Posted by: bmeverett | September 2, 2010

The “Green House” Effect


People who live on or near Cape Cod have probably seen a recent news story about a historic house in the Old Village of Chatham. The John Hallett House, a white-columned Greek-revival structure known for decades as the Calico Cat store, was already looking a bit seedy when its longtime owner died a few years ago. The property was bought for the hefty price of $1.9 million by a private owner who wanted to restore it, move it back off the road a bit and add a dormer, a widow’s walk and several other features. Unfortunately for the new owners, the house is in a National Historic District. Any proposal for changes to the property must therefore navigate an almost impossible maze of regulations, including the Chatham Old Village Association, the Town of Chatham Planning Board and the Cape Cod Commission.

Let’s be clear. Everyone wants to preserve the character of Old Village. Nothing the new owners proposed would have violated that principle. But that’s not how the system works. The various boards and commissions do not want to influence architecture in the Old Village, nor do they want to have an input or an ability to stop the most egregious changes. Our local government wants complete and absolute control over everything that happens and the right to say “no” to anything that’s proposed, no matter how trivial. We saw this problem at work in the painful process of building a new CVS Pharmacy and preserving our only local supermarket in a commercial part of Chatham. Although the townspeople overwhelmingly supported the project. The town wasn’t so sure. Over the last year, Chatham’s Planning Board, Traffic Committee, Historic Business District Commission and other committees held 21 hearings, some lasting hours, discussing whether the town should approve items such as the carpet color and whether the CVS staff should wear uniforms. Government is out of control – and not just at the federal level.

The new owners of the Calico Cat finally became frustrated with the outrageous planning process. After all, they do own the house and pay taxes on it. In any case, several weeks ago, the owners graced the property with a new paint job: lime green with dark green trim and bright yellow columns and accents. If you really want to see this monstrosity, have a look at http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2010/08/11/chatham-outdoes-ptown?blog=69. However, much you might sympathize with the plight of the owners of this property and their in-your-face response, this is a classic lose-lose situation. Nobody gets what he wants and everyone suffers.

Unfortunately, this process has become standard operating procedure in the US. The current Administration wants control, not influence. We’ve seen this at work with economic management, health care, financial reform and, potentially, energy and climate change. Instead of focusing on meaningful, substantive reform, the administration simply wants to shove everything down our throats. We could, for example, reduce our national carbon emissions with a rejuvenated nuclear program, rapid exploitation of our newly found shale gas resources, electricity rate reform and a few other steps. Not good enough. The Federal Government wants control over how we use energy, what we drive, how much we drive, how warm or cool we keep our houses, what light bulbs we use and everything else. No flexibility, and no compromise. My Way or the Highway. Seek and destroy.

I’m about to start teaching my petroleum economics class at the Fletcher School at Tufts. My simple advice to my students is: Before you stake out a position on any important issue, write your talking points and set out to do combat, do two things.

First, do your homework and analyze the problem. Find out what’s really important and what isn’t. Run the numbers. Research the problem. Consider different viewpoints. Our elected officials live in a world of perception, but there is in fact a real world out there, and policies have real-world consequences for real people. There’s more to life than moving the needle on Focus Groups. Second, make common cause with those people who are really looking for solutions, whether they agree with you or not. Be careful about joining in with zealots, even if they support your positions. I often agree with Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, but they yell way too much for my taste. I prefer thoughtful and civil discussion.

If we follow those two principles on a broad scale, the way we did during World War II and the Cold War, then maybe, just maybe, we can mitigate the “Green House” effect.

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