by their megalomaniacal highways. And Bus Rapid Transit is but a pipe dream at the scale they are “planning.” They have no intention of funding it (thus the quotes). The crumbs and the fantastical are out there for window dressing only. Bait. Honeytraps. The stuff of Stockholm Syndrome. If we’re nice to our captors, embrace their manly highways, maybe, just maybe they’ll give us another bike path!

None of the MPO board members were there (except ex officio member, Madison Metro GM Chuck Kamp, who had to be there for job purposes related to the public notice).

Happy reading!

******

Madison Area MPO Comment

07/17/2013

by Michael D. Barrett

I have observed and participated in transportation and land use planning issues in Madison and Dane County for almost 25 years. I am trained as an urban geographer.

Here’s what I think of Federal funding priorities as planned by our MPO and prioritized by USDOT: It stinks. It’s all about highways. And your highways are nothing more than the new Jim Crow with a concrete face. It’s the epitome of Reverse Robin Hood, stealing from cities to promote rich suburbs. It’s about gated communities, but instead of gates you use concrete expanses to wall off the people you deem as undesirable – the carless, the aged, the young, the poor, people who are not white. Yes, I’m calling you racist. I’m calling you age-ist. I’m calling you classist. In other words you build landscapes for well-wheeled middle aged white men. Everyone else be damned. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Your Federal policies militate against our community’s expressed political will. Over and over again the people of Dane County, Madison and surrounding  communities have elected stellar individuals who want to do the right thing. Witness electoral revolutions with the election of unabashed enviros like Kathleen Falk and Dave Cieslewicz and the very conservation-oriented council and board. In every League of Women Voters questionnaire for elected office virtually every candidate espouses transit, biking and walking over highways. Falk and Cieslewicz had made careers of fighting your highways. Plan after plan for this region, down to the neighborhood level, emphasizes community over cars, a clean environment over sprawl; inclusivity over segregation. The people’s voice is unequivocal: we want clean air, clean water, inclusivity, social justice and a land use/transportation paradigm that supports those goals. Furthermore, our elected officials explicitly ran on platforms promoting community cohesiveness, across race and class lines. Instead, your policies forced our elected leaders into making bad decisions that ultimately got them thrown out of office or blocked from higher office.

In other words your policies are overtly political. They militate against the will of the people.

Your federal highway funds proved to be a gusher, an endless source of cash, while you people constricted funds for transit, bicycling and walking. Everything our elected representatives stood for, your policies militated against.  Your policies backed Falk into a corner on the very unpopular US Highway 12 expansion. Her political base never forgot that, and she paid dearly for it. Without her most ardent supporters, she didn’t stand a chance for higher political office.  Similarly your policies forced road expansion onto us even under the leadership of the most ardent, pro-urban environmentalist ever to lead a city. Your easy highway money and shrinking transit money proved to be an embarrassment that alienated his base. Mayor Dave became Mayor Pave. When federal funds were used to jack up highway spending by 558% over the course of his tenure – 558%!!!!! – while slashing federal support for clean, city-supporting modes, the environmentalist mayor’s political base evaporated.

See this graph of the Madison City Budget? Now look at the top line. The one going straight up is paving, increasing at 558% during Cieslewicz’s tenure. The other lines are social services and parks: Flatlined during the same period. Now look at the debt that has been racked up to service your over-sized roads. Your highways are crushing our city’s budgets.

Your policies are overtly political.

Those elected representatives represented the will of the people. By embarrassing them with these anti-community funding priorities, you negated the will of the people.

You are a politically vindictive organization.

I oppose your anti-democratic policies. I oppose your racism. Your Neo-Jim Crow. Your social-exclusion-by-highway. Get out of our community, leave us alone. Return our taxes free of all strings and get out of the way while we build a sustainable city. We want a city that requires no war for our mobility. We want a city that protects our climate as we get around. We want a city that is protective of children’s lungs. We want a city that promotes healthy, active, neighborhood-friendly ways of getting around.  We want a city that is inclusive and for all people, not just the well-wheeled. We will no longer serve as suburbanites’ doormats.

I notice the MPO board is not present. Had they been here, I would have told them:

As for you people on the MPO, get a spine. Stand up to these highwaymen. Start thinking creatively. Stop blasting ugliness through our neighborhoods. Start joining with the people in building *community* not commuter sprawlways.

Everything about this organization has militated against the expressed will of the people. You should be ashamed of yourselves. I oppose you because you have incompetently executed the will of the people.

I recommend that this body be decertified from receiving federal funds.

The siting of this meeting at this isolated location speaks volumes as to whom the MPO wants to hear from. Bus service is scant at best. Parking is ample. We are located adjacent to a giant highway. It’s a long way to walk anywhere from here. So the assumption must be that only car drivers’ views are wanted.

Regarding your introductory remarks: You speak of congestion as if it were the root of all evil. I disagree: Congestion is good for cities. It is the sign of a healthy city. It is a sign that people want to be there. Slow car traffic is the best friend of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users.

[I also entered into the record a copy of the latest (2012) League of Women Voters questionnaire of Dane County Supervisor Candidates (showing their support for transit, walking, biking); a copy of the budget graphs in the article linked above; a copy of a 2011~ 1000 Friends of WI newsletter article showing how much money Wisconsinites spend on roads out of their property and income taxes (i.e. only about 50% of the total road budget is paid for by gas taxes and other car user fees; in other words, socialism for cars; rapacious capitalism for the rest of us).]

###

US 51/WIS 19 camera image.

Sen. Mark Miller’s (D-Monona) $40,000,000.00 gift to the Seven. Thousand. Very. Republican. Villagers. of DeForest.

Keep in mind that the USDOT policies I cite here should not be taken as letting the likes of Falk or Cieslewicz or other locals off the hook. Ultimately, though the concrete dope was free, they injected the needle into the arm of the body politic of their own free will. Furthermore, USDOT’s pro-highway/anti-community policies are the products of pavement-friendly votes by other good liberals/progressives such as US Rep. Mark Pocan, US Senator Russ Feingold (ret) and US Senator Tammy Baldwin. Liberals on the state level have similarly taken the needle and the candy. From 2008-2010 Dane County Democrats – State Rep Mark Pocan, State Senator Mark Miller and Governor Jim Doyle –  held total power over the finances of state government as co-chairs of the all-powerful Joint Finance Committee and as the state’s chief executive (respectively). Truly, they were the patrons to the highwaymen clients in the nomenklatura of the Soviet Socialist Party of Pavers. Much like their Republican counterparts, they prioritized paving over people. Indeed, the pavers are of one party regardless of whether an R or D follows their name. I hold Mark Miller in particular contempt given his $40,000,000 (and counting) pork project more than doubling the size of US Highway 51 to serve the seven thousand Very. Special. Villagers. of. DeForest. while slashing state and federal investment in transit for 225,000 not-so-special Madison citizens.

Consider asking your alder why they continue to fund paving at the expense of people. Then ask your county board supervisor. Then ask your state rep. Then your US rep. Then ask your US Senator why she thinks more concrete is healthy. Always, always question. Then denounce. Because they just don’t get it. Because they are loyal party apparatchiks.

No Clarity in the Water

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Dear Alders,

I urge a reconsideration of Item 9 (30156) for the contract renewal for Thomas O. Heikkinen, General Manager of the Madison Water Utility. I strongly recommend, that any renewal of contract be provisional, lasting no longer than one year, with specific goals to be met for any further renewal. Please do not rubber stamp this appointment.

I believe that there are some serious deficiencies in the management of our drinking water that need to be addressed. The MWU’s current water management paradigm:

1.     Ignores science behind hydrogeology, chemistry and biology – most notably, human bio-chemistry. The engineering – pumping & piping – is the be all, end all of MWU’s thinking. The quality of what comes out the tap is dismissed in a barrage of PR parsing, obfuscating and disingenuousness. Water volume is everything; quality is nothing in MWU’s world. At most they will express “disappointment.” But disappointment doesn’t deliver clean water.

2.     Ignores the interests of ratepayers by investing in well sites known to be unproductive and highly polluted. The recently approved Southeast side well is a case-in-point.

3.     Ignores citizen input from the Citizen Advisory Panels with regard to well-siting and capital investment priorities. The Eastside CAP prioritized Well 8 for filtering; Well 7 was way down the list of priorities. Well 8 languishes while Well 7 is being super-sized far beyond anything approved by any CAP, and is being built to a scale that denies the recent, highly rigorous scientific analysis of the site.

4.     Fails to provide adequate staff comment on development proposals’ effects on our drinking water supply. See for yourself: the University Crossing development proposal’s staff comment section for the Water Utility relies entirely on self-reporting by the developer. Yet it sits atop the sensitive wellhead protection zone.

5.     Dismisses water conservation; the utility won’t even address it, especially with regard to business water use. This is a real problem since some 82% of our water is consumed by business/institutions.

6.     Treats citizen ratepayers as cash cows in allowing polluters to get off scot-free after wrecking our drinking water with carcinogenic filth, thus requiring either expensive filters or new, multi-million dollar wells.

7.     Stifles scientific input from citizens. At best citizen input is taken as a personal affront. Straightforward questioning, pointing out scientific facts, has resulted in a citizen getting thrown off the MWU Board. At worst, honest, straightforward citizen input has resulted in a criminal complaint to the city attorney. Dissent is a punishable offense under this MWU administration.

8.     Puts PR above clean water. Are two PR people really necessary for one agency? Wouldn’t it be more effective to hire two lawyers to aggressively pursue polluters? 

9.     Lies about Madison Water meeting “all standards” and about the existence of PCE in certain wells. Indeed, the federal drinking water standard for the toxin PCE is zero. That’s 0.00. Down to the parts per billion, zero. There is no safe level of PCE in drinking water according to the EPA. Many Madison wells have significant, and growing levels of PCE and other industrial chemicals. Yes, there is a sub-standard EPA limit that MWU seems to fixate on (and that our water just barely falls under), but that is a secondary, outer limit that accepts a certain number of PCE-related deaths and neurological illnesses (such as Parkinsons) as, somehow, ok. I don’t believe that the preventable death or incapacitation of even one person is acceptable. Neither should our citizen-owned water utility. Furthermore, the MWU is playing fast & loose with the truth with it’s statement, “It’s important to note that no PCE has ever been found in the water at Well 8.” While that is technically true, we do know that the breakdown products of PCE have been found in Well 8 water. Breakdown products have been found to be at least as dangerous and possibly more dangerous than PCE itself. It’s time for the disingenuousness to end at the water utility.

10.  Coddles polluters such as Madison Kipp Corporation. Instead of doing the right thing and suing to defend citizen-owned capital investments in clean drinking water (well infrastructure and pipe systems), MWU provides PR cover & damage control for polluters and their polluting activities in the media and at public meetings.

11.  Wastes federal money dedicated to providing clean water. Federal stimulus money was dedicated to filtering nasties out of an east side well; instead of making the enduring capital investment, the money went to consultants to gather citizen input. That input was then ignored. The money was wasted. (See Item 3.)

12.  Works to dismiss or suppress dissenting citizens from the MWU board.

I am willing to give benefit of the doubt; Mr. Heikkinen had inherited a difficult situation with problems that had been institutionalized before his arrival (especially the ingrained attitudes of engineering über alles, which, unfortunately still reigns). Some things have improved. But let’s be clear: the improvements have only come as a result of bruising fights featuring brave citizens brandishing the scientific truth vs. MWU leadership denying it while personally attacking these very knowledgeable citizens (or, as Mr. Heikkinen refers to them, “wing nuts” and “Ph.Ds lacking common sense”). When the denials become too embarrassingly untenable, the MWU’s PR machine goes into overdrive to assure the public that the utility has always believed the science it once denied (but those pesky citizens are still really wing-nut crazy, and those Ph.Ds in environmental toxicology still lack common sense).

The last Water Utility Board meeting was illuminating. Board members discussed their discomfort with these jabs at citizens. Heikkinen refused to apologize. Later, another board member did come to his defense to explain away management-attitude issues that keep coming to light. This board member explained that since Mr. Heikkinen is an engineer, he can’t be expected to know what it takes to deliver clean water; that would be the responsibility of other departments. (He didn’t specify which department; would that be the Health Department? We don’t know. But these statements – by a board member – contravene the Water Utility’s own “Outcomes Policies.”) It would be worth reviewing the streaming video to begin to understand the level of discomfort about the way things are going at the MWU. Except….I would have sent a link to the video, but there is none. And….I would have sent you a link to the minutes, but the minutes omit virtually all of the discussion that happens at board meetings. Interesting that. Apparently MWU is a public records-free zone.

We demand an assurance from you, the fiduciary agents of our citizen-owned water utility, that any renewal of the manager’s contract will not be for more than a year, with renewal possible if these demands are met:

1.     The public personal attacks on citizens and threats of arrest will stop;

2.     The MWU General Manager will ramp up his knowledge of the science of clean water delivery in its full panoply. From chemistry, to hydrogeology, to biology, to bio-chemistry, to geophysics, to environmental toxicology, etc., the GM will studiously research, rigorously adhere to and apply the most up-to-date, proven technology, including conservation and re-establishment of a healthy hydrologic cycle (i.e., infiltration) for clean water delivery over a time horizon of generations. (Start with seven.) This is already covered for the most part in the Water Utility Board’s Outcomes handbook, specifically O-2E. The MWU board has given him a pass on expanding his knowledge, but you, the representative body of the people, the ultimate fiduciary authority, should not. Furthermore, in future personnel searches, the city should consider Epic’s successful strategy for software development. They hire liberal arts graduates to manage projects because of their ability to integrate a wide variety of knowledge bases. The engineers work under the liberal arts graduates precisely because engineers are not trained to think expansively, integratively. Curiosity is not an engineer’s strong suit. They know what they know. Period. Full-stop.

3.     Monster wells are not acceptable. Super-sized wells are not a sustainable strategy – environmentally or economically – for clean drinking water. Overbuilding, overpumping and over-dynamiting a well, then building super-sized water storage over the top of it all ends up warping and cracking protective bedrock. The result is fissures which allow surface toxins and pathogens to infiltrate the deep aquifers we rely on for drinking water. This must end. The science must be followed, not denied.

4.     Polluters of clean water will be pursued to the fullest extent of the law;

5.     Further pollution of our drinking water ends now;

6.     MWU will provide clear, strongly worded staff comment for all future development that may have an impact on our water quality. Pro-forma hear/see/speak no evil pencil-whipped comment on development will not suffice. MWU’s comment in the future should, among other things, cite the impacts of paving, and any other capping off/interference with the healthy functioning of our hydrolologic cycle.

7.     Long-term financial viability of all MWU capital assets (to include the water supply itself, well infrastructure, well zones, filters, etc.) will be defended at all costs. This includes avoidance of well-sites known to be polluted or lacking in sufficient flow. The current five-year planning horizon is not acceptable. Well infrastructure is a 60-year+ investment; the water flowing to it is perpetual. We must protect our city’s long-term financial interests for perpetuity. Water is a financial interest.

8.     MWU will communicate clearly, honestly and provide full records to the public: a) the existence of pollutants; b) the health threats posed by those pollutants; c) the likely sources of those pollutants; d) the city’s efforts to recover damages from the polluters; e) the city’s efforts to stop further pollution; f) video and full minutes of Water Utility Board proceedings will be made available quickly and in perpetuity. The denial and obfuscation on behalf of the polluters must no longer be part of the MWU’s duty.

9.     Dissenting citizens will be appointed to the MWU board to counterbalance the overly comfortable consensus there.

More dynamite down a hole does not a quality water system make.

Sincerely,

Michael D. Barrett

 

Anyone in receipt of this communication may forward it, post it, disseminate it, as long as it is presented in its entirety, unabridged and unedited by others. Respectful quotes that don’t obscure the contextual meaning are ok.

Water Waste in the Emerald City

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013
Dear Common Council Members,
Tonight you are being asked to approve plans to drill a new Southeast Side Well (Well #31) at 4401 Tradewinds Pkwy – just S of the Beltline – just W of Beltline-I-90 (Agenda Item 101):
 
Please oppose this. 
 
We oppose it. Because:
 
-The well is not needed. Well 9, off Buckeye Road near Stoughton Road, which supplies water to the SE Side, has been down (out of operation) before. The Water Utility has continued to supply water to the SE Side even with Well 9 down–apparently with no problem. A 2nd well for the SE Side is not a priority we can afford right now.
 
-While the Water Utility created a Citizen Advisory Panel (CAP) to consider a new SE Side well; the SE Side CAP approved going ahead. But the CAP recognized the problem with siting a well in this area (pollution, low volume well output, etc.), and so actually suggested siting it up at Felland Rd. 
 
-This area is notorious for low productivity wells, even by Water Utility estimates. You won’t get what you want in terms of water volumes. This will end up being an expensive boondogle at ratepayers’ expense.
 
-There is a significant TCE (industrial toxins) groundwater plume from GE Medical in the I-90–Femrite area. The TCE plume is headed right for the new well (by Water Utility’s own analysis). Pumping this new deep well will almost certainly pull the TCE further, faster towards the new well, again by Water Utility’s own admission.
 
-The Utility’s financial priority should be:
a. Cleaning up the significant water quality problems at our existing wells. (Why are we digging new wells when we can’t even properly manage the wells we already have?)
b. More rapid payback of City property taxpayers for a ‘loan’ of property tax money to the Utility;
c. Increasing the rate of replacement of leaky old pipe throughout the City (this would actually provide much of the volume the Utility is seeking; 
d. Institute a progressive rate structure that creates strong incentives to use less water.
e. Use the profits from the higher rates on water wasters to provide rebates to water users who install water conservation measures.
 
There is a lot of science denial going on at the Water Utility right now. You could bring a strong dose of reality there by voting against the well. You are, after all, the corporate board of directors of this publicly owned utility. You have the fiduciary responsibility to keep the utility from wasting citizen’s financial resources.
 
Again, we adamantly oppose the approval of a new well proposed in Agenda Item 101.
 
Sincerely,
Michael D. Barrett and Pamela S. Barrett
 
P.s. You have permission to forward this anywhere, to anyone.