Posts tagged ‘San Jose’

Stealth Takings: Forcing the Current Landholder to Pay for Public Benefits

Apparently, the public wants to preserve the house where the Apple Computer was born.   OK.  So is some private non-profit gathering money to buy it and preserve it?  Has the local town appropriated money to buy it and take it over?

None of the above.  The town is simply designating the house as a landmark, imposing all sorts of new costs on the current owner.  This is a taking, and should be treated as such

It doesn't seem like Patricia Jobs, sister of famed Apple co-founder Steve, is exactly onboard with her family home being designated a "historic resource" by the Los Altos Historical Commission. Not that it matters, anyway. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the decision to preserve the one-story home at 2066 Crist Drive where Jobs got a start building the first Apple computers was made independent of her consent. The distinction, which Patricia can still appeal, also means any renovations/repairs to the home would first have to be reviewed by the commission -- so you can understand why the honor's both a blessing and a curse.

Is There Not One Single Operations Engineer in the TSA?

I go nuts when I see a bad process.  It bothers me so much I had to stop going to the local bagel outlet because their process behind the counter was so frustratingly awful it made my teeth hurt  (take order here, walk all the way to other end to get bagel, walk all the way back to toaster, then cross back over to get spread, all while nobody is able to pay because the only cashier also seems to be the only one assigned to fulfilling complicated coffee orders).

Because of this, going through TSA screening makes me completely nuts.  Screening is a classic assembly line process with steps that include putting shoes in bin, putting toiletries in bin, putting laptop in bin, shoving bin through x-ray, walking through scanner, retrieving items from x-ray, putting on shoes, putting items back in luggage, stacking bins and returning them to the front.  In many airports, I have observed that the long lines for screening are due to a simple bottleneck that could easily be removed if anyone in the TSA actually cared about service performance.

For example, I was in the San Jose airport the other day.  They had a really large area in front of the scanners with really long tables leading to the x-ray.  I thought to myself that this was smart - give people plenty of time in the line to be organizing their stuff into bins so one of the key potential bottlenecks, the x-ray machine, is always fed with items and is never waiting.

But then I got to the end of the process.  The landing area for stuff out of the x-ray was incredibly short.  When just one person tries to put their shoes on while their bag was still on the line, the whole x-ray conveyor gets jammed.  In fact, when I was there, the x-ray guy had to sit and wait for long periods of time for the discharge end to clear, so he could x-ray more bags.  One might have blamed this on clueless passengers who held up the line trying to put on shoes when they should step out of line and find a bench, but there were just two tiny benches for five screening lines.  The only place to get your stuff organized and get dressed was at the discharge of the x-ray, guaranteeing the x-ray gets held up constantly.

I can almost picture what happened here, but since I don't fly to San Jose much I haven't observed it over time.  But I bet some well-meaning but clueless person thought he saw a bottleneck in the entry to the x-ray, shifted everything to dedicate a ton of space to the entry, and thus created an enormous new bottleneck at the back end.  This kind of thing is stupid.  We are, what, 11 years into this screening?  Can you imagine Texas Instruments tolerating such a mess on their calculator assembly line for 11 years?

Um, It Seems We Have Misplaced $2 Billion

I do a lot of work with California State Parks, being a concessionaire in some of their parks, so I have been following the various scandals in that agency closely.  One part of the scandal was that CSP apparently hid something like $54 million in reserve funds from the legislature.  I wondered how it was possible for the state to not know there was $54 million lying around un-reported.

It seems like we have a partial solution to my quandary.  It is possible to misplace $54 million when you also misplace another $2 billion.

More than $2 billion in California taxpayer money has apparently been stashed in hundreds of special funds unaccounted for by the state Department of Finance, a newspaper reported on Friday.

An examination of more than 500 special fund accounts, like the $54 million discrepancy in state parks money, showed a $2.3 billion "discrepancy" between state controller and Department of Finance numbers, according to the San Jose Mercury News ( http://bit.ly/MPdkls).

No one checks the controller's figures, so the difference wasn't caught.

The analysis showed at least 17 accounts appear to have significantly more reserve cash than what was reported to the Finance Department.

The violent crime victim restitution fund, for instance, was off by $29 million, and a low-cost child health insurance fund was off by $30 million. The fund that rewards people who recycle bottles and cans was $113 million off.

State finance officials operate under a  longtime honor system. The controller's figures were never checked and oversight groups didn't catch the discrepancies even though the numbers are publicly available on two state websites.

LOL, politicians' "honor".  We can see what that is worth.

More on California's Big Dig

The Anti-Planner has more on the California high speed rail proposal I wrote about earlier.  My guess was that the first $9 billion bond issue, on the ballot this fall, would not get the train out of the LA metro area.  Well, I was right and wrong.  The smart money thinks the line will start at the other end, in San Francisco.  But the betting is that for $9 billion the line won't even get out of the San Francisco metro area, making it perhaps as far as San Jose. 

But we have a second data point -- there is a proposal on the table to extend BART from Fremont to Santa Clara for $4.7 billion, a distance (as shown on the map below) about a third of that from San Francisco to San Jose.
Map

I am not sure what high-speed rail technology that they are considering, but a true high-speed line requires special alignments, track, and signaling that should make it FAR more expensive per mile than a BART line (just as an example, a true high-speed line could take miles to make a 90 degree turn, eating up land and reducing alignment flexibility in a very congested and hilly area).  And remember, the BART cost estimate is probably low.

No way these guys get to San Jose for $9 billion, much less to LA for $40 billion.  Just what Californians need with their massive budget deficit:  a brand new white elephant.

The San Francisco Sweatshop

Several companies have been discovered to have benefited from what is in effect slave labor in certain countries.  I have never had a problem with folks in poor countries freely opting to take jobs at factories for less money than our privileged middle class attitudes think to be "fair."  But there have been examples of governments using their coercive power in a cozy relationship with certain companies, forcing people to provide their labor to companies for wages below what they would freely accept.   It is an obscene form of modern slavery.

Today's example, though, does not come from Myanmar or China, but from San Francisco, California, USA, where the government is forcing its citizens to work for free to benefit itself and a few favored corporations to produce products for export.

The resale of recycled materials is apparently big business for a few government contractors:

"When we look at garbage, we don't see garbage, O.K.?" said Robert
Reed, a spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems, the parent company of
Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling Company, the
main garbage collectors in the city. "We see food, we see paper, we see
metal, we see glass."...

Jared Blumenfeld, the director of the city's environmental programs,
addressed one of the main reasons the city keeps up the pressure to
recycle. "The No. 1 export for the West Coast of the United States is
scrap paper," Mr. Blumenfeld said, explaining that the paper is sent to
China and returns as packaging that holds the sneakers, electronics and
toys sold in big-box stores.

This "No. 1 export product" is wholly a product of major government subsidies.  Reading the article, you get a sense for the enormous amount of extra capital and operating expenses the city pours into the recycling program.  Here is just one example:

San Francisco can charge more for its scrap paper, he said, because of
its low levels of glass contamination. That is because about 15 percent
of the city's 1,200 garbage trucks have two compartments, one for
recyclables. That side has a compactor that can compress mixed loads of
paper, cans and bottles without breaking the bottles. (These specially
designed trucks, which run on biodiesel, cost about $300,000 apiece, at
least $25,000 more than a standard truck, said Benny Anselmo, who
manages the fleet for Norcal.)

Anyone really think they are making enough extra money on scrap paper to cover this (at least) $4.5 million incremental investment  ($25k x 15% x 1200)?   Suspiciously absent from the article is any mention of costs or budgets.  City recycling guys have given up trying to defend recycling on the basis of it being cheaper than just burying the material.  The city is subsidizing this material a lot.

But it's not enough.  Even with these enormous subsidies, the city is not producing as much recycled materials to meet its goals.  So it is going to make its citizenry provide it more labor.  For free.

...the city wants more.

So Mr. Newsom will soon be sending the
city's Board of Supervisors a proposal that would make the recycling of
cans, bottles, paper, yard waste and food scraps mandatory instead of
voluntary, on the pain of having garbage pickups suspended.

The city is going to coerce every single resident to labor for them each week, just so San Francisco and Norcal Waste Systems can have more scrap paper for export.  This is a labor tax of immense proportions.  I know, whenever I make this point about recycling, everyone wants to poo-poo it.  "Oh, its not much time, really."  Really?  Lets use the following numbers:  Five minutes per day of labor.  One million residents.  $20 per hour labor value (low in San Francisco).  That is $608 million if forced labor.  I'm not sure even Nike has been accused of using this much forced labor.

Anticipated Rejoinder: Yeah, I know, the response will be "It's not for the exports, it's to save the environment."  OK, here is my counter:

  1. Nowhere in the article does it really say how this program, or going from 70 to 75% recycling, is specifically going to help the environment.  I took the article at its face value, where it justifies the program on the basis of exports and hitting an arbitrary numerical target and beating out San Jose.  I am tired of unthinking acceptance of recycling as a net benefit.  Every study has shown that aluminum recycling creates a net energy benefit, but every other material represents a net loss.  It makes us feel good, though, I guess.
  2. Should proponents support the direct subsidy by government and the labor tax, there is still some burden to show that this is the best possible environmental use of 30 million San Francisco man-hours of coerced labor in the course of a year.
  3. For those really worked up about CO2, explain to me why we shouldn't bury every scrap of waste paper as a carbon sink.
  4. The last time I visited, San Francisco was one of the grubbier US cities I have seen of late, with trash everywhere on the streets and sidewalks.  It may just have been a bad data point, but are residents really happy the city trash department focusing on scrap paper pricing yield rather than picking up the trash?
  5. I class battery and motor oil recycling programs differently.  These substances have unique disposal needs and high costs of incorrect disposal.

This Could Easily Be Said About Phoenix Light Rail

Tom Kirkendall observes that this could have been written about Houston light rail.  I would add that it also could have easily been written about Phoenix light rail, which I have criticized here and here and here.  And heavy rail? Don't get me started.

Beyond these impressions, Tom Rubin observes that VTA has "the worst
operating statistics fo any American transit operator." The reason for
this, he says, is that San Jose "” being built mostly after World War II
"” is one of the most spread-out urban areas in the country. Not only
are people spread out, but jobs are spread out, with no job
concentrations anywhere.

This makes large buses particularly unsuitable for transit because
there is no place where large numbers of people want to go. So what was
VTA's solution when its bus numbers were low relative to other transit
agencies? Build light rail "” in other words, use an expensive
technology that requires even more job concentrations.

Now it has one of the, if not the, poorest-patronized light-rail
systems in America. So what is its solution? Build heavy rail, a
technology that requires even more job concentrations.

This is an interesting factoid from another Anti-Planner post:

The amazing thing to the Antiplanner is that anyone would take this
proposal seriously. The average urban freeway lane costs about $10
million per mile. The average light-rail line costs about $50 million
per mile and carries only a fifth as many people. Seattle's proposed
lines were going to cost $250 million per mile, making then 125 times
more expensive at moving people than a freeway lane.

State-Run Companies and Investment, Part 3

One of the urban legends of the civics world is that is some project really requires investment for the long-term, the government needs to do it since private companies are too short-term profit focused. 

Over a series of posts, I have been showing just how terrible state run companies are at making long-term investments compared to private companies.   I showed the Mexican state oil company eschewing investment in favor of bloated patronage-based payrolls and social spending, and the nationalized Venezuelan companies doing the same thing.  What you see in both cases is that the state run oil companies are particularly bad at making investments to maintain production, investments that can be huge in the oil business.  Leftists have convinced themselves that oil companies make a fortune with little or no work, that oil extraction is kind of like clipping coupons.  But the maintenance of any infrastructure is hugely expensive, and takes a discipline and focus that the state does not have.  Belatedly, some of them are learning that producing oil takes real work and constant re-investment.  It bizarrely reminds me of Carl talking to Vernon in the Breakfast Club:
"You took a teaching position, 'cause you thought it'd be fun, right?
Thought you could have summer vacations off...and then you found out it
was actually work...and that really bummed you out"

But I don't want to imply that this is just a poor-country, banana republic problem.  Defenders of big government in the US will say that government can do all these things just fine, if only you have the right people in charge.  But under-investment in public assets, particularly in refurbishment, is a constant problem in the US as well.  Every Senator likes to get his name on building a new facility, but you don't get your name on a maintenance contract, so lots of things get built by the government but few get maintained.  Disney would never let its parks get as run down as the government
allows its public parks to get.  Wal-Mart (like most retailers) virtually rebuilds its stores every
twenty years, and would never let its infrastructure get as run
down as, say, the average US post office.

So I take as my example the Washington Metro system, one of the highest-profile public infrastructure projects in the country:

The Metro Rail system was built with federal dollars, with the
understanding that local governments would pay for its operation. But
no one was prepared to pay for rail reconstruction, which is
needed every 30 years or so and which costs a substantial fraction of
the original construction cost. Now, some of the system is approaching
30 years of age and is breaking down with increasing frequency.

The article, by Randal O'Toole of Cato, goes on to show another example of this same mindset:

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to ignore the gorilla in the corner,
which is that VTA's board wants to spend $4.7 billion to connect the
San Francisco BART system to San Jose. The agency only has enough money
to build to the edge of San Jose, but even if it had all the money for
construction, its general manager admits "we clearly do not have the money to operate the system." Nevertheless, the board recently voted to spend $185 million "” more than half of VTA's annual operating budget "” on preliminary engineering.

Meanwhile, VTA is still short on operating funds, so it is contemplating "eliminating or consolidating" service on more than a quarter of its remaining bus lines.