On Corporations and Public Service

I had occasion to think about the term "public service" at about 6AM this Sunday morning.  As I was driving my son to a way-too-early baseball game, I flipped around the FM dial trying to find some music.  There was none.  All I could find were a number of really dull programs on arcane topics presumably on the air to fulfill the radio broadcaster's "public service" requirements of the FCC regulatory regime.  Since almost no one gets excited about this programming except for the leftish public policy types that inhabit regulatory positions, the radio stations broadcast all this garbage on Sunday mornings when no one is listening anyway.  Ironically, in the name of "public service," stations must broadcast material no one in the public actually wants to listen to.

Which leads me to coyote's definition of corporate public service:  Make a product or service for which people, without use of force or fraud, are willing to pay the listed price.

Any freaking moron can (or at least should be able to) offer a product or service that people will be willing to use for free.  Is this a public service?  Well, maybe.  If you are out there helping to feed homeless people, power to you.  But is it really a public service that the Miami transit system offers free rides that it can only pay for with deficit spending?  Or $1.50 bus rides that cost taxpayers $30 each to provide?  And this is not to mention the free services, like public service radio broadcasts, that many people would be willing to pay not to receive. 

That's why I say that any moron can give stuff away.   But find me the person who can create enough value that people are willing to pay enough for his product to cover all the material, labor, and capital inputs it took to create it, with surplus left over for both buyer and seller, and that is the person performing a real public service.

And let me listen to some freaking classic rock on Sunday mornings.

  • Robert Adamson

    Just wait until some sensible person figures out the amortized cost of Phoenix's new "light rail." When you figure in the cost of building the thing as well as its operating costs I predict you're looking at something like $25 a ride for each rider for the first 20 years. I not much of a supporter of capital punishment, but I am sure it is a capital offense to build light rail systems and everyone who had anything to do with the soon to be boondoggle should be forced to ride on the slow train for the rest of their natural lives.

  • Miklos Hollender

    Radio tends to be crappy here in the UK as well - and I wondered how can it happen in the country of the Kerrang! mag - then I realized frequency licencing and all the crap that comes with it...

  • Yoshidad

    This is a fairly typical ain't-it-awful, short-sighted comment about the public realm. And there's something to it, too, but it requires more than an appetite for classic rock to understand.

    First: Why invest in transit at all? Why shouldn't everyone living on their own island be ferried there by their own private helicopter? Or at least a single-occupant auto?... Pretty much the current system.

    And the answer is: Fully-utilized bus transit is 1/8 the energy cost per passenger mile of single-occupant auto commuting. Rail freight costs 1/6 the energy per ton/mile of what trucking goods costs. And the U.S. uses roughly 70% of its petroleum consumption just for transportation. In the rest of the world, transportation consumes roughly half that. Could we need to conserve oil? Hmmmm... I wonder...

    A reminder: U.S. domestic oil production peaked in 1971 ($1.75/bbl, 30% imports), and even if we got all the oil in ANWR and offshore, we'll never return to that peak, or so says the oil lobby (api.org). The U.S. currently imports 70% of its production at nearly $150/bbl. The world is running out of cheap oil and the icecaps are melting.

    ...So once again, Mr. commuter, exactly why is your high-energy-consumption lifestyle sacred, and immutable?

    Anyway, before the transit is fully utilized, there's a ramp-up period during which IT WILL NOT MAKE ECONOMIC SENSE. It's sort of like that awkward period of life during which our children are not out mining coal, bringing in a buck.

    Honestly, when I hear this kind of comment about transit, generally, I think of the old Wayans Bros. sketch about the pimp who wants to put his kids on the street ("Mo' money! Mo' money" is the refrain).

    On the other hand, as much as I hate to admit it, block-headed conservative cluelessness does have a point here. After a generation of building a pathetically inadequate public realm...Surprise! The complementary land-use amenities you need to make transit work are as bad as they can be.

    For example, the County of Sacramento estimates it would take $50 million just to connect all the disconnected sidewalks. How are the transit riders going to get to the stops? With great discomfort. Sure, you can bury a sign in the gravel shoulder of a road (Sacramento does it all the time) but do you really get to complain about low ridership? -- I mean legitimately, of course.

    Transit is perfectly viable, and cheaper than commuting, in mixed-use (shopping, offices and residences are integrated into the same neighborhood), mixed-density, mixed-income, pedestrian-friendly development that approximate 13 dwelling units per acre within a quarter-mile of the transit stop. Do we build that, especially given our running-out-of-cheap-oil situation?

    Not hardly. The Congress on New Urbanism says that the U.S. builds sprawl 1500 times more often than it builds pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighborhoods.

    Oh yes, and the market likes the pedestrian-friendly stuff orders of magnitude better, so don't tell me that there's a demand for sprawl. That's baloney. People pay premiums (40% - 500%) for New Urbanist developments all over the U.S. In the Sacramento region, the most valuable real estate, per square foot, is McKinley Park, a pre-1950's pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, mixed density neighborhood. Almost all nice, older neighborhoods are charming because of this traditional way of arranging things.

    And no, my scaredy-cat conservative friends, crime is not worse in denser, urban areas. Per capita crime in Phoenix or Sacramento exceeds NY City, for a couple of examples.

    Meanwhile, big-box, single-use sprawl, with its bizarre pedestrian-un-friendly street designs is what led Jane Jacobs to write this:

    "The pseudo science of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success....to put it bluntly, [sprawl planners] are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting."

    Therefore, expecting transit to be immediately profitable after we've spent a generation building sprawl is completely unrealistic.

    Meanwhile, after spending probably a tenth of our money, the third world has transit systems that put ours to shame. Curitiba Brasil has a "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT) system with dedicated busways, and city planning that actually works. The buses are privately owned, the stops are publicly owned, and the fares are publicly regulated.

    BRT costs about a tenth of light rail to install (which, in turn, is about one tenth the cost of heavy rail or subways). Supposedly, rail's savings are in the long run, particularly paying drivers' salaries -- after all a bus can only carry 40 - 80 passengers, but you can just add cars to a train for a single driver to run many more passengers. But Curitiba didn't just that driver limitation for granted, though. They worked with Volvo to design multi-section buses that can carry 270 (up to 300 Curitibans, says their former mayor).

    This BRT system is not subsidized, and even with lower, third-world fares, it *makes* money and has increasing ridership in an area where per-capita auto ownership is increasing. Not even the vaunted European transit systems can say this.

    Meanwhile, in the U.S. we continue to believe we can drive as we have, only further, in our single-occupant autos for ever-longer commutes to our edge-city homes. I've already said "clueless" several times here, but it bears repeating.

    George Santayana had it about right when he said "Americans are a primitive people disguised by the latest inventions."

  • NASCAR Wife

    Miklos, do you ride the bus? I live in Phoenix and I don't nor will I ride the new light rail. Know why? Reason #1: I can't get there from here. Literally there is no way for me to use the bus to get 7 miles form work to home without first going to downtown Phoenix (25 miles) or walking about a mile (thanks, no, I already run 8 before work) or taking 3 different bus lines. Reason #2: Buses take longer than my single occupancy vehicle. I can get to work in the absolute worst traffic in 20 minutes in my car. Taking the bus (with 2 transfers) it would take me about 1.5 hours if I don't miss my transfers. Reason#3: at $2.50 per day or approx 1/2 gallon of gas per day, my Diesel VW still gets me there cheaper (not to mention convient). Reason#4: The light Rail doesn't come within 15 miles of my home or work and won't for about 25 years.

    I actually choose to ride my bike because Phoenix, being a giagantic grid is very bike friendly. I can use the canals and half mile streets to get where I am going without having to encounter traffic. I want Phoenix to invest more in bike lanes, but I realize that no matter how bike friendly the city becomes most people want to drive. I would rather the city pay to improve the main raods and keep traffic off the half mile roads where i and other cyclists ride. So I do my best to stay off their roads and out of their sight.

  • linearthinker

    I read the first sentence, This is a fairly typical ain't-it-awful, short-sighted comment about the public realm. Familiar? Then glanced at the length of the comment. He's back! Yoshidad's returned! A quick scroll confirmed it. Now back to reading. Thank God for the scroll gizmo...it's like a passing lane on a crowded rural highway.

  • Josh

    Why shouldn't everyone living on their own island be ferried there by their own private helicopter?

    The only alternative to wasteful boondoggles like light rail is to spend nothing on public transport AT ALL. Even roads and traffic cops. Thus, your vision of private helicopters for all makes perfect sense. I've decoded Yoshidad!

  • BlacquesJacquesShellacques

    "Fully-utilized bus transit is 1/8 the energy cost..."

    Achtung! Standard lefty argument sighted. Man the harpoon guns.

    Bus transit has not ever been "fully-utilized" and never will be except in rare, unpleasant and strange circumstances, such as huge ugly overcrowded cities or if Stalin has a gun to your head.

    This same argument was used to favor the massive mainframe over the PC, the railroads over the trucking fleet, etc, etc.

    LISTEN STUPID, CENTRALIZATION NEVER FUCKING WORKS.

    Sorry to shout but you lefties don't get it. Don't ask me to ride in your lousy mass transit and I won't demand you use only a mainframe, once month when your place in the queue rolls around, not will I require that all of your goods come by rail freight once every 60 days.

    And don't prattle about what makes economic sense because you have the standard lefty view that your values should be my values. Well they're not. I, and most of us real human beings, like the "single - occupant auto".

    How do I know? Because that's where we actually spend our money. Geddit? That's what 'economic sense' means - giving people what they want as measured by how they actually spend their money, not by what you think they should want.

  • Rob

    Typical liberal argument... "Our mass transit doesn't work because of urban sprawl so we must force people to live in tightly boxed communities with less roads and more bikes lanes."

    Of course that takes the liberal argument format of: "X system doesn't work because of Y people factor, so let's restrict Y and forget about the unintended consequences Z."

  • another guy named Dan

    I would propose a modification to your definition:
    Make a product or service for which people, without use of force or fraud, are willing to pay a price profitable to the producer.

    Earning a profit, or at least intending to, is the way of ensuring that a good or service people rely upon will continue to be made available

  • Dan

    Nice post, Yoshidad. You make some very good points.

  • Dan

    One more thing: There is plenty of classic rock on the radio - and all kinds of rock, rap, soul, you name it. What's hard to find is anything that's thought-provoking. In Chicago, where I live, we have two stations that provide anything intellectual: The local NPR station and a classical music station called WFMT which is funded in part by its listeners and also by charitable contributions from corporations (we had two classical stations till a few years ago when the other one shut down and was replaced by - you guessed it - classic rock).

    When 98% of radio stations provide mindless entertainment, I can't understand the thought behind people who complain about some minor public funding (or in the case of WFMT, private funding) for the 2% of stations that aren't catering to the lowest common denominator.

    If you want to complain about unnecessary government spending, then how about an essay on the billions being wasted on fighter jets that the U.S. Air Force doesn't even need? (but oh, how the big corporations that produce those planes benefit).

  • JimK

    It is people like yoshidad who truly drive me insane. Their mindset is the existing system or.... nothing at all (or maybe we all drive Navigators in his no public transit all sprawl world). I for one do not know what the transit system would look like if we stopped subsidizing wasteful projects like light rail and providing nice featherbedded jobs for public sector unions that stop at nothing to thwart any sort of competition to the current system.

    In New York city an alternative had sprung up to the bus system in immigrant neighborhoods. The problem with the bus system is that it stuck to rigid fixed routes that were inconvenient for potential customers.
    In response some enterprising souls started van services that picked up and dropped off at much more convenient locations and times for the customers. All this occured with no subisdy and no grand planning scheme from the city. Lo and behold someone had seen a need and fulfilled it. Needless to say this affront to the municipal bus authority was stomped out once it became a real problem for the bus monopoly.

    To give another great example of why public transit is generally disliked by potential users I would point to my own experience in college in Chicago when I used public transit fairly frequently. On several occasions the bus driver simply stopped his bus in the middle of the route (not even at either end), declared he was going on break and told us all to get off the bus and wait for the next one. Another fine example of customer service as delivered by your local municipal transit monopoly.

    Yet every single day, someone like Yoshidad wonders why more people don't take public transit and concludes it is because I am enamored of a "high-energy lifestyle". I am not enamored of a "high-energy lifestyle" at all, what I am enamored of is my leisure time. I used to commute via rapid transit into San Francisco. The total commute took me about 1hr each way (verus 30 minutes in a car)and cost me about $5 round trip in gas (one gallon each way) plus parking of $15 for a total of $20. The rapid transit cost me about $7 roundtrip plus $2 for parking. Granted I am not taking into account the capital cost of the car, but since I have never seen a public transit system that takes its capital cost into account, its a fair comparison. So to save $11 dollars I give up an hour of leisure time. Not a good trade for me. Even with the gas cost now up to $10 for the roundtrip its still $15 for one hour of my free time. Not a trade I am willing to make. This is not a decision that has moral dimensions for me its a question of cost versus benefit, its the same decision that millions of people make every day and the fact that Yoshidad may not like the outcome will not change it.

    The most comical thing about his argument is using Brazil as an example of excellent transit planning. Yet every day we see examples of Brazilians becoming wealthier and what do they want to do... buy more cars and use more petroleum. He somehow sees the Brazilians as more virtuous about planning and transit than us wasteful Americans but misses the elephant in the room. Brazilians are poorer and use public transit largely because they have to.

  • Yoshidad

    Ah, my young conservative friends, I'd challenge you to a battle of wits, but it's against my principles to fight the unarmed...8^)

    Some comments do require a little backtalk, but think of it as that peaceful resistance practiced by the likes of Gandhi, or someone less serious or dignified (your quotes preceded by ">"):

    >"CENTRALIZATION NEVER FUCKING WORKS."

    Besides the "graciousness" of this comment, one is struck by its patent inaccuracy. For just one of many examples, consider healthcare: The non-centralized for-profit, mostly private healthcare system in the U.S. costs nearly double the next most expensive plan (Germany's single-payer healthcare is 60% the cost of the U.S. system). Yet health outcomes in the U.S. (life expectancy, infant mortality, etc.) rank 37th in the world. One story I read says that the U.S. gets Costa Rica's healthcare outcomes, but pays six times more for the privilege.

    An accurate statement would be: "CENTRALIZATION NEVER FUCKING WORKS UNLESS IT FUCKING DOES!" Or, if you prefer: "For-profit healthcare is thirty-seventh rate."

    I'm not wedded to a central-government, or non-capitalist solution to all problems. Being more committed to being "liberal" than solving problems (I'm not) would be silly ideological blindness, more interested in winning some abstract argument than in, say, providing good healthcare. Nor am I so enamored of privatizing everything that I want every road to have a toll gate.

    There's a happy, non-ideologically-driven medium, but for the last thirty years or so, the U.S. has lived in denial and ignorance about the possibility of intelligent public policy. According to "conservatives," government is the problem (and apparently the biggest one), right?

    I realize that some reading this throw up at least a little bit to hear the word "intelligence" and "public policy" in the same sentence, but let's remember that the "conservatives" have been in power with precious few breaks for those thirty years. Saying "liberal" principles are responsible for our current public policy problems, like what to do as we're running out of cheap oil, is straining at a gnat, swallowing a camel.

    > "restricting Y people factor" [?],

    ...Get over yourselves! I can't buy a home in a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhood because all of those old neighborhoods are too expensive. Who is really restricted? I can't get on transit either (it sucks). I *must* own a very expensive car -- as every driving age adult *must* just to shop and work. This requirement is the most regressive tax we have. We have *no* choice.

    When I say the market favors the pedestrian-friendly alternative, I'm not kidding. I can tell you where to look for the "comparables sales" (ask an appraiser what that means). When I say "favors," I mean buyers pay *more* for such places than they do for sprawl.

    The real Stalinists are the planners and developers responsible for sprawl. These people, and particularly the "traffic engineers" (a science with all the validity of astrology), are responsible for the awfulness that is sprawl, not the market.

    Actually, centrally-planned mortgage underwriting standards are also responsible for sprawl. When FHA started red-lining neighborhoods that included non-whites, the inner city was de-funded and became the ghetto it often is. Red-lining is illegal now, but the damage has been done (by government, not the market, with stupid public policy).

    The worst, however, is traffic engineering. Traffic engineering schools were funded by the auto companies, BTW, and are not repositories of objective investigation. Even Houston, a city with literally zero of what we laughingly call "planning" has become sprawl because of its traffic-engineered street design (and some lot size regulations). The streets are engineered for traffic only, not pedestrians or cyclists.

    >"Bus transit has not ever been "fully-utilized" and never will be except in rare, unpleasant and strange circumstances, such as huge ugly overcrowded cities or if Stalin has a gun to your head."

    I'm sure the Europeans and those Brazilians in Curitiba will be interested to hear that their excellent transit is not your cup of tea, but calling Paris, for example, "unpleasant and strange" or even "ugly" is beyond the pale.

    Furthermore, you are arguing against something that doesn't exist, and I didn't say. If you look at the picture here: http://dpz.com/transect.aspx, you will see that there's a continuum within transit-friendly civic design, from very rural to very urban, not your Stalinist fantasy. It must be easy to argue against a straw man, but we're not talking about that here.

    > "This same argument was used to favor the massive mainframe over the PC,"

    This is a particularly hilarious comment from a guy reading a web log. Sorry bud, but client/server architecture is the default now. You may have heard of the "internets" -- they're all the rage. You see, your browser is the client. The server (AKA "mainframe") is pushing the content out to you with HTTP. That's how it works, not ideology.

    >"Sorry to shout but you lefties don't get it. Don't ask me to ride in your lousy mass transit...And don't prattle about what makes economic sense because you have the standard lefty view that your values should be my values. Well they're not. I, and most of us real human beings, like the "single - occupant auto". How do I know? Because that's where we actually spend our money. Geddit? That's what 'economic sense' means - giving people what they want as measured by how they actually spend their money, not by what you think they should want."

    Wow! At last, a real human being! What I suppose are us "lefty-sub-humans" must come out from our separate-but-equal facilities once in a while to suggest that there is an alternative to your thinking, though. Sorry to be an inconvenient truth-teller.

    I'm not asking you to ride in transit, or give up your car. The market will do that in due time. Would you complain about transit when gas is $10 a gallon? Notice that I say "when." I say the complaint will be that there's not enough, and you have to scale a berm to get to the transit stop, but I'll wait for that moment of delicious irony.

    Oh I know that you, and Exxon-Mobil will complain that "if only those lefties let us drill in ANWR, and offshore, and we ignore climate change" ... then everything would be jake. But not even the API (American Petroleum Institute, the oil lobby) would claim that all that domestic drilling would return the U.S. to its 1971 peak ($1.75/bbl, 30% of consumption was imports). ANWR would supply less oil, later than requiring pickups and SUVs to adhere to autos' CAFE standards. And the conservation, unlike ANWR, wouldn't run out. Claiming we can drill our way out of peak oil is cluelessness squared.

    On the other hand, I think we can both agree that subsidies are bad. What I've been saying is that single-occupant autos, and the infrastructure that requires them has been subsidized for some time now. Even the subsidy of requiring traffic engineers for every proposed development (but no pedestrian engineers) is widespread.

    The depletion allowance (a special income tax write-off for oil producers) and militarily protecting overseas oil sources (70% of U.S. consumption is imported) are SUBSIDIES, not paid in the price at the pump even now! And you know what free market capitalists, not people who are shills for Exxon, say about subsidies, don't you? They're BAD!!!!

    Without subsidies, a gallon of gas would cost $10 (at least).

    Anyway, I don't expect this news to be pleasant for your. Awakening from a daydream / conservative matrix world is unlikely to be pleasurable ever. So feel free to vent your flaming frustration on me. It doesn't matter.

    Meanwhile people, real people are dying to resolve this issue (see "Iraq"). The sooner we get away from voodoo economics, witch burning, and other forms of idolatry, the sooner we start exploring real solutions.

    Yes, my paduan learners, worshiping the profit motive is as much idolatry as worshiping Joe Stalin. It does not resemble waking reality.

  • Yoshidad

    "I try to get out, but they keep pulling me back" -- Micheal Corleone...

    >"It is people like yoshidad who truly drive me insane. Their mindset is the existing system or.... nothing at all"

    First of all, I drive you nowhere, I'd prefer you take transit... 8^) Actually *you* choose where you go and how you get there. Let's have a little personal responsibility here, shall we?

    What got me back is this statement: "Their mindset is the existing system or.... nothing at all"

    Presuming you've read and comprehended what I've written, I can't understand how you would believe this statement. It's the exact opposite of what I've said. I've repeatedly said that the toxic "conservative" refusal to credit public policy with the power to intelligently solve real problems is the "existing system," not at all that I endorse current public policy.

    Really, holding out the possibility that public policy can be intelligent is what I've done rather than endorsing what's existing. And I've provided examples elsewhere in the world where such policies exist.

    So stop putting words in my mouth. If you want to argue, argue with *me*, not people like me, and certainly not those voices that are telling you to go home and clean the guns.

    I'll *agree* with you that transit sucks now. That is *by design* -- we've had a clueless public policy for a long time because government, the author of that policy, has been condemned as something that can only produce toxic waste. There is an alternative, but you have to wake up before it can exist here, at least.

  • Rob

    ...Get over yourselves! I can't buy a home in a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhood because all of those old neighborhoods are too expensive. Who is really restricted? I can't get on transit either (it sucks). I *must* own a very expensive car -- as every driving age adult *must* just to shop and work. This requirement is the most regressive tax we have. We have *no* choice.

    The choice is to move into a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. Your choice will drive the market. "Sprawl" (aka freedom to move into a sized space of your choosing) is what people wanted back in the 40's and 50's as wealth started to increase.

    I bet with gas prices rising, either people will look for more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods or invite a new mode of transportation which is both efficient, timely, and private.

    Nonetheless, I DID buy a home in a pedestrian-friendly mixed-used neighborhood, and this does not factor in the value of my house (at least not yet, since I'm selling it). In fact, I am selling my house to get away from the cramped lifestyle. I want to sprawl myself out on a nice piece of land. Some people value efficiency while others are quixotic like myself. What works for me, doesn't work for you. Why should we use gov't to force a one-size-fits-all environment?

    The real Stalinists are the planners and developers responsible for sprawl. These people, and particularly the "traffic engineers" (a science with all the validity of astrology), are responsible for the awfulness that is sprawl, not the market.
    Sprawl is the result of people being rich enough to live in a different place than from where they draw their necessities. People who can't afford to drive 40 miles each way to work will need to live closer.


    I'm not asking you to ride in transit, or give up your car. The market will do that in due time. Would you complain about transit when gas is $10 a gallon? Notice that I say "when." I say the complaint will be that there's not enough, and you have to scale a berm to get to the transit stop, but I'll wait for that moment of delicious irony.

    Thank you! I believe I have become rich enough to choose not to, even when gas is $10 a gallon.
    And yes, the market will drive change in people's transit habits. However, this does not mean urban planning or mass transit are THE final solutions.


    we've had a clueless public policy for a long time because government, the author of that policy, has been condemned as something that can only produce toxic waste. There is an alternative, but you have to wake up before it can exist here, at least.

    Why are we going to start trusting gov't now?

    Also, I don't think people responding to you are not awake. They just don't want to be forced into a box by urban planning.

    If the high cost of transportation is truly a problem, then people will search for an answer. I look at the Segway, which Dean Kamen slated as the next revolution in transportation. Obviously, this requires the forcing hand of gov't to work (i.e Segway won't get me to my job 40 miles away in a timely manner, so I need to live in an urban planned community which gov't will force everyone into to doing).

  • Dan

    Great rebuttal, Yoshidad. I love what you said about Paris. Indeed - what an "ugly" city. I'm sure most readers on this site would agree that Houston, with its endless sprawl and nightmare landscape of highway overpasses and fast food shacks, is far lovelier.

    And here's another thought: Public transportation in the U.S. isn't all bad, as you say. In Chicago, where I live, it's the best way to get to work, and I've been using it daily since 1979 with few complaints. Also, on a visit to New York last week, I was struck by the efficiency of their transit system. Trains are frequent, get you to where you want, and are faster than a cab (at least from my experience). They're also far cheaper than driving. Yes, they're a bit crowded and dirty. But sitting in traffic is no bargain, either.

    I realize not every city has the layout of Chicago and New York, which were designed prior to the auto age and are particularly well suited for public transit, and that mass transit doesn't work as well in a place like Phoenix or Houston. The problem in such cities isn't mass transit. The problem is the design of those cities.

  • JimK

    Yoshidad, I have read and comprehend exatcly what you are saying. What you refuse to acknowledge, or choose to dismiss is that we currently DO have a centrally planned system. You then proceed to argue that the problem is not planning in general but that the planning is not being done intelligently. This is a standard central planning canard: "if only we planned the system INTELLIGENTLY put the right people in charge, etc." then everything would be dandy.

    I am happy to argue with you, Yoshidad, and I would start that argument by asking by what rational standard can you call our current transit system not centrally planned when:
    (i) in most municipalities the goverment grants or maintains a monopoly over all public transit.
    (ii) Said public transit monopoly and the unions who benefit from it actively quash any attempts to set up rival transit systems through laws, permitting and licensing regulations
    (iii) The vast majority of funding for any new transit comes via local, state or federal government funding instead of the fares of the people who actually use the transit.

    Also, how do you reconcile your embrace of intelligent planning with that fact that a large number of the close-in, mixed use neighborhoods you cite in your argument were built long before most communities had any meaningful planning regulation?

    The vast majority of the people who read this blog will laugh at this post since the answer to my question is so blatantly self evident. Nontheless, if your goal in your posts is to "challenge us in a battle of wits" you may start by answering those questions.

  • Demockracy

    In case you missed it, here's my comment about a recent Huffingtonpost
    article about the Korean anti-U.S. protests

    "Protest by South Koreans Reveals Lack of American Civic Duty"

    Setting aside the difference in national temperaments, since even
    before the Reagan era, the U.S. public realm has been under a kind
    of concerted assault. The sense that "we're all in this together" has
    always been shaky in the land of ego -- especially given the racist
    background of U.S. public policy. After all, the reason the congress
    didn't approve Harry Truman's proposed single-payer health care system
    was because the Dixiecrats were afraid it would racially integrate
    hospitals.

    And nowhere is this assault on the public realm more evident than in
    public architecture. The U.S. used to build civic spaces like parks
    and squares on important spots. These were spaces that not only
    honored individuals by giving them a dignified, non-commercial place
    to hang out, they honored society, letting individuals know what was
    the experience (not the concept) of being a member of a group, or a
    citizen of a place. Now, parks are typically relegated to floodplain
    leftovers, and important public buildings are either converted
    concrete tilt-up warehouses, or the leavings of overrated
    starchitects. Public places have been supplanted by private malls,
    where the very walls shriek "Buy me!" (gee, I wonder why our kids are
    such materialists!).

    Instead of pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, mixed-income development,
    the U.S. overwhelmingly builds single-use suburban sprawl housing
    developments that isolate their residents, not just from society at
    large, but from people of different incomes and social values. Not
    incidentally, sprawl builds long commutes and petroleum dependence
    into the very concrete of its streets. Such developments are often so
    far from stores that sending a kid out for milk is unheard of now.
    He'd have to drive -- in fact every driving age adult must own a car
    (the most regressive tax known to humankind). Children are raised as
    passive passengers while the chauffeur...er, I mean *Mom* drives them
    everywhere. Yes, sprawl is sexist, too.

    It would be a miracle if the U.S. population weren't numb from this
    constant assault on its sense that individuals are part of a larger
    society. Especially the "post-modern" art and architecture we glorify
    is an expression of single egos, designed to be distinct, not
    congenial, and certainly not an affirmation of common good. Even Frank
    Lloyd Wright's buildings are a disaster if you ever want to use or
    live in one. "Falling Water" is a moldy, unlivable nightmare -- yet
    Wright is celebrated as a genius because he honored ego rather than
    tradition.

    Koreans, in contrast, are deeply respectful of traditions and
    relationships in the way only a Confucian society can be (their crime
    rate is orders of magnitude less than ours, too). If you get a chance,
    rent "Dae Jang Geum" their most popular soap opera. No sex or
    violence, but lots of interest in integrating new discoveries with
    existing tradition, and navigating social structures. It validates
    society as a positive value, rather than simply something against
    which to rebel. That's the difference, IMHO.

    Chomsky absolutely nails this Ayn-Rand-Everyone-For-Himself trend in
    the U.S. here: http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20080519.htm

  • BlacquesjacquesShellacques

    "For just one of many examples, consider healthcare..."

    Yah sure, you consider it, come to Canada where I live and consider it very carefully. You'll love it.

    Of course, you'll be dead or in great pain, but you'll probably love that.

    Who is this yoshidad, some teenager, no experience, thinks he knows it all, gonna save the people from themselves, the vile, car driving, burger stuffing, smoking, beer swilling, idle, layabout, undisciplined bastards? If only they would follow the plan.

  • Yoshidad

    At last some reasoned debate. ">" precedes the quotes from my interlocutor:

    > "Yoshidad, I have read and comprehend exatcly what you are saying. What you refuse to acknowledge, or choose to dismiss is that we currently DO have a centrally planned system."

    Sorry, we do have a central system, but not a planned one. Sure, it may be central, but it provides only ineffective pseudo-planning. And there's a private constituency for, and a huge profit in the appearance of planning rather than the actual article. The fact that current practices are clueless does not mean that land-use planning is impossible, it just means it's not practiced by most governments now.

    What we really have (at least with my local government) is a system that is in the service of a small oligarchy of land speculators and commercial interests, and its decisions are not plans, they are ad hoc responses to that oligarchy and their profit needs of the moment. Could this be the product of a culture which says "market"-based solutions are best, and careful planning of long-term consequences is not worth considering? Sounds like it to me.

    You may believe because a some bureaucrats are in the local government's "Planning Department" -- and maybe because they'll hassle you if you try to build a subdivision -- that real planning is happening. In terms of land-use, with the exception of street design ("public works standards"), this is generally not true. And the public works standards are generally crap too because, although they effectively produce auto-only streets, the public is inattentive to the real costs and consequences of such standards.

    In this respect, I'd agree with the most anti-government of conservatives: these "planning" guys are doing nothing or worse and are getting paid a lot for it. There are notable exceptions: Vancouver, BC, McKinney Texas, Hercules CA, Celebration FL, Orenco Station, Oregon, etc. -- but they are *exceptions*. And planning is necessary for a good outcome. Ungoverned, the situation is like a basketball game without *any* rules. (Don't forget to bring your AK-47!)

    Typically these "planners" produce a thing called a "use-based" plan ("zoning"). This plan says, in effect, "Build the residences here, and the commerce there, and the offices over there," and purports to come up with this stuff literally decades in advance of the actual development.

    The truth is something else: Not even Nostradamus could anticipate what the real estate market will need in a particular location decades in advance. Therefore, what most planning commissions and city councils spend a lot of time doing is hearing rezones. That is, making changes to the original "planning" -- the use-based zoning -- so that developers can build what they believe the market wants, and what they can get construction financing for.

    Naturally this entire process is as crooked and un-transparent as the most corrupt political processes can be. And it's not "planning" -- it's completely ad-hoc. "You want to develop twenty-foot-underwater floodplain surrounded by weak levees? Sure! Go right ahead." G.H.W. Bush actually enabled a development like that when he was vice president, to the enormous profit of those who proposed it.

    The exceptions who make real plans, not pseudo-plans, all have "form-based" plans which say "Build the big whatever-it-is here, the medium there, and the small over there." These are based on *intensity* of development and don't manage the specific use. That's what real planning looks like. Again: we ain't got it, with relatively few exceptions, central, distributed or otherwise.

    Meanwhile, back in use-based planning: At the height of the recent real estate bubble, the Sacramento region had 30,000 acres apply for rezones. Nothing even close to 30,000 acres was proposed for development according to the existing "plans." Again, I say, there is no planning; it's more like "coincidence" than "plan." A recent retrospective about how San Jose developed says exactly that too.

    This system of ad-hoc "plans" and zoning changes is an enormous subsidy for sprawl and edge cities. A land speculator can purchase (or option) what is planned as agricultural land for a few thousand dollars an acre, then get re-zoning to make it development land and PRESTO! It's worth 100 times as much! That is not an exaggeration, unfortunately. American developers (land speculator, really) typically pay chump change in planning fees and real estate taxes (ag land rates) to get this gigantic payday, and pay literally *nothing* else to the government that makes this possible. Remember, this is government adding value only -- no one has built roads or sewer or anything else.

    For a contrast: In Germany the developers have to sell the land to the local government at the ag land price, then re-purchase it at the upzoned price. The government-created 10,000% profit is kept by the German public, not some private land speculators. And German public services are consequently *very* good. The German public likes this system well enough not to complain about high taxes. After all, their taxes are serving the public, not some small oligarchy.

    With such an enormous financial subsidy for edge city development, can you honestly argue that any "planning" (however lame) would be effective? "No" is the answer. Any plans made are regularly circumvented. Notice also that this subsidy shows up as neither taxes nor spending on the local governments' books. And if the land speculator 1031 exchanges out of the land he doesn't even pay income tax on his profit!!!!! Where else can you get a 10,000% gross profit, after tax?

    With the distortions to any prospect of real civic planning offered by these facts of "central planning" nobody can legitimately argue such planning is real, IMHO. It's just political power games. Nor can you argue the "market" is deciding anything. There is no market for development entitlements, there's a system rigged for a small oligarchy of land speculators and commercial interests. (See David Cay Johnston's "Free Lunch" for *much* more of this. For example, how three-quarters of George W. Bush's fortune came from a similar kind of tax scam to give him a free stadium in Arlington TX.)

    Incidentally, the physical size of the "plan" books is a dead give-away of how real they are. Typically they're phone-book sized tomes understandable only to a small priesthood of planners -- and in the obscure interpretation, who knows what's really the desired outcome?

    Real planning is short and sweet, and everyone knows what it means. Haussman rebuilt Paris for Napolean III with a plan that was six pages long...and he got Paris!

    The truth is that the great cities weren't planned by the folks with Masters in Planning degrees. London and Paris were planned by farmers. Here, the emporer here really and truly has no clothes.

    > "You then proceed to argue that the problem is not planning in general but that the planning is not being done intelligently. ... by what rational standard can you call our current transit system not centrally planned when:
    (i) in most municipalities the goverment grants or maintains a monopoly over all public transit."

    I know, I know...."Government is a monopolist, and the work product is crap, so government is crap." Q.E.D. But how do you explain Enron? Or are only public entities crooked? The argument you're making is bogus.

    It's not rocket science to say that land use is an essential part of working transit; in fact, you *cannot* isolate transit from land use, and I've just demonstrated how crooked and non-existent land use "planning" is, and how fraught with special favors and subsidies it is for sprawl developers, auto dealers and asphalt manufacturers. If no one can walk to the stops then you can have transit monopolies *or* free markets and either way, they won't make viable transit. Do you really believe there's no working transit anywhere in the world, even the first world?

    BTW, Curitiba's buses are privately owned, and the government regulates the stops and fares. Is this private, or public? Who cares? Believe me, though, it's planned, not pseudo-planned.

    > (ii) Said public transit monopoly and the unions who benefit from it actively quash any attempts to set up rival transit systems through laws, permitting and licensing regulations

    Just the opposite occurs in my local experience: Private providers of transit (taxi and limo services) have actively lobbied against providing a bus or light rail from the airport to downtown. There's no bus yet. The request for "private" transit is a smokescreen, at least in my experience. Kind of like the request for "private" healthcare.

    Actually, the anti-union stuff is gratuitous, too, given the decline in the power and prevalence of unions generally. Straining at a gnat, swallowing a blue whale, if you ask me.

    > (iii) The vast majority of funding for any new transit comes via local, state or federal government funding instead of the fares of the people who actually use the transit.

    First of all, the vast majority of funding for all transportation infrastructure -- transit or auto-centric streets and freeways -- comes from government funding, and about 80% of that goes to subsidizing the infrastructure for single-occupant autos. And no, not even the sum of all the gas taxes funds just the auto-related amenities. If we're comparing subsidies, this is gnats and camels *again* (Quelle Surprise!)...

    And transit is a chicken-and-egg proposition. You won't get un-subsidized transit without enough riders. You won't get enough riders until you invest enough in transit to provide buses or trains frequently enough to attract riders. You may even (gasp!) have to wait for the ridership to catch up to the subsidized infrastructure. It's happening now that gas prices are starting to approximate what they should have been for decades.

    Playing dumb about this won't get you any traction with me. You *know* the investment must precede the ridership. And now you know that (real) land-use planning must accompany the transit system, or riders can't walk to the stops.

    BTW, I won't argue with you that most transit now is crap. It's designed to *fail*, what else would you expect? I just don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because it doesn't exist now doesn't mean intelligent, nicely designed, non-subsidized working transit isn't desirable. Just because government has been bad doesn't mean it always has to be that way. Or perhaps you'd prefer Enron deliver your electricity...? And just because it''s government doesn't mean it can only produce crap -- there are too many real-world examples from other governments around the world of successful transit and planning.

    Bottom line: expecting transit not to be subsidized is baloney. Observing that it's subsidized while ignoring the enormously larger subsidy for petroleum-burning auto-centric infrastructure ($300 billion annually says the World Resource Institute in 1989) is camel baloney.

    Furthermore, the vast majority of federal funding, and even the mortgage underwriting guidelines that determine what's built (FNMA, FHLMC, FHA, VA, FmHA, etc.) favor sprawl. You likely don't know about this stuff because it's background noise to most people who haven't looked into it, but if you believe your "valuable" house has its value independent of public policy, I just want some of whatever you've been smoking. The sub-prime mortgage crisis demonstrates this in spades.

    > Also, how do you reconcile your embrace of intelligent planning with that fact that a large number of the close-in, mixed use neighborhoods you cite in your argument were built long before most communities had any meaningful planning regulation?

    and

    >Why should we use gov't to force a one-size-fits-all environment?

    This is only kind of correct, as far as it goes. It's a half-truth. First of all, older, traditional street design standards (remember, not the "traffic engineered" sprawl streets) meant older neighborhoods were built in the pedestrian-friendly way. Most of the bogus planning now tries to subvert this. In a way, I'm agreeing with the conservatives: Government has been producing pseudo-planned crap. Unfortunately, "conservatives" have been the ones in power producing the crap.

    In those older, traditional neighborhoods, the cost of owning cars and driving them meant people built for pedestrian (and bicycle) convenience -- and compactly, too. "Street car suburbs" were also dictated by the logic of the transit then available.

    Finally, redlining and deceptive property tax practices hollowed out the central city's core of by depriving it of investment money so the land speculators would get even *bigger* subsidies for building suburbs. It was easy to ask for a development discount for outlying development's taxes since it would be "pro-growth" but the central cities paid in either higher taxes or lower services for their outlying suburbs (and eventually deteriorated).

    If there's a one-size fits all mentality, it's in sprawl, particularly in street design. The lanes on my sprawl street are literally as big as freeway lanes.

    > The vast majority of the people who read this blog will laugh at this post since the answer to my question is so blatantly self evident. Nontheless, [sic] if your goal in your posts is to "challenge us in a battle of wits" you may start by answering those questions.

    OK, I'm always game for comic relief, and my young conservative buddy, you've supplied laughs-o-plenty. I believe I've answered your questions. Your analysis is fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. You ignore all the subsidies for autos (the camel), but balk at the subsidies for transit (the gnat). Guess which one you strain at, and which one you swallow.

    You may want the "free market" to take care of everything, but it manifestly doesn't. And "conservative"-dominated public policy has been equally inadequate.

    We have agreements to say which side of the road we drive on, and how those roads are designed. We make those designs public so the roads (and sewer, water, power, mosquito abatement, etc) connect and work with each other. You may think that privatizing this stuff will magically make it intelligent, but there really is no substitute for governance here, and there is no substitute for intelligence. As Ron White says: "You can't fix stupid."

  • Rob

    Yoshidad,

    Have you read this blog post by Mr. Coyote? He is a little more verbose than I.
    http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2005/11/statism_comes_b.html

    Particularly, this section:

    Throughout these years, libertarians like myself argued that there were at least three problems with all of this technocratic statism:

    * You don't have the right to make decisions for other people. Period. No matter how high-minded and idealistic you want to portray it, at the end of the day you are proposing to use force to coerce another man into doing your will. You may stop them from using force or fraud against others, but an adult may make decisions for themselves, even if they are bad. I am reminded of a great line from the HBO show Deadwood, "Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?"

    * You can't make better decisions for other people, even if you are smarter, because every person has different wants, needs, values, etc., and thus make trade-offs differently. Tedy Bruschi of the Patriots is willing to take post-stroke risks by playing pro football again I would never take, but that doesn't mean its a incorrect decision for him.

    * Technocratic idealists ALWAYS lose control of the game. It may feel good at first when the trains start running on time, but the technocrats are soon swept away by the thugs, and the patina of idealism is swept away, and only fascism is left. Interestingly, the technocrats always cry "our only mistake was letting those other guys take control". No, the mistake was accepting the right to use force on another man. Everything after that was inevitable.

  • Yoshidad

    I have always (secretly) been attracted to the libertarian philosophy. After all, what's so bad about "let everybody do their own thing with minimum state interference"? I'm as unhappy about statist coercion as the next fellow.

    Unfortunately, the real results of promoting the libertarian philosophy are not so pretty. For example:

    1. It seems to me that the libertarians themselves have a lot of hypocrisy to answer for. Irony of irony, the "statist" things Coyote is protesting have been visited on the U.S. population by at least the allies of libertarians if not purported libertarians themselves -- the neocons most recently, but the whole cult of Ayn Rand has been around for a while (Alan Greenspan was one of her acolytes!).

    Consider the domestic spying visited on the U.S. population by the "Patriot Act." Or what about Geneva-Convention-prohibited torture?

    Or consider how the "get tough on crime" crowd has left us with an incarceration rate that's the highest in the world: roughly ten times the world average. I know libertarians don't want to jail people for drug crimes, but the opportunists in power are at least less-than-pure libertarians.

    And what do you do with the addicted, and the mentally ill? Let them do their own thing? No clear, or effective libertarian answer, IMHO.

    Given the thugs in power now are supported (often!) by Cato, the libertarian think tank, I'd say we need to see such "libertarians" deliver on their promises of freedom before we can take what they say too seriously.

    2. No libertarian has ever raised a child while being true to his/her principles. Unfortunately no communist, anarchist, liberal or conservative has either.

    3. What I've suggested in previous posts is intelligent public policy. Such policies are agreements that do not, of necessity, please everyone.

    You don't even need a state to make such agreements. Make a new year's resolution to lose weight yourself, then see how pleased you are about it when you are offered the strawberry shortcake. "Who made me shun strawberry shortcake?" you might ask... until "Oh yeah, it was me."

    So not-always-pleasant agreements and/or public policies are a necessary evil. Try driving on the left hand side of the street if you don't believe me.

    Making general agreements ("drive on the right side of the road") *cannot* please everyone, but real life beyond the cave man requires them. Honestly, what distinguishes you or Coyote from a cave man if not modern infrastructure?

    And I don't have any perfect, theoretical framework with which to arrive at intelligent public policy. I've certainly seen examples of it, often overseas, but domestically too.

    The U.S. fought the civil war about this issue. It was Union, not slavery, that motivated Lincoln. If we don't submit to majority rule (within the limits of the bill of rights), then the balkanization of the country begins. Where does it end? City states? Tribes? Family units?

    Ask yourself whether the European Union was profitable for them? So is balkanization an effective public policy, really?

    Really, what happens when individuals disagree with some decision of the majority? And how can we get intelligent public policy if "no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American public"? (P.T. Barnum)

    Ya got me, pilgrim, but the grim consequences of stupid policies are upon us now, and are going to get worse no matter who is managing public policy. McCain and / or Obama will make precious little difference, IMHO.

    Sorry to be Captain Bringdown, but good practice trumps fine theories for me. I've always liked Lincoln's saying: "Good intentions are a second rate virtue."

    Or perhaps you'd prefer Jesus' maxim about how to know who really was a follower of his teachings: "By their fruits shall ye know them."

  • Rocky Mountain

    Yoshidad,

    Just another left wing name caller; e.g. "my scaredy-cat conservative friends, crime is not worse in denser, urban areas" Yeah, like Detroit is safer then, say, Paradise Valley.

  • Yoshidad

    OK, sorry for the name calling. First of all, the logical fallacy is in suggesting density is the culprit for crime (because Detroit is dense and Paradise is not). But that reasoning does not hold up when you compare per-capita crime rates in Phoenix AZ to NY City. The crime rates are lower in New York. Google it yourself, don't take my word.

    So blaming density for crime is for the factually-challenged.

    My (really good!) excuse for name calling: I'm actually pretty tired of dealing with the anti-density crowd. They are irrational in their defense of "rural" (actually hobby farm and large-lot sprawl) living, and simply don't listen. They often make bogus arguments like "What about Detroit, smart guy?!"... You get the picture.

    The truth is that there is no better friend for real rural living than compact development. If you develop un-compactly, the sprawl eats up all the rural land. This is not rocket science. Making density palatable is *essential*, therefore, if you really want to preserve open space, rural land, etc.

    The kind of development I espouse includes rural as well as pedestrian-friendly mixed-use more compact development. People *prefer* that kind of development to sprawl and pay premiums whereever it is available and adequately supported by public services (police, fire, etc.). Look at the transect on http://www.dpz.com.

    I wouldn't even mind if we developed lots of sprawl if everyone living there paid the freight. As previous posts have outlined in excruciating detail, the subsidies for sprawl are truly gargantuan.

    Finally, about Detroit. This is the poster child for auto-oriented development. The core of Detroit, and its public services have been hollowed out by sending all the tax dollars to the suburbs. It's a basket case as a consequence, but that's what happens when you subsidize suburban living and make compact development pay the freight.

  • Solar Lad

    Detroit is a basket case simply and solely because the Michigan auto industry is a basket case.

    Therefore the Detroit case supports nobody's thesis about the proper urban/suburban mix - it's a unique outlier.