Monday, February 3, 2014

Libraries, Olympics, and Chemical Inspections

Three stories from today's news.

From the Star Tribune, Libraries adapt to a post-book world. From this I learned that people only need to borrow three or four books or videos from the library (vs. buying or renting them) to cover the property tax they pay to support the library.

I also was reminded that libraries (especially here in St. Paul) are beginning to become maker spaces, with 3D printers, sewing machines, and other shared devices. That brought me back to this story about how libraries were the original instance of that hot new thing, the "sharing culture":

The purpose of the public library is not and was never to “lend books”, as is asserted in this myth. It was, and is, to “make knowledge and culture available to as many people as possible at no cost to them.” What’s possible has expanded greatly with online sharing, and it is only proper that we take advantage of this fantastic potential.

The online sharing of culture and knowledge is the greatest public library ever invented, and the ability for all humankind to take part of all culture and knowledge 24/7 is arguably one of the largest steps of civilization of this century. All the technology has already been invented, all the tools have already been deployed, the ability to use it has already spread to all of humanity: nobody needs to spend a dime to make this happen. All we have to do is to lift the stupid ban on actually using it.
From NPR's Morning Edition on the economics of the Olympics: The Games Are a Great Party, But Not a Great Investment, featuring my favorite sports economist, Andrew Zimbalist. (Yes, I have a favorite sports economist, who agrees with my assessment of the Games and professional sports stadiums, too.)
"Most countries end up with a lot of debt, a lot of white elephants, and quite a bit of infrastructure investment that is not ideal for the type of development needs that the city has," says Andy Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Zimbalist says this is a direct result of the way Olympic bidding works.

The International Olympic Committee pits one city against another. In each city, construction and architecture firms that stand to profit from the games push local leaders to make higher bids and more ambitious plans.

"You have cities putting out their enormously complicated and elaborate plan to do everything and more than the IOC ever asked for," he says. "And so the cards are stacked against any host city."

These aren't ideal conditions for urban planning, sometimes on a mass scale.

"And somehow, it happens almost every single [Olympics] cycle," Zimbalist says.
The story goes on to say that there doesn't appear to be a net benefit in terms of promoting the city, either. One study compared Charlotte (N.C.) to Atlanta, Madrid to Barcelona, and Melbourne (Australia) to Sydney after the Olympics was hosted in the latter cities:
They checked for marked growth in construction, tourism and the financial-services sector over a nine-year period — four years before the games, and five years after.

"We couldn't find any difference in terms of building permits, tourism, anything before or after," Sanderson says. "If you masked the name of the cities, you would not be able to tell which of these two cities had the Olympics and which did not."

According to Sanderson, this doesn't mean cities should stop competing to host the Olympics; it just means they should stop claiming that the games make economic sense.

"We do lots of things that don't turn a profit," he says. "We own dogs. We have boats. Those things lose lots of money, but we know it."

So cities, go ahead and host the Olympics. It's a great party.

It's just a terrible investment.
A terrible investment for the people who live there, you mean. Who needs to spend billions of dollars just to have a party? Especially one that means you can't live your normal life for weeks, as your city is overrun by outsiders. No one would be in favor of hosting the Olympics if that was acknowledged to be its only benefit to the area.

(NPR followed that story later in the day with one called Did London Get an Economic Boost from The 2012 Olympics?, a very fair look at a recent study that seems to show London did benefit.)

Then, on the way home, I caught part of an All Things Considered story about the federal Chemical Safety Board, which is responsible for inspecting chemical manufacturers throughout the country, such as the one that blew up in Texas and the one that poisoned Charleston, West Virginia. It's modeled on the National Transportation Safety Board, but it's "understaffed, underfunded and takes too long to finish its investigations, and that its non-binding recommendations are often ignored anyway."

The most shocking thing is that the CSB only has 21 inspectors to cover the entire country. I wonder how many the NTSB has? I'll be it's a lot more than that, and it's pretty easy to argue that chemical safety affects a lot more people than transportation safety, especially because airlines and rail operators, as retail operations, are a lot more sensitive to their public image than chemical companies.

How do you cover a country the size of this one with only 21 inspectors? It takes them years to issue reports. Imagine if it took that long after a big plane crash. No one would stand for it.

It's ridiculous.

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