Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Private capital not a reliable "partner" in sustainable mobility when it comes to affordability

A Jump bicycle sharing bicycle in BrooklandWhen the Jump dockless e-bike program was introduced, in DC and a handful of other cities, comparatively speaking it was a good deal, $2 for 30 minutes, with a per minute charge after 30 minutes.

Last year the firm was purchased by Uber.

This past week they introduced new pricing, which varies by market ("Uber says it's raising prices on its dockless e-bike fleet in several US cities," Business Insider). From the article:
"We want to build a viable e-bike and e-scooter operation that allows us to serve riders for years to come," an Uber representative said in an emailed statement.

"To support that we have introduced new pricing in our cities that brings us in line with the market so we can continue to deliver clean and reliable bikes and scooters with a sustainable business model."
In Providence, where the rate is now 30¢/minute, that 30 minute ride now costs $9. The LA prices is also 30¢/minute. In Denver, 25¢/minute. To find the rate by city, you need the app, which I don't have.

That pricing probably makes it not sustainable from the standpoint of a user, although they do have a $5/month rate for low income users. Otherwise, these prices are higher cost than bus rides, but faster, and comparable or more expensive than subway and light rail trips.

This shouldn't be a surprise. If providing bikes or transit or taxi service was super profitable, then cities or people with limited job prospects wouldn't be doing it.

I think it's important to have bike sharing, even the option of scooters, and definitely transit. I'm just not expecting that venture capital will be in it for the long term.

Abandoned bike share bicycles in China.  Getty Images photo.

cf. Ofo ("Bike-sharing firm Ofo's dramatic fall from grace a warning to China's tech industry," South China Morning Post) and Mobike ("The rise and fall of China's cycling empires," Foreign Policy).

... I have an Ofo bike in my garage if you want it.

2. And besides adding e-bikes to traditional bike share programs, it would be awesome if the US had a similar program of payroll deductions for buying bikes for transportational uses, comparable to the UK.

This is important, because unlike how scooters and ride hailing and pedal bike share mostly merely capture trips that likely would have been made by transit, e-bikes do have the potential to shift trips from cars ("E-Bikes Mean Fewer Car Trips and More People on Bikes," Bicycling Magazine

 Although such requires massive market development. But employer transportation demand management programs providing purchase supports could begin to change the equation.

Labels: , , , ,

Cities and counties will have to up their game concerning retail and food deserts

-- "Are poor neighborhoods retail deserts?," USC Lusk Center for Real Estate
-- Baltimore City Food Desert Retail Strategy

1.  CNN has a story about dollar stores ("Dollar stores are everywhere. That's a problem for poor Americans") and how some advocates argue that a preponderance of dollar stores in a community makes it more difficult to recruit a traditional grocery store.

2.  For a planning project I'm trying to work on, I reviewed a piece I wrote many years ago, "In lower income neighborhoods, are businesses supposed to be "community organizations" first?," about how to develop reasonable options for under-served, under-stored, or impoverished communities.

It discusses hard discount options like Sav-A-Lot and PriceRite, creating co-operatives, the public market as a model, and the resources offered by the nonprofit consulting firm UpLift Solutions, which is affiliated with a supermarket firm operating in Philadelphia.

There are some other initiatives, like in Baltimore, DMG Foods created by the Salvation Army ("Salvation Army Opens First Grocery Store Ever In Baltimore," NPR), or a small market called Market@25th in Richmond that has opened in the Church Hill neighborhood ("Market at 25th opens in Richmond food desert elating neighbors," WTVR-TV; "Being There: The Market@25th," Richmond Style Weekly).

 Market@25th is a for profit, created by a somewhat benevolent person. The nonprofit Fare & Easy which opened up a few years ago is no longer in operation as a nonprofit, but it was sold to a for profit entity that still operates it.

3.  The State of Pennsylvania, in conjunction with the Food Trust, also has a grant program to assist in the development of supermarkets in understored areas.

I think more communities are going to have to create similar programs.

-- Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative

4.  Food Trust publishes the Healthy Food Financing Handbook.

5. Communities are going to have to be more proactive and in more retail categories than food, if they want to bring about more retail activation in their communities.

6. I haven't written about Shoppers Food Warehouse, which operates in Maryland and Virginia.

It had been run poorly for years, by the major wholesaler Supervalu. But then Supervalu got bought and the new operator has mishandled the supermarket chains even worse than Supervalu, announcing they would be selling them off and closing stores and selling off the pharmacy operations in the meantime, thereby making the stores harder to sell/keep in operation.

The Post wrote about it last Sunday ("Shoppers Food was sold: what will happen to its storesin Maryland and Virginia?").

It's an especial problem for Prince George's County, because they had 12 SFW stores (one just closed), and more recently Giant and Safeway have closed stores in the County as well. (Giant did buy and convert some SFW stores in Virginia.)

According to the trade magazine Food World, the reason the sell off has been so difficult is that besides mishandling the task, the operator, Unfi, wants new purchasers to take on the pension fund obligations of SFW off their hands and firms are balking. They'd rather wait it out, let the stores close, and then take over the locations they want.

Anyway, there aren't many options. I don't know if Prince George's County has reached out to likely operators, but if not, they ought to, and they should be contacting UpLift Solutions too.

To me, their best options are: (1) Wakefern/Shoprite, although the firm doesn't operate many full line stores in the area, the do have a store in Montgomery County, and some around Baltimore. The cooperative is much bigger in PA-NJ-DE, etc. They do operate a couple of their PriceRite discount food stores in Prince George's County now.  Wakefern is one of the more successful independent supermarket groups in the US, so they'd be a good partner.

(2) Maybe the independent B. Green out of Baltimore, which used to be a wholesaler but sold off that operation awhile ago ("B. Green & Co. has evolved from wholesale grocer to retailer over 100 years," Baltimore Sun). They have a discount operation called Food Depot and a higher end store called Green Valley Marketplace, which operates in Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties.

(3) Ethnic independents like MegaMart and L.A. Mart, which already operate in or around PG County.

(4) And by reaching out to C&S Wholesalers, which supplies many of the independents in the region.  Or the independent store group IGA, which works with a different wholesaler.

(5) Maybe the growing Streets Market & Cafe, which is based in DC, but at this time only operates in higher income areas.

(6) Weis Markets.  They are based in Pennsylvania, but have been expanding into Maryland and Virginia, buying stores sold off by others.  The closest Weis Markets store I've seen is just north of Rockville, but I do think they've had problems digesting the acquisitions, although Food World reports the firm is doing better now.

(7) Lidl.  Lidl bought a small company with 25 stores mostly on Long Island, and is in the process of converting them.  They could take on a bunch of locations in PG County similarly and have a prominent position in the marketplace much sooner than a store by store development program.

Although the company's launch in the US hasn't gone so well, but they have already committed to at least two stores in PGC.

Labels: , ,

Public realm/urban design/placemaking/parks planning will need to change in the face of climate change

A few weeks ago I mentioned how some of the responses by Paris to the European heatwave was the installation of misters in public places, keeping certain parks open 24 hours, erecting temporary pools, and extending the hours of existing pool facilities.

And I used this to make a point about the hours of operation for pool facilities in summer more generally -- most cities, at least DC, don't keep pools open late enough, early enough in the season, and late enough in the season. E.g., most outdoor pools are scheduled to close in August, even though in DC, it remains unbearably hot for most of September.
Misters on Las Vegas Boulevard, May 25th, 2017
Misters on Las Vegas Boulevard in 2017.  Photo: Richard Brian, Las Vegas Review-Journal.

That should change anyway, but especially in the face of climate change, where more cities are going to be brutally hot for many more days each year. E.g., I've lived in DC for about 32 years, and I can't remember a July that had so many days of 90℉+ weather, let alone multiple days topping out at 100℉ or more.

What we'll need to do is to develop a systematic checklist for these kinds of elements.  And work to put them in plans.

1. Park and recreation center operations will have to change.  More places should install splash fountains.  And adults should be welcome to use them, at least at certain times.
Splash Fountain, Downtown Silver Spring, Maryland
Silver Spring

2. Bike paths need tree cover.
Repair stand, trees, on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, Takoma Park, Maryland
A new pump and repair stand have been installed on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Silver Spring. I used to think these pumps were great, but they break down pretty quickly, even though they are rated for rough and tough public use. And on the MBT in DC, a repair stand has had most of its tools stolen.


Charlie has mentioned this for years, and I don't think it's considered systematically in trail design currently.  (At least not on the Met Branch Trail between Franklin Street NE and NoMA.)

(I do it with angel hair pasta and regular tomatoes, diced and lots and lots of parmesan.)  

Today, I went to the Silver Spring Farmers Market to buy some tomatoes for a chilled pasta dish, which is perfect for the weather this month ("Pasta With Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula," New York Times), and considering how hot it was it wasn't terrible biking because there was a breeze. But going back on the bit of the Metropolitan Branch Trail in Takoma Park, which is lined by trees, I was reminded of this point.

3. Hot places often had continuous awnings and overhangs along the streetfronts in commercial districts.  With air conditioning and the creation of completely internal shopping spaces, we've moved away from that, but it may have to be reconsidered.
Use of Awnings on HIstoric Buildings, Preservation Brief 44, National Park Service

Restaurants and other private-public spaces install misters too, depending on the weather, like this one in Las Vegas.
Misters on the patio of a Mon Ami Gabi restaurant in Las Vegas

4.  I mentioned yesterday the idea of installing drinking fountains in building facades.

5. Phoenix puts misters in bus shelters. More places will have to do that. And in more places than bus shelters.


Today there was a misting tent at the Farmers Market.
Water misting tent, Downtown Silver Spring Farmers Market

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 19, 2019

Private capital is amoral and can generate negative outcomes as frequently as positive outcomes

Just a brief point.

Besides the problems of financialization of the economy, rentier behavior, and the agenda of capital, neoliberalism, etc. is the problem of lots of money out there, seeking some kind of positive marginal return, preferably extranormally positive returns.

I saw this title of a book review in the Guardian, "Evicted by Matthew Desmond review – what if the problem of poverty is that it’s profitable to other people?," and it reminded me of this issue.

One of the problems with so much capital sloshing around in private equity is that it will fund anything.

For example, one of the reasons that Robert Mugabe stayed in power so long in Zimbabwe was because even as traditional sources of funding to governments dried up, vulture capital was willing to step in ("The investor who saved Mugabe," Mail & Guardian).

Similarly, how private equity buys up bonds issued by bankrupt government agencies in Puerto Rico, making it harder to come up with socially optimal outcomes ("'Bottom-feeding' hedge funds are big winners on Puerto Rico bonds," Financial Times).
.
Or Warren Buffett, who benefits from vulture financial loan products sold to people who buy mobile homes ("Buffett's mobile-home empire makes record profits while foreclosing on homes," Seattle Times). Even though he's pledging to give away most of his wealth on philanthropic purposes.

Etc.

As long as money is to be made, some firm is out there willing to put out the money to make it, whether its for good or ill.

Labels: ,

Why not get office buildings to install water fountains in facades as a community amenity?

A typical office building facade: 1700 K Street NW, Washington DC
1700 K Street, NW_Carousel

An indoor water fountain and water bottle filler. A more robust design suitable for outdoor conditions would have to be created.
Halsey_Taylor_HTHBWFOVLERI_Fountain_and_Bottle_Filler

One of the new London water fountains outside Kentish Town tube station. Photograph: Luke Garratt/Greater London Authority

The Guardian reports that London is installing 100 outdoor water fountains in an attempt to get people to purchase fewer bottles of water ("Locations of 50 new London water fountains revealed").

For some time I've been thinking why not just install water fountains/fillers in building facades?

They can be supported from the internal piping system and it would be a community amenity and likely a lot cheaper to do and maintain.

Although in places without office buildings, free standing outdoor water fountains may have to be the primary option.

Labels: , , , ,

Cities and children: the future of cities is not childlessness but it will involve intra-city sorting and demand for better urban planning

The Atlantic has a piece, "The Future of the City is Childless," opining about the decline of households with children "in the city."

He is mostly writing about Manhattan, but includes data from other cities, which finds that yes, households with children are on the decline. And it finds that DC is one of those cities.

The most likely reason, as stated in the article, is the high cost of housing.  And this will make having and keeping children and families in the city a somewhat exclusive phenomenon based on income.

But I think the article misses a big point, about sorting.  Anti-city writer Joel Kotkin's take on cities and children has similar faults ("The Childless City: It's hip, it's entertaining—but where are the families?," City Journal).

The future of the city isn't childless at all.  But where a preponderance of families live will be a function of housing cost, space, and amenities.  And access to affordable child care.

Cities like DC extending "public school" to Pre-K -- the ages of three to five, before they start kindergarten -- significantly eases the financial burden of child care ("The Effects of Universal Preschool in Washington, D.C.," Center for American Progress).

Families aren't likely to locate in the densest, highest cost, smallest space precincts. But cities may be more likely to offer universal preschool than suburban communities.

First, as housing prices rise, lower income households are being displaced, and demographically speaking, these families tend to have more children.  As they leave cities, there is a net loss of families.

Outmigration to lower cost housing in the suburbs extends to starter households with children too, even if two income and on a likely trajectory into the upper middle class.  Starting out, they can't afford to buy housing in high cost urban centers.

Second, sorting is multidimensional.  While the author is writing about his experience in the heart of Manhattan, it may also be that higher income family households are moving out of the core of center cities, which tend to offer less in the way of amenities that support families, but still remaining in the city, but shifting and relocating to other parts of the city that are more amenable, not necessarily "the suburbs" which is what the article suggests is happening.

There are plenty of kids and families in Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Queens, if not in the core of Manhattan.

That's the nature of my own experience in DC, where it happens I too moved out of the core and to the outer city, which comparatively speaking is more suburban.  (Although you are seeing plenty of young kids in Capitol Hill and other neighborhoods in the city's core.)

Excepting us, every house that turned over on my face block has been bought by families. Most of those households had more kids after moving in. But that's only 1/3 of the houses (7 of 24 houses turned over; so 5 of the other 6 households added children once they moved in). If there were more housing turnover, there'd be more family accommodation.  I've noticed that most of the houses in the greater neighborhood that do turnover tend to have children.

But yes, this isn't a phenomenon supportive of "starter" families.  Or lower income households.

And yes, we must acknowledge that plenty of higher income family households move out of the city too.  Not every city has housing districts that are amenity-rich and lower priced.  E.g., housing prices in my neighborhood have doubled over 11 years.

This is old data, but the trade magazine Progressive Grocer used to run a monthly feature using Nielsen data, showing consumption in various food and beverage categories by household type and location. Cities are defined as "cosmopolitan centers" and as a rule have fewer households with children, as the data shows below.
Neilsen data on households
But it's interesting that while it shows that cities have fewer households with children compared to other place types, and are overrepresented in certain categories of households without children, which is what we'd expect, cities do have households with children, and surprisingly, the largest number of "older bustling families." 

Likely the families that do stay are higher income, and may add children over time as circumstances and income changes, even if they are selective about it, and have fewer children compared to decades past.

(On my block one household has 3 children, three households have 2 children, and two households have one child.)

A big problem is planning for cities often ignores the needs of children

Regardless, cities tend to under-plan for accommodating children, even as hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on public education.  Besides the quality of schools issue, and in DC, the rise of charter schools has provided households with choice a reason to not move to the suburbs, another element that shapes whether or not families decide to live in the city is the existence of some open spaces, parks, tot lots, etc.

Definitely if you ignore planning for accommodating children and families, you'll have fewer families.

When I started out in the Main Street world, I remember being very impressed by a presentation about a program which repositioned.  They had offered a lot of family-related events, but shifted away from that.  I thought that was an interesting and tough choice.

Now--16 years later--I think it was short-sighted.  Kids don't always need a lot in terms of space. And maybe you don't need a lot of family events, because they don't pay off in long term benefits versus the cost.

But sometimes, all kids need are places to run around and little playgrounds (and note kids of different ages have different needs when it comes to play), splash parks, and the like.

(But note, I think there should be designated times for adults to have access to splash fountains too.)

Even Downtowns like DC could have some tot lots and play equipment and a splash fountain or two.  (But the city doesn't plan adequately for recreation downtown for any demographic category, let alone kids.  There's no public urban recreation center in Downtown DC.)

Wulaba Park, Sydney.  Photo: Paul Patterson. "Venture to Green Square, turn left into Amelia Street and, hidden behind several tall apartment developments, you’ll find a rainbow wonderland: slides, towers, tunnels, nets and swings, with one mega slide for adventurous youngsters."

From a planning standpoint, I refer to this as planning systematically for different demographic and household types.

It's the approach I recommend for sustainable mobility too.  E.g., one off initiatives for African-Americans, or kids, or women get lots of media and other attention.  But it's better and more equitable to address all demographics and household types in a systematic way.

More commercial districts should aim to include these kinds of kid-related park amenities, especially little playgrounds, to be "kid- and family accommodating" at the very least, even if it doesn't rise to the level of "kid and family friendly."

I noticed that was done in Downtown Essen in their pedestrianized district, which didn't have any mixed use housing.  It was all retail or civic space.  But here and there the civic space included little play spaces.  And constructed of the best quality materials, often stainless steel.

And splash fountains probably aren't enough.  Kids and therefore families need a variety of things to keep them occupied.  And at least some restaurants need to be kid friendly, etc.

Splash fountain in Columbia Heights DC
Splash fountain in Columbia Heights, DC

Small swing set in Downtown Essen
Swing set in the Essen pedestrianized Downtown, note the use of long lasting stainless steel

But there are various planning initiatives focused on making cities amenable to families, such as the 8-80 Cities program. And other resources:

-- Child in the City
-- Basic urban planning for children, Unicef
-- "Designing Better Urban Spaces for Kids," CityLab
-- A child-friendly approach to urban planning, 100 Resilient Cities
-- "Cities alive: Designing for urban childhoods," ARUP
-- "Cities Without Children," The American Conservative
-- "Why do young parents move away? Our cities aren’t designed for kids," Curbed

Montgomery County Maryland also has an initiative to better provide park and recreation spaces in the county's urban centers.

-- Energized Public Spaces Functional Master Plan

I've not written about it, but in the Petworth neighborhood, Sherman Circle, an NPS controlled space, across from E.L. Haynes Charter School, is increasingly used as a community park and play space by families, although it has nothing more than green space, trees and some benches.

Similarly, a "guerrilla play space" was created on a portion of the Eastern Market Metrorail Station "park" -- one of the four land pieces is where the station entrance is, while the other largest space is catty-corner across Pennsylvania Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets.

It set the stage for replacing it with a more formal playground, although not without controversy ("DC to clear out kids "Plastic Park" near Eastern Market Metro," Hill Now).

More of the city's schools are making playgrounds more accessible outside of school hours.  This is true for both traditional public schools and charter schools.

With the help of Kaboom, the Capital City Public Charter School in my neighborhood put its playground in front of the school and it's open to all.

Etc.

There are all kinds of ways to do this, but it won't happen without focused and innovative planning.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Every year Salt Lake City puts new pro-environmental messages on its sanitation trucks

... for years I've argued more cities and counties should be doing this.  Here are there are some examples.

Some, including DC, have decorated some trucks with murals.

But mostly DC's sanitation trucks, and local government sanitation trucks miss the opportunity to use the potential of their rolling billboards.

Salt Lake City very consciously takes a different path, with messages on each side of the truck, and they change every year ("Truck Wraps Deliver Words of Wisdom, Inspire Recycling).

The for profit firm Waste Management does a good job with messages on their truck. But unlike SLC, the messages are pretty static, mostly about how the trucks run on gas generated from landfills. It is to the credit of SLC that they are willing to invest in the money required to change the messages every year.

And that they do is a good thing, because after awhile, you stop noticing messages when they don't change.

A typical DC trash truck

DC garbage/sanitation truck

Most include a tagline, "DPW: The Preferred Choice" except that virtually everyone getting service from DPW doesn't have a choice.

Not that I am complaining, most of the time they do an excellent job, and I think it's a difficult one, especially given how hot it can be in the summer, and cold in the winter.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Car in the Crosswalk on Colesville Road at the Silver Spring Transit Center

Car in the Crosswalk on Colesville Road at the Silver Spring Transit Center

So tiresome.

There is a cover of the Saturday Evening Post that is similar.

Thornton Utz, "Blocking the Crosswalk," September 17, 1955
Thornton Utz cover, "Blocking the Crosswalk," Saturday Evening Post Magazine, September 17, 1955

Labels: , , ,

Why expertise doesn't matter in politics? | ideology, special interests

Robert Samuelson, the economics columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about the death of "policy entrepreneur" Alice Rivlin as an illustration of the failure of knowledge to drive policy ("America has an enduring cycle of disappointment").

(Separately, there is an op-ed in the New York Times, by principal investigators of a study that looked at whether or not state legislators were interested in systematic polling information about the opinions of their constituents on issues under consideration, "Politicians Don't Actually Care What Voters Want." They found little interest on the part of legislators and limited congruence between the electorate and elected officials.)

Samuelson suggests policy entrepreneurs are failing because:
(1) It may be that the problems they attacked were tougher than expected. Eliminating poverty, combating climate change and controlling health costs are hard tasks individually, let alone together.

(2) Elected politicians, who wielded the real power, found many of these ideas too unpopular. Take climate change. Almost everyone outside the Trump administration (it seems) is against it; but there's little enthusiasm for the actual policies -- higher fossil fuel prices or energy controls -- that might have some effect.

(3) The policy entrepreneurs may have discovered that they aren't as smart as they thought they were. Put differently, they may have exaggerated their understanding of the things they were trying to change.

Whatever the cause or causes, the historical reality is unforgiving. Policy entrepreneurship hasn't and won't disappear. But the hoped-for gains have been conspicuous by their absence. There is an enduring cycle of disappointment. Solutions are rarely equal to problems. It is a sobering legacy.
Yes the problems are hard. Yes ideas are unpopular, sometimes, but that is partly because of poorly dealing with them. And yes, people often have a limited sense of "the problem."

But I think he misses the point.

We've moved from a concept of "positivism" and the development of evidence-based policy and a respect for expertise (although to be fair, for centuries policy and practice has been more about reflecting "positions" on issues, not evidence) to a much more rigid focus on ideology and an ecosystem of special interests -- wealthy funders of organizations and media that support these positions -- that pushes ideologically-based positions regardless of evidence.

Policy and practice should be about achieving "optimality" based on expertise and knowledge. It should also be about "evidence" whenever it can be adequately collected. 

Yes sometimes I feel like the focus on evidence can be misguided even though absolutely, replication in other settings is essential. The issue of "what gets measured gets done" is problematic when you're not measuring the right thing or creating measures is time consuming and difficult. But still, so many programs continue to be developed irrespective of a consideration of past outcomes.

But like with "policy entrepreneurs" maybe not being so smart, a lot of it has to do with problem definition. Like with health care you need to approach the matter in tranches. Health insurance was set up to regularize income for hospitals, not to improve health outcomes. OTOH, the National Health Service in the UK was set up to improve health outcomes.

Separating the provision of health and wellness development, the ability to go to a doctor for simple things as well as for dealing with many diseases that are partially behavior related (heart attack, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, etc.), which are called chronic conditions, requires a different approach (these elements of the health system are called primary care) from how you deal with catastrophic and emergency care needs (cancer, heart attack, accidents, etc.) which are part of the secondary care system.

But by continuing to define "health care" through "health insurance," a fundamental rethinking isn't occurring.

So it is timely that the Center for American Progress has a presentation on Monday, about how this works at the state level.  From email:
Laboratories for Corruption
How Special Interests Are Driving Harmful State Policies


July 22, 2019, 12:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m. ET

Center for American Progress
1333 H Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005

RSVP

Not in D.C.? Bookmark this link to watch the live webcast

Opening remarks:
Winnie Stachelberg, Executive Vice President, External Affairs

Featured panelists:
State Sen. Dinah Sykes, (D-KS)
Lisa Graves, President, Board of the Center for Media and Democracy; Co-Founder, Documented Investigations
Naomi Walker, Director, Economic Analysis and Research Network at the Economic Policy Institute
Danielle Root, Associate Director of Voting Rights for Democracy and Government, Center for American Progress

Moderator:
Sam Berger, Vice President of Democracy and Government Reform, Center for American Progress

Federalism encourages states to act as "laboratories of democracy," wherein states experiment with untested ideas and policies to gauge their effectiveness and potential value elsewhere. This mantle of states being laboratories for democracy can be used to promote policies that advance the public good. But states can also be used as a testing ground for policies that skew political and economic power toward corporations or billionaires and away from everyday Americans.

Many harmful state policies—such as irresponsible tax cuts, deregulation, and attacks on unions and essential workplace protections—are byproducts of corporate lobbying and conservative special interest groups whose main purpose is to help the rich and powerful exploit and manipulate the lawmaking process.

Please join the Center for American Progress for a discussion on how corporations and special interest groups promote state policies that make corporations and wealthy donors richer, at the public's expense. It will also examine how lawmakers backed by these groups further corrupt democratic processes to maintain power and keep harmful policies in place.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Revisiting stories: rooftop recreation and sports facilities in cities

Obviously, for a long time there have been rooftop pools at hotels and apartment and condominium buildings.

Many years ago, I mentioned a rooftop football field for a space constrained high school in New Jersey.

And I have written about how parks and recreation planning often under-considers very dense areas and fails to plan for recreation space, which can be part of mixed use multi-story projects.

These points likely influenced my writing about this in the context of Silver Spring, Maryland, the conurbation located on the northern border of DC, where the high cost of land makes providing "a recreation center" difficult.

The County was aiming for an arena.  And Montgomery College separately has a recreation center.

Tennis courts on top of a building in San Francisco
Tennis courts on top of a building in San Francisco

Athletic field on top of a high school in Union City, New Jersey
The football stadium is on the roof of Union City High School, New Jersey

Rooftop basketball court, Flamingo South Beach Tower, Miami
Flamingo South Beach Center Tower Basketball Courts

And I argued not only should they be combined, and could be built on top of a parking garage like the County's RFP suggested, but that athletic fields could be built on top of other parking structures, since there are so many.

-- "Creating the Silver Spring/Montgomery County Arena and Recreation Center

Photo by Dan Swartz for Washingtonian. 

The smallish Washington Kastles tennis stadium on top of DC's Union Market is the first example in the area of how it can be done ("Here’s What It’s Like to Watch Tennis on Union Market’s Roof," Washingtonian Magazine).

The team had a facility on The Wharf and was supposed to go to a new facility there, but I guess the very short season for professional team tennis didn't make it work out. 

After their previous facility was closed, they shifted to indoors.  With the rooftop tennis court in Northeast DC, now they go back to the outdoors.  And the facility could be used for multiple purposes in the other almost 11 months that the Washington Kastles don't play.

I can't claim they got the developer, Edens, got the idea from my 2017 article, but it's nice that a firm committed to best practice does best practice, instead of me just writing articles imploring people to think bigger.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Rain, rain go away: climate change, extreme weather events, and floodplains

One of my lines about policy by elected officials is sort of along the lines of the Churchill quote about the US:
You can always trust America to do the right thing.  After she has exhausted all other possible alternatives.
Policy and practice is mostly about doing whatever you can to avoid the reality of economics (e.g., if you restrict housing supply, prices go up) or disaster (e.g., if you build in flood plains and buildings get flooded, but instead of saying don't build in flood plains, people rebuild and/or flood insurance helps pay to do so).

There are almost too many examples to count of problems resulting from flooding because of buildings in flood plains impacted by hurricanes, extreme rain, etc.  And decided actions to try to avoid acknowledging and addressing the required changes.

-- "Flood Insurance Program Increasingly Underwater as Payouts Shatter Records," Scientific American

A recent example is in Arlington County, where Four Mile Run was devastated by last week's extreme rain on Monday July 8th ("After years of talk — and flooding — Arlington residents demand fixes to storm drain system," Washington Post).  People in the article are quoted about Arlington taking a long time on dealing with the need for more robust stormwater drainage systems.
Alexandra Lettow was near tears as she described the losses her family suffered in Monday’s flooding to neighbors and county officials gathered at a home in Arlington’s Waverly Hills neighborhood.

Destroyed this time were the family’s appliances, the heating and air-conditioning system, the hot water heater, a couch, her son’s Xbox, a television and more. It was at least the seventh time the neighborhood had flooded in 19 years.

“We took a home loan out last year to repair the basement from the last flood,” Lettow said. “We have no more money, and we have mold growing down there.”

Arlington officials on Saturday said initial reports put uninsured residential and business losses at more than $4 million.

Um, 7 floods over 19 years is an indicator of a structural problem.


But with rains more and more extreme, the amount of piping and water storage capacity necessary to capture the water to prevent flooding is almost immeasurable. It's certainly very costly to try to build a hard system (pipes and storage). DC's building both hard infrastructure and soft (water capture and diversion from drainage collection systems), but in extreme events it may not be enough. For example, the National Archives after terrible flooding in the past has emergency water barriers, which deployed last week ("The National Archives' floating flood wall helped dodge disaster," Post).

But at the same time, even though it's an extremely hard decision to make, buildings in known flood zones ought to be taken removed. The county and individuals can't keep trying to put things back together only for the problem to repeat. Remember, insurance policies don't typically cover this kind of water damage, especially in areas known for flooding risk.

-- FEMA Flood Risk Maps


Another regional example is Ellicott City in Howard County, just outside of Baltimore, where over a short period the commercial district experienced flash floods twice, each with loss of life. Dealing with this, with the loss of some great historic building stock, has roiled local politics there ("Experts weigh in on development's impact on Ellicott City flooding," Baltimore Sun; "A Historic River Town Confronts a Flooded Future," CityLab).

1. I've written about Tulsa.

The city frequently experienced floods on the Tulsa River, many of which resulted in death and property damage. In 1984, after flooding which resulted in 14 deaths, the city created a Department of Stormwater Management and developed a Citywide Flood and Stormwater Management Plan, which provides for specific improvements across the city.

The primary focus of the plan is removing buildings from the flood plain and converting these spaces to greenways and parks as a way to absorb flooding while minimizing damage. The plan has been frequently updated--another iteration is underway--and since 1990, no structure built before 1987 has been damaged by flooding.

-- "Stormwater Management // After 10 Years, How Is the new department doing?," Tulsa World, 1994
-- "In Tulsa, a National Blueprint for Managing Floods as Cities Grow and Climate Changes," NPR

Although more recently, they don't make the planning documents that easy to find. In other words, you'd think you could find them in a central place on the city website... nope.

-- Phase II Stormwater Management Program (SWMP) for Tulsa County, Oklahoma
-- STORMWATER TORMWATER MANAGEMENT CRITERIA MANUAL, City of Tulsa

2.  And Florida, where post-Hurricane changes to building codes ("Hurricane Andrew prompted better building code requirements," Business Insurance) have made buildings more resilient in the face of extreme storms, although as memories of past disasters fade, there is backsliding on the regulation ("Florida’s building code is tough, but Michael was tougher. Is it time for a rewrite," Miami Herald).

3.  USA Today reports, "Trump tax reform: Don't expect tax break on losses from severe storms," that recent changes to the tax laws make it harder to deduct unexpected losses from flooding.  And that a federal disaster declaration is necessary to be eligible for tax loss deductions.  That seems a bit extreme to me.  State-sanctioned declarations ought to suffice.

4.  The New York Times had a story, "'We Cannot Save Everything': A Historic Neighborhood Confronts Rising Seas," about disaster planning for historic buildings in Newport, Rhode Island, vis a vis the Atlantic Ocean.

There is a nice multimedia graphic showing how the basements of buildings are being rebuilt to accommodate flooding.  ... although that means you can't use the basement for anything else.

5. This year's floods in the Midwest have even overwhelmed cities like Davenport, Iowa, which also took steps similar to Tulsa, and only allowed development along the waterfront, like a baseball stadium and parks, designed to accommodate floods ("Deadly Flooding From Michigan to the South Damages Homes, Sends Mississippi River to 157-Year-High in Davenport, Iowa," Weather Channel).

The city chose to not build a levee system but to rely on water barriers and flood walls. 

Conclusion.  Like what Tulsa started doing 35 years ago, more places are going to have to make hard choices about dealing with pre-existing development in floodplains in river and stream watersheds, on riverfronts, and on coastal waterfronts.


=====
Frankly, we have a similar issue because while we don't live in a flood plain, it turns out our neighborhood includes at least one "buried creek" and there is a high water table.  Now with more frequent and extreme rains, if the drain in our back porch gets covered in leaves and debris, water can build up (very quickly) and seep into the basement.

It's abetted by "bad perc" (percolation) in our backyard.  The ground is very compacted and water pools during a hard and fast rain.

This is after we already put in a French drain system because of problems with the high water table and water coming into the basement from under the house through the seams in the concrete floor (hydrostatic pressure)-- but we only put it in on three sides (oops).

We lamented why didn't the previous owner put in the French drain system instead of us paying for it?  But rain events probably weren't that extreme in the 50 years she lived here.

They are now.  Regularly.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Communication breakdown in politics: busing and democratic socialism in Congress as examples

Probably the song by Led Zeppelin, "Communication Breakdown," is the first hard rock song that I remember hearing (I won't go into the details).  The song dates to 1969, and it was either in 1969 or 1970 that I am first conscious of it (although other less hard rock songs I remember from earlier include "The Israelite" and "I can see for miles" by the Who, both songs were on the jukebox of the restaurant that I lived next door to when I was in fourth grade).

Some of the lyrics:
Communication breakdown
It's always the same
I'm having a nervous breakdown
Drive me insane!
Two issues in politics right now that make me think about these kinds of communications breakdowns, which are often about "scoring points" and not about trying to work towards the best possible outcomes.

1. Busing. Sen. Kamala Harris scored points on Joe Biden in the Democratic Presidential candidate debates ("Harris takes fresh aim at Biden's debate remarks on busing, calls them 'revisionist history',").

The funny thing is that I participated in busing, in the Pontiac schools around the same time as Harris, when I was in sixth and seventh grade.

Pontiac was signature in that before the start of the 1971-1972 school year, a bunch of school buses were bombed ("Irene McCabe and her battle against busing," Detroit News; "5 Ex‐Klansmen Convicted in School Bus Bomb Plot," New York Times; CBS News coverage of the story and a demonstration").

I don't recall remembering the event at the time, but it's in my consciousness.  (I didn't go to school in the district until the Spring of 1971.)

Jefferson Junior High School has been closed for some time, and Pontiac, a majority black city in a county that is 97% white, continues to languish in the face of suburban wealth, not helped by its legacy as an automobile manufacturing city, of a make that is no longer produced.  

The city's decline in the 1960s and 1970s was a harbinger of the failure of the Detroit-based automobile industry in later decades.

And in my case, my experience was more about the white students bused into "the black schools" as opposed to African-American students being bused to "white schools."

I don't know exactly when busing started there as  there were African-Americans in my classes, and my neighborhood  and the area around the school was 100% white.  I presume African-Americans were bused to my elementary school.

For junior high, it was reversed, and the (white) kids in our neighborhood were bused to school in the city; the Pontiac School District boundaries extended into the small cities, towns, and townships outside of the city.

I was probably as afraid and as concerned about fitting in as Kamala Harris. Not just the race issue. It was a new school. There were older kids too. Etc. After school started though, it was just school.  It probably helped that I was smart, but I was no athlete, which certainly hurt my ability to bond with other boys.

It wasn't just a black-white issue though, it was a suburb-urban divide, an investment vs. urban divestment divide, and a class issue as well (e.g., I remember issues around the poor white girls living in Pontiac versus the non-poor white girls who didn't live in Pontiac), and those conflicts or differences in outlook, attitude, and experience went beyond race.

Probably it was tough on teachers and school administrators too, but at least it never came across as a problem for them in the way they handled us.

One of the things they were smart at doing was during the last week or two of school in elementary school, they took all of us on a "field trip" to the junior high school.  That should be done regardless, because of the transition from elementary to middle/junior high.  I don't know if schools do that these days.

I doubt that the school system did that before busing started.  But maybe they did.

Much of the coverage on the issue calls busing a failed initiative ("The Lasting Legacy of the Busing Crisis," Atlantic Magazine). As someone who was a participant, I don't think it had to fail, that it could have been used as a way to build an integrated school system.

Women and children stand in front of a bus, refusing to let it pass out of the schoolyard, as reporters look on during an anti-busing protest, Pontiac, Michigan, 1971. Many carry placards and appear to be reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Photo: Tony Spina (? Detroit News).

But the issue wasn't with the kids at least not in my schools -- then again, my foster parents didn't seem to be racist, and I wasn't a racist white kid and I didn't see such outbursts in the actual school setting but likely it was a problem elsewhere -- it was with parents.  And of course, at that age, I wasn't going to public meetings where I might of seen the kind of attitudes that supported the demonstrations against busing.

2.  Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the new "democratic socialist caucus" and criticizing your supporters/colleagues (""Nancy Pelosi's renewed attacks on AOC aren't just disrespectful, they're dangerous," Guardian).  From the article:
There have been long-running tensions between Pelosi and the so-called “Squad” of new progressive congresswomen, which consists of Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. Things escalated sharply over the weekend, when Pelosi decided it would be a good idea to demean her colleagues in the New York Times. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world, but they didn’t have any following,” Pelosi told the Times, referring to a border funding bill the Squad opposed. “They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”

To begin with, Pelosi’s disparaging remarks about the Squad seemed like they were probably strategic. Now, however, the sustained attacks feel increasingly personal. “When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Washington Post on Wednesday. “But the persistent singling out … it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful … the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
The election of "democratic socialist"/more radical Congressmembers in 2018, in particular Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib is causing some grief because challenges from "the left" to Democrats on various policies creates a lack of unity which is tough vis a vis the Republicans but also because not every Democratic Congressperson has the same level of seat security as someone from Queens New York or Boston might have.

While Guardian columnist Arwa Mahadi makes the point that because these Congresswomen are all people of color, it's especially dangerous when they are criticized by leaders.  Although to me -- with the proviso I am an old white guy -- it's more about youth and ideology.

This comes up a lot in politics. People who are elected tend to compromise and be pragmatic, because that's what they can achieve in a reasonable amount of time, while people like me are critical because we're getting less than half a loaf and are not only supposed to be satisfied with it, but ecstatic.

I write about what I call "the issue continuum," something I learned through observation while working for a consumer group in the late 1980s.

The group had Nader lineage and we worked with him from time to time. What I came to recognize is that there are all kinds of positions on the continuum of an issue, from conservative and traditional to very "progressive" or "perfect" and that by staking out hard core positions, you'd likely never achieve that nirvana, but by staking it out you got a lot more movement toward it in the end, than if you had been comfortable with a much less "perfect" solution starting out.

Scatter Plot - Issue continuumThis is applicable to any issue, from support of biking, food labeling, regulation of emissions from power plants, gasoline excise taxes, etc.

And you have to measure the acceptability of reaction to certain outcomes in judging what makes sense.

E.g., President Macron didn't have good sense in pairing a gas excise tax increase with tax cuts for the wealthy.

I suppose my line "if you ask for nothing, that's what you get; if you ask for the world, you don't get it, but you get a lot more than nothing" is a more succinct statement of this observation.


Protesters in Colmar, north-eastern France, in March 2019. © AFP

With experience, I've gotten a lot better at positioning my arguments in ways that are more congruent with more traditional approaches, of outlining a pathway, etc.

But at 29 years of age, like what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is, and her staffers are similarly aged and equally driven, I didn't think that way. I was more oriented to achieving perfection, rather than achieving the best possible outcome taking advantage of particular opportunities present at that moment.

For example, with biking, elected officials who push it, get really frustrated when people like me criticize the achievements as inadequate, or why aren't we doing the Idaho Stop. They see any sort of criticism by "supporters" as a kind of betrayal.

That's what I think is part of what's going on with Speaker Pelosi.

Although I am more pragmatic as I age, although I continue to push for perfection -- otherwise I wouldn't still be writing blog entries in the face of plenty of lessons that the powers that be, ultimately don't care and aren't interested in improving practice and outcomes in substantive ways (although they give me plenty of opportunities to continue to hone my understanding of what can be better practice).

But I am driven not by ideology other than wanting the best outcomes on a foundation of informed civic participation and citizen involvement.

People who remain ideologues despite aging are not so similarly situated...

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, July 12, 2019

It'd be nice if tv stations had "transportation beats" rather than "traffic beats"

Granted outside of major cities, and even within most metropolitan areas, most trips are made by car (complemented by walking), city mobility involves more than just cars, and includes pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, freight transportation by truck and rail, delivery, taxi and ride hailing services, etc.

Although, since advertising for automobiles comprises a major share of the ad revenue for tv station (except during election years if the station is located in an area of political competition), it's not a surprise that television stations tend to favor automobility when it comes to stories about transportation.


KIVI-TV anchor Frankie Katafias uses the Waze app from Google Inc. to show viewers of traffic issues during a recent broadcast.

BoiseDev reports ("With Valley traffic increasing, TV station puts more resources into reporting") that Boise, Idaho television station KIVI has added a traffic beat.

But I know (although it seems somewhat ridiculous) that there is planning or at least talk underway in the metropolitan area concerning light rail and biking, walking, transit, and urban design matters are big issues in the city proper especially in relation to the large university campus of Boise State.

But most tv reporting on transportation tends to be auto-centric.

There ought to be a way for the industry to put resources into changing this.
Yarn bombing a bicycle rack in Boise, Idaho
Yarn bombing of a bicycle rack in Boise.

Robert Thomson, the now retired "Dr. Gridlock" columnist for the Washington Post said in a presentation that some of the highest read articles on the Post website are transit and transportation related, especially about the area Metrorail subway system, so he believed that the paper would continue to pour resources into that coverage, even as the paper cuts "local issue" coverage as it shifts resources to the online newspaper, which tends to draw more visits from outside the region.

=====
Similarly, I've argued that transit systems should create "transit reporter" positions, similar to the traffic reporting on radio stations, about transit, delays, etc.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, July 11, 2019

A new word to me: "renoviction" but it was coined in 2008

-- "“Renoviction” – A new word for an old scam," Renters at Risk Campaign

(I came across the word used in an article in Toronto's free weekly, Now Magazine.)

When people are evicted because a housing unit is going to be renovated.

Labels: ,

McKinsey "principles of organizational health" seem to be relevant to creating "value" more generally

From the McKinsey Insights article "The secret ingredient of successful big deals: Organizational health":

Three principles of organizational health, McKinsey Insights


Labels: , , , , ,

DC puts forward legislation to create Waterways Commission and Authority

According to the WAMU/NPR story "More People Are Using D.C.’s Rivers. Lawmakers Say Better Management Is Needed".

From the article:
To illustrate the need for better management, Allen cites the example of the Frederick Douglass Bridge currently being built over the Anacostia River.

Allen says the District government has done a “a phenomenal job” on the design. “But, from a construction standpoint, no one thought about the users of the river. The construction plans actually narrowed the entire river down to one small channel.” At this key river access point, near the confluence with the Potomac, water traffic is choked down to one lane.

“That was a decision that we probably could have thought about differently if we viewed the access to the water and the management of the activities on the water in a more proactive way,” says Allen.
While I have been recommending the creation of such an authority since 2006, in 2014 I specifically wrote about managing the crossings over the Anacostia River as a system:

-- "The Anacostia River and considering the bridges as a unit and as a premier element of public art and civic architecture"
"Saving the South Capitol Bridge as an exclusive pedestrian and and bicycle bridge"

and in 2012:

"Wanted: A comprehensive plan for the "Anacostia River East" corridor"

1.  In any case, a waterways authority is a concept that is not original to me.

2.  A few years ago, I also recommended that the DC Comprehensive Plan should include a "Rivers and Waterways Element."  The Office of Planning wasn't interested.

3.  And that DC's neighborhood commissions, called Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, should create River/Watershed/Environment subcommittees to address relevant matters that relate to the rivers and watersheds, streams, etc. in their communities.

4.  And that the city should create an Adopt a Stream program -- it has as a pilot, in association with the Alice Ferguson Foundation and the Rock Creek Conservancy -- as part of a way to provide engagement opportunities for citizens in connecting more to the city's waterways and watershed environments.

5.  There was some letters to the editor in the Washington Post recently expressing concern about the proposals to redesign and make more active the C&O Canal in Georgetown ("Here's a better idea for the C&O Canal: Leave it be").

-- "Planning commissioners warn against ‘over-programming’ Georgetown C&O Canal overhaul," Curbed DC

The C&O Canal should be part of a waterways plan.  And it does need more programming and investment because obviously it's just one of many parks in the National Park Service system that are underfunded and that will be the case for decades.

Note that I thought the inclusion of the C&O Canal in the "Georgetown Glow" outdoor lighting/sculpture program was pretty cool.
Canal lighting

====
-- "Revisiting stories: DC's Waterfront," 2018

FWIW, Salt Lake County has an awesome publication on watershed management that is citizen- and public- engagement focused, Stream Care Guide: A Handbook for Residents of Salt Lake County.  Which is paired with an annual Watershed Symposium.

It's not that DC isn't doing some of this stuff, just that, as usual all the efforts are one-off and not integrated or coordinated.

Of course, a key issue is dealing with climate change and hardening buildings in the flood plains.

For example, the rough rainstorm on Monday flooded buildings in the vicinity of the National Mall, including the National Archives once again ("Dangerous flash flooding hits DC during morning commute," ABC News).

Labels: , , , , , ,

Should the Federal Reserve purchase bonds of state and local governments during a recession? (Yes)

In a hearing yesterday, Democratic Party Representative Rashida Tlaib asked Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell about extending counter-cyclical anti-Recession responses of purchasing of debt of corporations and the federal government to debt issued by local and state governments ("AOC Is Making Monetary Policy Cool (and Political) Again;," New York Magazine).

Powell responded that it isn't legal, but apparently it is.

A big problem during recessions is that even if there is new federal spending aimed at stoking demand during a recession, along with increases for unemployment funding and sometimes other types of social support payments, states and local governments and related agencies tend to contract significantly for two reasons:

1.  Property, income, and sales tax revenues contract
2.  By law, state and local governments can't run deficits.

This cancels out many of the benefits of increased federal spending during recessions and in fact, extends by multiple years recessionary pressures.

Apparently, the Roosevelt Institute released a report, A NEW DIRECTION FOR THE FEDERAL RESERVE: Expanding the Monetary Policy Toolkit, a couple years ago that included this point:
3. PURCHASING STATE AND LOCAL DEBT
Unlike the federal government, state and local governments do face meaningful financial constraints. Perhaps the single most powerful tool the Fed has to support aggregate demand and direct credit in socially useful directions is to purchase the liabilities of states, cities, and other subnational governments. This would greatly reduce the pressure for pro-cyclical cuts in public spending during recessions.

The balance sheets of state and local governments are complex—unlike the federal government, most have substantial financial assets, as well as liabilities, and the sector as a whole is a net creditor (Mason, Jayadev, and Page Hoongrajok 2017). But many individual governments do face acute limits on their access to credit, and concerns over credit are a constraint on spending and revenue decisions, even if their access to bond markets is currently unimpaired. These concerns become especially serious during downturns—exactly the period when, from a macroeconomic perspective, state and local governments should be increasing spending and avoiding tax increases.

From a social standpoint, public investment is less costly during a downturn, when a larger fraction of labor and other resources are unemployed. So it is perverse that borrowing constraints cause many governments to cut back investment spending in recessions.

Financial constraints on state and local governments impart a substantial pro-cyclical component to their budget positions, acting as a kind of “automatic destabilizer” that offsets countercyclical fiscal policy at the federal level.

Labels: , , , , ,

Taxes as an investment concept: funding public goods versus tax reduction

I've been meaning to write about tax policy because there has been a fair amount of writing about the 2017 tax cuts, and the benefits mostly being directed to corporations and the extremely wealthy, and the purported big rise in economic growth that proponents said would come about because the changes hasn't happened.

-- "A New Congressional Study Finds Little Economic Benefit From 2017 Tax Cuts," Tax Policy Center

A big thread in neoliberal policy is reducing the size of government, privatizing government functions, and reducing taxes.

At the same time, the counter argument is that collective action and providing public goods requires a reasonable rate of taxation, and that lower taxation comes at the cost of investing in infrastructure and other public goods.

1. One example that comes to mind to me is how Norway and the UK took oppositional actions in response to the new revenues they received from oil production in the North Sea.

Norway didn't cut taxes, and retained ownership of the resource, directing royalty revenues to a state investment corporation, which has invested in various projects, increasing the return on investment in multiple ways.

The UK used the new revenues to justify tax cuts for the wealthy, did not retain ownership interests in the resource, and reduced corporate tax rates as well.  And while it isn't the only reason that the UK is seriously challenged financially and lacks the money to invest in revitalization and other government functions, it is a good example of how short term thinking has deleterious consequences in the long term.

-- "Did the U.K. Miss Out on £400 Billion Worth of Oil Revenue? ," Resource Extraction
-- "Why UK's oil and gas revenues are dwarfed by Norway's," Business for Scotland

2.  I have been thinking about the tax cuts issue in terms of positive return on investment.  There is a lot of discussion about how the US is running higher deficits, even though the economy is growing relatively well, because of the tax cuts, and how this is counter to general expectation, but also bad policy and bad practice.  That today's deficits are being financed by future generations.

-- "Robert J. Samuelson: Trump's fantasy budget worsens deficit (Washington Post syndicated columnist)
-- "Robert J. Samuelson: Shrink the budget deficit? Not a vote-getter"

There's no need to have a discussion here about Keynesian fiscal theory, recessions, counter-cyclical spending, etc.

A simpler way to think about might be, does your deficit financing "today" increase return on investment in the future or not?  If deficits don't or aren't intended to increase overall return on investment, it's bad policy and shouldn't be countenanced.

3.  Of course, what's happening with the federal deficit shows the hypocrisy of Republicans.  They "fight" deficits if the spending is for public good projects like infrastructure, or various federal programs generally as a matter of course, but not if it is for tax cuts for the wealthy.

-- "The Republicans Are Deficit Hypocrites. The Democrats Should Be Too," New Republic
-- "Charles Lane: A country at war with itself over debt" (Washington Post syndicated columnist)

4. Alaska proposes to cut university budgets 40%.  In the vein of whether or not tax cuts add or subtract value, the proposal by Alaska's Governor to fund an increase in payments to Alaska citizens by cutting university budgets is a good example.

Similarly to how the UK has let the benefits of oil production flow away from the National Treasury, instead of enacting state income and sales taxes, Alaska uses oil revenues to pay for the cost of state government as well as an annual payment to citizens. Theoretically, the Alaska Permanent Fund is not unlike what Norway did. But Norway doesn't pay out annual payments to every Norway citizen, instead it invests the revenues.

The Governor ran on a campaign plank of increasing the payment. In the face of declining oil revenues ("No longer rich on oil, Alaska may ax money to universities. Lawmakers are 800 miles apart," USA Today), the only way to do that is to cut the budget, and universities offer an opportunity to provide a significant portion of the cuts to state government necessary to fund an increase in the payments from the Alaska Permanent Fund.

But the question is whether or not that's the best possible way to "spend" such revenues. Likely the long term investment benefit from such an action is nil.

Therefore, it's bad policy and shouldn't be countenanced.

Labels: , , , ,