Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Preferences trump policies

Mention Kansas City, Tokyo, Paris, Brisbane and most people will evoke very different mental images. This is natural but also misleading. What these places have in comon is fast-growing suburbs, ones that look quite similar to each other.

Look at the cover of Wendell Cox's new book (War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life) and there are four photos of suburban homes in these four cities and it is almost impossible to say which is where. The rest of the book explains why. The narrative is backed up by data of the sort that Wendell has long been making available on his three websites.

The whole story undermines the New Urbanist ideas that cities outside the U.S. are somehow better, that people outside the U.S. make wiser choices and/or that policies in other countries make a substantial difference. None of these are true. Preferences are more universal than most think. Middle class resembles middle class. Any differences between countries are due to time lags (and incomes). And preferences trump polices.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Consistency in L.A.

The city of LA (the place) is home to almost 4 million residents. The City of LA (the government) will spend upwards of $6.7 billion on all sorts of services, some more worthy than others, this year. And this does not count all of the "off-budget" items.

In this morning's NY Times, there is a report that the City wants to save approximately $250,000 per year in tree maintenance costs (0.00373% of its budget) by replacing the city's street palms (non-indigenous), as they age and die, with other trees (also non-indigenous; the only indigenous growth is wild shrub).

Never mind that palms have come to be identified with LA, and vice-versa.

About 3 million overseas tourists visit LA each year. At a plausible average of $1,500 spent locally per visitor (Travel Industry Association of America), if just 166 of them (0.0056%) go elsewhere because they like the palm tree and its associated lore, the policy is a loser.

Our leaders are consistent in their treatment of costs and benefits. The do badly with the big-budget items along with the small ones.

Friday, November 24, 2006


A feel-good standard in U.S. politics is the idea of an "energy policy." Most people think that there ought to be one, presuming (usually sight unseen) that it would be beneficial. But the resulting political documents are usually all about dispensing favors.

Another problem involves all of the unintended but implicit energy policies. A prime example is discussed in this week's New Yorker by James Surowiecki, who observes that protection of U.S. sugar producers pushes prices up to the extent that domestic ethanol is produced with cheaper corn -- which is heavily subsidized.

It raises the very simple point that policy cross-checks are a pretty good idea. Trade policy, energy policy, and all the rest have cross-cutting implications which can be huge but which get little attention.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The power of ideas

Lawrence Summers writes about Milton Friedman in this morning's NY Times and does a good job of putting Friedman's work into perspective: it changed the world of economics and politics.

Summers notes in passing that Friedman was "too cynical about the capacity of collective action to make people better off." Friedman might have said that Summers is a bit unrealistic in his expectations for politics.

Friday's WSJ included Friedman's "Why Money Matters". There will always be boom-bust cycles, primarily in response to abrupt technological changes. The actions of monetary authorities can make these worse (as in the 1930s) or not (as during the most recent downturn).

And, as Summers writes, most of the world has now gotten the message. It's enough to make one appreciate the power of ideas clearly presented.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Putting us on?

Today's LA Times reports: "Mayor rides the SUV, not the MTA ... Villaraigosa promotes use of public transit, but he doesn't spend much time on the bus and subway system ... From the moment he took office nearly 18 months ago, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made traffic gridlock a cause celebre -- exhorting Angelenos to help solve the problem by forsaking their cars whenever possible . ... "

The rest of the story points out that the Mayor takes transit once a month but is otherwise too busy to make it work for him.

I will never know whether these guys (politicians and newspaper reporters) cannot connect the dots or whether they are putting us on. Transit in America is very lightly used because it is just too expensive -- in terms of what counts most, our time.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Almost every economics textbook takes students on a tour of the well-known shortcomings of GDP as a measure of well-offness. Along the way, they learn about stocks and flows and pick up other useful tidbits.

There is also a mountain of books and tomes on happiness -- and how and why it has little to do with economic prosperity. Google "Gross National Happiness" and 127,000 entries come up, many of them taking us to Bhutan. Does GNH refer to a stock or a flow? Is it a proposed metric or should it be an optimand?

This morning's LA Times includes Eric Weiner's "Be like Bhutan." No, thank you.

But I have found something that makes me very happy. It is reading Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. The author is very wise about a very difficult and important topic.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

For want of a rail ...

Those of us who think that passenger rail is nothing but boondoggle may have to reassess the politics of the issue. Today's WSJ reports that had Virginia U.S. Senate incumbent George Allen gone with the Green Party candidate's pet project, he would easily have garnered the votes to win that tight race.

That would have kept the Senate Republican, might have kept Don Rumsfeld on the job, and changed the course of history.

In Virginia Race, 'Gail for Rail'May Be a Spoiler
Candidate Says She OfferedTo Endorse Webb, Allen;

26,000 Votes Went Green

WSJ, By JUNE KRONHOLZ and AMY SCHATZ November 9, 2006; Page A1

Gail Parker may have helped decide which of two Virginia gentlemen goes to Washington, which goes home and who controls the U.S. Senate.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Parker, a 59-year-old Independent Green Party of Virginia candidate, says she offered to swing her support in the Virginia Senate race to either the Democratic or Republican candidate. In return, she wanted them to back her pet issue: high-speed rail across the traffic-clogged state.

"I was willing to endorse the candidate who would earn it the old-fashioned way," says Ms. Parker.

But neither man was much interested in her offer, she says. Now it looks like her "Gail for Rail" campaign could have been a factor in deciding which party controls the U.S. Senate.
On Tuesday, Ms. Parker collected about 26,000 votes -- which could have given either Republican Sen. George Allen or Democratic challenger Jim Webb a decisive victory.

As it is, Mr. Webb seems set to replace Mr. Allen after taking a lead of just 7,000 or so votes. With most precincts reporting, Mr. Webb led Mr. Allen with a vote of 1,173,805 to 1,166,488, and the Associated Press last night declared Mr. Webb the winner, based on its survey and analysis of votes counted and ballots remaining. A Webb victory would give Democrats control of the Senate.

Mr. Allen refused to concede yesterday and said he would wait for a full review of the vote, but it didn't seem likely that the totals could change significantly. Absentee ballots have already been counted. That leaves in doubt only the provisional ballots -- that is, those cast by voters who, for one reason or another, may not be eligible to vote.

Such votes are collected locally, so there was no way to know yesterday how many are outstanding. In the 2004 presidential election, the Virginia state elections board says, 4,000 provisional ballots were cast, and only 700 accepted -- not enough to overcome Mr. Webb's lead.

Ms. Parker acknowledged from the beginning that her campaign lacked the steam to win, but says she hoped it would work up enough noise about rail travel to prompt the two leading candidates to pledge support.

Transportation is a hot topic in Virginia, where rapid growth has left taxpayers sitting in traffic. The Census Bureau says the typical Northern Virginia commute is at least a half hour. Virginia's budget for rail transport is $23 million a year.

Since January, Ms. Parker, a retired Air Force Reserves major, says she has logged more than 40,000 miles campaigning around the state in her gray Volkswagen Jetta. She had no paid staffers and personally collected 8,000 of the 10,000 signatures that she needed to get on the ballot.

She says she raised just $1,200 in donations and according to a Federal Election Commission report, she financed much of her campaign through an $18,472 personal loan. "Maybe I should have spent more time trying to raise money," she said yesterday.

Ms. Parker, who ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia General Assembly last year, says she ran a few radio ads during her Senate bid, but mostly campaigned by greeting voters personally. She printed her pamphlets at Staples and ran the campaign from her Alexandria condo. Her campaign photo was taken last December at Glamour Shots, a mall photo studio that specializes in soft-focus, windswept portraits. Even before the last votes were counted yesterday, Ms. Parker and her Jetta had left the state to visit her daughter in Oklahoma.

"Our campaign was about faith, about family and about being fiscally conservative. I have faith we can balance the budget and also build high-speed rail in Virginia," she said in an interview, staying on message even after the campaign had ended.

The Webb campaign says it did try negotiating with Ms. Parker but came to the conclusion she wasn't seriously interested in endorsing him. "There never seemed to be any clear intent on her part to endorse," says Webb campaign spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd. She says that Mr. Webb is in favor of finding ways to improve the state's traffic congestion and "obviously, he respects [Ms. Parker's] opinion on the matter and her passion for the issue."
Calls to Mr. Allen's campaign, press and Senate offices weren't returned.

Ms. Parker attended Mr. Webb's pre-election rally Monday in Roanoke in a subtle show of support, she says, but didn't endorse him. She bristles at suggestions that her quixotic campaign might help decide control of the Senate. "This is politics," she says. "This country is about discussing issues and informing voters."

Ralph Nader, whose own third-party candidacy in 2000 is thought by some commentators to have helped swing that race to President Bush, agrees with her.
"Everyone has an equal right to run," he says. "Obviously, Webb and Allen took a lot more votes from her than she took from them."

Ms. Parker's votes represent 1% of the state's total.

The congressional elections' most successful independent candidates were Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Vermont's Bernie Sanders. An Illinois Green Party candidate, Rich Whitney, also turned in a respectable performance with 342,000 votes, or 10% of the state's total. Maryland Green Party candidate, Kevin Zeese, director of a national antiwar group, collected 2% of the state's vote.

Mr. Allen's chances of overturning his apparent loss seem unlikely. In Virginia, a recount "is largely about checking the math," says James Alcorn, a lawyer with the Virginia State Board of Elections.

Voters in much of the state used touch-screen voting machines, which record votes on memory cards with a backup count on an internal memory. The state's 2006 election law says that in a recount, the vote totals from the memory cards are to be looked at again to make sure they were read correctly the first time.

The memory cards in each machine record an image or "screen shot" of each ballot. But there's no provision in the law for looking at the image during a recount. And in any event, only the machine makers could do that because they have kept access to their software a trade secret.

Challenges based on the state's voting equipment also seem fairly remote. Mr. Webb's last name didn't appear on the summary page of many voting machines -- a glitch that brought howls from his campaign before the election. But at least initially, Mr. Allen seems to have faced no similar disadvantage that might be the basis for a challenge.

Ms. Parker says she plans to write thank-you notes to supporters when she returns from Oklahoma and will run for office again -- although she's not sure for what job. "Politics in Virginia is a noble pursuit," she says.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hold your nose and enjoy

The stock market has been downright exhuberant since Monday. On Monday and Tuesday, this was judged to be in anticipation of divided government. Today's rally was in celebration of divided government.

Now we know what the markets mean by divided government.

Gridlock has its attractions and that, apparently, includes the contents of today's on-the-air interviews with the new barons of capitol hill. John Dingell, for example, wants nationalized health care ASAP to save Detroit's auto makers. Many others were equally ambitious.

If you believe that divided government is the closest that we will ever get to no government (which may be true), then hold your nose and enjoy.

Ticket-splitting was never this good.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Oddball theories

Today's LA Times actually includes a piece that cites challenges to the sprawl-and-obesity silliness. "Road to fat city starts at home ... Can a neighborhood make you gain weight? Urban planners think so, but a study questions the link between ZIP Code and waistline." Imagine.

Good news and bad news. The same newspaper includes: "Lower pump prices fuel political conspiracy theories ... Many Americans think that the recent drop is tied to the Bush administration and GOP election hopes." Gallup reports that 42% of those polled believe this.

We keep hearing that more Americans than ever are college educated. Also many more than ever before have finished high school. What have they learned?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Life in the big city

Measure H , on the L.A. City ballot next week, proposes to raise $1 billion for "affordable housing". Linking up big boondoggle with feel-good, it has a very long list of supporters.

Today's L.A. Times also reports "L.A. sues over unaccounted for funds ... The city, alleging misapporpriation of aid to poor, files a civil suit against former Housing Authority Officials."

There is also the minor issue that housing affordability is a problem mainly because of all of the well-meaning controls put in place by the boondoggle-feel-good crowd (see, for example, Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks).

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Not easy being Green

Whenever a wave of new data are released, the "smart" people who (without irony) trumpet "smart growth" take it on the chin.

Alan Pisarski is the leading analyst of census commuting data and his Commting in America series slices and dices these data better than anyone. Ken Orski reports that Commuting in America III, the definitive work on the 2000 census commuting data, is here.

And what do you know? There are more nonwork trips than ever? Solo auto commutes are up. Carpooling is down. Transit use is flat (it has apparently hit bottom and floats there on subsidies). Telecommuting is up and walking-to-work is down.

It's not easy being green -- and even harder being smart.