Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Sprawl and Health

"Is Sprawl Unhealthy" ask Alexia C. Kelly-Schwartz, Jean Stockard, Scott Doyle and Marc Schlossberg (all of U. of Oregon) in the latest Journal of Planning Education and Research. They write that, "... the results indicate that even with strong controls for individual variables, residents of areas with more highly accessible and gridded street networks have higher health ratings. At the same time, residents of more densely populated urban areas have lower health, net of individual-level measures. Measures of sprawl have no significant relationship to frequency of walking, body mass index, or diagnosis of various chronic diseases. However, among those with chronic conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, and lung disease, those who live in areas with more highly connected street networks have higher rated health."

Leaving aside any quibbles about methodology, data or inference, what are we to do with such findings? The authors conclude that, "... some aspects of compact development, such as street connectivity, [promote] better health, and other aspects, such as high density, potentially [detract] from better health."

Neither planners nor developers (nor their clients and customers) have shown any interest in low density development sited on tightly gridded street networks. There are trade-offs in production and in consumption that are reconciled in the real world -- often best reconciled in the markeplace.

Planners, policy makers and politicians should do (very) few things and do them well. There is very little for them to do in the realm of health and the physical environment. They will, of course, forever be on the lookout for simple associations that might expand their ambit.

Just last week the WSJ reported that, "CDC Study Overstated Obesity as a Cause of Death ... Admitting Errors, Agency Expects to Revise Findings; Big Health Concerns Remain ..." Of course.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Digital Divide

Forbes columnist Rich Karlgaard writes in the the Nov 29 issue: "Five years ago for the sake of the kids, my wife and I unplugged our television. ... Bottom line, the Karlgaards could not watch the election on TV. So we followed it on the Internet. Wise choice. Around 10 pm Eastern we knew George Bush had the vote in the bag, even in Ohio. The fat lady was singing lustily on the IP channels. I fired off an e-mail to a friend in Connecticut, urging him to relax and go to bed. Bush was sailing to an easy win. Television -- old, slow and biased -- wouldn't tell us the truth for another two and a half hours."

The "digital divide" that had obsessed class warriors for some years is actually about those who still get their news and entertainment from TV and those who do not.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Urban Myths

What does it take to deflate an urban myth? Are we all driving autos because various corporations successfully conspired to limit the transit option? George Hilton told us 30 years ago that, for the L.A. case, this was nonsense (see also Cliff Slater's more recent work). Yet, the myth was given new life in the 1987 animated fantasy "Who Shot Roger Rabbit?"

Beyond Hollywood, Prof Sharon Beder of the University of Wollongong (NSW, Australia), writing in "The Public Relations Assault on Transport Sustainability," also thinks it's all true.

It's getting to be an old story that in the world of ideological environmentalism, anything goes. And this reaches into the world of university research. The interesting question, then, is: What do the students take away from all of this?

In the U.S., various studies have shown that the ideological split among faculty is at least 90/10 towards the left. Yet, the country is now 50/50. Tom Sowell recently reported that the left picks up 5% of that from the left-leaning media. How much to add from the left-leaning professoriate? Perhaps nothing. This would be the result if the professoriate as a whole is "fair and balanced" (I wonder) -- or if undergrads are more bemused than impressed by their professors' political leanings (David Brooks' point).

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Bodies of Evidence

Colleague Martin Krieger recently reminded me that while evidence rarely causes people to change their minds, bodies of evidence occasionally do.

Ron Bailey's Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death adds to the accumulating evidence. JulianSimon, Bjorn Lomborg and many others had gotten the ball rolling. Baily's anthology keeps it going.

I just spoke at the "Towards Sustainable Land Transport" conference in Wellington, NZ. When members of the audience admonished me to take seriously the report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it was very useful to refer them to the points made by John R. Christy in "The Global Warming Fiasco", Ch. 1 of Bailey's book.

As far as I could tell, no one fainted.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Down Under

The Aussies eat their national animal but (surprisingly) sparingly. Kangaroos are abundant, breed like rabbits and are not about to become extinct. Tastes great and looks to be a sustainable diet.

The press and people one encounters in NZ and Australia are rabidly anti-American foreign policy; smart people embrace the craziest consiparcy theories (e.g., Bush and Powell conned the world for private "corporate" gain).

The Sydney monorail is nothing but a tourist trincket. The good news is that it is not an eyesore.

"Australian Idol" is very big. Bigger than anything I ever noticed about American Idol. I saw fireworks over Sydney's harbor -- on TV, Millenium midnight -- and again last night in person, as part of celebrations of the local taping of the latest episode. Politicians are eager to be seen with local contestants and the doings are front-page news in Sydney every day that I have been here.

Who knew?

Monday, November 15, 2004

Trouble in Paradise

Go to Tahiti and start spending French Francs. Actually you buy and spend Pacific French Francs, not Euros.

What is "French Polynesia"? It appears that there is ambiguity and controversy. Colonies are, of course, out and so are large island chains that include international waters. Add the efforts of the friends of French President Chirac to find him a job with immunity from any sort of criminal prosecution when his term expires in 2007, and contested elections and a royal family with ambitions -- and this really gets interesting.

Mr. Rene Hoffer takes all of this seriously. Enough to take the title President of Tahihi (sic). The French Supreme Court has taken up the case. Yet, is their jurisdiction settled? Is this a case for the UN?

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Election Was Stolen

I have had emails asking me to sign on-line petitions asking Congress to investigate the recent elections. The Michael Moore-left, which didn't get it before Nov. 2, is still without a clue. This is funny and sad. The country needs better than a clueless opposition.

Elections in America are actually awry when it comes to gerrymandered districts, the resulting power of incumbency, the Supreme Court's avoidance of the resulting disenfranchisement problem, and the silly diversion of campaign finance reform.

The morning's WSJ includes a pointed editiorial on "No Contest"

"There are 435 Members of the House of Representatives, but only seven incumbents lost last week. The political class would like us to think that those numbers represent the voters' satisfaction with their Congressmen. But everyone knows better.

"Election Day once again highlighted just how uncompetitive most Congressional races have become. Not only are most outcomes foreordained, but the contests aren't even close. Winners in just 37 House races this year received 55% or less of the vote, which is the conventional threshold for determining vulnerability in the next election cycle. That's down from 62 such races in 2000.

"Blame the perks of incumbency, and blame gerrymandering especially. The Founders required elections every two years because they designed the House to be the political body most responsive to the public. But politicians, through their ability to draw their own districts, have rigged the system to undermine those intentions and hold on to power. Computer databases now assess voter tendencies block by city block, and contests are effectively decided months before anyone pulls a lever.

"Of the seven incumbents who lost this year, four were Texas Democrats who went down because their districts were redrawn by Republicans. (The three others were a Democrat in Indiana and a Republican in Illinois and in Georgia.) Currently, the redistricting racket favors the GOP. But it hurt the party for years before 1994 and eventually it will again. In any case, the dearth of competitive House races is bad for the country because it makes for less accountable politicians.

"In more than 150 House races, the winner garnered at least 60% of the vote. More than 75 others -- double the number of competitive races -- were certifiable landslides, with the winner grabbing 70% or higher. Those types of results scare off potential challengers. Over in the Senate, by contrast, 11 of 34 contests were won with 55% of the vote or less, and two others by 56%. The politicians haven't found a way to gerrymander an entire state. Yet.

"If Republicans are now opportunistically using their majorities to reverse Democratic gerrymanders, then good-governance liberals aren't helping by making money their reform holy grail. While the politicians have built safe seats -- and the Supreme Court has blocked responses such as term limits -- John McCain and his friends on the left have peddled campaign finance reform as the panacea. But if they really care about making elections more competitive, they'll drop the fool's errand of trying to separate money from politics and instead push initiatives that would turn redistricting over to nonpartisan panels, as in Iowa and Washington state.

"A good place to start is California, which has 53 House seats, 12% of the entire nation's, yet not one of them switched parties last week. In 51 of those races, the winner received at least 60% of the vote. Nor is the entrenchment limited to Congress. "In all 100 state Assembly and Senate races," reports the Sacramento Bee, "the winner was either the incumbent or a candidate from the incumbent's party."

"The good news for Californians opposed to electing politicians for life is that they have a popular Governor in Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger who can do something about it. Voters followed Arnold's lead on 10 of his 14 initiative recommendations last week. Were he to back a ballot measure that removed control of redistricting from the Legislature -- and gave it to retired judges or another independent body -- it might stand a good chance of passing.

"Non-competitive elections only increase voter cynicism, and we seem to be holding more of them. Next to the bipartisan gerrymander scandal, the campaign finance debate that so preoccupies the media is an irrelevancy."

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Elite Opinion and Arafat

The LA Times embarrassed itself today by referring to the deceased Arafat as "A Guerilla and Statesman" on its front page.

Much better was the op-ed by columnist Max Boot:


"How Arafat Got Away With It"

"It is considered bad form to speak ill of the dead, but I will make an exception for Yasser Arafat, the pathetic embodiment of all that went wrong in the Third World after the demise of the European empires.

"All too many rulers of "liberated" nations in the second half of the 20th century — the likes of Mao Tse-tung (China), Sukarno (Indonesia), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Moammar Kadafi (Libya) and Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt) — proved to be devotees of the Louis XIV school of political philosophy: L'etat, c'est moi. Their rapaciousness knew no bounds. Neither did their cruelty.

"Yet even as these rulers were torturing their own people, they were lionized in the salons of the West. European and American intellectuals, motivated by a combination of guilt for their countries' past conduct, vicarious zest for revolutionary adventure and condescension toward Africans and Asians who were thought incapable of conforming to Western standards, were willing to excuse any crime committed in the name of 'national liberation.'

"Arafat benefited from this deference ever since taking over the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1969. He and his cronies pocketed billions of dollars and kept their grip on power through the cruel application of violence against various enemies and "collaborators." In return, Arafat reaped worldwide adulation and a Nobel Peace Prize.

"There has been no more successful terrorist in the modern age. Yet his biggest victims were not Israelis. It was his own people who suffered the most. If Arafat had displayed the wisdom of a Gandhi or Mandela, he would long ago have presided over the establishment of a fully independent Palestine comprising all of the Gaza Strip, part of Jerusalem and at least 95% of the West Bank. In fact, he seemed well on his way toward this goal when I met him in 1998 as part of a delegation of American scholars and journalists.

"The place was his Ramallah compound, the time after midnight (Arafat was a night owl). He was wearing his trademark fatigues, and his hands and lips were shaking uncontrollably. Much of the session was conducted via translator, but Arafat broke into English when asked a question about Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords. It was the kind of query a democratic statesman would have batted away without a second thought.

"Arafat, however, grew visibly agitated and stammered: 'Be careful when you are speaking to me! Be careful, you are speaking to Arafat!' The threat of violence hung in the air as we left. Clearly Arafat had not quite mastered the art of being a politician or, rather, he was a politician in the mold of Mugabe or Mao. His refusal to compromise, his unwillingness to give up the way of the gun consigned his people to economic and moral suicide. The current intifada, launched in September 2000 after Arafat turned down a generous peace offer from the Israelis at Camp David, has claimed three times as many Palestinian as Israeli victims. It has also led to a precipitous plunge in living standards in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — not something Arafat's wife and daughter would notice from their cozy Paris residence.

"As the uprising's failure became evident, many of his own people grew increasingly disenchanted with their corrupt and feckless leader, though they could not quite shake off a Stalinist cult of personality nurtured over many decades.Though Arafat, of course, bore ultimate responsibility for his many sins, he could not have been so destructive without so many outside enablers, ranging from the Soviet Union, which supported him from the 1960s to the 1980s, to the European Union and the United States, which stepped into the sugar daddy role in the 1990s. And let us not forget his fan club among the Western intelligentsia, many of whom even now weep for his passing as if he were a great man instead of a criminal with a cause.George W. Bush, alone among Western leaders, had the courage to stop dealing with the Palestinian thug-in-chief ..."

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mom and Pop Businesses

Data from the 2002 Economic Census are beginning to come in (www.census.gov). Preliminary results show that sales by "Mom and Pop"(nonemployer firms) grew faster than sales by firms that employ others, 32% vs 21% (current dollars, 1997-2002). The phenomenon was seen in Manufacturing, Finance and Insurance, Real Estate, Adminstrative Support, Educational Services, Arts and Entertainment, Accommodation and Food Services, and Other Services.

Many of these enterprises are immigrants being productive and competitive. Coming to a Red County near you.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

"Two Americas" Flop

After a Sunday of reading post-election punditry, I have found nothing substantial on the John Edwards flop and the wisdom of his ticket's "Two Americas" gambit. While class warfare is fascinating to artists, intellectuals, left politicians and their wannabees, it does not seem to click any more with American voters. This is nothing but good news -- and at least as interesting as the conversation over how happy we are (or are not).

Economists even have a name for the idea that people evaluate their prospects, not their status: Prospects of Upward Social Mobility (POUM). The POUM literature is mainly theoretical and establishes the formal conditions. Empirical results are harder to find -- unless one considers post-WW II elections.

One-party dominance can be scary. I am even sympathetic to the Los Angeles Times' call for Bill Clinton to replace Terry McCauliffe.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Patio Man and the Election

Re those red and blue counties again, some weeks ago, I posted the changing big-cities' shares of the U.S. population for various census years, 1900-2000. Those data showed an urbanizing population to about 1940 and a suburbanizing population since then. Exurbanizing-suburbanizing is probably more accurate.

The county-level employment data that I have only goes back to 1970. The decentralization story holds there too. Most commuting is now suburb-to-suburb.

I receive posts from a planners' listserv and the red-voting-county-exurban-suburban connection is a hot topic.

I assign David Brooks' "Patio Man and the Sprawl People" to my real estate development students. Patio Man is Brooks' exurban-suburban everyman, sketched with humor and insight. Yet, the humor derives from recognition and self-recognition. What the pundits (and politicians) are going to have to get used to is that the Patio Man demographic is growing -- and it does not conform to the hard-right ideologue image that pops up in all of the great-divide "culture wars" talk.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Home Rule

Red states--blue states misses the point. The LA Times shows a map of red and blue counties -- along with a county-level population density map. The red counties tend to be low-density counties -- just as David Brooks pointed out on the Jim Lehrer news last night and just as he noted after the 2002 results.

These voters are not simply evangelicals but a large and growing slice of America. People tend to move to smaller communities (and to private comunities) because home-rule is their best hope for property rules (including zone changes) that they trust. Neighborhood change is a source of risk and home-rule is a form of insurance.

Regional planning advocates have not been listening. No surprise that in Oregon they have just been repudiated by (it appears) 60% of the electorate that supports Oregon's Prop 37. If regional land use rules diminish property values, the owners have to be compensated. What a concept!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

They Only Have to Win Once

The current Forbes includes a round-up of "Thoughts" re politics, including John Kenneth Galbraith's "Politics consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."

Wendell Cox tipped me to the Florida vote on high-speed rail; by a 2-1 margin, voters repealed a state constitutional requirement that high-speed rail be built.

Voters wisely saw that the amendement made no sense in the absence of a constitutional rule that requires people to ride high-speed rail.

Tripping around the net, however, I see that voters in Maricopa County, Austin and Denver voted to build more rail transit.

They only have to win once. In Phoenix, for example, rail transit initiatives had lost many times. When the stakes are big enough, however, the advocates simply re-group after each loss. Because they know that they only have to win once.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Mega-Projects Around the World

Bent Flyvbjerg et al. "Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition" provide international data on these undertakings.

Having read their papers over the years, I had not yet seen the book. The JEL's reviewer, Peter Forsyth, notes that the authors' surveys show that, "Out of 258 projects across the world, 90 percent experienced cost overruns, and the average overrun was 28 percent. In a survey of 210 road and rail projects, actual demand for the projects was 39 percent less than the forecast average, though actual demand for road projects was 9 percent higher than forecast."

Once the boosterism boils, analysis and thought go out the window. The green-based romance re trains lives on. The reality of auto use is resisted. Cost-benefit analysis is abused, misused or not used.

Preparing for a class on the topic, I am told that Edith Stokey and Richard Zeckhauser's "A Primer for Policy Analysis" is the best. Yet, it is practically silent on the real problem.

Truth in advertising would insist that the subject matter is not for the timid. To be effective, CBA cannot be practiced by green-shade backroom types. The opposite is true. A new and adventurous breed that finds ways to work like "Cost-Benefit Practitioners Without Borders" seems to be the only way to rescue the field from irrelevance.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Markets and Elections

The election is tomorrow, the stock market has been gaining for a week, Bush leads in the Iowa Electronic Market. People who put their money where their mouth is are usually the best source.

Writing in the Spring, 2004, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Paul W. Rhode and Koleman S. Strumpf investigate "Historical Presidential Betting Markets."

"Wagering on political outcomes has a long history in the U.S. ... the market did a remarkable job forecasting elections in an era before scientific polling."

To the extent possible, the authors examine historical markets and conclude that they met (almost) the formal conditions for efficient markets.

Yet, the rise of scientific polling by itself did not curtail presidential betting markets. In addition, there was the increasing availability of other betting options as well as anti-gambling sentiment and legislation that sought to disqualify election bettors from voting.

Yet, now that there are more equity owners among the general public than ever, the public may be more sophisticated about futures markets than through the 20th-century.

It is the learning that comes via wealth acquisition that really concentrates the mind.