11 Problems You Can Solve in 2009: Part I – Construction

The current recession will undoubtedly continue into 2009, perhaps bottoming out before summer and then resuming slow growth in the second half of the year.

Central Pennsylvania in general, and Lancaster in particular, will be rife with problems. But, there will also be surprising stability that many other areas of the country lacks. Part of that stability is the result of having valued our various assets conservatively—sometimes flat-out undervaluing them.

To the victor goes the spoils: Figure out how to turn these pairs of problems and assets into opportunities in 2009, and prepare for a very prosperous new year.

This is the first post in a series of eleven. Here’s the first pair; the other ten will follow soon.

No. 1: Construction

Problem: Construction is expected to grind to a halt.
Assets: Lots of skilled workers and lots of tools and equipment.

Photo by Flickr user robertpogorzelski

Financing for new construction projects has dried up, and few people are ready to take the risk of initiating those projects. Unfortunately, that is going to lead to a lot of skilled workers without work. There will also be a lot of tools and equipment sitting unused.

One obvious opportunity involves investments in public infrastructure.   To get a slice of the money President-elect Obama is promising, we’ll need to show that we have shovel-ready projects where the plans and approvals are in place and people can be quickly put to work doing the actual building. Locally, the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry [disclosure: yes, that’s my employer] is already working to coordinate the efforts of state and federal legislators and other officials and back them with broad local support.

Aside from getting ahold of federal money to put construction workers and equipment to work, what opportunities do you see in this convergence of problem with assets?

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Read Part II – Journalism

Yesterday in Summary

Yesterday was a big news day around the world.

A phone call from president-elect Obama triggered a long series of events that contributed to the downfall of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Investors began to lose money holding U.S. debt as Treasury bills began earning negative interest for the first time since World War II. The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board sought to curb a new shopping spree for Hummers as gas prices edge below $1.50, by suggesting a higher gas tax. Facebook removed the group “Jew Parking Appreciation Group,” which busted on taking up more than one parking space.

Arts & Letters Daily has new T-shirts for sale

Redskins star running back Clinton Portis trashed his coach, Jim Zorn, and speculated that Zorn’s plays are too complex, which is “why the O-line’s sometime confused.” The Comic-Con 3-minute preview clip of Watchmen hit iTunes. Michael Bay announced that the first trailer for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will debut in early February. A middle-eastern farmer in South Lebanon dug up a 25-pound potato.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey explained that Detroit auto workers do not average $73/hour in wages. House‘s Dr. Cuddy finally got herself a baby, while Russia’s GDP hit a 3-year low. That didn’t stop Russia from promising to take India’s second astronaut into space in 2013. London Business School professor Lynda Gratton wrote that recessions let new ideas flourish, and lead us “to question the prevailing norms of leadership and decision-making.”

It appeared possible that Barack Obama’s seat in the U.S. Senate could be filled by a Republican. SEO geeks rejoiced as the founder of Hakia argued that creating refined online semantic ontologies must become a top priority in all fields, saying, “We cannot afford a future in which knowledge is at the mercy of popularity and money.” Harvard University’s endowment lost 22% of its value since June 30, when it stood at $36.9 billion. It turns out we were not living in a golden age of art; there was simply an investment bubble in contemporary art. God decided we’re smiting ourselves just fine, and the Lolcats got into the Christmas spirit.

Card Check may be good for Central PA

“When it gets rough out there, a lot of business leaders get out of the car and say, ‘We’re OK with minor reform,'” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s appointed chief of staff, recently told The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council. “I’m challenging you today, we’re going to have to do big, serious things.”

I agree with Emanuel. Looking at the economy as it stands (and is forecasted to play out), it’s hard not to.

The problem is that on the whole, senior managers of established businesses do not like big, serious changes. Stability and predictability is almost invariably in their best interest. When they do get behind big, serious changes, it is often because the change will lead to more stability and predictability.

I would like to suggest two things for the consideration of my fellow Lancaster County citizens:

  1. Our county’s economy does indeed need some major changes, and
  2. Allowing unions to form through a “card check” system may be a good such change.

Yes, Lancaster is doing better than many other areas of the country. Forbes named the county one of the ten best places to weather out the recession, and then Kiplinger’s said our city is one of the nation’s  “six real estate safe havens.”

For a long time, a remarkably low unemployment rate in the county has, to an extent, offset concerns that median household income is just as remarkably low. A lot of people aren’t working for much, but hey, at least they’re working. That has now changed. Even our unemployment numbers are beginning to rot: in October unemployment shot up to 4.7% in the county, meaning we have 12,800 people actively but unsuccessfully looking for work. That’s more than the entire population of Elizabethtown.

We need to change directions. This state of affairs cannot continue. Unions may not the the idea change agents, but at least they are change agents. Unions of middle-class workers have given us enhanced social security, medicare, and a minimum wage. Unions make sure workers can take care of themselves and their families, and that the people who produce gains in productivity receive the rewards of productivity. Importantly, middle- and working-class union members spend their income.

Unions are not that big of a deal

We all too often make a goblin out of unionization. Right now no more than twelve percent of American workers are in unions (those workers include Lancaster County educators, and local employees of Armstrong, Kellogg, car shops, construction companies, manufacturing plants, and service firms).  That twelve percent is down from a historic high of thirty-three percent. Not exactly a cause for alarm today.

What’s more, the number of unionized workers sits at twelve percent today in significant part due to illegal practices by employers. In 1969, there were one thousand infractions of the laws protecting the formation of unions. In 2005, that number was more than thirty thousand.

Ben Eisler makes a big deal of this on his blog at The New Republic. He suggests that one solution is to increase the penalties for these crimes and ramp up enforcement, which is currently lax. But, he says, the cheaper solution is the so-called card check.

The idea is this: Right now workers have to tell their company’s senior managers if they are going to try to form a union. It’s like having to announce, “Hey! We’ve been trying to work with you to get a fair shake here, and you’re not giving it to us or listening to our input on how our company can do better. We’re going to try to start a union! You’d better get moving if you want to stop us!” Under the card-check system being worked on in the U.S. Senate,  employees can sign a legal document (a “card”) to indicate that they want to form a union. If a majority of employees sign it, the union is considered a legal entity that the employer has to work with.

Imagine it like this: If we’re in a company of one thousand employees, there may easily be six hundred or more of us who think that our bosses are mismanaging things. Their leadership skills are wanting, they don’t listen to input from those of us on the ground, and they don’t share profits in a fair way. We all want to address it with the directors, but we don’t have any ability to insist on even two of us meeting with them at the same time. They can say, “Sure, we want to hear from you, but we want to meet with you six-on-one. And if we don’t like what you have to say, we reserve the right to let you go.”

There is a lot of baggage that goes along with unionization today, but at their hear the only thing that unions inherently do is allow for employees to have a collective voice in discussions with upper management.  Employees today fin it nearly impossible to form new unions. (Employees at Wal-Mart know first-hand the most agreesive anti-unions efforts found inside any company.) There are a number of decent ideas of how to remedy this situation, but allowing employees to band together into an official group by signing a petition is the least expensive and most efficient.

Best of all, it is middle- and working-class people who, increasinlgy, have the least to lose when the economy is already bad. That means we are willing to take risks and push our companies to take risks. I think we ought to consider giving those change agents just a little bit of assistance, for the sake of our economy.

Democrats Gaining in Lancaster County Republican Territory

Three (really rustic) graphics:

Together, they spell trouble for Republicans here in Lancaster County, PA, which has for decades been a dependable stronghold for the GOP. The graphics represent, in order, the outcome of the 2000, 2004, and 2008 presidential elections.

  • Dark red indicates the Republican received better than 60% of the vote.
  • Light red indicates the Republican won, but his challenger received more than 40% of the vote.
  • Dark blue indicates the Democrat received better than 60% of the vote.
  • Light blue indicates the Democrat won, but his challenger received more than 40% of the vote.

While McCain/Palin still won Lancaster County last week by a comfortable 55/43 split (Ralph Nader got half a percent; Ron Paul got two-tenths of a percent as a write-in), the numbers indicate a changing electorate within our county. I was actually astonished to compare for myself the decisive break from voting patterns in the 2000 and 2004 elections. (Forgive the poor graphics quality; I did these myself.)

Here are a few ways of breaking down the numbers.

City vs. County

Lancaster City landslided for Obama, 76% to McCain’s 23%. The city represented 21,975 votes, or 10% of county voters. Compare this to much slimmer margins in 2004, where Kerry beat Bush 62 to 38, and 2008, where Gore beat Bush 57 to 39.

Once you subtract the city’s votes, Lancaster County favored McCain, less overwhelmingly, 59 to 40. Non-city residents cast 202,816 votes, making up the other 90% of voters. A margin of 19 points is gigantic, but a shocking change from 2004, when Bush carried 69 to Kerry’s 31, and 2000, when Bush also received 69% of the vote and Gore eked out 29.

Urban vs. Suburban/Exurban/Rural

That breakdown, however, ignores the important fact that there are urban dwellers living in other municipalities beside Lancaster City. Perhaps it is more fair to compare all the county’s “urban” voters against the rest. I ran the numbers comparing city and borough precincts against township precincts (including the urbanized Lancaster Township with the boroughs).

In urbania county-wide, Obama beat McCain 56–43, with 73,366 voters weighing in (33% of voters). In 2000 and 2004, Bush carried the county’s urban areas 56-43 and 57-40, respectively.

Away from urban districts, McCain beat Obama 61-37, with 151,425 voters. Again, this looks decisive until compared with Bush’s victories in 2004 and 200: 70-30 and 70-28.

Stack the Deck

What if we stack the deck? Just for fun, I picked out out all the municipalities in Lancaster County that went for Obama, and pitted them against the rest of the county. Here’s how it looks:

Select Municipalities: Obama 68, McCain 31.  Eighteen percent of the Lancaster County electorate, or 40,319 voters, currently live in areas where a majority of their neighbors currently lean Democratic. In 2004, those same municipalities on the whole went for Kerry by 61-38, and for Gore by just 57-39.

The Rest of Municipalities: McCain 61, Obama 38. Even in the most Republican areas of the county, Democratic voters should have no trouble finding many neighbors who share their political viewpoint. In these municipalities, Bush carried 2004 by 69-30, and 2000 by 69-28.

Perhaps most interesting is the list of municipalities who voted for Obama:

  • Columbia Borough
  • Christiana Borough (by a single vote)
  • Mountville
  • Marietta
  • Millersville
  • Lancaster City
  • Lancaster Township

Columbia borough voted Democratic in 2000 but not in 2004. Lancaster City, Lancaster Township, and part of Millersville borough voted Democratic in both 2000 and 2004. Christiana and Mountville’s votes came out of the blue; Marietta has for some time been on the Democrats’ wishlist as a municipality to pick up.

If you’d like to look at the raw data for yourself, the County has a list of polling locations, which you can use to decipher the election results for the past eight years.

What I Saw as a Poll Watcher

The entrance where I spent 12.5 hours Tuesday. First UMC, Lancaster.

I worked at my polling place for 14 straight hours on Tuesday. I walked half a block to First United Methodist Church, the polling location for Lancaster’s 6th Ward, 1st Precinct, at 6:30 a.m. and left at 9:30 p.m.  I had a good time with the other poll workers—Bill from state senator Gib Armstrong’s staff, who was there to oppose the Lancaster County Home Rule Charter; Charlie the Democratic Committee’s precinct captain; Roy, a gentleman of 67 who was there to support Bob Barr and other Libertarian-minded third-party candidates; and Leslie and Jessica who came from Millersville University to help Spanish-speaking voters.

I was there to support a vote in favor of the Home Rule Charter. I’m pleased to say that my neighbors came through—our precinct voted in favor of the charter by 61% to 39%, and only 83 of 584 voters chose not to vote on the question at all. Every voter was interesting, and I wish I could remember and write about them all.

The most interesting stuff, however, happened after the polls closed, when I took of my propaganda T-shirt and pin, stuck on my official “Poll Watcher” sticker, and walked inside just before the doors were locked, with my certificate from the county authorizing me to be there.

First, a “voting abnormality” story from the afternoon. A true patriot named Sarah, who is about my age and lives just down the block from me on the other side of the street (I’d never met her before), came to vote and found she was no longer in the signature book for this voting location. She had voted there on the last four elections, but somehow she had been purged from the rolls. The election workers at our polling place made a good-faith effort to find out where she was supposed to vote. They successfully helped at least a dozen other people find their correct polling place throughout the day, but not so with Sarah. She wound up going to three other polling places, only to be sent back to our location an hour and a half later. The judge of elections inside our location then instructed her to cast a provisional ballot.

The certificate and sticker that allowed me to stay past closing.

The idea behind a provisional ballot is simple: you complete a regular ballot, then have it sealed inside a green envelope on which is written your contact information and a description of the problem. You and an elections official then sign the envelope. Later, your provisional ballot is reviewed by the Board of Elections. They determine if in fact the mistake was their own (it usually is), and if so, they then include the provisionally-cast ballot in the final, official vote count. They also correct the mistake for the next election. (They don’t tell you if they have counted your vote or not, or if they have corrected the mistake or not. You either have to go to all sorts of trouble to find out on your own, or just wait until the next election and try your luck then.)

Here’s what happened: Sarah filled out her provisional ballot, then took it, along with the big green envelope, to the nearest election worker inside the polling place. He didn’t speak much English, was generally excited and antsy (and an ardent Obama supporter), and had never done the job before. He took the ballot from her and immediately ran it through the ballot scanner. He thanked her and sent her outside. When she walked out the door, we saw her still holding the big green envelope and the legal-sized manila folder in which the ballots are handed out.

We realized something was wrong and tried to figure out what to advise her to do. When we realized that her vote had been counted but her name had not been written on the list of people who voted there, we realized something had to be said, or else there would be trouble reconciling the votes at the end of the night. (We were wrong about that. It wouldn’t have caused any problem or discrepancy to be noticed at all. More on that in a second.) Charlie called his folks at the Democratic headquarters. They couldn’t find anything in the elections laws or procedures covering the situation. So Charlie went back inside with Sarah and explained the situation to the judge of elections. She didn’t know what to do, but took note of the problem and wrote detailed notes to be included in her report to the Board of Elections at the end of the night.

Let’s jump back to 8 p.m., when the polls closed. Two of the elections workers had to leave right away, though the judge of elections had been counting on them to stay through the counting and closing, leaving four people to do all the work.

They proceeded with the vote count in the prescribed order:

Only 35 of 565 voters at my polling place chose to vote via eSlate, which leaves no paper trail.
  1. Close the eSlate machine. Throughout the day, 35 people had used the fully-electronic, touch-screen machine, which leaves no paper trail of any sort. Their votes were processed: 14 had voted straight Democratic and 1 had voted straight Republican; Obama registered 29 votes total, McCain 5, and Nader 1.
  2. Remove the paper ballots from the scanner machine, stack them neatly, and put them in a big zippered canvas bag to be returned to the Board of Elections.
  3. Open the absentee ballots that belonged to this precinct and scan them. There were 21 absentee ballots. One of them wouldn’t scan, even though it only had a minor tear at the bottom, and even though the scanner will accept a ballot oriented in any direction (and even though they attempted a fix with Scotch tape). The one that wouldn’t scan was sent to the Board of Elections, but was never included in the count that the polling place submitted in its election-night return.
  4. Close out the ballot scanning machine. Obama had 431 votes, McCain 105, Nader 4, and Bob Barr 4. Write-ins are counted and entered up to one month later, mostly by hand.

Because I was concerned to make sure that the earlier situation with Sarah’s provisional ballot was handled properly, I was keeping close tabs on the total vote count. Here is the raw data I wound up collecting:

  • 565 names had been written in the book of voters who entered the polling place. (When you sign your name in the signature book, an election worker writes your name on a numbered list.)
  • 555 paper ballots had been used that day. 13 of those were “spoiled”—i.e., someone messed up and needed to start over. (The “spoiled” ballots were collected, put in a sealed envelope, and returned to the Board of Elections.) The polling venue had started the day with 1,120 paper ballots. They had 565 left over. (That, at least, added up.)
  • 35 voters had voted via the eSlate.
  • 1 voter (Sarah) had her paper ballot scanned but did not have her name recorded on the list of voters.
  • 21 absentee ballots had been received. 20 of those had been scanned; 1 was unable to be scanned. (None of them had been checked against the list of people who voted, to double-check that no one cast an absentee ballot and then wound up attempting to vote in person.)
  • 548 ballots had been counted by the scanning machine.
  • 17 provisional ballots had been (properly) cast and were waiting in green envelopes to be sent to the Board of Elections.

Here then, is the problem:

565 voters had come through the door and had their names written down on the list of people who voted
+1 voter’s ballot was counted but her name did not appear on that list
+21 voters’ absentee ballots had submitted
=587 voters.

Compare that to this:

548 ballots were counted by the scanning machine
+1 ballot (absentee) would not scan
+35 ballots were cast electronically (via the eSlate)
=584 ballots counted.

Oops. Our polling place records showed 587 legitimate voters (they appeared in the signature book and thus were allowed to vote at this precinct). Our polling place records showed 584 ballots had been counted.


This concerned the judge of elections when I was able to spell it out clearly and simply. She asked to keep the piece of paper on which I had written the (above) simple arithmetic with notes, and she included those in her report. But, she said, “that always happens every time.”

There are possible explanations.

  • Someone could have come through the door, signed the signature page, had his or her name written on the list of voters, and then decided it wasn’t worth waiting in line any more and left without actually casting a ballot. That’s unlikely, though, because they would likely have made that decision after having been handed a paper ballot, and all the paper ballots were accounted for. (No one walked out the door with a ballot, in other words.) With only 35 people using the eSlate, there was never a line for people who weren’t using paper ballots.
  • An election worker could have written down someone’s name on the list of voters, only to discover that (oops!) that person wasn’t in the signature book and needed to cast a provisional ballot instead. (And then didn’t do anything about the mistake.) This, too, is unlikely. One of the election workers remaining at the end of the day had been at the “registration” table all day, where they check voters’ names against the signature book and write down their names on the list. She had no recollection of any mishap like the one I suggest was possible. Also, for much of the day a poll watcher from the Democratic Committee was there checking names against her own list, serving as a sort of watchdog. Further, the person writing down people’s names refers to the signature book for the proper spelling of the name. If it’s not there in the signature book, it’s unlikely it would be written down on the list.

What happened to those three voters, their three ballots?

I registered my concern and the judge of elections duly noted it, even as she said that such abnormalities are the norm. I had no desire to make a stink, only to do what I considered my duty as a poll watcher.

Instant runoff ballots are surprisingly straightforward.

We live in a democracy, the world’s first and longest-standing. If there is one thing we should get all but perfect, it is voting. We obviously don’t. The means of voting we use are grossly inconsistent between locales. We use electronic machines that can be tampered with and that leave no paper trail, verifiable or otherwise. (State representative Mike Sturla told me and my fellow poll workers of a reported tampering method: At the beginning of the day, the machines are checked to make sure that they have “zero” votes. McCain having -10 votes and Obama having +10 votes equals zero, and counts as zero. Diebold has claimed that they have corrected the error that allows that to happen, but even if that is true, what have they not caught or accounted for?) Perhaps worst of all, we staff the polling places with honorable and noble citizens who unfortunately are under-trained and unable to stay a full day to ensure consistency. They are responsible for making calculations and following strict (but often obscure) procedures at the end of a tiring 14- or 15-hour shift. We have yet to adopt worthwhile advances in modern-day voting such as instant-runoff voting, which would allow people to vote based on their conscience rather than based on political strategy.

I am troubled by all of this, but at the moment not all that deeply, and I have no plans to take any real action on these problems any time soon. Should I be more troubled? Should we be doing something more?

P.S. Be sure to check out the detailed initial returns from Tuesday for Lancaster County.

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