Posts tagged ‘land use’

Prices and Sustainability

I had a discussion with a locavore-type person in Boulder, Colorado last week at their farmers market.    He told me that while his costs to grow his produce were higher than the stuff I might find in Safeway, his products were more sustainable.

I asked him how that could be.  I observed that in a well functioning market, the costs of his inputs should reflect their relative scarcity and the scarcity of the resources that went into them.   Over time, particularly in a commodity market, prices were a sort of amazing scarcity integral.  If his costs were higher, that should mean he is using more or scarcer resources.  Isn't that the opposite of sustainability?

In fact, prices are such an amazing, almost magical, gauge of an item's resource intensity that it should tell us something that folks who purport to care about sustainability tend to have a disdain and distrust for markets and prices.   Sure, I understand certain externalities (CO2, for example, if you accept it as one) are not necessarily priced in, but the mistrust of prices seems to go beyond this.

In this particular case, his argument was the food was local and so used a lot less resources in transportation, and organic, so used less fertilizer and other chemicals.  But this is simply tipping the scales, trying to apply new weights and priorities to certain inputs that simply don't obtain in the real world.  The locavore focus on transportation costs is amazing, as it focuses on just one narrow cost and energy input for food, ignoring the energy of production and the energy to deliver other inputs to the local farm.  Take our situation in Phoenix -- sure, a local farmer used less energy to truck the finished food to market, but how much energy and other resources were used to move the water to grow it hundreds of miles to our desert here?  Or what about land use -- organic local farming may save trucking and chemicals, but what if the yields per acre are a third of what one might get on the best soils in a another part of the country?  Prices take into account the scarcity of not just tranportation fuel but land and labor as well.  Sustainability advocates often want to put their thumb on the scales and overweight just one resource.  That is why, for example, in the name of CO2 reduction we are clearing tons of virgin land, including land in the Amazon, to farm biofuel products.

Land Use Regulation and Income Inequality

I don't have time to comment or peruse the study in depth, but this looks interesting.  From Randal O'Toole:

Harvard economists have proven one of the major theses of American Nightmare, which is that land-use regulation is a major cause of growing income inequality in the United States. By restricting labor mobility, the economists say, such regulation has played a “central role” in income disparities.

When measured on a state-by-state basis, American income inequality declined at a steady rate of 1.8 percent per year from 1880 to 1980. The slowing and reversal of this long-term trend after 1980 is startling. Not by coincidence, the states with the strongest land-use regulations–those on the Pacific Coast and in New England–began such regulation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Forty to 75 percent of the decline in inequality before 1880, the Harvard economists say, was due to migration of workers from low-income states to high-income states. The freedom to easily move faded after 1980 as many of the highest-income states used land-use regulation to make housing unaffordable to low-income workers. Average incomes in those states grew, leading them to congratulate themselves for attracting high-paid workers when what they were really doing is driving out low- and (in California, at least) middle-income workers.

As Virginia Postrel puts it, “the best-educated, most-affluent, most politically influential Americans like th[e] result” of economic segregation, because it “keeps out fat people with bad taste.” Postrel refers to these well-educated people as “elites,” but I simply call them “middle class.”

I have not read the study, but I think the word "proven" in the first sentence likely goes to far.  Economic systems are way too complex to absolutely show one variable among millions causes another.  I am convinced that the way we have regulated the housing market and promoted home ownership has reduced labor mobility.

Great Moments in Anthropogenic Climate Theories

In the 1860's and 1970's, in the United States, there was a great post-war westward migration.  Many settlers began to try to farm lands west of the 100th meridian.  These normally very arid regions experienced a couple of decades of much greater rainfall during this period.  We know today that this was merely a cyclical variation of the type that is constantly occurring in the climate.  However, people of this time chose to believe that this was a permanent change, attributing the shift in rainfall to anthropogenic effects (any of this sound familiar?)  The saying at the time was that "rain followed the plow."

The basic premise of the theory was that human habitation and agriculture through homesteading affected a permanent change in the climate of arid and semi-arid regions, making these regions more humid. The theory was widely promoted in the 1870s as a justification for the settlement of the Great Plains, a region previously known as the "Great American Desert". It was also used to justify the expansion of wheatgrowing on marginal land in South Australia during the same period.

According to the theory, increased human settlement in the region and cultivation of soil would result in an increased rainfall over time, rendering the land more fertile and lush as the population increased. As later historical records of rainfall indicated, the theory was based on faulty evidence arising from brief climatological fluctuations. The theory was later refuted by climatologists and is regarded as a serious error. In South Australia, George Goyder warned as early as 1865, in his famous report on farming in the state, that rain would not follow the plow. Despite this, until further droughts in the 1880s, farmers talked of cultivating cereal crops up to the Northern Territory border. Today, however, grain crops do not grow further north than Quorn.

The result was eventually disaster for thousands and many abandoned farms in places like Eastern Colorado.  To some extent, the theory had a grain of truth - changes in land use do affect the climate.  For example, the loss of snow on Kilimanjaro is generally attributed (by non Al Gore types) to deforestation in the area.  But as is so often the case, the effects of man's land use tended to be more local (as with urban heat islands in cities) rather than regional, and ended up in this case being small compared to natural variations.

Only A Company Living Off of Government Pork Would Make This Decision

Aptera apparently wants to build electric cars using our tax dollars.  They are looking for a manufacturing plant location.   They seem to be homing on an one of the last locations on the planet I would build a new manufacturing facility:

At least we learn that the company is might soon be closing in on a new production facility as a result of a new application to the DOE's AVTMP [advance vehicle technology manufacturing program]. The loan application asks for a 10-year facility plan, which meant Aptera needed to actually come up with such a plan. Aptera's production schedule "calls for more than 10,000 units in the first 3 years and more than 300 employees," so it is looking for a new place to build the cars somewhere in Southern California, specifically somewhere in San Diego County.

High land prices?  Hugely expensive land use and environmental regulations?  High taxes?  Really high local wages?  Perfect, lets build an auto assembly plant!

Water Prices

Another 2600 word essay in the Arizona Republic on trying to balance water supply and demand in the state with only a one-sentence mention of water rates.

Over the years, some communities have tried to reduce demand. Years ago, Tucson devised a set of water rates that escalated steeply with use. As a result, many people simply stopped planting grass or other thirsty landscaping.

Amazingly, it is the only thing in the whole article that has been demonstrated to work, but still the author leans towards land-use planning and goofy dictats like rainwater harvesting rather than raising rates as a way of managing water supply and demand.

I wrote a lot more here, including an analysis that showed Phoenix has some of the cheapest water rates in the country.

Climate Updates

Believe it or not, I am not going to update on the CRU emails.  The insights into the science process are illuminating, and confirm much that we have suspected, but faults in transparency do not automatically win the game -- they lead to [hopefully] future transparency which then allows for better criticism and/or replication of the work.

My frustration today is a recent article in Scientific American [with the lofty academic title "Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense"] which purports to shoot down the seven key skeptics arguments.  Many others have shown how the author does not do a very good job of shooting down these seven, but that is not my main frustration.  The problem is that, like many of the global warming myth buster articles like this, the author completely fails to address the best, core arguments of skeptics, preferring to snipe around at easier prey at the margins.

In this post, I discuss his article and suggest 7 better propositions alarmists should, but never do, address.

You can see discussion of all of these in my recent lecture, on video here.

Don't have 90 minutes?  Richard Lindzen of MIT has a great summary in the WSJ that mirrors a lot of what I delve into in my video.

Here are my seven alternative skeptics' claims I would like to see addressed:

Claim A: Nearly every scientist, skeptic and alarmist alike, agree that the first order warming from CO2 is small.  Catastrophic forecasts that demand immediate government action are based on a second theory that the climate temperature system is dominated by positive feedback.  There is little understanding of these feedbacks, at least in their net effect, and no basis for assuming feedbacks in a long-term stable system are strongly net positive.   As a note, the claim is that the net feedbacks are not positive, so demonstration of single one-off positive feedbacks, like ice albedo, are not sufficient to disprove this claim.  In particular, the role of the water cycle and cloud formation are very much in dispute.

Claim B: At no point have climate scientists ever reconciled the claims of the dendroclimatologists like Michael Mann that world temperatures were incredibly stable for thousands of years before man burned fossil fuels with the claim that the climate system is driven by very high net positive feedbacks.   There is nothing in the feedback assumptions that applies uniquely to CO2 forcing, so these feedbacks, if they exist today, should have existed in the past and almost certainly have made temperatures highly variable, if not unstable.

Claim C: On its face, the climate model assumptions (including high positive feedbacks) of substantial warming from small changes in CO2 are inconsistent with relatively modest past warming.  Scientists use what is essentially an arbitrary plug variable to handle this, assuming anthropogenic aerosols have historically masked what would be higher past warming levels.  The arbitrariness of the plug is obvious given that most models include a cooling effect of aerosols in direct proportion to their warming effect from CO2, two phenomenon that should not be linked in nature, but are linked if modelers are trying to force their climate models to balance.  Further, since aerosols are short lived and only cover about 10% of the globe's surface in any volume, nearly heroic levels of cooling effects must be assumed, since it takes 10C of cooling from the 10% area of effect to get 1C cooling in the global averages.

Claim D: The key issue is the effect of CO2 vs. other effects in the complex climate system.  We know CO2 causes some warming in a lab, but how much on the real earth?  The main evidence climate scientists have is that their climate models are unable to replicate the warming from 1975-1998 without the use of man-made CO2 -- in other words, they claim their models are unable to replicate the warming with natural factors alone.  But these models are not anywhere near good enough to be relied on for this conclusion, particularly since they admittedly leave out any number of natural factors, such as ocean cycles and longer term cycles like the one that drove the little ice age, and admit to not understanding many others, such as cloud formation.

Claim E: There are multiple alternate explanations for the 1975-1998 warming other than manmade CO2.  All likely contributed (along with CO2) but it there is no evidence to give most of the blame to Co2.  Other factors include ocean cycles (this corresponded to a PDO warm phase), the sun (this corresponded to the most intense period of the sun in the last 100 years), mankind's land use changes (driving both urban heating effects as well as rural changes with alterations in land use), and a continuing recovery from the Little Ice Age, perhaps the coldest period in the last 5000 years.

Claim F: Climate scientists claim that the .4-.5C warming from 1975-1998 cannot have been caused natural variations.  This has never been reconciled with the fact that the 0.6C warming from 1910 to 1940 was almost certainly due mostly to natural forces.  Also, the claim that natural forcings could not have caused a 0.2C per decade warming in the 80's and 90's cannot be reconciled with the the current claimed natural "masking" of anthropogenic warming  that must be on the order of 0.2C per decade.

Claim G: Climate scientists are embarrassing themselves in the use of the word "climate change."  First, the only mechanism ever expressed for CO2 to change climate is via warming.  If there is no warming, then CO2 can't be causing climate change by any mechanism anyone has ever suggested.   So saying that "climate change is accelerating" (just Google it) when warming has stopped is disingenuous, and a false marketing effort to try to keep the alarm ringing.  Second, the attempts by scientists who should know better to identify weather events at the tails of the normal distribution and claim that these are evidence of a shift in the mean of the distribution is ridiculous.  There are no long term US trends in droughts or wet weather, nor in global cyclonic activity, nor in US tornadoes.  But every drought, hurricane, flood, or tornado is cited as evidence of accelerating climate change (see my ppt slide deck for the data).  This is absurd.

Charity - Not In My Backyard!

Via a reader, from the AZ Republic:

A Phoenix ordinance banning charity dining halls in residential neighborhoods withstood a challenge by a north-central Phoenix church.

Retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Robert Corcoran, serving as a hearing officer, ruled Monday that feeding the homeless at a place of worship can be banned by city ordinance. The decision affects all Phoenix churches with underlying residential zoning.

Over the summer, city officials maintained that CrossRoads United Methodist Church, 7901 N. Central Ave., violated Phoenix zoning code by feeding the poor and homeless on its property, a use that can only occur in commercial or industrial zones.

You will be relieved to know that this has nothing to do with a wealthy people fearing that their Xanax-induced equilibrium will be upset by actually seeing a poor person in their neighborhood.   We are assured as such by Paul Barnes, a "neighborhood activist" who presumably participated in the suit to stop the Church from holding pancake prayer-breakfasts:

"It's not a problem with homeless people in wealthy neighborhoods. That would be a matter of prejudice. This issue would be setting churches up to avoid zoning ordinances."

Wow, I am so relieved.  And we all know what a problem it is when churches are organized solely to evade zoning regulations.  Why, just last week the First Baptist Church and Gas Station as well as the United Methodist Church and Topless Bar opened right in my neighborhood.

You will be happy to know as well that the Constitution in no way limits the government in any way when it wants to regulate your property:

In a 19-page opinion, [Judge] Corcoran said the city can restrict where the homeless and poor can be fed and that zoning regulations apply to everyone equally. Additionally, he said that trumping land-use regulations is not a constitutional right.

Whew - yet another assault on the rights of government bureaucrats has been bravely turned aside.

Update: More random embedding of ads by the Republic.  They are putting them between words in the paragraph now.  RRRRRR.  Hopefully it is gone now.

Legalize Immigrants From Mexico; Ban Immigrants From California

Until a few years ago, I did business up and down the Pacific Coast.  If I had to rank the business climates of these states, from worst to best, I would informally come up with something like:

  1. (worst) Certain California counties (e.g. Ventura, San Francisco, Santa Barbara)
  2. Oregon
  3. Western Washington
  4. Rest of California
  5. Eastern Washington

So I was interested to see that Oregon may finally be getting the bad press it deserves as a difficult place to do business, though, interestingly enough, this particular article blames it on the Californians:

Some might call this California disease. This refers to a chronic inability to make hard decisions as well as a general disregard for business and economic activity....

With all the influx of Californians, it's not surprising that Oregon shows some signs of California disease. It recently increased its tax rates so that Oregon's highest-income taxpayers face marginal tax rates that match Hawaii's for the highest in the nation. Oregon's land-use planning had been extremely centralized for some time. Indeed, Oregon's land-use planning may be the most centralized in the United States. This makes it harder for communities to control their own destinies, whether they want to grow or not.

Interestingly, I actually wrote about similar effect in the context of immigration into the US.  While I am a supporter of open immigration, my greatest fear is that in the name of individual liberty, we would let in millions of new people who would someday vote against individual liberties.  It seems that may be a more substantial problem with Californian than Mexican immigration.

The good news for the rest of us is that Oregon may preferentially be attracting the slackers

Our analysis of California migrants has shown a gradual reduction in their earnings over what they were earning in the Golden State. There also are less quantifiable impacts. Portland, a city attractive to many unemployed and underemployed younger Californians, could well be becoming the "slacker" capital of the world.

Fortunately, Arizona is so politically un-correct with slacker/socialist/statist/greenie types that we don't get a lot coming here.

Regulation Is Almost Always Anti-Competitive

Continuing with a long-running theme here at Coyote Blog, here is another example of government regulation being anti-competitive and having the net result of protecting the margins of powerful, established incumbents against new entrants:

During a recent meeting, the Antiplanner was extolling the virtues of Houston's land-use policies, and a home builder at the meeting said, "Of course, no one here wants our city to be like Houston," meaning no one wanted Houston's land-use regime.

Why not? I asked. "There is too much competition down there. My company can't make a profit," he said. "You have to have some barriers to entry to be able to make money."

Those who accuse free marketeers of being supporters of big business don't realize that big businesses (and often smaller businesses) don't want a free market. In this home builder's case, he wanted enough restrictions on the market to keep out some of his competitors (most likely smaller companies that can't afford to hire lawyers and planners for every project) but not enough regulation to keep his company out

Several years ago my company had to obtain a liquor license in Shasta Country, CA. At one point, the issuance of the license had to be voted on by some group (County commissioners, the planning board, something like that). I was told the reason was that if they issued too many licenses, I would not be able to make money -- really, they were looking after me.

Well, not really.  First, the government seldom has any idea even how a business works.  Perhaps the liquor was a loss leader for my business, and I didn't care to make money on it at all.  Perhaps I had a better marketing concept.

And herein we get to the real flaw -- the implication is that somehow the dangers is to the new entrant in a crowded marketplace, but in fact the reality is often the opposite.   The actual competitive danger is often to incumbents, fat and happy with the status quo and unable to react quickly (due to all kinds of reasons from sunk investment to long held biases) to shifts in customer preferences.  No matter what their stated reason, the true effect of such regulation is to protect current competitors from new entrants, new products, and new business concepts.

I can see the effects of this right here where I am sitting, out near the end of Cape Cod.  Zoning and business regulation here is enormously aggressive - its is virtually impossible to start a new retail establishment here, particularly on virgin land.  As a result, every store and restaurant here feels like it is right out of the 1950s.  You'd hardly know there has been a revolution in retail or service delivery over the past few decades, because businesses here are sheltered from new entrants.  They don't need to adopt better practices or provide better products or services, because they know they are not vulnerable (courtesy of the government) to competitive attacks from new entrants using more modern strategies.

Awsome Senate Testimony on Transit

From Randal O'Toole (of course). I usually try not to over-excerpt other folks work but I just can't resist in this case.  I like Mr. O'Toole's work on transit because he does not just focus on the cost-benefit issues, but the personal liberty aspects as well:

My testimony focused on two points. First, despite increasing transit subsidies by 1250 percent (adjusted for inflation) since 1970, transit travel has declined from 49 to 45 trips per urban resident and transit's share of urban travel has declined from 4.0% to 1.6%. Second, even if we could get more people to ride transit, transit uses as much energy, and emits nearly as much greenhouse gases, as cars; and the trends suggest that cars will be more environmentally friendly than any transit system in the country by 2025.

There were two interesting responses to my testimony. First, another witness said (and I'm quoting from memory), "All he did was divide total greenhouse gas emissions by passenger miles." A reporter told me later that it sounded like he was questioning my methods, but his real argument was that more money spent on transit in combination with smart-growth land-use planning would lead to reduced auto driving.

I don't believe that is true (and said so), but even if it were true: can you imaging AT&T (back when all phones were land lines) telling Congress, "We want you to restrict property rights, drive up housing prices, and prevent people from living in their preferred lifestyles so that we don't have to extend our lines so far?" Or FedEx or UPS saying the same thing today? Why is transit so special that everyone else in the country has to completely rearrange their lives just for it?

You can say the answer is "climate change," but transit agencies and smart-growth planners wanted to do all these things before climate was an issue. The truth is that transit is a declining but politically powerful industry, and part of its power comes from the fact that it is publicly owned and so elected officials have a vested interest in keeping it going.

In a very real sense, transit is just like the British coal, rail, and other nationalized industries in the 1960s: its main purpose is no longer transportation but to meet other political goals such as keeping transit workers employed and construction contracts going to transit builders. If transit were private, no one would argue that we have to make the world less convenient and more expensive for the 95 percent of people who travel by car so that it will be more convenient for the 1 or 2 percent who travel by transit.

If Causality is Complicated Enough, You Can Take Credit For Anything

Apparently California has passed a new law that requires land use planning to be tied to the CARB CO2 emissions limits.  Well, all of us who make our money in neighboring states will certainly be happy to have yet more Californians driven into our arms.

This effort is based in part on the claim, which I see all the time, from here, based on a Brookings Report here:

Residents of Portland emit 35 percent less carbon per capita than those of other US cities

Portland is the #1 poster child for "smart growth" style urban planning,  and so smart growth advocates have decided that Portland's low carbon footprint is due to smart growth.

Interestingly, though Brookings certainly supports smart planning, their study has moments of honesty that everyone tries to ignore.  For example, it makes points I have made over and over about the cities at the top of the electrical efficiency and low emissions lists:

The fuel mix used to generate electricity matters in residential footprints. A high-carbon fuels mix significantly penalizes the Ohio Valley and Appalachian regions, which rely heavily on coal power. Alternatively, hydro-reliant metro areas such as Seattle have substantially smaller residential footprints.

Pricing influences the electricity component of the residential footprints. Each of the 10 metro areas with the lowest per capita electricity footprints in 2005 hailed from states with higher-than-average electricity prices, including California, New York, and Hawaii. Many Southeastern metro areas, on the other hand, with high electricity consumption per capita have had historically low electricity rates.

Weather unmistakably plays a role in residential footprints. High-emitting metro areas often concentrate in climates that demand both significant cooling and heating, such as in the eastern mid-latitude states. In contrast, the 10 metro areas with the smallest per capita residential footprints are all located along the West Coast, with its milder climate.

So, let's take Portland.  It has a mild climate, it has higher than average utility prices, and its electricity is supplied in large part by zero-emission hydro plants.  Small wonder it does well on the footprint analysis.  But given all these advantages, supp0rters want to claim Portland is near the top not due to any of this stuff but due to land planning and mass transit?  In fact, transit's share of commutes in Portland has been steadily falling for years, despite the urban legends to the contrary.

But here is another reality check on the list -- Portland is #3.  #1 on the list is Honolulu, a very mild climate and certainly no poster child for anti-sprawl.  Even more telling is #2 - Los Angeles.  LA has an even lower carbon footprint than Portland.  So much for smart growth and transit ridership as the main explanation!   Even Phoenix, the most spread out non-transit-using city in the country is above average at #21 out of 100, despite having what is most certainly NOT a mild climate.   My guess is that it has something to do with that clean, carbon friendly nuclear power plant just outside of town, the largest in the US.

Postscript: This report claims that smart planning is better than a carbon tax because people don't respond to changes in gas and electricity prices.  But the fact that the lowest carbon footprints and lowest per capita electrical use areas correspond with those with the highest prices gives the lie to that proposition.

A Thought on Global Warming Action

Here is the hard truth for those of us who believe that, since CO2 has had little effect on global temperatures to date, expensive abatement plans will similarly have little if any measurable effect:  They are coming anyway.  It is actually probable that the Republicans could combine with heavy industrial states like Michigan in the Senate to block dramatic new legislation.  But President Obama already has the legal and legislative authority to enact sweeping and expensive CO2 mandates without going back to Congress. 

So with that depressing thought, here is a bit of good news:  The media may well come over to the skeptics' side soon, at least partially.  Here is why:  The media is extraordinarily loath to really challenge policy proposals in advance that are popular with the center-left.  They are even less likely to challenge said proposals when they touch on a story of doom.  There is nothing the media enjoys more than piling on a good public scare. 

But history has shown that the media will turn on these proposals once they are implemented, and sometimes quite soon after.  Remember ethanol subsidies?  The press were behind this crap all the way, until Congress passed enhanced subsidies a while back, and then the press suddenly starting "discovering" the effect on rising food prices, the environmental problems with land use, the ugliness of some of the subsidy politics, the fact that few scientists think corn ethanol will actually reduce CO2, etc.  Yeah, I know, all of this was entirely predictable (and predicted by many of us) in advance.  But this just seems to be how the media works.

Because the only thing the media loves more than fear-mongering a crisis that is 20-years away is fear-mongering one that is visibly upon us.  The press freaked at the California energy crisis a few years ago, peppering the public with stories of rising prices and rolling blackouts.  And what has happened since then?   Electricity demand has risen, no one can build electrical capacity, wind and solar are a joke, and Obama is only going to make it harder and more expensive to produce enough power (I think Obama's exact words were "bankrupt the coal industry.") 

Wealth and the Environment

I have often argued that environmental cleanliness and wealth tend to follow a U-shaped curve.  Early industrialization tends to make air and water quality worse, but increases in wealth and technology over time tend to lead to an improved environment.  For example, nearly every air and water quality metric in the US has improved substantially over the last 40 years. 

To this end, I saw this chart in another context (Dr. Pielke was discussing the effect of land-use on regional climate changes) but I thought it was an interesting one to illustrate this point, and perhaps start to convince all those 20-somethings of the Obama generation that the world is not, in fact, spiraling ever downwards into economic decay.  This is a map of leaf area, bascially an index of forestation, for the Eastern US over the last 400 years.  Note the trend reversal since 1920.

Fig8lai

I have argued for a while that trying to slam a halt to China's development as part of some misguided environmental effort may in fact achieve the opposite effect, locking China into the low-point of the U-shaped curve just at the point when increasing wealth may be pushing them to start cleaning up.

Food-Miles: Most Moronic Metric Ever?

For some reason, a group of people on this earth have convinced themselves that food-miles, or the distance food had to travel from the farm to the table, is somehow relevant to the environment.   Food-miles is one of the best examples of the very common environmental practice of looking at a single factor out of context of the entire system. I have written about the food-miles stupidity before.

We actually have a name for the system in which food-miles are reduced to their theoretical minimum:  Subsistence farming.  It used to be that most food was grown just a few feet from the table where it was eventually eaten because nearly everyone was a subsistence farmer (or hunter or gatherer).  We abandoned this system, and thereby increased food miles, for a number of reasons:

  • It is very inefficient, not just from labor inputs but from a land use standpoint as well.  Some places are well suited to potato or rice production and others are less so.  It makes a ton of sense to grow things on soils and in climates where they are well-suited rather than locally everywhere. 
  • It doesn't work very well in a lot of areas.  Subsistence farming here in Arizona is not very practical, and would use a ton of water
  • It leads to starvation.  Even rich countries like France were experiencing periodic famines just 150 years ago or so.

But the main reason food miles and local subsistance farming is stupid is that it has nothing to do with environmental health.  Everyone looks at the energy to transport food, but no one looks at the extra energy cost (not to mention the land use cost) of growing food locally in climates and soils to which the food is not well-suited.  To this point:

European consumers shunning imported food supposedly to limit climate
change should not make African farmers a scapegoat, a Brussels
conference has been told.

In Britain, several supermarkets have
begun labelling products flown into the country with stickers marked
"air-freighted," to reflect concern about the contribution of aviation
to global warming.

But Benito Müller, a director at the Oxford
Institute for Energy Studies, dismissed the concept of food miles as
"an extremely oversimplified indicator" of ecological impact.

Saying
he was "really angry" with the implicit message that agricultural
produce from Africa should be avoided, Müller claimed that less
greenhouse gas emissions are often emitted from the cultivation and
transport of such goods than they would be if grown in Europe.

Strawberries
imported from Kenya during the winter, he maintained, have a lower
"carbon footprint," a measure to ascertain the effect of a method of
production on the environment "” than those grown in a heated British
greenhouse, even when their transport by air from Africa is taken into
account.

Ethanol and Deforestation

From an AP report:

The widespread use of ethanol from corn could result in nearly twice the greenhouse gas emissions
as the gasoline it would replace because of expected land-use changes,
researchers concluded Thursday. The study challenges the rush to
biofuels as a response to global warming.

The researchers said that past studies showing the benefits of ethanol in combating climate change
have not taken into account almost certain changes in land use
worldwide if ethanol from corn "” and in the future from other
feedstocks such as switchgrass "” become a prized commodity.

"Using good cropland to expand biofuels will probably exacerbate
global warming," concludes the study published in Science magazine.

Promoters of biofuels often hold up Brazil as an example of a model ethanol mandate.  Forget for a moment that in fact ethanol still makes up only a small percentage of the transportation fuel market in Brazil.  Think of all those satellite photos we used to see of farmers burning the Amazon to expand cropland:

1016nasa

I know that correlation is not equal to causation, but the fact is that this land clearing, which has always one on, really accelerated after the Brazilian ethanol mandates and subsidies.  My prediction is that careful academic work in the coming years will pin the blame for a lot of the destruction of the Amazon on ethanol.

Moonbattery has a fitting conclusion:

The study's findings aren't likely to change government policy, since
ethanol mandates are a political boondoggle that only dupes expect to
have any effect on the climate. If the first caucuses were held in
Hawaii, they'd be forcing us to run our cars on macadamia nuts instead
of corn.

Cost of "the Right to Build"

Virginia Postrel has a really interesting article in the Atlantic.com.  Often, home construction costs are disaggregated into the cost of land and the cost of the home.  She adds a third piece -- "the right to build" related to regulation and land use restrictions.  She cites a study that most of the cost of new homes in expensive markets like California are not building costs or even land acquisition costs, but the enormous costs involved in getting the government to let you build the house you want on your own land.

In a 2003 article, Glaeser and Gyourko calculated the two different
land values for 26 cities (using data from 1999). They found wide
disparities. In Los Angeles, an extra quarter acre cost about
$28,000"”the pure price of land. But the cost of empty land isn't the
whole story, or even most of it. A quarter- acre lot minus the cost of
the house came out to about $331,000"”nearly 12 times as much as the
extra quarter acre. The difference between the first and second prices,
around $303,000, was what L.A. home buyers paid for local land-use
controls in bureaucratic delays, density restrictions, fees, political
contributions. That's the cost of the right to build.

And that right costs much less in Dallas. There, adding an extra
quarter acre ran about $2,300"”raw land really is much cheaper"”and a
quarter acre minus the cost of construction was about $59,000. The
right to build was nearly a quarter million dollars less than in L.A.
Hence the huge difference in housing prices. Land is indeed more
expensive in superstar cities. But getting permission to build is way,
way more expensive. These cities, says Gyourko, "just control the heck
out of land use."

These differences cascade into a number of areas:

Dallas and Los Angeles represent two distinct models for successful
American cities, which both reflect and reinforce different cultural
and political attitudes. One model fosters a family-oriented,
middle-class lifestyle"”the proverbial home-centered "balanced life."
The other rewards highly productive, work-driven people with a yen for
stimulating public activities, for arts venues, world-class
universities, luxury shopping, restaurants that aren't kid-friendly.
One makes room for a wide range of incomes, offering most working
people a comfortable life. The other, over time, becomes an enclave for
the rich. Since day-to-day experience shapes people's sense of what is
typical and normal, these differences in turn lead to contrasting
perceptions of economic and social reality. It's easy to believe the
middle class is vanishing when you live in Los Angeles, much harder in
Dallas. These differences also reinforce different norms and
values"”different ideas of what it means to live a good life. Real
estate may be as important as religion in explaining the infamous gap
between red and blue states.

The Dallas model, prominent in the South and Southwest, sees a
growing population as a sign of urban health. Cities liberally permit
housing construction to accommodate new residents. The Los Angeles
model, common on the West Coast and in the Northeast Corridor,
discourages growth by limiting new housing. Instead of inviting
newcomers, this approach rewards longtime residents with big capital
gains and the political clout to block projects they don't like.

LA Proposes to Institutionalize Red-Lining Poor Neighborhoods

For years, banks have been sued for "red-lining" poor neighborhoods, meaning they were accused of purposefully avoiding doing business in these poor areas.  National retail chains have been accused of something similar, causing poorer the oft-commented-on irony that poorer neighborhoods often have the highest retail prices.

The City of Los Angeles seems to like this practice and wants to pass new legislation aimed at further limiting retail choices in poorer neighborhoods:

"Amid worries of an obesity epidemic and its related illnesses,
including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, Los Angeles
officials, among others around the country, are proposing to limit new
fast-food restaurants -- a tactic that could be called health zoning."
Zoning restrictions on fast-food outlets in towns such as Concord,
Mass. and Calistoga, Calif. are typically based on traffic or aesthetic
concerns, rather than a determination to second-guess what residents
choose to eat. The proposed L.A. restrictions would not be city-wide
but would instead be specifically targeted to the city's poorest
sections in and around South Central. Mark Vallianatos, director of
something called the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College (more about it), says "bringing health policy and environmental policy together with land-use planning" is "the wave of the future."

Jesus, the Center for Food and Justice?  Another clear leading edge of health care as the Trojan Horse for fascism, which I have been warning against for years.

Worst Government Abuse I Have Seen Lately

I didn't think much could top some of the ridiculous stuff I have read of late on the government abuse and rent-seeking front;  the milk cartel, for example, seemed hard to top.  But I think this has jumped into the lead:

In Didden v. Port Chester, the government decided to redevelop
an area of the city, and chose a developer who drew up development
plans. One of the property owners, Bart Didden, owned a piece of
property that he wanted to lease to CVS to build a pharmacy. The
developer, on the other hand, wanted to use the land for a Walgreen's
instead. So the developer told Didden that if he would pay the
developer $800,000 and give him a percentage in the CVS, that he
wouldn't condemn the property. Didden, of course, rejected this
offensive offer, and the next day, the city condemned the land to give
to the developer.

This is much worse than Kelo, and I thought that case was bad.  Didden lost his appeal, but is trying to get the Supreme Court to hear the case:

"What the developer and Village of Port Chester did is nothing short of
government-backed extortion," said Didden. "I had an agreement to
develop a pharmacy, a plan fully approved by the Village, and in the
eleventh hour I was told that I must either bring this developer in as
a 50/50 partner or pay him $800,000 to go away. If I didn't, the City
would condemn my property through eminent domain for him to put up a
pharmacy. What else can you call that but extortion? I hope the Supreme
Court sets things right."

I guess the case has a bit of utility -- it does set a market value on government pull.  In this case, the developer has priced his "in" with the local city establishment at $800,000.   

To my untrained eye, this case seems not to be covered by the Kelo logic.  In Kelo, the justices (insanely) decided that a valid public purpose for eminent domain was to replace one landowner with another who will pay more sales and property taxes.  But its hard to argue that a CVS pharmacy would pay more or less than a Walgreen's pharmacy.  In addition, Didden's supporters are hoping that the Supreme Court will finally rule on the more general issue of "exactions":

What's interesting is how this case parallels something called
"exactions," which we see in a lot of cases involving building permits:
government demands that a property owner give up some value to the
government"”a portion of the land, or sometimes outright cash"”in
exchange for a building permit. Now, this case didn't involve a
building permit, but the issue is the same: in exchange for the right
to use the property, you have to give up your property rights. That is
what the Supreme Court has called "an out and out plan of extortion."

These exactions are rampant throughout America. They're causing housing prices to soar.
And yet despite PLF's repeated requests, the Supreme Court has refused
to take one of these cases to clarify that they do violate the
Constitution. Meanwhile, we hear that the Supreme Court can't find
cases to fill up its docket! Here's hoping the Court grants cert. in
this case and declares once and for all that government can't use its
power to regulate land use as leverage to demand money from property
owners.

The Cost of Zoning

After years of getting grief, mostly from the left, for its eschewing of zoning and land-use ordinances that more "enlightened" places like San Francisco and Portland are so famous for, residents of Houston are reaping the benefits of their historical Laissez Faire approach:

Houston's gains are nothing like those seen in the past decade in
the Northeast and California, but that may be the secret to Houston's
success and the reason a bubble is unlikely to develop here. Land here
is abundant, and the city has some of the least-restrictive land-use
and construction rules in the nation. Those factors help supply to keep
pace with demand and keep prices within reach of a broad range of
potential buyers.

"We haven't had a bad year in the past decade," says Lorraine
Abercrombie, chairwoman of the local Realtors group and marketing
director for Greenwood King Properties.

Houston's model is in stark contrast to cities such as Boston and
San Francisco, which have strict zoning, exacting building codes and
laws governing historical preservation. Some economists, including
Edward Glaeser of Harvard University, say excessive regulation in such
cities has slowed construction to the point where demand has
outstripped supply, fueling a run-up in home prices.

In the once-sizzling markets where home prices are falling, housing
costs are double, triple or even quadruple those of Houston. The
danger, says Dr. Glaeser, is such places have priced out today's highly
skilled "knowledge workers," forcing them to live in a more affordable
locale where their contribution to the economy might not be as great.
"These are places where only the elite can live," Dr. Glaeser says.

This issue is one of those great examples of the statist game to enlarge government.  Step 1:  Progressives argue for having government restrict land use and implement tight zoning.  Step 2:  Housing prices skyrocket, enriching the elite and making it tough for ordinary workers to own housing.  Step 3:  Progressives decry that lack of affordable housing represents a 'market failure' that must be addressed with more regulation.  For example, builders in the SF Bay Area are required to sell X number of below market rate 'affordable' homes for every Y homes they sell at market rates.  Step 4:  Builders costs go up from the new regulations, further reducing supply and increasing prices.  And the cycle just repeats, as bad outcomes from government regulation are blamed on free markets, and used to justify more regulation.

Here is a trick to try -- every time you see the word "sprawl" in an article, replace it with "affordable housing."  It makes for interesting reading.

Hat tip to Tom Kirkendall, who runs a great blog in Houston.

My Approach on Ballot Initiatives

Arizona has pages of ballot initiatives (or propositions) up for vote on the ballot tomorrow.  Here is my approach to voting on these initiatives:

  • My default is a no vote on everything.  After all, most of these initiatives are regulations and tax increases that even the legislature, not shy about passing either, has not wanted to take on.   Having a default vote is very helpful - if I am unsure, if there is doubt, if I don't fully understand the issue, then it gets a "no".  Like "not guilty" in a criminal trial, its my default answer.
  • I then look for tax cuts and regulation relief.  There tends to be little of this.  We have one ballot initiative that looks like it will help keep property taxes under control, and one that does a nice job circumscribing eminent domain takings as well as regulating "soft" takings (changes to zoning or land use that make a property less valuable without compensation).  On these I will switch my vote to "yes".
  • I then look at bond issues.  A growing city like Phoenix needs facility expansions, and bond issues are a reasonable way to do so.  However, a lot of crap gets loaded in these.  Typically they will say the bond issue is "for schools" to get everyone to vote for it and then load a lot of garbage in it.  I believe California has some of this going on.  We have no bond issues up for vote in my district but we do have a proposition to increase the size limit of future bond issuances.  I am still thinking about this one, but if I can't get excited about it, it gets the default vote - "no".
  • I will then consider procedural changes in government, but with a heavy bias towards "no" due to the laws of unintended consequences.  I don't understand the procedural changes being suggested in two initiatives on public land use so I will vote no on both.  I will definitely vote no on the proposal to pay people to vote with a lotter ticket.  The proposal to effectively switch Arizona to all absentee balloting with virtually no polls is intriguing, but seems fraught with possibilities for unintended consequences (or secretly intended consequences I don't understand) so I will vote no there too.

Unintended Consequences at Work

A reader emailed me this article about the Endangered Species Act at work:

The sharp chirps of the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and the
whine of chain saws sound discordantly in this coastal community of old
pine forests....

The woodpecker's status as an endangered species requires special
measures to try to prevent its extinction and restore its population,
wildlife officials say. That's the law. Wildlife officials gave the
town maps pinpointing woodpecker nests. No building or tree cutting is
allowed within 200 feet of a nest tree without a federal permit. Some
restrictions on development also apply to 75-acre circles around each
nest site to provide foraging area for the birds....

Since word got around this spring that owners could
face problems selling land or building houses where the birds lived,
people have been rushing to clear undeveloped lots of pine trees and
yanking the woodpecker welcome mat.

More than anywhere else in
North Carolina, Boiling Spring Lakes is a place where the coastal
development boom and the federal Endangered Species Act have collided.

"People
are just afraid a bird might fly in and make a nest and their property
is worth nothing," said Joan Kinney, mayor of Boiling Spring Lakes in
Brunswick County. "It is causing a tremendous amount of clear-cutting."...

Bonner Stiller, a state lawmaker from Brunswick County, has owned a
pair of lots as an investment here for more than 20 years. He cleared
them recently. Stiller said he was sorry to lose the trees but wanted
to protect his investment.

"You had to get in line to get
somebody with a chain saw," Stiller said. "I have not a single pine
tree left. Folks around here are terrified of the prospect of losing
their property. That causes people to get out there and find out what
they can do to protect themselves."

In the past, I have divided environmental law into two categories:  emissions law, which is not only consistent with but a must for the maintenance of a strong property rights regime; and land use law, which tends to be an affront to property rights.  You can read more on this distinction here.  This situation is a great example of why land use environmental law is such a problem.

Take a step back.  Consider that some (but by no means all) people in this country value the continued existence of the red-cockaded woodpecker.  There are several ways they might pursue this goal, which I will put in order of decreasing attractiveness:

  • They can get together, voluntarily pool their money, and seek to purchase land that might be habitat for the woodpecker and voluntarily set aside what is now their land from development.  This is the best solution, and the only one that operates without resorting to the use of force against individuals.  Oranizations like the Nature Conservancy and other land trusts work this way.
  • They can get the government to tax everybody in the country a few extra cents, flow these cents together into big dollars, and have the government buy the land (or seize it via eminent domain) and set it aside as open space or parkland.  This takes money by government force from people who don't value the woodpecker's survival, but at least it spreads the cost wide and thin.
  • They can get the government to declare that the twenty-five or thirty people who have these birds on their land can no longer do anything, from development to tree-cutting, on their land.  This option is the worst, because it lands the entire cost of the woodpecker's survival on just a few individuals, and it costs these individuals inordinately high amounts of money in the form of reduced property values  (if you can't do anything to a piece of raw land, the resale value effectively drops to zero).  I personally hold a piece of raw land for future development of a vacation or retirement home.  A substantial portion of my net worth is in this land.  If it were to be suddenly made worthless, much of my life's savings would be gone.

As an interesting note, I have ranked these options in descending order with an eye to fairness and individual rights.  However, if we instead rank these options from the perspective of the average Congressman and his/her political calculations, we actually get the reverse order!  The first option of private action is the worst from your average Congressman's point of view, because then there is nothing they can take credit for in their next election campaign.  The second option is better, but would involve a tax or deficit increase he might conceivably be dinged for.  The third is the best for our average politically-calculating Congress critter, since it results in an outcome he can take credit for with important interest groups, and the costs are almost totally hidden, and born by just a few people who don't have many votes and may not even be in his district.  Not surprisingly, this is the approach Congress has taken, via the Endangered Species Act.

There is some hope that this problem may eventually get worked out the right way, at least in Boiling Springs Lake:

The Nature Conservancy hopes to help. Since 1999, it has acquired about
6,500 acres that form a horseshoe around the center of town. The land,
much of which is wetlands, has two groups of woodpeckers. Woodpeckers
typically nest in clusters of 3 or more birds with one breeding pair
and helpers. In time, the land could support six or eight clusters as
the conservancy adds more land for a nature preserve.

Yes, Exactly

From Robert Bidnotto, echoing thoughts I had here and also here, but he writes much more eloquently:

Okay, I have had it.

Not a damned thing distinguishes the Republicans from the Democrats
anymore...not a damned thing. "No Child Left Behind" in essence, and
unconstitutionally, federalized education. The GOP-engineered federal
prescription drug subsidy program for seniors was another huge and
costly step toward total socialized medicine. The Administration's
response to recent natural disasters -- here and abroad -- establishes
the premise of federalizing all local emergencies globally, and  reducing the U.S. military into becoming the logistics wing of the International Red Cross.

And so on, and so on....

To the Left, government should whip individuals into collective
lockstep regarding its PC-egalitarian agenda on such issues as smoking,
diets, guns, cars, nature-worship, land use, political speech and
rhetoric, equality of income and "access" to things that don't belong
to you, drafting kids for "national service," using schools to push PC
propaganda, etc.

To the Right, government should whip individuals into collective
lockstep regarding its traditional moral agenda, including abortion,
sex, Darwin, cultural speech and rhetoric, marriage, national
demographic purity, drafting kids for military service, using schools
to push religious values, etc.

Neither side wants a government of limited powers, and
rejects the initiation of force against others. Neither side respects
individual rights, and rejects using the "fearful" power of government
to compel the independent individual to toe its party line. Neither
side recognizes property rights, and rejects the redistributionist
welfare state.

More fundamentally, neither side rejects the cannibalistic "morality" of sacrificing the individual to the group.

Left and Right both agree that the individual is their private
plaything, a sacrificial lamb for their respective pet causes. The only
thing that they really disagree about is which individuals they are
going to sacrifice, for whose benefit, and in the name of what cause.

More Free Market Environmentalism

My support for the Nature Conservancy and other land trusts who buy land for preservation rather than just expropriate the current holder through changed use regulations in this post garnered more comments than any of my other recent posts.  Presuming this is an indicator of interest in the topic, I point your attention to this article in the NY Times about environmentalists and grazing in southern Utah.  I no longer have much trust in the NY Times to portray such stories correctly, but from what they write, it looks like another great example of environmental activism using markets and consensual agreements rather than public coercion:

Mr. LeFevre wants the ranchers to win this range war against the lawyers and
politicians trying to restrict grazing on the plateau north of the Grand Canyon.
He fought unsuccessfully to stop the Clinton administration from declaring it
the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument because he knew the designation
would mean more regulations, more hikers and fewer cows....

But he is not bitter when he talks about the deal he made with an
environmentalist named Bill Hedden, the executive director of the Grand Canyon
Trust. Mr. Hedden's group doesn't use lobbyists or lawsuits (or guns) to drive
out ranchers. These environmentalists get land the old-fashioned way. They buy
it.

To reclaim the Escalante River canyon, Mr. Hedden bought the permits that
entitle Mr. LeFevre's cows to graze on the federal land near the river. He
figures it was a good deal for the environment because native shrubs and grasses
are reappearing, now that cows aren't eating and trampling the vegetation.

I love to see this.  The alternative Mr. LeFevre faced was steady expropriation of his grazing permits via creeping regulation and legal action:

Mr. LeFevre likes the deal because it enabled him to buy grazing permits for
higher ground that's easier for him and his cows to reach than the canyon. (He
was once almost killed there when his horse fell). He's also relieved to be on
land where hikers aren't pressuring the Bureau of Land Management to restrict
grazing, as they did for the canyon.

"I was afraid the B.L.M. would add so many restrictions that I wouldn't be
able to use the land anyway, and I'd be out the $100,000 I spent for the
permits," he said. "The B.L.M. just shuts you down. Bill said, 'Let's try to
resolve this peacefully and make you whole.' I respect that."

Ironically, this win-win environmentalism is being opposed by the Bush administration. 

The Interior Department has decided that environmentalists can no longer
simply buy grazing permits and retire them. Under its reading of the law - not
wholly shared by predecessors in the Clinton administration - land currently
being used by ranchers has already been determined to be "chiefly valuable for
grazing" and can be opened to herds at any time if the B.L.M.'s "land use
planning process" deems it necessary.

But why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable" about a
piece of land? Mr. Hedden and Mr. LeFevre have discovered a "land use planning
process" of their own: see who will pay the most for it. If an environmentalist
offers enough to induce a rancher to sell, that's the best indication the land
is more valuable for hiking than for grazing.

I have no idea why a grazing permit can't be retired - certainly that's legal and proper with emissions permits.  I never, ever thought I would find the NY Times writing something like "why should a federal bureaucrat decide what's "chiefly valuable" about a
piece of land", but I love it. And raspberries to the Bush Administration, who yet again are demonstrating that their lack of dedication to markets and private action.  Its time to admit that the republicans have returned to the bad old days of their 1970's support for big government crony capitalism.

The new policy may make short-term political sense for the Bush
administration by pleasing its Republican allies in Utah and lobbyists for the
ranching industry. But it's not good for individual ranchers, and it ensures
more bitter range wars in the future. If environmentalists can't spend their
money on land, they'll just spend it on lawyers.

Here is Mr. Hedden's site at the Grand Canyon Trust, which unfortunately seems to support lobbying for government coercion at least as much as market-based solutions.

Hat tip to Nature Noted, a great blog on land trusts.

Problems at the Nature Conservancy

I tend to divide up environmental regulations into two buckets:

  1. Regulations aimed at curbing emissions that spill out of one person's property (e.g by air or water) to others
  2. Regulations mainly aimed at land use restrictions that affect how someone may use their own land

The first type of law is essential to rational functioning of strong property rights in the modern world.  Otherwise, we would all be suing each other over molecules of pollution that cross our property lines.

The second category, including wetlands and open space and habitat protection, are a threat to property rights (something one could infer just from the fact that many anti-capitalist anti-technology leftists have jumped on the environmental bandwagon, mainly focusing on this second category of limitations).

Here is one of those situations that make me a true minority in this country:  I greatly value wide-open undeveloped spaces and ranges for wild animals, but I don't expect the government to provide them for me nor do I ask other citizens to provide them to me against their will.  Unfortunately, most of the other people in this country who value these things do in fact accept, and even demand, that government provide them.  Every day, landholders are told by various government bodies that they cannot do what they like with their land, because other people who do not own the land like the land the way it is.  These landholders are effectively expropriated of their land, in these cases without even the payment the New London Kelo victims received

This is why I have always supported the private land trust movement, of which the Nature Conservancy is the most well-known example.  These land trusts use private donations to buy out property owners and set aside property for various conservation purposes.  This way, the people who value the conservation of the land pay the price for it, not the person who happens to be owning the targeted land.

I was sad to see, therefore, the Nature Conservancy revealed in Senate hearings as having a number of ethical lapses.  Nature Noted, a blog dedicated to land trusts, was all over this story.  They describe the problems found as follows:

*A pattern of dealings with insiders that gave preferential treatment on land deals.

*A pattern of dealings with the companies of board members

*Selling emissions credits, including a $10 million deal with General
Motors while GM's chairman John Smith served on TNC's board.

*Selling emissions credits that it may or may not have even owned,
essentially furthering its own environmental goals (buying land) at the
expense of another environmental goal (reducing greenhouse gases)

*Allowing oil and gas drilling on one of three known habitats of the
Attwater Prairie chicken, bumbling its way through the deal so that it
ended up in court, accused of cheating one of its partners, all while
pocketing over $8 million in royalties.

The report paints a picture
of an organization that had gotten so big, and so successful, that it
lost sight of why it was formed in the first place.

There is a lot of discussion about what reforms will help prevent this problem, and a lot of discussion about eliminating the tax deduction for conservation easements:

It has become clear that some people have been abusing the law that
allows tax deductions for conservation easements. The easement
deduction allows me to sell the development rights to my property to a
land trust. I keep the property the way it is, and everyone who buys it
from me agrees to keep it that way too. If it's wilderness, it stays
wilderness. If it's a ranch, it stays a ranch. In areas with lots of
development, that can be worth a ton of money. The big question, how
much? It's a subjective appraisal, and if both parties want to unfairly
jack up the value, the hearings have shown the IRS doesn't have the
manpower to catch it. And it's led to a cottage industry in easement
tax shelters, including millions of exemptions for golf courses,
driving ranges and backyards. Phony trusts were set up not to protect
land, but to act as tax shelters for the wealthy. As the facts come
out, it's outraging critics, and depressing supporters.

In these deals, one party keeps the land while another party. like TNC, buys the "development rights" and pays the legal bills over time to defend these rights.  Personally, I have not been a big fan of conservation easements.  "Forever" is a very long time, and there are always going to be incentives to cheat -- if not in this generation, then in the next.  Also, such "conditional" property makes me nervous, somehow splitting property rights into two pieces, like a treasury strip.  I can't say I can make a firm philosophic argument against it, but it makes me uneasy. 

I would much prefer land trusts like TNC to forget about being enablers for conservation easements and get back to their original mission - buying land outright for conservation purposes.  By buying it outright, you get away from all the problems of policing private land use of the easements an organization has taken on.

I have decided to continue to donate to the Nature Conservancy.  They do a lot of cool stuff, and philosophically I much rather spend my money to have property purchased for conservation rather than to lobby Congress to force someone to conserve at the point of a gun.  I just hope TNC can get its act together so it can continue to provide a viable private alternative to government coercion.

More on Statism and the Housing Bubble

In a followup post to the impact of "smart growth" policies on housing prices and availability, Tim Cavanaugh has this in Reason:

What's weird is how rarely, in San Francisco media, you'll hear the above
argument made at all. The "crisis" in housing prices is almost invariably
described as an inexplicable force of nature (in the local TV news) or as a
conspiracy by developers (in the alt.weeklies). You'd think, in a city full of
progressives who can talk all day about how they wish they could afford a home,
somebody might have started to wonder whether there's a connection between
political decisions and the fact that the city is remarkably segregated and
prohibitively expensive.

He has more, as does Thomas Sowell:

That fact has much to do with skyrocketing home prices. The people who vote on
the laws that severely restrict building, create costly bureaucratic delays, and
impose arbitrary planning commission notions need not pay a dime toward the huge
costs imposed on anyone trying to build anything in the San Francisco Bay area.
Newcomers get stuck with those costs...

People who wring their hands about a need for "affordable housing" seldom
consider that the way to have affordable housing is to stop making it
unaffordable. Foster City housing was affordable before the restrictive land use
laws made all housing astronomically expensive. Contrary to the vision of the
left, the free market produced affordable housing -- before government
intervention made housing unaffordable.