Questions for Zac and Lucy

The library in my town of Cambridge, the Varnum Library, hosted a Candidates Forum last night for Zac Mayo and Lucy Rogers who are running for an open seat in the Vermont House of Representatives, representing Cambridge and the neighboring town of Waterville. It was an extraordinary event, and it gives me renewed faith in our democracy.

Both Lucy and Zac are young (30 or younger) and both are putting considerable energy into this campaign – knocking on doors and meeting with people affected by government such as small business owners, childcare providers, healthcare providers, and many others. There are differences between the candidates, but they both grew up here, went through the local schools, went away for a time, and came back. Both Zac and Lucy are clearly committed to serving the people of Cambridge and Waterville.

The most striking thing about the campaign, especially in light of current national politics, is their shared commitment to civility. At the end of two hours last night of respectfully making statements and answering questions, Lucy and Zac sang a song together for the benefit of the audience. I’ve never seen anything like it in any political campaign:

We in Cambridge and Waterville are indeed fortunate to have two young people of such high quality campaigning to be our elected representative in Montpelier.

I also want to commend the Varnum Library for organizing last night’s event. It was very well done. Moderator Lucie Garand did a great job. Last night’s forum was a shining example of why libraries are important to democracy.

There were many good questions last night, but other than questions about schools, I don’t recall any questions about local government. I have questions for Zac and Lucy about local government. I did not ask these questions last night because I did not know how to present them in a way that either the candidates or the audience would understand them in that forum. They require some background explanation.

The rest of this post is my questions. My questions are informed by my experience on the Cambridge selectboard, but my questions and comments are my own. They do not represent the selectboard’s views.

Lucy and Zac:

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Through the power of his words, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn helped change the world. He wrote about Russia, the country in which he was born and where he died. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writings helped bring about the downfall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union), which began and ended in his lifetime. But surprisingly the place where he lived the longest, and where he was the most productive, was Cavendish, Vermont.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn lived from 1918 to 2008. The 100th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated in Vermont this year. Who was this man and what did he do? And what was his connection to Vermont?

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Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Zac Mayo introduced me to the concept of the “illusion of explanatory depth” (IOED):

Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.

For example, how well do you feel you understand how a refrigerator works? Try explaining it to a friend or on paper and then consider the question again.

The phrase IOED was coined in a 2002 paper by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil of the psychology department at Yale University. Zac found the idea online at Edge.org.

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2008 Financial Crisis: What can we learn?

Financial markets crashed ten years ago. See my previous post for what happened and comments about the graph to the left. This post is about lessons that we can learn from that crisis.

What caused the 2008 financial crisis? People who are skeptical of unbridled capitalism will highlight mismanagement, greed, and fraud in financial institutions, and there was some of that. People who are skeptical of too much government will highlight perverse incentives in certain laws and government institutions, and there was some of that, too.

This post is about two different causes: debt and models.

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2008 Financial Crisis: What happened?

Financial markets crashed ten years ago. What happened? If we are to learn from the past, we must first remember the past.

In September 2008 I was the CEO of a financial institution – Yankee Farm Credit, part of the national Farm Credit System. I had worked for Farm Credit for 24 years and I had been CEO for 2 years. Yankee Farm Credit was small ($320 million in assets at the time), but the Farm Credit System in total is a large financial institution ($186 billion then).

Ten years ago today two large financial institutions failed. These institutions were not typical financial institutions. They were a certain type of financial institution known as Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs). There are only four significant GSEs in the United States. The Farm Credit System is a GSE. This financial crisis had my attention.

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Free Speech Pioneers

Matthew Lyon was the first person to be fined and imprisoned under the Sedition Act of 1798, one of four federal laws passed that year known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. His crime: public criticism of President John Adams that was deemed seditious.

Lyon was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Vermont. His conviction in October 1798 came near the end of his first term. Vermonters overwhelmingly re-elected Lyon to a second term, and to this day he remains the only person elected to Congress from jail.

Anthony Haswell was a printer in Bennington, Vermont, and publisher of the Vermont Gazette newspaper. His publications in his newspaper in support of Lyon incurred the wrath of federal authorities, and Haswell was also arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned, and fined under the Sedition Act. When his prison term ended, a crowd of 2,000 people gathered in Bennington to celebrate his release.

This post is about three pioneers of free speech: Anthony Haswell, Matthew Lyon, and Ethan Allen. Ethan Allen?? Yes, read on.

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Bennington Battle Day

Today is a state holiday in Vermont – Bennington Battle Day, commemorating the Battle of Bennington in the American Revolution on August 16, 1777.

The year 1777 was a pivotal year in our history.

For Vermonters, that was the year we declared ourselves an independent republic, six months after the Thirteen Colonies declared themselves to be “free and independent States.” For our country, that was the year that the American Revolution turned in our favor. The Battle of Bennington was “the turning point that led to the turning point.”

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