Inquiring Minds
By David Appell

Democracy in a Decade

The path to democracy in Mexico has been long and hard-won, and Todd Eisenstadt has seen its recent culmination up close. Even better, as a scholar, field investigator and electoral observer, the UNH assistant professor of political science has, in small part, helped it come about.

The director of UNH's Mexican Elections Project, Eisenstadt has been studying the democratization of Mexico's electoral process for the last decade, a heady time during which the country's single party rule collapsed under the weight of its own inertia. The lessons are many, as Eisenstadt has been busy documenting. "Mexico is becoming a model for how to solidify and create credible electoral institutions in a decade or so," he says.

One lesson, Eisenstadt says, is that the presence of a willing and tenacious opposition party is crucial to a country's path to democracy. Since 2000, President Vicente Fox's National Action Party has shown "the importance of an opposition that's willing to carry the water of transition" both as critics from outside and more recently as responsible government insiders, Eisenstadt says. It's a missing factor, he notes, in some eastern European and South American countries where democratic reversals have occurred in recent years.

After Mexico's watershed election of 1988, when the Institutional Party of the Revolution—which had monopolized Mexican politics since 1929—declared victory despite demonstrations, marches and extensive allegations of electoral fraud, Eisenstadt says he became "fascinated by the drama of where Mexico's political opening was headed." In 2000, he observed the federal elections with President Jimmy Carter and his delegation and since then has helped organize the observation of elections in order to keep the process open and fair. "It has been quite a bit of fun," he says. Eisenstadt's book, Courting Democracy in Mexico, will be published early next year by Cambridge University Press.

His work continues, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and with the assistance of associate professor of political science Cliff Wirth and others. President Fox "hasn't entirely lived up to his promise as a president in many regards," Eisenstadt says, "but then, who does? At the very least, Mexico has insisted on transparency in its institutions and its rule of law." Mexico's 10-year path to democracy may have made that system of government more durable, he says, a lesson worth noting as the U.S. undertakes regime changes in Iraq and possibly elsewhere.

Eisenstadt spent several childhood years in Puerto Rico, and learned to read and write Spanish before he did English. He used the "aggressive persistence" he learned on the police beat at the Nashville Tennessean when doing research in Mexican archives as a graduate student on a Fulbright fellowship. At one point, he was denied access to the public archives of the Federal Election Court for months despite a letter from the chief magistrate. "Of course you can have access," an official told him at the time. "It's just a matter of when we're going to let you start."

Pocket-sized Fuel Cells

The energy source of the future, many people believe, is hydrogen. Cleaner and less polluting than today's fossil fuels, hydrogen has a promising potential as a fuel for automobiles and other vehicles. Scientists have recognized the potential of hydrogen for some time and policy makers are catching up. In his January State of the Union address, President Bush proposed $1.7 billion over the next five years for hydrogen-powered automotive fuel cell development.

But are there other, smaller-scale uses for hydrogen power? Small appliances like laptop computers and cellular phones use their fair share of energy, too, and that energy—electricity for recharging batteries—is generated in pollution-producing power plants.

UNH professor of chemical engineering Virendra Mathur says miniature fuel cells for small appliances are not only feasible, but will become one of the first commercial applications to hit the market.

Both full-scale and smaller fuel cells are batteries that work by combining hydrogen and oxygen gases. In an almost too-good-to-be-true chemical reaction, the result is electricity and water. Mathur is working with a New Hampshire company, Albany International Techniweave in Rochester, N.H., on a component of fuel cells called a gas diffusion layer (GDL). In a small appliance, that component has to be sturdy enough to function even when abused. Cell phones, for example, are often left out in high and low temperatures and routinely thumped, bumped and rattled.

The prototype GDLs the company has in mind are made of woven fabric. Mathur and his students mount the square-inch, catalyst-coated GDLs in a fuel cell and then test the cell's performance characteristics. If the results aren't as good as less-rugged commercial fuel cells, they vary the cell's parameters to improve performance.

Although hydrogen has a great deal of promise as a fuel, it isn't completely pollution-free. The hydrogen used must itself be produced somewhere, a process which emits some pollution and greenhouse gases, but less than fossil fuels for the same amount of energy. Mathur points out that, in addition, hydrogen can be produced far from where the energy is ultimately used, unlike a car, thus allowing pollution to be reduced in regions of high traffic.

Fuel cell-powered cars are still probably one to two decades away, but smaller fuel cells are right around the corner. Soon you'll probably be able to buy a small, replaceable metal cartridge containing absorbed hydrogen which plugs into the fuel cell of your cell phone or personal digital assistant. Up to 500 million small fuel cells might be sold annually by 2011, according to the market-research firm Applied Business Intelligence, with annual revenue to fuel-cell manufacturers as high as $5 billion.

With so much profit at stake, secrecy is tight. "No one wants to share any information with you," says Mathur, "so you have to dig up your own well before you can drink it." Mathur's work is funded by Albany International Techni- weave with whom UNH shares the intellectual property rights to any final product. Mathur and UNH attorneys are negotiating with a second New Hampshire company, Rochester-based Lydall Filtration/Separation Group, for a similar project. With the help of UNH research, New Hampshire companies may get their share of a new market.

Sand Dollars

We all know the value of a half-gallon of orange juice—it says so right on the container. But what's the value of clean seawater or a wide, sandy beach? They come with no price tags attached and no bill shows up in your mailbox.

Such questions are the specialty of UNH associate professor of economics Ju-Chin Huang. Living near the beach in Newburyport, Mass., she saw firsthand the value people place on it in the form of summer traffic and congestion. "I guess that prompted my interest," she says, laughing. She began to wonder if she could quantify the value of good beaches, using focus groups and surveys.

Beach erosion is not new. Sandy beaches have always tended to be transient, as tides and storms wash away or relocate the sand. In recent decades, the process can be accelerated by rising sea levels. But it was not until beaches became the destination for tourist vacations, family daytrips and seaside cottages that municipalities became willing to spend substantial sums of money to repair the erosion. Since 1955, the cost of replenishing the sand on Hampton Beach, N.H., for example, has been more than $12 million (in 2002 dollars).

But beaches, like any habitat, are complicated systems. Trucking in sand or protecting a beach with a jetty or other control device has tradeoffs, Huang says. Such devices may pose hazards to beachgoers, boaters and wildlife habitats, and beach aesthetics can be affected. In some cases erosion is even exacerbated. Citizens of Wells and Camp Ellis, Maine, for example, have become skeptical of erosion control efforts after a jetty constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers has, for the most part, served to make beach erosion worse.

Through focus groups in New Hampshire and southern Maine, Huang learned that residents of both states are concerned about beach erosion and the impact of erosion control on the beach environment. She found general support for mild, nonpermanent erosion control efforts as long as they protected wildlife habitats. That attitude is reflected in a law passed in Maine in 1979 prohibiting any new seawalls on the coast.

"Economists are becoming more interested in the economic value of public goods," says Huang, especially as those resources are imperiled by sprawl, global warming and other threats.

She has recently completed a study on the value of ocean mapping data, from which nautical charts are made. Obtaining such data is very expensive: How much should, and will, boaters and shipping companies pay for such information? Or should the cost be kept low, since safety is at issue? The findings of economists such as Huang may become an important addition to policymakers' debates. ~

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