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Writing about a topic is a tool for structuring my thinking about that topic.

Over on one of my other blogs, I write—albeit it in an on-and-off-again fashion—about local politics and municipal policy here in my small western Massachusetts town.

We are heading into budget season for the next few months, when all of the various departments assemble their budget requests for the next fiscal year and submit them to the mayor. The mayor then compiles all of into her budget, which goes to the city council for approval (or not). By law, the council can only cut money from the mayor’s proposed budget but cannot add to it.

The city is the county seat of the poorest, most rural county in Massachusetts, so our annual city budget is always a fraught topic. It has become only more contentious in recent years as our population ages and housing costs keep increasing. There are more people who need more services, there is less money to go around, and a common sentiment is that our property taxes are already at or beyond the limit of what a lot of folks in town can afford.

I say all of this as context for the fact that I find myself listening to a lot of municipal budget conversations, and I think it is a critical topic to write about. I’m not an accounting/finance person but I have had to learn a fair amount of it via osmosis at work, so I get the general gist.

It has been my experience that a lot of people around town who are highly interested in the outcomes of these budget discussions have little understanding of how the budgeting process works, how budget work, and what all the rules and terms around them mean. That’s not their fault—this stuff is legitimately complicated, it tends to me talked about using arcane, domain-specific terminology, and the people directly involved in the process are overworked, stressed-out public officials and volunteer members of city committees.

And so, as I listen to these deliberations and write about them, I find myself giving a good deal of thought to how I weave in some context for and explanation of the processes a structures that shape and drive the municipal budgeting process. That means having to talk through stuff like what cost centers are, the why the differences between local appropriations and grant funding matter, how revolving accounts work, and why capital expenditures are different from operating expenses.

Working through all of that for myself—again, not an expert or professional here—I will admit that the thought has crossed my mind to prompt ChatGPT to generate something like “Give me 5 bullets in terms a layperson can understand how revolving funds work and what they are used for in US municipal budgets.” It would provide an easy starting point for me to write a whole post on the topic, saving me the time and effort of having to go do a bunch of web searches, figure out which results are applicable (and are not SEO-driven sludge), and then drafting and reworking and entire post from scratch, right?

So let’s set aside for the moment the problem that, by its very nature, a tool like ChatGPT depends upon the theft of labor from countless writers, artists, journalists, and other creators. Let’s also set aside the staggering environments and climat impacts of these tools. Let’s also ignore that they rely upon over-worked low-wage laborers across the global South toiling under terrible conditions.

And yet, even were I to forget about all of those problems, I am still left with one of my own.

When I sit down to write about this stuff, I have to sift through it in my own head to sort it in a way that makes sense to me. Then, as I turn it into words and sentence and paragraphs, I have to think about whether the words that I am choosing and the ways in which I string them together may or may not make sense to other people.

That process forces me to examine and reexamine the ideas I have in my head, to take them apart and put them back together again. It is the process of writing that structures my thinking about the thing I am writing about.

So if I shortcut that whole process by asking an LLM to spit out summary text for me, I get none of that and I end up posting something I don’t really understand. For me, that gets to the heart of the “If you can’t be bothered to write it, I’m not going to bother reading it” critique of generative AI usage. It is the process of writing that is important to me, because that process is how I form and refine my ideas.

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