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Scaling Up North Carolina April 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, energy efficiency, politics, society, sustainability, transportation.
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North Carolina is a brilliant state. One all states should strive to emulate. They have Duke. They have a mini-Silicon valley. They have NASCAR giant deep-fried turkey legs. They sent noted racist and segregationist Jesse Helms, who once held a 16-day filibuster to stop the institution of the federal MLK holiday, to the US Senate for five terms. Now they are sending Kay Hagan, a Democrat! A red state turned blue! Also, I have many friends who live down there. And did I mention the giant deep-fried turkey legs and greased pig races?

One of the things we can learn from NC is how to better utilize resources, specifically by time-multiplexing them in extreme and novel ways. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle area is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Roughly 20 people move to the area every day. One of the results is that schools are overflowing and the county can’t build new ones fast enough to meet the growing demand. Their solution? Cut the school year into continuous 12-week chunks. Kids go to school for nine weeks and then have a three-week break. Now chop up the classes into four and rotate such that at any time only three-quarters of the kids are going to school. The overcrowding problem is solved or at least pushed back. And school facilities aren’t sitting around idle during the summer months. Brilliant! Of course, this creative solution creates problems for working parents, who now can’t send their kids off to summer camp for months at a time but rather have to occupy them somehow for three-week periods four times a year. But guess what? A whole cottage industry has sprung up to fill in this gap.

Which brings me to my point. And yes, it usually takes me 250 words before I get to my point. Why don’t we apply this strategy much more broadly to improve utilization and reduce peak load on all sorts of resources? Why don’t we spread out and stagger work and school schedules, at any granularity–in the course of a day, during the week, or during the year as NC does–to a greater degree than we already do? Middle-schools, high-schools and elementary-schools start and finish times are already staggered so that the same fleet of school buses–by the way, why aren’t school buses hybrid?–can run triple duty. Why aren’t more things staggered this way or some other way? Specifically, why isn’t the entire American workforce staggered this way?

Hear me out. What if all businesses moved to a rotating nine-week-on/three-week-off work schedule, effectively furloughing one quarter of their employees every three weeks? If every business did this, i.e., effectively operated at three-quarter capacity, there would be 25% less commuting traffic, 25% less peak load on electricity, and so on. Of course, everyone would get paid 25% less too. But before you say “I don’t want to earn 25% less”, wouldn’t you agree to do it if you could also work 25% less? I would! I understand that I live comfortably above the poverty level and a 25% reduction in income for me is not the same as a 25% reduction in income for someone below 2x. But if you are furloughed from one business 25% of the time, there won’t be anything to stop you from filling that gap at another business.

Of course, there would be 25% less economic output also, so I am not really suggesting this. And this is where the second part of the plan comes in. Forget about 25% less traffic and 25% less peak electrical load. We have to give those back. What if to ramp back up to full capacity, every business hired 33% more workers? Wouldn’t you agree to earn 25% less if you worked 25% less and lived in a country with essentially no unemployment? I would!

I’ve never run a business, and I can see some downsides. The ratio of benefits to salary would increase. It would, but not as much as one might think, and even less if health insurance reform goes even further and costs go down. Employer taxes and contributions to retirement plans are proportional to salary. Any maybe a nine-week-on, three-week-off rotation would create too many project disruptions. Maybe if you are that kind of business, you could furlough at a finer granularity, rotating one quarter of your workforce out four out of the five weekdays. Either way, the upside seems much bigger–a healthier, better-rested, and more productive workforce.

If I started a company today–and I am not–I would try to run it this way. And since I am not, perhaps I will just start doing this in my current place of business. See you in three weeks!

P.S. Not to make an inappropriate soapbox out of tragedy, but 25 people would never be killed by a wind turbine or solar panel explosion.

P.P.S. What a shame. Republican pundits are calling Stupak the first casualty of Obamacare. But that’s ridiculous. Stupak is not a casualty of Obamacare. He’s a casualty of the mindless anti-abortion movement which doesn’t realize that what Stupak actually did was force an executive order to enforce the current restrictions on abortion coverage on the passed health care bill. The anti-abortion movement should hold up Stupak as a hero. If not for him, Obama would have gotten someone else on board without the abortion language amendment. All this shows is that, again, the abortion issue in this country is primarily a tool for political evil wielded by the right. That is all.

P.P.P.S. Thank god Stevens waited to retire until there was a Democratic congress and president! Thanks, J.P. It’s a great last act.

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