Posts tagged ‘suburbs’

Progressives Lamenting the Effects of Progressive Policies

Kevin Drum writes

Via Harrison Jacobs, here's a recent study showing the trend in income segregation in American neighborhoods. Forty years ago, 65 percent of us lived in middle-income neighborhoods. Today, that number is only 42 percent. The rest of us live either in rich neighborhoods or in poor neighborhoods.

This is yet another sign of the collapse of the American middle class, and it's a bad omen for the American political system. We increasingly lack a shared culture or shared experiences, and that makes democracy a tough act to pull off. The well-off have less and less interaction with the poor outside of the market economy, and less and less empathy for how they live their lives. For too many of us, the "general welfare" these days is just an academic abstraction, not a lived experience.

He does not give a reason, and apparently following the links, neither does the study author.  But my guess is that they might well attribute it to 1. effects of racism, 2.  growth of the suburbs, 3. laissez faire capitalism.

I don't think racism can be the driver of this change, given that racism and fear of other cultures is demonstrably better in the last 30 years than at most times in history  (read bout 19th century New York if you are not sure).  The suburbs have been a phenomenon for 100 years or more, and capitalism has been less laissez faire over the last 30 years than at any time in our history.

I actually believe a lot of this income sorting is a direct result of two progressive policies.  I have no data, of course, so I will label these as hypotheses, but I would offer two drivers

  • Strict enforcement of the public school monopoly.  People want good schools for their kids.  Some are wealthy enough to escape to private schools.  But the only way for those who stay in the public school system to get to the best schools is to physically move into their districts.  Over time, home prices in the best districts rise, which gives those schools more money to be even better (since most are property tax funded), and makes them even more attractive.  But as home prices rise, only the most wealthy can afford them.  This is dead easy to model.  Even in a starting state where there are only tiny inhomegeneities between the quality of individual schools, one ends up with a neighborhood sorting by income over time.  Ex post facto attempts to fix this by changing the public school funding model and sending state money to the poorest schools can't reverse it, because at least half of school quality is driven not by money by by the expectations and skills of the parents and children in it.  Thus East St. Louis can have some of the highest per pupil spending in the state but have terrible schools.  A school choice system would not likely end sorting by school, but it would eliminate a huge incentive to sort by neighborhood.
  • Strict zoning.  There has always been a desire among certain people to exclude selected groups from their neighborhoods.  This desire has not changed, or if anything I would argue it has declined somewhat.  What has changed is the increased power that exists to exclude.  Zoning laws give the rich and well-connected the political vehicle to exclude the rabble from their neighborhoods in a way that never would have been possible in a free market.  I live just next to the town of Paradise Valley, which has very strict zoning that is absolutely clearly aimed at keeping everyone but the well-off out.  They will not approve construction of new rental units.  The minimum lot sizes are huge, way beyond the reach of many.

Genetics, Race and IQ

Brink Lindsey has an great article discussing race, genetics and IQ.  It's hard to excerpt, but here is a bit of it:

A study of twins by psychologist Eric Turkheimer and colleagues that similarly tracked parents' education, occupation, and income yielded especially striking results. Specifically, they found that the "heritability" of IQ - the degree to which IQ variations can be explained by genes - varies dramatically by socioeconomic class. Heritability among high-SES (socioeconomic status) kids was 0.72; in other words, genetic factors accounted for 72 percent of the variations in IQ, while shared environment accounted for only 15 percent. For low-SES kids, on the other hand, the relative influence of genes and environment was inverted: Estimated heritability was only 0.10, while shared environment explained 58 percent of IQ variations.

Turkheimer's findings make perfect sense once you recognize that IQ scores reflect some varying combination of differences in native ability and differences in opportunities. Among rich kids, good opportunities for developing the relevant cognitive skills are plentiful, so IQ differences are driven primarily by genetic factors. For less advantaged kids, though, test scores say more about the environmental deficits they face than they do about native ability.

I have been struggling to articulate my issues with IQ for a long time.  I have always been frustrated with the nature vs. nurture arguments on intelligence, because I have always thought the answer is both.  But Brink's article get's me thinking along the lines of this simple model:

iq

In this model, intelligence is not a product that works straight out of the box, so to speak.  It's an engine with some inherent potential that requires a lot of fine-tuning and a long break-in period to reach that potential. Let's say in the US suburbs our kids have a development percentage of 0.9 (we have to leave room for future Flynn Effect -- it would be awesome if it turned out we were only at 0.5).  I assume education is an exponential rise to a limit, where early gains are easy but incremental gains at the margin are harder and harder to achieve.

development

If this is the case, then US suburban kids are probably pretty tightly clustered around that 0.9 (say from 0.88 to 0.92).  This cluster seems tight but again remember in an exponential rise to a limit, the effort and expense to take a kid from 0.88 to 0.92 might be very very large**.  In this situation, measured IQ is going to be driven mainly by genetics, with a wide bell curve in native intelligence dwarfing the effect of a much tighter bell curve around development.  Small improvements in educational development in this model both come at a high price and have little effect on measured IQ.

In a different sort of society, say in rural Mexico, kids might be much lower on the development scale, say around 0.6, due to cultural factors, educational opportunities, even diet.  In this case, large changes can occur in measured intelligence even from small changes in education (the steep part of the curve) and difference in education and development might be at least as important as the genetic contribution.

** Postscript:  Some may object that differences in education seem to be much larger than these in US schools, but we have to make sure we are talking about the same output.   Here we are solely talking about the ability to improve IQ as measured by IQ tests.  There are many other things education does than just polish native intelligence and cognitive ability.  It teaches skills.  For example, it teaches one to write.   I would agree that there are huge differences in schools in their ability to produce kids that can write good 5-paragraph essays, or complete a calculus problem, or understand how to analyze a historical document.

Huh? Is This Like the Lake Wobegon Effect?

This article at Kevin Drum's titled "The Death of Middle Class Neighborhoods" really had me scratching my head.

At first I thought this was about an end to self-segregation of the middle class.  After all, if middle class neighborhoods are gone, but middle class people are still living somewhere, then they must be living mixed up with other groups.

But then Drum says the problem is the increasing self-segregation of the middle class.  Huh?  How can they be self-segregating more but we end up with fewer all middle class neighborhoods?

But then the problem appears to be that the middle class want to hang out with the rich people.    Um, OK, I don't find this wildly surprising, though the evidence he cites for this is awful, the typical low standard of science practiced by sociologists everywhere.  But Drum himself admits he self-segregates with more educated people, so there you have your proof.

Finally, as usually is the case with the Left, the problem turns out to be not with the middle class at all but with rich people

We've been fretting for a long time about the rise of gated communities, the abandonment of public schools by prosperous city residents, and the booming market in McMansions. And more and more, this kind of segregation doesn't apply only to the truly rich. Increasingly, even the merely well off hardly have any social interaction outside their own class: they live in different neighborhoods, eat in different restaurants, send their kids to different schools and different sports leagues, and vacation in different places.

Really?  Like you had a much better chance as a poor person to be hanging out with Andrew Carnegie at the pub than you do today chilling with Bill Gates at a Starbucks?  When was this magic past time when the affluent liked to mix more with the unwashed?  I hate to just use my personal observations, but Drum does, so here is mine:  I feel like many of our meeting places today are less rather than more exclusive.  I know a lot of very rich folks, and they simply don't cloister themselves in exclusive clubs and stores like they used to -- I am not at all surprised to see them in the Costco or at the public golf course.

I can be persuaded to accept schools as an exception to this, but this hardly does much to help Drum's argument as the government school system has been run (and run into the ground) by his fellow progressives for decades.  It says a lot about private vs. public solutions that Costco has found a way to appeal equally to rich and poor but the public schools have not.

Update:  From the NYT article on the underlying study, note the problem on these maps- the urban boundary in the study is static, so as the city expands, more of the metro area is outside the bounds of the study area.  What group likely is the predominent occupant of new suburbs on the leading edge of urban boundaries?  Dare I say middle class?

The central core of older American cities has always been where the richest and poorest live.You can see this on the Philadelphia maps.  The pattern is not changing, just each area is getting larger.  A full picture would show the middle class area expanding out as well, but the study cuts off the boundary at arbitrary country lines and never expands the boundary as the city's geographic size grows.  The "trend" they are supposedly seeing are middle class continuing to move outwards from the city center, and their flawed study methodology  loses visibility to them.  This makes more sense than the study's finding, that somehow there is this weird lake Wobegon-type effect where no one is in the middle band of the percentile range.

Stupid Math Tricks

James Hansen, head of NASA's GISS and technical adviser on An Inconvenient Truth, wrote recently

Thus there is no need to equivocate about the summer heat waves in Texas in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, which exceeded 3σ – it is nearly certain that they would not have occurred in the absence of global warming. If global warming is not slowed from its current pace, by mid-century 3σ events will be the new norm and 5σ events will be common.

This statement alone should be enough for any thoughtful person who here-to-fore has bought in to global warming hysteria out of vague respect for "science" to question their beliefs.

First, he is basically arguing that a 3σ event proves (makes it "nearly certain") that some shift has occurred in the underlying process.  In particular, he is arguing that one single sample's value is due to a mean shift in the system.  I don't have a ton of experience in process control and quality, but my gut feel is that a 3σ event can be just that, a 3σ event.  One should expect a 3σ event to occur, on average, once in every 300 samples of a system with a normal distribution of outcomes.

Second, and a much bigger problem, is that Hansen is gaming the sampling process.  First, he is picking an isolated period.  Let's say, to be generous, that this 3σ event stretched over 3 months and was unprecedented in the last century.  But there are 400 3-month periods in the last hundred years.  So he is saying in these two locations there was a 3σ temperature excursion once out of 400 samples.  Uh, ok.  Pretty much what one would expect.

Or, if you don't like the historic approach, lets focus on just this year.  He treats Moscow and Texas like they are the only places being sampled, but in fact they are two of hundreds or even thousands of places on Earth.  Since he does not focus on any of the others, we can assume these are the only two that have so-called 3σ temperature events this summer.

It's hard to know how large to define "Texas"  (since the high temperatures did not cover the whole state) or "Moscow" (since clearly the high temperatures likely reached beyond the suburbs of just that city).

Let's say that the 3σ event occurred in a circular area 500km in diameter.  That is an area of 196,250 sq km each.  But the land surface area of the Earth (we will leave out the oceans for now since heat waves there don't tend to make the headlines) is about 150 million sq km.   This means that each of these areas represent about 1/764th of the land surface area of the Earth.  Or said another way, this summer there were 764 500km diameter land areas we could sample, and 2 had 3σ events.  Again, exactly as expected.

In other words, Hansen's that something unusual is going on in the system is that he found two 3σ events that happened once every 300 or 400 samples.  You feeling better about the science yet?

Luboš Motl has a more sophisticated discussion of the same statement, and gets into other issues with Hansen's statement.

Postscript:  One other issue -- the mean shift in temperatures over the last 30 years has been, at most, about 0.5C  (a small number compared to the Moscow temperature excursion from the norm).  Applying that new mean and the historic standard deviation, my guess is that the Moscow event would have still been a 2.5σ event.  So its not clear how an event that would have been unlikely even with global warming but slightly more unlikely without global warming tells us much of anything about changes in the underlying system, or how Hansen could possible assign blame for the even with near certainty to anthropogenic CO2.

Commuter Rail Numbers Don't Even Work With the Supporters' Numbers

From the AZ Republic, which just can't stop itself from shamelessly cheerleading any effort to spend billions on rail in Phoenix (perhaps the world's worst candidate for rail transit given its density and distribution of businesses).

Enough people would board a train in the Valley's suburbs that a future commuter-rail system would be as popular as some of the busiest lines in the West, new studies have found.

Well, that's a low bar.

A trio of yearlong rail studies, in nearly final form, indicates commuter rail could carry almost 18,000 passengers a day by 2030. Planners at the Maricopa Association of Governments

say, based on the findings, they favor a 105-mile, X-shaped system that could feature 33 stations and cost roughly $1.5 billion. That's a little more than the Valley's 20-mile, light-rail starter line.

If this was presented to me as a business opportunity, I would have had them stop right there.   Even before inevitable cost overruns and over-confidence in ridership, even with the supporters' numbers, they want $1.5 billion to carry 18,000 people a day.   That is a capital cost of $83,000+ per daily rider, beating the old record of Phoenix light rail which cost around $75,000 per daily rider.

Planners assume the trains will recoup about 40 percent of their expenses, based on the national average for similar service. The average fare would be about $6 to $7, Wallace said, although no detailed study has gone into fares. Generally, rates would go up the farther the trip.

Can you imagine any other investor in the world other than the government making an investment knowing that in the best case of its strongest supporters revenues will only cover 40% of costs?  And why should the rest of us subsidize folks who live in outlying areas to commute?  They moved to those areas in large part because housing was cheap and cost of living was low, with the knowlege they had a long commute.  So those of us with the forsight to live close to work have to subsidize them?  This is a really valuable service for them but they can't even pay half the cost?

Further, lets look at those cost estimates.  If we get 18,000 a day on weekdays and a third that on weekends, that yields 5 million round trips.  Given an 8% interest rate over 30 years, the capital charge is $134 million a year before overruns.  That means the fare would have to be $27 round trip or $13.50 one way just to cover the capital cost alone, without even considering operating costs.

This means their figures are nuts.  $6-$7 one-way fares barely covers 40% of the capital costs, much less the operating expenses.  We are talking about an offering that is deep in the red.  $13 round trip at 5,000,000 round trips equals $65,000,000 of revenue.  That means that taxpayers will have to foot the bill for all the operating costs  ($30 million?  $60 million) and at least $69 million of capital charges.   It is not unfair to assume that this would punch a minimum $100 million hole each year in the government's budget that we will have to make up with taxes.

Update: Gotta achnowlege this bit of sanity in the AZ Republic comments from "astonished"

Light rail is such a boondoggle. It's expensive to build and always runs at a loss. It is very hard to change the routes to respond to ridership needs. It's a vanity project for hip liberals.

If public transportation is a goal, then get some buses going. Buses are flexible, cost effective, cheap to run and maintain, and if ridership changes, you just change the routes and schedules.

Is It OK To Laugh At Your Kid?

Today I dropped my son off in England for summer school.  As background you need to know that he has lived in brand-new-out-of-the-shrinkwrap American suburbs all of his life.  So it was funny to me to see the look on his face when he was told at the college that his dorm room elevator was broken and might not be fixed for at least a month.  The "WTF?" look was priceless.  I could see him thinking that a one hour outage of infrastructure would be something to comment on back home, but a month??

But the really funny part was when the Dean asked him to check his rooming envelope to see his room number, and he realized the implication of the three digit number that started with "7."  As with most teenage boys, he wanted me gone anyway ASAP, and I was happy to leave him to his independence and avoid the trudge up to his room.  After I left, he still had a small voyage of discovery as he learns that "floor 7" in England is actually euqivilent to "floor 8" in the US.

My Commute: 1.9 Miles

I could drive a Caterpillar D6 to work and still use less fuel than most folks do in their commute.  That is because I choose to work less than 2 miles from my office, out here in the northern suburbs of Phoenix (and, when it is not 110 degrees out, there is a bike path that takes a more direct route that is even shorter).  There is no place I would choose to live anywhere near the central business district of Phoenix;  if my job was downtown, rather than in my suburban neighborhood, my commute would increase to sixty minutes per day rather than six.

So, I wonder why the movement of jobs from city centers to suburbs has the Brookings folks so upset.  If your remember, urban planning types lamented the move of homes to the suburbs, saying this increased commuting time and energy use.  Now that the jobs are moving out to the suburbs as well, close to where people actually live (rather than where the planners want them to live), this increases gas use and commute times as well?

Since 1998, almost every major American metro area has seen a drop in the share of employment located downtown as jobs have increasingly moved into farther-out suburbs, exacerbating "job sprawl" "“ a phenomenon that threatens to undermine the long-term prosperity of the nation's vital economic engines, according to a report released today by the Brookings Institution.
...
""˜People sprawl' has long been known for its effect on the environment, infrastructure, tax base, quality of life, and more. Now, we must recognize what "˜job sprawl' means for the economic health of the nation," stated Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report and senior research analyst at the Metropolitan Policy Program.

"The location of jobs is also important to the larger discussion about growing the number of jobs," said Robert Puentes, a Brookings senior fellow. "Allowing jobs to shift away from city
centers hurts economic productivity, creates unsustainable and energy inefficient development, and limits access to underemployed workers."

The economic productivity argument has me totally flummoxed.  Are they really arguing that companies purposely reduce their own productivity and access to labor?  Why?  This makes no sense, and as the Anti-Planner points out, goes totally unproven in their study.

The only possible argument I can see is a government one, that somehow suburb infrastructure by being more spread out is more costly per person than urban infrastructure.  But this is a point that has never been well proven, and is a classic case of looking at just one variable in an multi-variate system.  Sure, I would guess the total miles of sewer pipe and roads per person is greater in the suburbs than the city.  But the cost of land acquisition, infrastructure construction, and maintenance are all lower.  It is not at all clear how these balance, and the authors do not even try to figure it out.  I would be surprised if the government infrastructure costs per person in, say, Scottsdale is really higher than in Manhattan.

In fact, if there is an issue here, it strikes me it is more a government pricing issue than a demographic issue.  If government is somehow taking a loss on suburban vs. urban infrastructure, then it needs to rethink its tax structure to appropriately set property taxes and fees to match actual costs.  But I think we all know that this is NOT the problem.  Where suburbs are separate cities from the inner cities, those cities tend to have lower taxes and healthier budgets than their inner city cousins, giving the lie to the statement that suburban infrastructure is somehow more expensive (or, as a minimum, that any increase in costs are more than offset by other cost advantages to government of the suburbs).

And all this ignores the individual rights issue of why government should be influencing the shape of people's living and commuting choices at all.  Note the very suggestive words in the Brookings press release -- "Allowing jobs to shift away from city centers hurts economic productivity," as if the location of my employees requires government approval.   It's amazing to me that the children of the sixties grew up to be such control freaks.

Grass Roots Efforts to Impose Socialism

At first, I thought this was an interesting article in the battle of urban planners against suburban "sprawl."  Here is the voice of the often silent majority, who like suburbs and don't want a bunch of high-density mini-Manhattans :

Jones and his neighbors moved to Laveen's low-scale subdivisions in
hopes of finding a suburban life near the heart of the Valley, where
they could enjoy large, affordable homes a few miles southwest of
downtown Phoenix.

"We had the opportunity to buy a brand-new home we could afford, and
we had a view of downtown," Pacey says. "The potential to make this as
wonderful as other areas of Phoenix is huge."

The story has the typical highly-connected former politician turned developer (is there another kind?) using his unique access to his old zoning cronies to manipulate regulation for personal profit:

Then Paul Johnson, a former Phoenix mayor, proposed taking a mostly
vacant 27-acre parcel a few blocks east of Jones' home and building 517
apartments and townhouses on it.

The property was zoned for one house to the acre. It abuts a
two-lane road where the speed limit, when two nearby schools are in
session, is 15 mph. And the nearby intersection of 27th and Southern
avenues, which provides access to downtown Phoenix, is still controlled
by stop signs.

Schools in the neighborhood already were overcrowded, and residents
were concerned about the police's ability to keep up with calls for
service. Where were all these new people going to go?

"They've done so much building in Laveen that the infrastructure has
not kept up," says Jones, an auditor who had no previous involvement in
civic affairs.

Despite a resident outcry and opposition from Michael Nowakowski,
the councilman who had just been elected to represent the district, the
council approved the rezoning 7-1 on Dec. 19.

Johnson gets extra bonus points as the urban-chic villain, expressing the superiority of sitting in cafes to, say, having a back yard.

As a former mayor, Paul Johnson is familiar with residents' arguments against high-density developments.

"They feel that any time you have additional density, that it means
a lower quality," he says one morning over coffee at Biltmore Fashion
Park. "The counter to that is this."

Johnson gestures across Camelback Road to the high-rise apartments and townhomes near 24th Street.

"I look out across the street, and there's a lot of density there,"
he says. "But I'm also sitting in a pretty nice cafe. I have a nice
place to sit. And there's a lot of other people here who think it's a
nice place."

But it turns out that there are no good guys in this story, as is often the case for your poor libertarian correspondent.  Because, the opponents of such development are turning to the ballot box, converting property decisions from individual ones made by the property owner to group decisions made on election day.  What can be built on this particular property may well be decided at the ballot box, just as I discussed another parcel of land whose fate will be decided not by its owner, but at town elections in November.

Sometimes, the reaction to government control is a bid for de-regulation.  But more often, it merely results in a scrap for power, as parties ignore the question of whether the government power should exist at all, and instead fight over who gets to wield it.

For the most part, it has been up to city councils to decide how
much density one neighborhood can tolerate. If Jones is successful,
they could lose some of that power.

"It speaks to the age-old dilemma of representative democracy versus
direct democracy," said Paul Lewis, an assistant professor of political
science at ASU. "There's always an issue with land use because what
might be in the overall interest of the city might still be seen as a
detriment to its immediate neighborhood."

This is all very depressing.  No mention of any age-old question between individual rights and government power.  For these guys, the "city" and the "neighborhood" are somehow real entities with more rights than actual people. 

For centuries we have had a perfectly serviceable approach for determining who gets to decide what gets built on a piece of land:  ownership.  If one wanted to control a property, she/he bought it.  But the desire to control property without really owning it is a strong one, and a driving force for much of government regulation.

In Praise of Price Gouging

As I have pointed out any number of times, when supplies of something are short, you can allocate them either by price or by rationing.  Robert Rapier, via Michael Giberson made the point that combining shortages with tough state price-gouging laws inevitably led to rationing and long lines:

Someone asked during a panel discussion at ASPO whether we were going
to have rationing by price. I answered that we are having that now. But
prices aren't going up nearly as much as you would expect during these
sorts of severe shortages. Why? I think it's a fear that dealers have
of being prosecuted for gouging. So, they keep prices where they are,
and they simply run out of fuel when the deliveries don't arrive on
time. If they were allowed to raise prices sharply, people would cut
back on their driving and supplies would be stretched further.

Neal Boortz made the same point yesterday, as the gas shortages in the southeast dragged out (unsurprisingly) for a second week:

nearly 200 gas stations in Atlanta are being investigated for price gouging.  Don't investigate them!  Reward them!  Price gouging is exactly what we need!  It should be encouraged, not investigated....

The real problem now is panic buying.  People will run their tanks
down by about one-third and then rush off to a gas station.  Lines of
cars are following gas tanker trucks around Atlanta. The supplies are
coming back up, but as long as people insist on keeping every car they
own filled to the top and then filling a few gas cans to boot, we're
going to have these outages and these absurd lines. 

So, how do you stop the panic buying?  Easy.  You let the market do
what the market does best, control demand and supply through the price
structure.  The demand for gas outstrips the supply right now, so allow
gas stations respond by raising the price of gas .. raise it as much as
they want.  I'm serious here so stop your screaming.  The governor
should hold a press conference and announce that effective immediately
there is no limit on what gas stations can charge for gas.  I heard
that there was some gas station in the suburbs charging $8.00 a
gallon.  Great!  That's what they all should be doing.  Right now the
price of gasoline in Atlanta is artificially low and being held down by
government.  That's exacerbating the problem, not helping it.  Demand
is not being squelched by price. 

As the prices rise, the point will be reached where people will say
"I'm fed up with this.  I'll ride with a friend, take the bus or just
sit home before I'll pay this for a gallon of gas."  Once the price of
a gallon starts to evoke that kind of reaction, we're on our way to
solving the problem.  When gas costs, say, $8.00 people aren't going to
fill their tanks.  They also aren't going to rush home to get their
second car and make sure it is filled up either ... and you can forget
them filling those portable gas cans they have in the trunk.  Some
people will only be able to afford maybe five gallons!  Fine!  That
leaves gas in the tanks for other motorists.  Bottom line here is that
people aren't going to rush out to fill up their half-empty tanks with
$8.00 gas.

Here is something else to think of about lines and shortages.  What is the marginal value of your time?  I think most people underestimate this in their day to day transactions.  Some will say it is whatever they make an hour at work, and that is OK, but I will bet you that is low for most folks.  Most folks would not choose to work one more hour a week for their average hourly rate.  Start eating into my free time and family time, and my cost goes up.  That's why overtime rates are higher.   

So let's say an individual values his/her time at the margin for $25.  This means that an hour spent waiting in line or driving around town searching to fill up with 10 gallons raises the cost by $2.50 a gallon.  And this does not include the fuel or other wear on the car used in the search.  Or the cost of that sales meeting you missed because you did not have the gas to get there.  So an anti-gouging law that keeps prices temporarily down by a $1 or so a gallon may actually cost people much more from the shortages it creates.   

Interesting Story on Housing and Crime

A reader sent me a link to what was a pretty interesting story on housing programs and crime in the most recent issue of the Atlantic.  In short, federal housing policy over the last 20-30 years has been to blow up central housing projects (fans of the Wire on HBO will have a good idea of this type of place) that tended to concentrate poverty in a few neighborhoods in favor of voucher programs that would spread the very poor around.  The idea was to get the poor into middle class neighborhoods, with the hope that middle class schools, support networks, and values might be infused in the poor.

Some now seem to be worried that exactly the opposite is happening.  As the article relates, city centers are being revitalized by sending the poor and associated criminal elements outwards.  But in turn, certain here-to-fore quiet suburbs are seeing crime spikes, and these crime waves seem to line up well with where the housing vouchers are being used.

A couple of thoughts:

  • [insert libertarian rant on government playing god with poor people's lives, drug prohibition, government schools, etc.]
  • The people of Houston would not be at all surprised by this, and might call it the Katrina effect.  It may well be that the dispersion of poor families will eventually result in reductions in total crime (say in the next generation or two), but hardened criminals of today don't stop being criminals just because they move to new neighborhoods -- certainly Houston has found this having inherited many criminals from New Orleans.
  • I still think that if we are going to give out subsidized housing, that this in the long-run is a better approach.  The authors of the article seem to fear that the poor, having been dispersed, lost their support networks.  But it strikes me that it was this same network that reinforced all the worst cultural aspects of the old projects, and long-term I think fewer new criminals and poorly motivated kids will exist in the next generation if we can break some of this critical mass up. 
  • The article is an interesting example of how new attitudes about race can get in the way of discussion as much as the old ones.  Stories about increasing crime in the suburbs after an influx of black poor is just too similar to the old integration fears held by whites in the 1960s and 1970s. 

It's More Expensive, but Makes Up For It By Being Less Flexible

I have chastised our city on many occasions (more here) for spending enormous amounts of money on a new light rail / streetcar system for Phoenix.  These light rail systems can be twenty or more times as expensive, per mile or passenger carried, than a similar bus system.  But what really, really makes light rail nuts for Phoenix is the lack of flexibility.   Our hugely expensive new light rail system serves just one corridor, in a city that really does not even have a downtown.  Phoenix is characterized by a nearly infinite number of commuting routes that don't overlay nicely on a suburbs to city-center pattern as they might in, say, Chicago.  Further, the current route arguably follows the least congested route of any in the city!

The incremental cost of light rail over bus systems has been justified to us by our government overlords by economic development.  The argument goes that light rail creates more business development along their routes than a bus system.  Now, I am skeptical of this, given the region justified building a billion dollar stadium for the hapless Cardinals on the same justification (not to mention numerous subsidies of a couple of college bowl games that add little to an area that is going to get holiday tourists because of its climate whether there is a football game or not.

But what about Portland?  Supposedly Portland light rail is the go-by which all we unplanned cities should emulate.  But the Anti-Planner brings this helpful observation about Portland's experience with light rail and development:

Streetcar advocates often say that 7-mile-per-hour streetcars aren't about transportation, they are about economic development.
But they expect the Department of Transportation to pay for them out of
highway user fees. Why didn't they ask the Department of Housing and
Urban Development for the money?

Of course, the Antiplanner doesn't believe
that streetcars catalyze economic development. Instead, they merely
catalyze more tax subsidies for economic development. Portland spent
$90 million on a streetcar line and $665 million on subsidies to
development "” then credited the development to the streetcar line.
Yeah, right.

The Patented NY Times Sneer

Yesterday, I talked about my fondness for private conservation projects.  Today, the NY Times makes it clear that they are not so fond of private conservation.  In an article about environmentalist-triggered death of logging in the west, the Times observes that many rich folks are taking up the opportunity to buy large tracts of western forests for second homes and ranches.

William P. Foley II pointed to the mountain. Owns it, mostly. A timber
company began logging in view of his front yard a few years back. He
thought they were cutting too much, so he bought the land.

Mr. Foley belongs to a new wave of investors and landowners across the
West who are snapping up open spaces as private playgrounds on the
borders of national parks and national forests.

Cool, a win-win -- conservation without use of tax funds or government coersion.  But instead of being thrilled, the Times adopts their patented sneering tone they use with anything having to do with wealth.

The rise of a new landed gentry in the West is partly another
expression of gilded age economics in America; the super-wealthy elite
wades ashore where it will.

Hmm, I would have thought it an example of how increases in wealth in the US has always driven higher environmental standards and more conservation.  The NY Times tries to portray this as something like turning national parks into sprawling suburbs, lamenting the "increase in density," but this is just a joke and a product of a bunch of New Yorkers who have never really spent time in Montana.  There is zero danger of any kind of urbanization here, and their very story belies this fact when it talks about 640 acre lot sizes. 

The real problem for them seems to be one of access, and they lament that these new owners tend to put up no trespassing signs rather than allowing public access as private loggers used to.  But in so arguing, the Times is trying to have it both ways.  Eliminating recreation access from western lands is a HUGE priority for environmentalists.  In fact, though many in America don't know it, within a few decades it may be impossible to drive into national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.  I know and work with the management of the National Parks, and many of their leaders do not consider their job finished until they get all the visitors out of the parks.  So throwing up no trespassing signs to recreators is exactly what environmentalists want on these lands.  What they don't like, because many are openly socialist, is private ownership of these lands.  They know that increasingly, because they have gotten so good at filing lawsuits and forcing public lands officials to do their bidding, that public ownership means, effectively, ownership by the environmental groups. 

We Hate You, But Thanks for Voting for Us

I almost never post about politics, because I don't really have a horse in the Democrat-Republican race.  However, this post from Kevin Drum quoting E.J. Dione kind of tickled me.  They claim Democrats are winning the suburbs from Republicans, which I have no particular reason to dispute.  But the whole concept of Democrats competing in the suburbs is kind of funny to me.  Almost at every turn, the Left tends to use the suburbs as its great cultural whipping boy.  We hate your SUV's and your lack of public transportation and your large houses and your Walmarts and your churches and your private schools and we take your money and send it to the city centers which culturally we have much more affinity for, but thanks for voting for us.

A Real Mixed Week for Free Speech

On the positive side, the Supreme Court has struck down portions of the BCRA, also known as McCain-Feingold:

The Court concluded that Wisconsin Right to Life's ads, which urged
people to contact their senators (including one who was up for
re-election) about the confirmation of judicial nominees, did not
constitute either. The majority said "a court should find that an ad is
the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is
susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to
vote for or against a specific candidate." To put it another way,
BCRA's pre-election blackout cannot be constitutionally applied to a
spot that reasonably can be viewed as an issue ad, which means interest
groups are once again free to engage in public policy debates on the
air, no matter what time of year it is.

By the way, does anyone on the left feel at all worried that the four liberal judges were on the "limit speech" side of this issue?

But at the same time, the Supreme Court upheld speech limitations against High School students based on the content of the speech.  The rights of non-adults is a complicated issue, but precedent has been set that student speech is generally protected unless it is significantly disruptive of the school's functioning.  Except, it appears, when it is related to drugs.  This is part of a disturbing trend where an increasing number of topics, from "hate" speech to drug legalization speech are considered to be exceptions to the First Amendment.  However, almost everyone on the court seemed to have a different view on this, so it may be hard to generalize here.  Even the concurring opinions ranged the gamut from "this is narrowly aimed only at speech about narcotics" to "there is no free speech right in schools for minors."

And, speaking of hate speech, out in wacky Oakland, the world leader in Ebonics studies,

Marriage is the foundation of the natural family and sustains family
values. That sentence is inflammatory, perhaps even a hate crime.

At least it is in Oakland, Calif. That city's government says those
words, italicized here, constitute something akin to hate speech and
can be proscribed from the government's open e-mail system and employee
bulletin board. ...

Some African American Christian women working for Oakland's
government organized the Good News Employee Association (GNEA), which
they announced with a flier describing their group as "a forum for
people of Faith to express their views on the contemporary issues of
the day. With respect for the Natural Family, Marriage and Family
Values."

The flier was distributed after other employees' groups, including
those advocating gay rights, had advertised their political views and
activities on the city's e-mail system and bulletin board. When the
GNEA asked for equal opportunity to communicate by that system and that
board, it was denied. Furthermore, the flier they posted was taken down
and destroyed by city officials, who declared it "homophobic" and
disruptive.

The city government said the flier was "determined" to promote
harassment based on sexual orientation. The city warned that the flier
and communications like it could result in disciplinary action "up to
and including termination."

We might as well just repeal the First Amendment now and save time if we continue to believe that the government should ban any speech that offends someone.

Oh, and while we were talking about kids and drugs, check out this awesome rant by Mayor Cory Booker of Newark.

He wants to reserve prison cells for those who do violence and
divert the nonviolent drug offenders into treatment programs and
halfway houses.

He wants to change the New Jersey laws that
bar many ex-cons from getting a driver's license. He wants a black kid
from Newark who sells marijuana to clear his record as easily as the
white kid from the suburbs who buys it.

He wants to stop banning ex-cons from such a long list of jobs, including warehouse jobs at the nearby airport.

The scale of the problem is staggering: About 1,500 convicts are
released from state prison to Newark each year, and 1,000 of them will
likely be arrested again within three years -- mostly for drug crimes.

"The drug war is causing crime," Booker says. "It is just chewing up young black men. And it's killing Newark."

Good, its about time.  Not to be misunderstood, I would kick my kid's asses from here to the moon if I found them doing hard drugs.  But I want the responsibility to mold and repair their behavior to be mine, an option that is cut off if they get thrown in jail (which they probably wouldn't, since my kids are well off and white).  It is fine and fairly rational that we have determined as a society that kids can mess up their life doing drugs.  It is insane -- totally insane -- that our response is that we will respond by ... messing their life up even worse by throwing them in jail.

I Don't Get Light Rail

Phoenix is in the process of tearing up half the city to put in its first light rail line.  There seems to be a hard core of people out there who get a huge hard-on for light rail, and I just don't get it.  Some random observations:

  • We are building light rail that is essentially a "trolley."  This means it runs at street levels, often down the median strips of roads, and has to stop at stoplights just like cars and buses.  My question is, in this configuration, how is light rail any different than a bus?  Except for the fact, of course, that it is far more expensive and far less operationally flexible. 
  • The system is not up and running yet, so I have not seen ridership numbers, but I will make a bet:  If we take the entire cost of the system's construction, plus its annual operating losses/subsides, I will bet that we could have bought every regular rider of the rail system a nice car instead and gas for life cheaper than the cost of the rail system.
  • It looks to me like the rail system will actually increase congestion.  For most of its route, it is removing lanes from busy roads, and by running down the middle it will make left turns more difficult and complex. 
  • Supporters of these systems point to NY or London as examples of what we can achieve.  Bullshit.  No city that has embarked on this light rail stuff has had the success or the political will or the money to build out a network with the critical mass that these larger cities have.  Most end up with orphaned routes (see LA, for example) that don't tie into anything. 
  • Phoenix is the last city on the planet that a rail based system should work for.  I don't have the book in front of me, I will have to get it from home, but I remember a book on urban development that showed Phoenix had the flattest population density distribution of any city studied.  What this means is that we don't have a city center and suburbs - it means that we are basically all one big suburb.  So there are no single routes (for example in Chicago from the northern suburbs into downtown) that have any critical mass of traffic.  People are driving from everywhere to everywhere.  In fact, my suspicion has been that there are a group of politicians and business people who want to try to create a downtown area, and are using massive public funds in the form of light rail lines converging on the city center to try to jump-start such development.
  • The Commons Blog has a link-rich post on the failure of the Portland light rail system, supposedly the model all light-rail promoters point to.

Update:  Jackalope Pursuivant has more on Phoenix light rail

Intifada or Welfare State Fallout?

Rioting in the immigrant-heavy, Muslim-heavy quarters of France continues

The unrest started last Thursday when angry
youths protested the accidental deaths of two teenagers in
Clichy-sous-Bois, who were electrocuted when they jumped a wall
surrounding a high-voltage electrical transformer while fleeing police. The
anger spread across the housing projects that dominate many of Paris'
northern and northeastern suburbs, which are marked by soaring
unemployment, delinquency and a sense of despair.

The
rioting has grown into a broader challenge for the French state. It has
laid bare discontent simmering in suburbs where immigrants "” many of
them African Muslims "” and their French-born children are trapped by
poverty, unemployment, discrimination, crime and poor education and
housing.

There are those who want to call this the beginning of a new European Intifada, a war of Muslims against non-Muslims.  They want to portray these riots in the same context as Islamic terrorism and Al Qaeda. 

Call me slow, but I just haven't seen evidence that the recent violence in Paris has religious overtones.  Maybe it is under-reported, but I haven't seen any targeting of Christians or Jews or Jewish Temples and such that one might expect in intifada-type violence. 

So far, a better explanation seems to be that these neighborhoods have been the victim of of the current form of Euro-socialism.  In this economic model, a whole collection of laws make it very expensive for companies to hire anyone.  If you do hire anyone, you have to pay them a very high salary, give them a fat package of benefits, weeks and weeks of paid vacation, and they only have to work 36 hours a week for you.  And, if the person doesn't do a good job, too bad because it is nearly impossible to fire them.  This may appear to be a great system for those who already have a job, but for the unemployed, the young, and the unskilled, it is a disaster.  Who in their right mind is going to take a chance on a young, unskilled employee who you have to pay a fortune and who you can't fire if they aren't any good.  And in particular, who is ever going to hire a young, unskilled immigrant for a job in France?

The answer is no one, which is possibly another reason for the rioting.  France has an unemployment rate that has hovered around 10% for years, but the unemployment rate for those under 25 years old is a truly shocking 23% and I would bet the unemployment rate for young immigrants may be as high as 40-50%. 

In the US, we have gone through phases of this same type of economic thinking.  A big part of motivation behind the original passage of minimum wage law, including the recently famous Davis-Bacon law, was to protect skilled white laborers against wage competition from blacks and immigrants.  Fortunately, the US has always stopped short of the radically distorting labor market laws they have in Europe, but new efforts in this country to raise minimum wages and generally make it harder for immigrants to enter the labor market should worry all of us, particularly those of us in immigrant heavy states like Arizona.

Why Aren't There More Private Schools?

Why Aren't There More Private Schools?  This is a conversation my dad and I have had any number of times - as he has sat on the board of a number of public and private schools / districts and I have, given frequent moves, oven shopped for schooling for my kids.

The first, perhaps most obvious answer is that there is not that large of a market, because few people can afford to pay two tuitions for their kids (i.e. public school tuition via property taxes and then a separate private school payment).  But, I think that that answer is wrong.  This country is tremendously wealthy, both on average and at the top end.  Most really good private k-12 schools are oversubscribed -- with competitive entry requirements and long waiting lists.  We have all heard stories about New York City schools where you have to practically go straight from the act of conception to the admissions office to have a chance to get the kid in.

I have my own experience with this, in many cities, but take Seattle for example.  In the east side suburbs, their are 3-5 high quality private elementary schools, and for the most part, they are all way oversubscribed.  One of them admits something like 6% of applicants.  And charges $10,000+ a year for kindergarten and more for later years.

What other industries are there where 94% of the demand for a $10,000+ product goes unmet by new entrants?  And unmet for decades, not just in a short period of mismatched capacity?  Just look at iPods - how many people jumped into the market with copycat products when they saw the popularity of this product, and Apple's inability to keep up with demand?

But what really got me thinking about this problem was when I moved back to Phoenix.  Despite having my kids in some of the best schools in every city we have lived in, the absolute best is, of all places, here in Phoenix.  How do I know it is the best?  Well, my son went to kindergarten at this Phoenix school, and then we moved to Seattle for two years.   In Seattle, we went to what was supposed to be about the best elementary school on the east side -  Gates sent some of his kids here, as did the McCaws, and many other people who could afford any place they wanted.  At the end of second grade, the school told me my son could have skipped second grade, which means he could have skipped first grade there too.  In two years, he never learned anything more than he learned in one year of kindergarten in Phoenix.

There are two other interesting things about this Phoenix-area private school, beyond just its excellence:

  • It is by far the cheapest we have ever attended, less than half what we paid in Seattle and well under the average per-pupil spending in public schools
  • It is for profit - not a charity or foundation.  It has no donations, government grants, endowments, etc.  It runs itself for profit, it is inexpensive, and the education is great.

The school is not perfect -- it has a strong focus on academics, without the big theater programs or art programs or photography classes you might find in a large public school, so we have to supplement that stuff outside of school.  But my point is, why aren't there more schools like this?  Why aren't people jumping in to fill this market?  This is more than of academic interest to me.  I am a big supporter of school choice, but to support choice you have to believe that private schools will be created to meet the new demand vouchers would open up.

Thus it is with great interest that I saw this post at Marginal Revolution about the barriers to starting a private school.  They link this article from the Reason foundation.  The Reason Foundation argues that a lot of micro-regulation, particularly zoning, limits private schools, especially when zoning boards are dominated by people who have an interest in protecting public schools from competition.

In the context of my Seattle story earlier, by the way, note this proposal that came out a while back to actually ban private school (and church) construction in large parts of the county that Seattle is in. 

UPDATE:

There were several responses to this along the lines of 'so what - everyone has to navigate basic permitting processes'.  That may be, but my experience is that zoning is stacked against private schools, even before you consider the proposed total ban on private school construction described in the article I linked above.  For example, in the Seattle eastside suburbs, one private school that needed to move to larger quarters was unable to find a site within a 20 mile radius where they were allowed to build a private school.  Residential zoned tracks did not want more traffic from a school, and they were not allowed to have a school with little kids in most commercial zoned tracks.  The point is that private schools face permitting hurdles that go beyond what most businesses face, and, as I mentioned earlier, most zoning boards are packed with people who have a vested interest in not allowing new private schools to be built anywhere.