22 Nov 2010

Free your mind

In the past few weeks I've participated in debates on reforming water policy over at Inkstain and On the Public Record (as I have been doing here for awhile). In most cases, I've been defending the possibility of improving water management by changing institutions to recognize, for example, water scarcity in prices or to reallocate water using auctions. Several people have taken the opposite stance, holding that my ideas are unrealistic in the world of realpolitic, institutional barriers, beneficiaries of the status quo, and -- above all -- political discretion over water policy.

I know about these barriers, of course, because I have been thinking of them for a few years now. In each case, I have been careful to include them when making my analysis and suggestions for change.

So why aren't water manager adopting my brilliant ideas? They, like some of the commentators here and on other blogs, are stuck in a world where they see a spoon that cannot be bent. But they, like Neo in the Matrix, do not realize that there is no spoon. [watch the one minute video]

The barriers to higher prices are people who do not believe that higher prices are possible. The barriers to auctions for water are the people who prefer not to use auctions. Prices could rise tomorrow; auctions could happen tomorrow. In most of the cases where I recommend these changes, there are no physical, engineering or legal barriers to change. There is only people's inability to see that there is no spoon things can happen in a different way.*

We only need to recognize that the water mismanagement we have is the water mismanagement we created. As I have said before "Nature makes a drought, but Man makes a shortage."

In chapter 7 of my PhD dissertation, I outline how the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California could use auctions to allocate its fixed water supplies among its 26 member agencies, while recognizing past contributions to Met's fixed costs, equitable rights, and so on. My adviser (Professor Richard Howitt of UC Davis, who has studied California water issues for over 20 years) said that this idea was "a no brainer" for Met to implement. It would solve several problems at once, the most important being the ongoing conflict over water allocation and pricing among Met's member agencies.

I sent bound copies and endless offers to explain (at no charge) how Met could use auctions, or pilot a project to test them, but Jeff Kightlinger and Brian Thomas (Met's General Manager and CFO, respectively) have responded only with silence. I reckon that they prefer to stay with the spoon, rather than put in the work necessary to test auctions that will help their member agencies. (Reforms that implement fair and transparent water allocations might also reduce their power, relative to the managers of those member agencies.).

And so we are back to politics and ideas that politicians may not like. The difference is that we now know that there is no spoon. And we -- voters, ratepayers, member agencies, businesses and farmers -- can tell managers that they need to look at a real world in which there is no spoon.*

Bottom Line: You can free your mind by understanding the difference between the way we've always done things and the things that we can do.
* There's also the possibility that managers and politicians are incompetent or corrupt (retaining policies that favor a minority), but I hope that a combination of new ideas, their can-do attitudes, and support from the majority that would benefit from good water management can triumph.