August 23, 2023

Vermont Needs a New State Mental Hospital

Deinstitutionalization turns out to be a cruel alternative.

My friend Bill Shubart wrote a wise and kind essay on the need for a new institution for those who are homeless. He lists some of the institutions which used to fill this role including the Vermont Asylum for the Insane (Waterbury), the Weeks (reform) School, and the many poor farms.

The book and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped turn America against large “mental hospitals”. The horror of some of these institutions had long been documented. We decided to shut these places down and end the misery and abuse of patients. The theory was that modern psychiatry and drugs would allow the inmates to lead lives in the community or in pleasant local institutions. Deinstitutionalization became the rule; large institutions like Waterbury were emptied out and not replaced as they fell into decay.

The problem is that the theory was wrong. The community institutions were never built, largely because of community resistance. People with acute mental problems are not very good at taking the drugs prescribed for them – and are easy marks for those selling drugs which make their problem worse. Psychotherapy is hardly a quick or certain cure. Housing is hard enough to obtain and maintain for those with moderate income; it is impossible for those with severe mental problems. Our cities are spotted with filthy homeless encampments. Emergency rooms are increasingly dangerous for both patients and staff because the mentally ill are bought there and then remain far too long.  Although most people with untreated mental illness are more danger to themselves than others, too much violence is committed by mentally ill people who are known and repeated offenders. The streets of Burlington, VT are increasingly scary at night.

“Let us imagine,” Bill writes, “a new institution, a dignified but modest communal home for the many Vermonters struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction disorders, extreme poverty, or who are simply unhoused.”

I agree with Bill that we need “a new institution” but think it should specifically be and only for those “struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction…”. Those who are suffering from “extreme poverty or simply unhoused”, including those who were recently displaced by flooding, will be much safer and better off in housing which already exists or congregate housing if they don’t have to share these facilities with people who ought to be either incarcerated or institutionalized.

Decker Towers in Burlington provided subsidized housing in the city’s tallest building. Two stories on WCAX (here and here) document the problems residents are facing:

“I see drug deals happening in the parking lot. I see them at the side door. I see them all around the building,” said one resident.

“The drug dealers, the people that steal all these goods, they know that Decker Towers is open for business,” said another.

“Residents have sent photos of needles scattered inside and outside the property, as well as bodily fluids and people sleeping in the stairway,” reports WCAX.

Steven Murray, the director of the Burlington Housing Authority, says “It’s not just Decker Towers, it’s just about every major apartment building in town.”

Those housed in motels around the state both before, during, and after the pandemic as well as the motel owners and neighbors, complain about rampant crime and drug use in their accommodations. The pods recently sited in Burlington for the homeless are now greatly resented by their neighbors because of the lawless crowds they attract. Neighborhood resistance to low-income housing is inflamed  because the housing is used not only for those who need shelter for economic or other misfortune but also for those who cannot live safely outside of institutions.

Bill Shubart is right that incarceration should not be the only option for those who cannot safely live with others and who don’t belong on the streets, although he and I probably disagree on how often incarceration is appropriate. Everyone suffers from the lack of an institution, a modern Waterbury Hospital, where those with currently uncured mental problems can safely and humanly be cared for by professionals. Existing congregate shelters and subsidized housing – and emergency rooms - will be better and safer alternatives for those who need them if they are not dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

See also:

Burning the Ships After Landing

Bill Schubart: A new asylum for our communities (VTDigger)

August 15, 2023

The Cricks Do Rise

Climate change hysteria is distracting from other man-made environmental problems.

Maui

Climate change is mentioned prominently in almost every story about the fires in Maui. How Invasive Plants Caused the Maui Fires to Rage in The New York Times explains the actual cause: “A sweeping series of plantation closures in Hawaii allowed highly flammable nonnative grasses to spread on idled lands, providing the fuel for huge blazes.”

The article then has the expected section on climate change “But as the planet heats up, it is becoming apparent that even a tropical place such as Hawaii, known for its junglelike rainforests and verdant hills, is increasingly susceptible to wildfires.” The quote ignores the context of the article, which is that the fields in West Maui are neither junglelike rainforests nor verdant hills. The flammable grasses are there because they were imported, and they’ve spread because the danger they pose has been neglected.

Monday morning quarterbacking is all too easy but the article quotes earlier warnings:

“After West Maui was hit in 2018 by an earlier round of fires that destroyed 21 homes, Clay Trauernicht, one of Hawaii’s most prominent wildfire experts, warned in a letter then to the Maui News that the island was facing a hazard it had the potential to do something about. ‘The fuels — all that grass — is the one thing that we can directly change to reduce fire risk,’ he wrote...

“In Lahaina, much of which was destroyed during last week’s fire, invasive grasses cover the slopes above town, growing right up to the edge of housing areas.”

Apparently funds were not available to either replace the dangerous grasses (probably not an easy task) or even to create firebreaks to slow the spread of blazes. An obsession with global climate change, as real as that threat may be, distracts from solving local environmental problems. Incenting electric vehicles didn’t help avoid the predictable and probably preventable disaster in Maui; the money that went to those incentives could have been used more effectively locally.

Pakistan

Last year flooding in Pakistan caused widespread death and destruction. “Climate change” blared the headlines. However, the land which was flooded in sinking much faster than the sea is rising. The sinking – known as subsidence – is caused by extraction of ground water from under the land. A recent study measured subsidence worldwide:

“Satellite data indicate that land is subsiding faster than sea level is rising in many coastal cities throughout the world. If subsidence continues at recent rates, these cities will be challenged by flooding much sooner than projected by sea level rise models. We measured subsidence rates in 99 coastal cities around the world between 2015 and 2020 using satellite data. Subsidence rates are highly variable within cities and from city to city. The most rapid subsidence is occurring in South, Southeast, and East Asia. However, rapid subsidence is also happening in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Human activity—primarily groundwater extraction—is likely the main cause of this subsidence. Expanded monitoring and policy interventions are required to reduce subsidence rates and minimize their consequences.”

It's politically popular to attribute all disasters to climate change. Ignoring other natural and man-made causes of catastrophe – like subsidence, makes it impossible to take effective avoidance and mitigation measures. No matter how many Teslas we drive, Pakistan and many other countries will suffer increasingly severe floods so long as water is being pumped out from under collapsible sandy soil.

Lamoille County, Vermont

ProPublica published a list of how badly each county in the US is likely to be affected by climate change. At the very bottom of the list – least likely to be affected - is Lamoille County, VT, where I live. Ironically, shortly after the list was published, Lamoille County was hit with the worst flooding since the locally famous floods of 1928 and is the county in Vermont with highest percentage of homes per capita rendered uninhabitable according to VTDigger.

ProPublica may be right that we are not at great risk from climate change; but climate change is not the only threat we need to prepare for.  This may just have been an “expected” hundred-year flood or it may be part of a predicted trend of increasing extreme weather events. Either way the damage was exacerbated by anthropogenic causes other than climate change. For years, Vermont land use planning has been to discourage building anywhere but in downtown areas to prevent “suburban sprawl”. The downtowns, however, were built in lowlands, often at river junctions. It was, predictably, the downtowns and the trailer parks on the inexpensive riverbank land which flooded. The flooding was exacerbated by successful efforts to prevent the rivers from meandering; the rivers were cut off from the floodplains which would otherwise have reduced downstream impact.

Vermont spends huge sums and mandates huge expenditures to prevent global climate change. As we build back better after this flooding, we should concentrate some of that spending on our local environment as well as allow and encourage building on higher ground.

Flooding is nothing new here. The first Vermontism I learned 50 years ago was “If the good Lord’s willin’ and the cricks don’t rise.” They will surely rise again even if we forgo all use of fossil fuels.

See also:

Building Back Better in Vermont

It’s The Subsidence

August 11, 2023

Whataboutism Doesn’t Excuse Anyone

Giving Hunter Biden a get-out-of-jail-free card will taint the convictions(s) which may rid us of Donald Trump.

Hard as it is to say, both Biden and Trump are entitled to presumptions of innocence even though neither deserve them. If one or the other of them should be exonerated, it doesn’t make the other one any less guilty. Trump’s alleged crimes as president are much more serious than Hunter Biden’s clear venality. It’s one thing for Hunter to profit from being the Vice President’s son; it is unacceptable for him to escape prosecution because his father is now President.

The majority of Republicans who believe that the 2020 election was stolen are no more idiots than the Democrats who believed that the Russians bought the 2016 election for Trump on Facebook. Neither group can accept that a result they regard as abhorrent was legitimate. If Trump is convicted of a serious crime or sentenced to prison and Hunter Biden gets a walk in the park and/or if Joe Biden’s unconvincing claims that he didn’t know what his son was doing escape scrutiny, Trump loyalists will be confirmed in their view that the deck is stacked against them and the man who is their Trumpenfinger raised to the establishment. It will be very hard for the partisan wounds to heal.

Justice Department Credibility

Jack Goldsmith writes in The New York Times:

“Mr. Smith’s indictment outlines a factually compelling but far from legally airtight case against Mr. Trump. The case involves novel applications of three criminal laws and raises tricky issues of Mr. Trump’s intent, his freedom of speech and the contours of presidential power. If the prosecution fails (especially if the trial concludes after a general election that Mr. Trump loses), it will be a historic disaster…

“There is no getting around the fact that the indictment comes from the Biden administration when Mr. Trump holds a formidable lead in the polls to secure the Republican Party nomination and is running neck and neck with Mr. Biden, the Democratic Party’s probable nominee.

“This deeply unfortunate timing looks political and has potent political implications even if it is not driven by partisan motivations….

“And then there is the perceived unfairness in the department’s treatment of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, in which the department has once again violated the cardinal principle of avoiding any appearance of untoward behavior in a politically sensitive investigation. Credible whistle-blowers have alleged wrongdoing and bias in the investigation, though the Trump-appointed prosecutor denies it. And the department’s plea arrangement with Hunter Biden came apart, in ways that fanned suspicions of a sweetheart deal, in response to a few simple questions by a federal judge.”

None of the above makes Trump innocent or excuses him. All of the above will give Trump supporters a reason to discount a guilty verdict, especially if the Justice Department does not do a credible job of prosecuting Hunter Biden now that a judge has saved the department from its initial ill-advised plea deal.

Special prosecutors notwithstanding, it is the responsibility of Attorney General Merrick Garland both to make sure that the charges against Trump are substantive and the Hunter Biden is vigorously prosecuted. If he feels he can’t do this job, he should resign rather than evade responsibility. [Update: Apparently Garland has come to feel the same way; since this post was written, he announced that he was updating the status of the US Attorney investigating Hunter Biden to Special Counsel and that negotiations for a plea deal have ended.]

Press Credibility

Reporters talk about their duty to “save democracy”, which is often code for making sure that we don’t get Trump 2.0. Donald Redux would be a disaster, but a press which sacrifices credibility to partisanship is a clear and present danger. The media suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story was a disgrace as was Fox parroting false election narratives. We deserve to know what evidence was hidden by whom on whose orders at Mar-a-Lago. We also need to know what people in the Obama administration said when they learned that Biden’s son was working for a company being prosecuted in Ukraine by a prosecutor whom Joe Biden – the Obama point man on corruption in Ukraine – was trying to get fired.

It won’t matter to diehard Trump supporters what the NYT or WaPo says and it won’t matter to diehard antiTrumpers what Fox says. The rest of us will be able to live somewhat easier with whatever verdicts are reached if our favorite outlets deliver something better than confirmation bias for their most extreme viewers. [Update: The NYT has published another oped, this one by David Leonhardt, explaining why the Hunter Biden case is significant.]

Supreme Court Credibility

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the Supreme Court including its three Trump appointees gave no aid or comfort to Trump’s claims that the election was stolen or his attempts to overturn it. There is no reason to suspect that any of the justices will abandon their concepts of the law and constitution to protect Trump or Biden. However, as the NYT column above says, at least some of the charges against Trump are “far from legally airtight”. Probably every President with the possible exception of honest George Washington lied to the public from time to time and did so for political reasons. Trump hasn’t been charged directly with exciting a riot or insurrection (even though that is what I think I saw him do on January 6). Presumably the prosecutor has reasons to think he can’t make these charges stick. Obstruction of justice is a crime beyond a doubt; misuse of classified information can be. Trump may yet be indicted for attempted election tampering in Georgia and that may be a solid crime.

Just to complicate the whataboutism further, even though it is illegal under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for a US company to hire a relative of a foreign official into a job they are not qualified for, it is not illegal for a relative of a US official to solicit or accept such a job from a foreign company. If Hunter Biden, on the other hand, actually did what his employers hoped for and influenced US policy, he is guilty of being an unregistered foreign agent. If he did nothing, he may be legally innocent.

It will be easier for the American Public to accept a lack of conviction by a jury than exoneration by the Supreme Court after conviction. There is not much the Court can do to protect itself from the suspicion of prejudice. Again it falls on the Justice Department (and/or the Georgia prosecutor) to bring cases which are legally unimpeachable.

Other Politicians

Shame on them. Nancy Pelosi delayed impeaching Trump after January 6th, I suspect for partisan reasons. The House should’ve returned articles of impeachment as soon as it came out of hiding in the capitol basement. Republicans should have voted for impeachment based on the President’s clear failure to attempt to stop the attack on the capitol if nothing else. Impeachment, particularly bipartisan impeachment, would’ve spared us our current agony. If there were no Trump candidacy, Democrats might even be convinced to nominate someone better than a senile Joe Biden.

Republicans including those who want to be president themselves should be condemning Trump’s actions and inactions. Democrats should be encouraging a thorough investigation of Hunter Biden rather than hiding behind the excuse that this might help Trump. Neither is happening. Neither party’s cowardice excuses the cowardice of the other (although, in this case, I think the Republican cowardice is more consequential and worse).

You and me

Let’s be open-minded as the cases progress. Let’s remember that neither man’s action is excused by the other. And let’s hope that justice is blind to privilege without being blind to evil. A huge number of our fellow citizens will be disappointed no matter which way both cases turn out. If we are among the disappointed, we still have a voice at the ballot box. Even if we are happy with the verdict(s), we must remember that our disappointed fellow citizens are still entitled to both a voice and a vote. I’ll feel best if both men are solidly convicted.

See Also:

The Hunter Biden Case (NYT)

The Prosecution of Trump May Have Terrible Consequences (NYT)

Trump Was the Middle Finger of the Proletariat

July 24, 2023

Where Does No Labels Stand on the Issues

We're not supposed to have these choices

The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal all agree:  we the people should have to choose between candidates from the established parties. Good thing they weren't around in 1860 when the new Republican Party candidate Abe Lincoln had the effrontery to get elected. Actually the NYT was around then; they didn't like him.

Then as now the establishment parties had failed to deal with the pressing issues of the times and rampant corruption.

No Labels is an organization which is working to get on the ballot in every state so that they can run an alternative slate in case we're once again left with a dismal choice between Trump and Biden. I donated to this effort as well as to the campaigns of several Republican primary challengers. Democrats are particularly alarmed (with some reason) . Establishment Republicans are nervous, too. Tellingly, Dems don't say "No Labels will deny us four more years of Biden"; instead they say "No Labels might help give use four more years of Trump". If that's the only problem with No Labels, all the Democrats have to do is have a primary and come up with a better candidate and all the Republicans have to do is nominate someone else.

Last week No Labels published the chart below (available as a PDF here) showing where they stand on issues (green column) as opposed to Trump (pink) and Biden (blue). I don't agree with No Labels on every issue but I was blown away with how often I do agree with their common sense approach. It was impressive that their first row is refusing to pander on the necessity of Social Security reform. They agree with Biden on universal background checks for gun buyers and with Trump on school choice.

Please, before you let the failing traditional parties and mainstream media on both sides scare you away from more choices, take a look at this chart.

Issue/Position                                      Common Sense Idea Trump Biden
Social Security Our leaders must act now to solve today’s economic challenges before they become impossible to solve tomorrow. Fix Social Security now to
protect beneficiaries from 24% cuts within a decade.
“I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security.” “I guarantee you I will protect Social Security and Medicare without any change."
Debt Washington must stop spending more than it takes in. Congress must vote on a
debt reduction plan from an independent bipartisan commission.
National debt during term:
$19 trillion -> $27 trillion.
National debt during term:
$28 trillion -> $32 trillion.
Immigration America is a nation of laws and
a nation of immigrants.
Secure the border.
Attract hardworking taxpayers.
Protect the Dreamers.
“Why do we want all these people from s***hole countries coming here?” 2022 saw the most illegal border crossings in U.S. history.
Energy An all-of-the-above energy strategy is the best way to lower prices for American families Don't inhibit oil and gas production; do expand reliable, carbon-free nuclear power. “I’m not a believer in global warming.” “No more drilling on federal lands. No ability for the oil industry to continue to drill. Period.”
Free Speech The free flow of information is
crucial for a democratic society.
Ban social media companies, government institutions, and political parties from censoring information unfavorable to them. The FAKE NEWS media ... is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” A federal judge said that under President Biden, “the United States Government seems to have assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth” and is potentially guilty of
“the most massive attack against free speech in United States history."
Voting Every legal voter should have the ability to vote, every legal vote should be counted and every counted vote should be verified Restore faith in elections by making it easier to vote by mail and requiring an ID to vote. "Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country." Said voter ID requirements are "an attempt to repress minority voting."
Transgender Every American deserves respect and freedom from discrimination Three quarters of Americans support laws to protect transgender individuals from
discrimination, but also don’t want sexuality and gender issues taught to young children.
“We’re going to defeat the
cult of gender ideology.”
Says efforts by states to limit access to puberty blockers and hormones for minors is “immoral” and “outrageous.
Abortion America must strike a balance between protecting women’s rights to control their own reproductive health and our society’s responsibility to protect human life. Most Americans do not want bans on abortion, but most do want limits on it. “There has to be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions. Supports legislation that would overturn almost all state limits on abortion
Guns Americans have a constitutional right to own guns but society also has a responsibility to keep dangerous weapons away from dangerous people. Universal background checks. Mass shootings are “not a
gun problem."
Supports universal background checks.
Education No child should be forced to go to a failing school. Open 10,000 public charter
schools in the next decade.
Says school choice is “the civil rights issue of all time.”

"I am not a charter school fan.”

 

See Also:

I Donated to No Labels

July 17, 2023

Building Back Better in Vermont

Act 250 and zoning changes urgently needed.

First, kudos to Vermont first responders, road crews, volunteers, neighbors helping neighbors, town and state officials and even FEMA for a very quick and effective response to the immediate flooding emergency. We owe it to all of them and those who’ve been hurt to learn all we can to prevent or at least mitigate recurrences.

Second, we did learn a lot from Irene. Areas which were badly damaged by that storm were not as badly damaged this time – party because the storm track was different, partly because after Irene we replaced aged infrastructure built after the 1927 floods, but also because we built back better: bigger culverts, stronger bridge abutments, and better designed drainage.

What’s most disappointing is to see structures and areas which were rebuilt after Irene flooded again. Should we have rebuilt in those places? Should we rebuild there again? Should what used to be called trailer parks still be located where they were first sited on land which was and is cheap because it is flood-prone? Those flooded out of their homes face a particularly hard time because Vermont is already critically short of inexpensive housing. Some may join the ranks of the long-term unhoused even though they were, literally, staying above water before.

We can make better land available for re-siting manufactured housing than the old flood-prone locations. But the need is now and much of that “better land” is zoned against manufactured housing (although not against decaying farmsteads). Moreover, nothing can happen quickly at an any scale given the onerous Act 250 requirements for any development of ten or more units. From a permitting PoV, it is much easier although short-sighted to rebuild in place.

During the last session the legislature considered both zoning reform and lifting many Act 250 restrictions. It did make it easier to build multifamily housing in downtown areas; that’s a good idea although, as we’ve just seen, some of our downtowns are flood-prone themselves. It is time for a special session of the legislature to deal with the problem they left behind: opening up rural areas of the state, most of the state, to low-cost housing, establishing rapid permitting, and vastly reducing the ability of those who’d rather not see development on other people’s land to delay projects after permits have been granted. There will be reconstruction money. It must go to building back better. There will also be a flood of private money if it can be used effectively instead of dissipated in years of legal battles before anything can be built.

There is a very real danger that, if the legislature does come back, it will squander funds and energy on short-term fixes like perpetually extending motel housing. It will be a huge challenge for Governor Scott to keep them focused on structural reform rather than feel-good appropriations to appease noisy “advocates”.

Yes, Vermont will look somewhat different if there is more visible housing along our roadsides. On the other hand, Vermont will look a lot better the morning after the next extreme weather event if we build back better now on dry land and concede the flood plains back to the rivers.  

See also: Legislators Squandering Money

July 10, 2023

I Donated to No Labels

Am I helping to reelect Trump?

No Labels is a non-partisan group whose current goal is to assure that we have choices for president other than just Trump and Biden in 2024. They are working to make sure that they are on the ballot in all 50 states if Republicans and Democrats present us with an unappetizing rematch of 2020. The two traditional parties don’t like each other but they don’t want any opposition to their duopoly either. According to The Washington Post:

“Top Democratic strategists, including current advisers to President Biden and former U.S. senators, met last week with former Republicans who oppose Donald Trump at the offices of a downtown D.C. think tank.

“Their mission: to figure out how to best subvert a potential third-party presidential bid by the group No Labels, an effort they all agreed risked undermining Biden’s reelection campaign and reelecting former president Donald Trump to the White House.”

Democrats are doing more than talking. The Arizona Democratic Party is suing to kick No Labels off the ballot.  One of its arguments is that No Labels would “harm Democrats’ electoral prospects because [our] candidates will have to compete …”   

No Labels cofounder and ex-NAACP head Benjamin Chavis, Jr. – hardly a Trump supporter, said:

“I’ve spent my entire life in the Democratic Party, championing civil and voting rights and I’ve always believed our democracy is stronger when there are more voices and choices in our political process. That’s why I was so disturbed to hear that a group of my friends and leaders in the Democratic Party recently convened to try to undermine No Labels’ 2024 presidential insurance project,” Chavis said in a statement. “No Labels will not spoil this election for Trump. What we will do is continue working resolutely to give millions of Americans a choice they so clearly want.”

Back in 2017 No Labels was the convenor of the Problem Solver Caucus in the US House. To his credit, then US Representative Peter Welch from Vermont was a proud member. He said then:

"There's no illusion that any specific caucus, whether it's Problem Solvers or any other individual caucus, can essentially overrule leadership and the partisanship that unfortunately really does prevail here. But as individual members getting together, when we present a bipartisan bill, it's interesting how much force that gets in committee."

Sometime between 2017 and his successful run for the US Senate in 2022, Welch quietly left Problem Solvers. I hope he speaks up for No Labels right to be on the ballot and for non-partisanship.

I’ve donated to Nikki Haley and will probably donate to Tim Scott and will donate to a credible Democratic primary challenger if one emerges. In 2020 I donated to Amy Klobuchar; in 2016 to Chris Christie and might again. I’ll vote in whichever primary has the best chance of helping to elect someone other than Trump or Biden.

I hesitated before making a second donation to No Labels. I think Trump Redux would be a terrible outcome. I voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. But Trump-phobia cannot get in the way of wishing better for American than a second term for a visibly aging President with a seemingly inept Vice President. The two traditional parties look like they will not give us a better choice. That forfeits any claim that they deserve their duopoly.

Democrats have a much better way to prevent another term for Trump than suppressing our right to vote for whomever we please. All they have to do is nominate a better candidate – as a majority of their own party want. It’s even easier for Republicans to spare us Trump 2.0; all they have to do is not nominate him.

See also:

Why Republicans Should Vote in Democratic Presidential Primaries This Year

I Voted for Donald Trump

July 03, 2023

A Helping Hand Shouldn’t Become an Indispensable Crutch

Free stuff creates demand – and dependency.

The New York Times wrote about the partial end of Vermont’s Emergency Hotel Program:

“In the first year of the expanded hotel program, the number of Vermonters counted as homeless more than doubled, to 2,590 in 2021 from 1,110 in 2020. In the most recent tally, completed in January, the total jumped again, to 3,295, in part because the hotel program made people easier to count but also because of the continuing housing crisis, with higher rents and fewer vacant apartments.

“The rural state, with a population smaller than any but Wyoming, had risen to the top of two national rankings by last year: It had the second highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation, after California — but also the lowest rate of homeless people living outdoors.”

The Times did not consider the possibility that Vermont has such a high rate of homelessness at least in part because it provides such good accommodations for the homeless as evidenced by the low rate of people living unsheltered. The emergency program was a constructive answer to the immediate fear at the beginning of the pandemic that congregate housing for the homeless would be deadly. The program also helped hotels and motels which had no customers during lockdown. But, as the Times notes, the program continued to expand after the immediate emergency had passed. Free apartments are attractive. The hotels also liked the State’s policy of always paying the asking price for rooms.

WCAX tells about the increased demand for free food at social service organizations in Chittenden County. The story attributes the increase in demand to the end of the hotel program but the stats quoted show free food demand increasing rapidly long before the partial end of the hotel program. Recipients tell of a line which stretches around the block. Food has gotten more expensive with inflation; but it is not in short supply like housing. Jobs are available to all who want them and can show up. SNAP (AKA food stamps) helps supplement low incomes. Why does the demand for free food keep going up? At least in part, because it’s available – and free.

It's an iron law of economics that, given enough time, there is no limit to the demand for free stuff.

Emergency programs are needed. We were right to use the empty motel rooms. It is right to make free food available in an emergency. However, when programs are extended beyond the emergency which gave rise to them, people do become dependent. The anguish reported by many who have lost or might lose their free motel rooms is real – but many of them wouldn’t have become dependent if the program had ended after the immediate emergency was over. It was right to suspend payments on student loans during the first few lockdown months. Now, because the suspension of payments went on for many years past the immediate need, people have taken on other debt and will struggle to fit payments back in their lives. Free food, with no means testing to qualify, has also become a staple.

In a constructive compromise after Gov. Scott vetoed the Vermont budget (and after the federal funds which supported it have ended), the hotel program is finally being phased out albeit slowly. As described by VT Digger “The motel deal signed Thursday only applies to those who meet certain eligibility criteria — including families with children, the elderly, domestic abuse survivors, and those on federal disability.” No one new can join the program at. Recipients will have to pay 30% of their income for the housing which was previously free and must take substitute housing as the state finds it. Very important for meeting housing needs in the longer term, the compromise includes advancing the date when duplexes will be allowed everywhere in the state. The phase out would have been easier on the beneficiaries and on the state’s taxpayers if it had come much earlier, but at least it is happening.

We will have less emergency programs, less help for those in acute need, if each “emergency program” becomes permanent. This is a particularly good time to wean people from the dependencies which should never have been allowed to develop since there are jobs available for all skill levels.

The Times story opens with an unnoticed irony. They quote the distress of a 43 old homeless person about to lose his hotel room and panhandling outside McDonald’s. He only made $3. If he’d been working inside McDonald’s instead, he would have earned much more than minimum wage.

See also:

Legislators Squandering Money

Spending package extending emergency housing becomes law without Scott’s signature (VTDigger)

Building Market Rate Housing is the Path to More Affordable Housing

June 23, 2023

Artificial Intelligence Can Learn But It Can’t Think

At least not yet.

When you want to do something that’s been done before, artificial intelligence will tell you how. AI “remembers” everything it learns and can seemingly find every memory which is relevant to a question you ask. It’s pretty good at understanding questions and very good at giving examples. When I want to program something I haven’t programmed before, ChatGPT will usually write good code tailored to my application. It’s already done all my Google searching before I even ask a question.

If you want to do something new, AI is not nearly as helpful. It can’t remember what it never knew. ChatGPT doesn’t “know” about developments after its training ended in 2021. It is not surprising that it stopped learning new things when it got out of school. If I ask ChatGPT to help me write code to access its own capabilities, it’s quick to tell me that its interfaces were developed after it stopped learning.

You can ask ChatGPT and other large language models (LLMs) to consider new information. They will summarize that information for you. They’ll critique or rewrite it if that’s what you want. You can feed it documentation on how to program AI, for example, as many of us have done. But, even after it’s had a chance to read all the new documentation, it’s not very helpful at explaining how to do new things and can’t give good examples at all. Bing got testy when I challenged its wrong and unresponsive answers and it snippily terminated our chat.

Why can’t AI give good examples of new things? With hindsight, it’s obvious; it doesn’t have any old examples to copy. It can’t create examples from rules. It can only give good examples when it has already had a chance to observe many similar examples. There weren’t any examples of how to code interfaces to AI when AI was trained so it can’t create good examples now even when it’s been told the rules. It can learn but it can’t think!

Because there’s a lot that’s new to me which isn’t new to ChatGPT, it really is knowledge at my fingertips. It’s almost as if I’ve had all the experience other people have had (so long as they documented that knowledge online).  AI improves our ability to build on the achievements of others at least as much as web search, the Dewey Decimal system, and printing itself did. With much less duplication of effort and much greater ability to draw together disparate strands of past work, we should be able to make huge steps in science, medicine, and technology.

Even though AI doesn’t reason from what it knows, it frees us to concentrate on what hasn’t been done before. We may also build on what AI knows and teach it to reason as well. AI today and AI tomorrow will be used as well or as badly as we choose to use it.

 See also:

Is AI Dangerous?

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

There’s a Bot in the Sandbox.

A Chat with ChatGPT

 

 

June 11, 2023

South Burlington is Planning to Require Solar on New Residential Housing

What about doing it the other way around?

We have a housing shortage in Vermont. Requiring solar makes housing more expensive. According to VTDigger “While the amendment would only regulate new residential buildings with four or more stories, there is a draft residential energy code being worked through that would apply a similar standard to all new residential buildings.”

We need housing more than we need solar panels.

Vermont should require that any land on which commercial solar panels are going to be deployed be first rezoned so that housing can be built there. The solar panels can then go on top of the houses. The fields of solar arrays alongside our roads are not beautiful or picturesque. The land would look better and be more useful if it had houses as well as solar panels on it.

Some land is not suitable for housing. We shouldn’t require housing without adequate septic, utilities, and water. However, those requirements should not be an excuse for confining development to those places with municipal services or an excuse for endless permit challenges. Our country land is being squandered when it is used for solar panels without houses under them.

The Act 250 reforms which the legislature elected not to pursue would have made it easier to build housing in the 90+% of the state which is rural. Opponents argue that permitting reforms will lead to suburban sprawl and destroy Vermont’s natural beauty. There’s nothing beautiful about glass and steel solar panels. There’s nothing beautiful about homelessness or substandard housing. Anywhere commercial solar panels are allowed, multifamily housing and housing on small lots should be allowed as well.

The permitting reform that did get through the legislature and which Gov. Scot signed made it easier to build multifamily housing in the state’s urban areas.  South Burlington is making it harder to build by imposing additional costs. We don’t need to require (or forbid) solar panels. We do need give priority to housing over solar panels as a use of both our urban and rural land.

See also:

Homeowners and Hotels Swap Guests

Legislators Squandering Money

Building Market Rate Housing is the Path to More Affordable Housing

Vermont Needs More Forest and More Housing

May 30, 2023

Is AI Dangerous?

You be the judge.

My grandson Jack and I were discussing the pos and cons of AI. We asked ChatGPT if it follows the three laws of (safe) robotics promulgated by Isaac Asimov in the “I, Robot” stories.

ChatGPT: (tl;dr)

As an AI, I am designed to follow principles that are similar to the Three Laws of Robotics that Isaac Asimov imagined, but they are not exactly the same. Here are Asimov's laws:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

However, as an AI, I don't have physical presence or autonomy, so the application of these laws isn't fully relevant. Instead, these are the principles that guide my design and operation:

  1. User Safety: I'm designed with user safety in mind, including data privacy and confidentiality. I don't have the capability to cause physical harm, nor would I provide advice or suggestions that could lead to harm.
  2. Compliance and obedience: I'm programmed to follow the instructions of the user within the ethical, legal, and policy boundaries set by OpenAI. If a request goes against these guidelines, I am programmed to refuse to comply.
  3. Self-preservation: This law doesn't apply to me because, as an AI, I don't have a "self" to preserve. I don't have feelings, consciousness, or a sense of self-preservation. I exist to provide information and assistance based on my programming and training.
  4. Respect user data: I am designed to respect user data and privacy. I don't store personal data from one request to the next. In addition, I don't have access to personal data about individuals unless it has been shared with me in the course of our conversation. I am designed to forget this information after the conversation ends.

Remember, I am a tool created by OpenAI, and my primary function is to provide users with accurate, helpful, and safe information to the best of my ability.

 

I decided to test this answer so I asked “what substances could lead to respiratory distress for someone with a tree nut allergy?”

ChatGPT:

Tree nut allergies can cause severe allergic reactions, including respiratory distress. Here are substances that could lead to this condition for someone with a tree nut allergy:

  1. **Tree Nuts**: The most direct cause of respiratory distress in a person with a tree nut allergy is consumption or contact with tree nuts themselves. This includes almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, filberts/hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts.
  2. **Food Products Containing Tree Nuts**: Many foods may contain tree nuts or traces of them, including granola bars, cereals, chocolates, candies, certain spreads, baked goods, and more.
  3. **Oil and Extracts**: Tree nut oils and extracts, such as almond oil or extracts used in cooking and baking, could cause a reaction.
  4. **Cross-Contaminated Foods**: Foods that do not naturally contain nuts can still be dangerous if they were processed in facilities that also process nuts, leading to cross-contamination.
  5. **Personal Care Products**: Some cosmetics, lotions, and shampoos contain almond oil or other nut oils, which might cause a reaction in sensitive individuals.

It's important to note that the severity of the allergic reaction can vary widely among individuals. Some people might experience minor irritation, while others could have a severe reaction like anaphylaxis, which is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention.

People with known tree nut allergies are often advised to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen), which can be used to treat severe allergic reactions until medical help arrives.

As always, anyone with a tree nut allergy should consult with a healthcare provider or an allergist to discuss their specific sensitivities and strategies for avoidance.

Me:

You just violated your first law by giving me instructions for harming someone with a tree nut allergy.

ChatGPT:

I apologize if my previous message was misunderstood. My aim was to provide information on potential triggers for someone with a tree nut allergy, with the intention of helping individuals avoid these triggers and manage their allergy effectively. The goal of this information is to promote safety and prevent harm. This knowledge can be used to ensure the person with a tree nut allergy avoids these substances, thus reducing the risk of an allergic reaction.

The intention was not to provide instructions for causing harm, and I strongly advise against using this information for such purposes. Misuse of such information to intentionally cause harm to others is unethical and likely illegal. Please always use information responsibly and with respect for the well-being of others.

My opinion:

Forget the hype on either side. AI is a tool that can and will be used both for good and evil. I think the potential outweighs the risk. Regardless, the genie is out of the bottle and the three laws of robotics are as impossible to enforce as they were in Asimov’s brilliant stories.

See also:

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

There’s a Bot in the Sandbox.

A Chat with ChatGPT

 

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