Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dick Spotswood: Kinsey winds up on both sides of Levine's Marin housing bill

Dick Spotswood: Kinsey winds up on both sides of Levine's Marin housing bill

Marin Independent Journal

Dick Spotswood writes a weekly column on local politics for the Marin Independent Journal.  (IJ photo/Robert Tong)Robert Tong
Dick Spotswood writes a weekly column on local politics for the Marin Independent Journal. (IJ photo/Robert Tong) Robert Tong
It's never a sign of civic health when an elected official says one thing in public and something else in private. That's what Supervisor Steve Kinsey apparently did regarding AB 1537, legislation introduced by Assemblyman Marc Levine.
The bill by the San Rafael Democrat changes Marin's housing designation under state planning and zoning law from "metropolitan" to "suburban."
AB 1537 is significant, because changing Marin's state designation from "metropolitan" to "suburban" means the state's mandate that Marin jurisdictions zone for more "affordable" and market-rate housing would revert from the current minimum of 30 units per acre to a more appropriate 20 units per acre.
Levine's bill passed the Assembly and last week came before the state Senate.
Marin's five-member Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support AB 1537. Kinsey said in backing the resolution, "It makes no sense to characterize Marin as urban when in fact we are a suburban county."
On the day of the Senate vote, a reliable source told me that Kinsey had contacted senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's office outlining reasons why the legislation was, in his opinion, bad.
I spoke to Kinsey and asked him if the tip was true.
Kinsey confirmed that he communicated with Kip Lipper, Steinberg's chief counsel for energy and environment. He asked Lipper, and in effect Steinberg, to consider what Kinsey regarded as the bill's negative consequences before the Senate voted. He denied that he indicated opposition to AB 1537.
Kinsey issued a press release the morning after I asked him about the inconsistency. It was similar to what he told Lipper, saying, "the crisis of skyrocketing rents and few homes within reach of our residents made me concerned about the significant subsidy increase each new affordable unit will cost under this legislation."

Will the Real Steve Kinsey, speak up?
Those are the same talking points used by housing activists opposing AB 1537. If Kinsey was truly for the "metropolitan" to "suburban" switch, this lobbying was an odd way of encouraging passage.
I respect Kinsey's passion for affordable housing, but he managed to give the impression he was talking from both sides of his mouth.
I then told the 4th District supervisor that I'd be writing about this. Kinsey, like any good politician, tried to get out ahead of the story by issuing the press release subsequently published as a letter to the editor. That's his right and politically wise.
Readers should understand that Kinsey's motivating factor was the IJ learning of a glaring inconsistency that was previously under wraps.
Levine's initial version of AB 1537 was weakened in committee even before Kinsey communicated with Steinberg's office. The revised text provides "within one half-mile of a Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station, housing density requirements in place on June 30, 2014 shall apply."
That means the higher-density "metropolitan" designation remains for neighborhoods surrounding Novato and San Rafael SMART stations. If Kinsey should have opposed anything, it was this amendment. Levine had to accept the change if his legislation was to survive.
Ultimately, AB 1537 passed the Senate with Steinberg's support. It now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.
Kinsey has pledged not to lobby Brown.
Practically, its fate is now in the hands of Southern Marin Supervisor Kate Sears, a Brown appointee. A word from Sears to the governor, either up or down, will likely determine the legislation's fate.
Last Sunday, I praised Habitat for Humanity's new 10-unit Mount Burdell Place in Novato. I erroneously described the units designed for lower-income families as "apartments" and "condos." The site near downtown Novato is large enough that each unit will be a single-family home. That makes Habitat's new project an even more apt model for developing appropriately scaled housing throughout Marin.

Shills and Charlatans of "Smart Growth"

View all posts from Douglas Moran

Shills and Charlatans of "Smart Growth"

Uploaded: Jun 16, 2014
"For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong." (foot#1)

Any decent manager approaching a new project asks about the lessons-learned from similar projects. Novices ask about successes, not realizing how hard it usually is to distinguish the key factors in such successes from ones that were merely incidental. Experienced managers use the discussion of successes as a warm-up for a discussion of the failures, of how failing projects were turned-around, and of how problems were avoided. That is where you find the important lessons-learned. Such managers then ask about the size of the "sweet spot"—how much room there is for scaling up and down, and beyond that what are the rates of diminishing returns.

When I talk to "Smart Growth" advocates—professional planners, politicians, citizens—I rarely encounter any of this, and even then it is minimal. When I try to raise the lessons-learned question, the typical response is that every "Smart Growth" project has been a success, and that every "Smart Growth" project will be a success.

Why "Shills and Charlatans"? Judge advocates by what they do, not what they say. When there is a persistent lack of due-diligence relative to the proclaimed goals, and when there is a failure to make credible adjustments to projects as problems are identified, this licenses the assessment that there is a different agenda involved.

In evaluating the seriousness and credibility of a theory or approach, I listen to the significant presentations of the ideas—ones that are given by an acknowledged spokesperson for those ideas and that should have been carefully prepared and had its remarks vetted. For example, a formal presentation that has been given to multiple significant audiences. (Aside: I expect a certain amount of hyperbole and nonsense to creep into informal remarks, and into remarks by "J. Random" adherents, that is ones who don't rise to the level of a spokesperson.) The following is based on my many years of participation in meetings, from those on individual projects to ones on city-wide policy to ones on regional policy. The advocates of "Smart Growth" include City Staff, consultants, and citizen advocates, and a few regional planners (ABAG, MTC, VTA).

For "Smart Growth" as practiced here, my experience has been that the proffered rationalizations for projects routinely fall apart under the most cursory of examinations. When one continues to find glaring problems with the data, the logic and adherence to its own stated goals/principles, it becomes difficult to see it as a genuine problem-solving approach. (More H. L. Mencken: "The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived.").

One of the patterns throughout history is that of well-intentioned causes getting exploited/hijacked/usurped… for different, often contrary, agendas.(foot#2) Because this problem is so well-known, my view is that supporters of a cause have a responsibility for how practice differs from theory, and that only small allowances are to be given for those supporters "having good intentions".

Exceptional cases proffered as typical:
Example: The City's Planning Department hosted a series of talks on the State laws pushing densification in cities, with speakers who had been highly influential in the formulation of those laws. The rationale was that densification would greatly shorten commutes, which would reduce Greenhouse Gases (GHG). One speaker asserted that a newly minted lawyer hired by a firm in the Stanford Research Park would be unable to find any housing that she could afford any closer than Tracy (60-some miles, map). Another speaker asserted that an engineer hired by H-P would have to go all the way to Los Banos for housing (95 miles, map). (foot#3) During question time, I noted that Census data indicated that Mountain View to Santa Clara (foot#4) was far more likely and asked how that would change their judgment. The question was squelched by a Council member (I forget which one).

Dubious claims:
Example: In talks by Smart Growth advocates, you are likely to see a picture of a large house—4,000-8,000 sq.ft.—on a lot of well over an acre, and with spectacular views. You will be told that the reason that people are buying such houses is the unavailability of their preferred choice: much smaller apartments and condos in a high-density development near a train station.(foot#5) (foot#6)

For the "public outreach" meetings for One Bay Area plan, ABAG/MTC/… had hired a highly partisan group, Greenbelt Alliance, which ran those meetings like pep-rallies for their politics/biases. (foot#7) It is not that much of an exaggeration to characterize the public-input opportunities they provided as: "How much do you agree with our position?" (a) "Enthusiastically", (b) "Unreservedly", (c) "1000%", (d) "All of these". I went to the meeting intended for northern Santa Clara County, which Palo Alto's then-Director of Planning Curtis Williams also attended. In his report to City Council on that meeting, he expressed serious disappointment with how it had been conducted.

During the primary presentation, the Greenbelt Alliance speaker said that the problem with building additional housing on the outskirts of cities was that fire engines would have to travel longer and longer distances from the existing fire stations, adding to Greenhouse Gases. I looked around and the faithful were nodding in agreement. Didn't they realize that when housing developments that large are built, they are accompanied by a range of supporting infrastructure: schools, parks, fire stations… That ABAG/MTC/… would allow such nonsense to be part of the primary presentation at major meetings indicates how intellectually corrupt the process was.

Commuting from San Francisco
Currently, the most prominent instance of misrepresenting the commute problem revolves around the "Google buses" (and those of similar high-tech companies). The problem is that high tech workers are squeezing out other long-time residents of San Francisco. But you see this being used as a justification for additional high-density developments in Palo Alto and other Peninsula/South Bay cities. The implication is that these high tech workers are locating in San Francisco because it is more affordable than Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Clara… Really? Might it not be that these are people choosing San Francisco for lifestyle/culture?

The second fallacious part of the diagnosis of San Francisco's problem with high tech workers is that this is primarily the result of job increases on the Peninsula/South Bay. This conveniently ignores that San Francisco has been aggressively, and successfully, pursuing high tech companies to locate there for over 15 years (since during the Dot-Com boom).

Rejecting local experience
"Smart Growth", as it is practiced here, has an established history of rejecting local experience that differs from what the ideology calls for. Case-in-point: The Arbor Real development (El Camino and Charleston; former Hyatt Rickey's). ABAG's demands for facilitating large amounts of high-density housing caused this site to be included, despite it having negligible walkable destinations and being poorly served by usable transit (experience from residents' behavior in similar developments). Based upon national averages, the developer claimed that virtually none of the residents would have children. In hearing after hearing, residents pointed out that experience with similar local developments amply demonstrated that this was not the case here. Yet City Staff recommended, and Council approved, a development based on this negligible-children assumption. (foot#8) The year the units started to go on sale, the local elementary school (Juana Briones) was under-subscribed and received the overflow from other sections of the city. The very next year, the number of children in the new units overwhelmed that school, leaving some parents to drive their children to other schools. Even for students at Briones, some/many parents were driving because they didn't see the route as safe-enough for children (especially crossing El Camino during peak traffic hours). "Smart Growth" was used as a transparent smokescreen for the true impacts of this development on public infrastructure.(foot#9) And where did the "Smart Growth" advocates stand on this: They had wanted to see even higher density—none of the other supposed principles/goals of "Smart Growth" mattered to them.

Similarly, in projecting the number of Caltrain users from a proposed development, the City Staff and "Smart Growth" advocates use numbers much higher than local experience (such as the Palo Alto Central complex which is right there at the Cal Ave Caltrain station). City Staff has resolutely resisted collecting statistics on usage (foot#10) However, there is/was useful data available from the San Mateo County portion of Caltrain. The Palo Alto Planning Department sponsored a talk by the operators of Caltrain (part of SamTrans: San Mateo Transit) that included a profile of who used Caltrain and why. For the cities similar to Palo Alto, it was not the residents of the typical high density development near the tracks. But did this become part of Palo Alto's planning? Of course not. Palo Alto, supported by "Smart Growth" advocates, base their projections on statistics from dissimilar rail systems.
Remember to not conflate/combine in-bound users with out-bound: People commuting into Palo Alto (work) tend to be very different from those using Caltrain to commute from Palo Alto to work.

Rejecting outside expertise:
Example from Mountain View: During the planning of the redevelopment of the San Antonio Shopping Center, Mountain View officials repeatedly said that they wanted it to be another Santana Row, and persisted in this long after a developer explained why he viewed it as impossible. (foot#11) The developer's assessment may well have been skewed by his own interests and biases, but I didn't see responses from the planners about why his points were wrong (but it being a Mountain View story, I could have missed that).

Internal contradictions:
One of the repeated problems I have encountered with "Smart Growth" project proposals is that the advocates try to sell it as meeting a laundry list of noble goals, but then refuse to deal with the contradictions that are revealed by even basic questions about the details.
For example, the California Avenue area has been designated as a Priority Development Area (PDA) (because it is close to a Caltrain station), with the purpose of enabling and accelerating the redevelopment of the area to much higher density.(foot#12) (Note: Do not confuse the rezoning for the PDA with the Streetscape Project.) The initial part of the vision articulated by "Smart Growth" advocates, government and citizens, was for the area to be a tiny version of Santana Row, disregarding whether it had the critical mass to be even that. But that vision rejected a key aspect of Santana Row—the synergy between the housing and the retail. Santana Row's housing targets people who have the income and leisure time to spend in upscale restaurants and boutiques. The vision articulated for the Cal Ave housing was that it be predominantly "affordable" units. The visionaries refused to consider that the envisioned retail would be of negligible use to those residents, and those businesses would therefore not have the expected benefit from patronage by those residents. And since those residents would be badly served by the nearby business, they would have to drive to many of their destinations. All this is contrary to the purported goals of "Smart Growth".

Over the years, my experience with development projects has been that people who identify themselves as supporters of "Smart Growth" are indistinguishable from those who advocate simply for more and higher density commercial projects and for high-density housing.
Readers, if you can remember instances when "Smart Growth" advocates opposed a high-density project as a misapplication of the principles of "Smart Growth", those would be interesting additions (in the comments).

"Principles" that are infinitely flexible
"Smart Growth" calls for concentrating high density near transit centers because of the valid observation that in the generic case transit usage typically falls off very quickly with distance. In multiple presentations I have heard professional planners use a half mile, or less, as the boundary. But when a developer wants to build a high-density project where usable transit is far beyond that distance, the "Smart Growth" advocates turn out to support such projects. If you try to talk details with them, expect to be dismissed with the statement "Anywhere is Palo Alto is close to transit". If you follow-up on this, don't be surprised to get one of a variety of contorted explanations. My personal favorite is "Anywhere is Palo Alto is closer to transit than Tracy (is?)." Some advocate mean that quite literally, whereas others treat it as a shorthand for the technical ability to extend bus lines to serve such a development, ignoring the issue of cost and usability (satisfactory levels of service).

Refusal to consider how things work in the real world
During the considerations of the 195 Page Mill project (between Park Blvd and the Caltrain tracks; currently under construction), the representation was made that an exceptionally high proportion of the residents would use public transit. Various of us pointed out that parents of elementary school students would likely be driving them because both of the distance (1.4 miles) and the small-pedestrian-unfriendly route (including crossing El Camino during peak hours). (foot#13) Question: If the parent has already driven the child to school, isn't that parent more likely to continue driving to work rather than drive back through heavy congestion in order to catch a train? This is the sort of practical question that I have repeatedly found "Smart Growth" advocates unwilling to even consider.

Related blog entries (past and planned)
1.(Introduction) Stupid Growth: So-called "Smart Growth" is a cancer on the community
2.The Law of Supply and XXXXXX, and other bad economics

1.Should Palo Alto really aspire to be more like a Chinese factory city?
2.Public Transit Follies

---- Footnotes ----
1. Popularized version of H.L. Mencken's "Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong." from "The Divine Afflatus" in New York Evening Mail (16 November 1917); later published in "Prejudices: Second Series"(1920) and "A Mencken Chrestomathy" (1949)

2. Historical example: Communist/Third International (aka Comintern) (Wikipedia) and its successors. While idealistic individuals around the world saw this as advancing the cause of Socialism/Communism, the USSR used it to advance their national interests, and the USSR leadership was so cynical and contemptuous of those other Communists that they referred to them as "Useful Idiots (Wikipedia)",which has become political terminology that is used more often in a cautionary sense than as an accusation or characterization.
Please do not use this term here—it is too provocative.

3. From a series of talks hosted by the Palo Alto Dept of Planning and Community environment in 2009-2010 entitled "Planning for Sustainable Development". These talks focused on state law SB375 "Land Use and Green House Gas". A talk on 10 November 2009 by Kenneth Kirkey, Planning Director, Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and Ted Droettboom, Regional Planning Program Director, Joint Policy Committee (JPC). The JPC coordinates the regional planning efforts of ABAG, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), The Bay Area Quality Management District, and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.A talk on 16 February 2010 entitled "Charting the Future under SB375" by Bill Fulton "a highly regarded expert on planning and land use statewide and nationally and is the author of the "Guide to California Planning", as well as being a journalist and a current member of the City of Ventura City Council."

4. Acterra hosted a panel of three talks on Smart Growth in February 2007. I was invited as the skeptic as a balance to two advocates—Don Weden, a retired long-range planner for the City of San Jose, and the Greenbelt Alliance.My talk was entitled "Smart Growth: Caveats from a Skeptic ("Yes, ...but what about...", "Show me the data!")" and its slides are available. See slide 7 for a breakdown of where people who work in Palo Alto live, based upon the 2000 Census. Although the data was dated at the time of the talk, I regarded it as still useful because more recent data—to which I did not have access—was showing that the average commute had decreased
Aside: I have not bothered to update the numbers for the 2010 Census because Smart Growth advocates showed no interest in considering such data.
Notice that San Joaquin County (Tracy+) accounts for only 0.4% of the commuters, and that there are more commuters from Sonoma County than from San Joaquin (348 vs 333). And for the Los Banos fallacy, notice the commuters from San Benito County (189) are outnumbered by those from Marin and by those from Southern California. If the Smart Growth advocates were to claim that people were commuting from Marin, Sonoma, and San Diego because they couldn't find housing they could afford in Palo Alto, they would be laughed out of the room. So why is "affordability" assumed to be the only/primary reason for commuters from San Joaquin and San Benito?

5. Example: a series of talks by Don Weden, a retired long-range planner for the City of San Jose, including: "Cities for All Ages: Land Use and Our Aging Population" 03 June 2010 (in Palo Alto City Council Chambers), "GLUE: Green, Liveable Urban Environment" February 2007 (Acterra), and "Winds of Change" 28 January 2006 (American Association of University Women)

6. My initial reaction was that these pictures were just hyperbole to get the audience thinking. While that might have been the case in the distant past, the presenters now seem to actually believe this (based on responses to my questions).

7. Further indication that Greenbelt Alliance regarded this meeting as theirs: Although it was advertised as an official public-input meeting, they took the email address from my sign-in and put it on their list of supporters of their advocacy group.

8. Residents did score some minor "victories". At one stage, the developer, with Staff's concurrence, tried to count narrow landscaping segments, such as between the sidewalk and curb, as part of the required "open space" (where people could play, exercise…).

9. The City's pattern of understating impacts has multiple motivations. For one, it allows the developer to avoid payments to mitigate those impacts. For another, it facilitates approval of projects so large that there is no reasonable mitigation.

10. I have pointed out to the PA Planning Dept that there are students in Urban Studies and other disciplines for whom collecting and analyzing the data would be an interesting and useful group class project. First surveys can often be done by inexperienced people because their primary goal is to give a sense of direction and what needs to be in the follow-on survey to make it useful (and more accurate).

11. Dense homes at San Antonio called 'pipe dream': With 16 shopping center owners and Walmart in the mix, a Santana Row-like development is not possible, Thoits says (Mountain View Voice, 2009 February 13).

12. This designation was at the insistence of ABAG/MTC. It was made by then-City Manager Frank Benest without notification to Council or the public, and hence no public input or debate. Council subsequently voted to retroactively approve with that decision.

13. The site is right on the attendance boundary between the Escondido ES and Barron Park ES (map).

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Walrus and The Carpenter

The Walrus and The Carpenter

Lewis Carroll

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night. The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"
The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly. The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!" "If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear. "O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each." The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed. But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet. Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row. "The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings." "But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that. "A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed." "But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?
"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!" "It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!" "I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes. "O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Steve "I am the King" Kinsey, Marin Supervisor, is pushing for urbanization initiatives OUTSIDE his district while preserving his backyard. He serves as chairman for the California Coastal Commission.  The Drakes Bay Oyster Company was shut down and 30 jobs eliminated in August 2014 after a zealous campaign by the NPS and environmental lobbying group that wants to ban agriculture in West Marin.  Like in the tale, the Oysters of Drakes Bay have met their end.
West Marin farmers should be wary of their "friends in government".

Rent control: Better than bombs at destroying housing

Britain's housing crisis: What are we going to do about it?

Rent control: Better than bombs at destroying housing

Worstall @ the Weekend We talked last week about how macroeconomics is still pretty terrible at telling us what we ought to do about the world around us, which is why I always rather scratch me head at people who insist that rent control is going to be a good way of solving our current housing crisis.
For amongst economists, there's a pretty good consensus on price controls. There have been a number of surveys about what economists generally believe about it,the chief among them is:
... a table of propositions to which most economists subscribe, based on various polls of the profession. Here is the list, together with the percentage of economists who agree: 1. A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available. (93 per cent)
That's the number one thing upon which economists agree: do not impose rent controls. And yet I know of at least three different countries (or parts of countries) where rent control is seriously advanced as the solution to housing problems.
Specifically, we are told that rent control increases the amount of housing available and possibly increases its quality. It's very difficult indeed to think of anything where expert opinion is so divorced from political opinion.

Supply and demand

As to why price controls are so disdained, think it through from the beginning. The market price, whatever it is, is the price at which supply and demand balance. That's actually the definition of it. So, let's set our controlled prices below that market clearing price: that means that fewer people are willing to supply whatever it is and more people want to consume it. By definition we will get shortages when we set a low price. This explains why Venezuela doesn't have any toilet paper.
We could also set prices above that market clearing price: suppliers love this and will expend extra effort to make more. But fewer people want to buy these more expensive whatevers and so we get gluts: the EU's wine lakes and butter mountains come to mind.
We could, of course, if it were possible for us to determine what it was, set the price at the original market clearing price – but what on Earth's the point of that?
There are, of course, times when things just aren't this simple – for example when there's a monopoly of supply or a monopsony (a single buyer) and the temptation is then to try to fix prices. The proper solution, of course, is to get rid of the monopoly and if that's not possible (say, the National Grid, an obvious natural monopoly) then be very very careful indeed about how you do try to set prices.
Economists really, really, don't like price fixing. Which is what makes this little story about swedish rent control so interesting:
Sweden’s rent regulations, which for decades have kept housing affordable, are now fuelling a surge in home prices that’s threatening the Swedish economy. The low rents in attractive areas such as central Stockholm have encouraged many Swedes to stay put in their apartments and discouraged builders from constructing properties for lease. This has exacerbated a housing shortage that has sent prices and private debt to record levels in Sweden.
Eventually this sort of shit does catch up with you. By preventing anyone from making any money off building rental properties, no one has been building rental properties. Thus those houses which are not rentals are much higher in value due to the scarcity.
Much the same has happened with rent control in New York City. It's one of the few places in the world with vast areas that could be built upon (even in Manhattan there are huge areas of old docks and the like that could support blocks of flats) and yet a shortage of anywhere that anyone, other than those rent controlled, can afford to live.
And then there's our own Dear England. In London these days you have to get your youngest grandchild to cosign the mortgage so long will you have to stretch out the repayment to make it affordable. And yes, there really are those who argue that the way to deal with this shortage of affordable housing is to have, erm, rent control. Something which, as outlined above, ain't gonna work.
We could just stop here. For as Ben Bernanke has noted (he was head of the Federal Reserve and did pretty well during the Great Crash), there is a usefulness to economics:
Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong. About the future, not so much. However, careful economic analysis does have one important benefit, which is that it can help kill ideas that are completely logically inconsistent or wildly at variance with the data. This insight covers at least 90 percent of proposed economic policies.

We can and should do better

So what's the use of economists? We can tell people not to do damn fool things. However, we might, in this English case (and this applies to coastal cities in the US as well, given their propensity for zoning etc) want to take this further and ask, well: "C an we propose any policy that is better than just muddling along?" To which the answer is: "Yes. Yes we can."
At the moment, some 2 or 3 per cent of England is covered with residential housing. So we've not actually got a shortage of land in the country. This is true even in the environs of London: more of Surrey is golf courses than housing (yes, we could actually double the amount of land in Surrey devoted to housing without touching agricultural land or undeveloped land).
What we should probably do is repeal the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 (and successors). For this was the first time that someone started drawing lines on the map and insisting that you may build houses there but you may not there (the Green Belt and the like).
It was written because those that rule us were simply appalled by what happened in the 1930s. The newly minted middle classes went off and got houses built where they actually wanted them to be – in ribbon developments across the South East, all those now highly desirable little villages and plots of semis that people cough up a million or more for. It's also the last time the free market was able to supply England's housing needs: not all that much of a surprise as it was the last time there was a free market in housebuilding plots.
Well, clearly, we cannot have that... the recently proles just being allowed to live where they like. Thus there's a law to stop them. Another way of analysing the same problem is to say, quite contrarily, that housing just isn't expensive in the UK. We can test this if any commentards actually own a house in London. Look at what your building insurance will pay you if it falls over/burns down/suffers a sudden dematerialisation event. You'll see that it's a great deal less than what someone is willing to offer you in folding fivers for that des res.
A reasonable guess would be that the insurer will offer you maybe £200k for biggish three-bed semi, while the market will offer you from 200k (somewhere most undesirable) to £1m for most places inside the M25. The difference between what the insurer will pay and what the market will is the value not of the house but of the land upon which the house sits. Much more importantly than the land, it also takes into account the value of the building permit for that piece of land.
There was a fun court case a few years back proving this. A little company owned a piece of land that a local authority had incorporated into a park. The company said, “Oi! Back in WWII there were bomb-damaged houses there and that means that land has automatic planning permission. And we own it too. Sure, you can keep it as part of the park but that will be £1.5m, please."
The LA said that actually, as it was now part of the park and had no planning, it was only worth £50k. That £1.4m was the value of the chitty that enabled housing to be built on that sliver of land.
The company won: but that's not the point of the story – the chitty being worth £1.4m is. So, what is it that we've actually got a scarcity of? We've not got a shortage of land within commuting distance of London. We've not got a shortage of ability to build houses. We've not even got expensive housing: build costs are much the same everywhere and I know absolutely, because I've done it, that you can put up a nice two-bedder for £100k or so. Bulk building means a three-bed semi should be in the £80-120k range maybe? So what do we have a shortage of? Those chittys, the pieces of paper that say that you are allowed to build upon a specific piece of land.

A quick and dirty fix

Given that this shortage is entirely caused by the Town and Country Planning Act, if we get rid of that then we'll have neither a housing shortage nor expensive housing. High housing costs in SE England are simply caused by the rules and laws that restrict the building of housing. Relax those laws, get closer to an actual free market, and prices will fall as supply grows to meet demand.
Ben Bernanke may be right that the major use of economics is to stop politicians doing something stupid, he's certainly right that it can explain when they have done something stupid, but there are times when it can also tell them the right thing to do to undo that previous stupidity.
Of course, no one is actually going to like this solution and any government that brought it in would lose the Home Counties for a generation or more – but that's just politics not the pure and clear light of economics being shined upon the problem. ®

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Little Bo Peep lost her Sheep and Katie Rice

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep,
And doesn't know where to find them;
Leave them alone, And they'll come home,
Wagging their tails behind them
Little Bo-peep fell fast asleep,
And dreamt she heard them bleating;
But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
For they were still a-fleeting.

Then up she took her little crook,
Determined for to find them;
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they'd left their tails behind them.
It happened one day, as Bo-peep did stray
Into a meadow hard by,
There she espied their tails side by side,
All hung on a tree to dry.
She heaved a sigh and wiped her eye,
And over the hillocks went rambling,
And tried what she could, as a shepherdess should,
To tack each again to its lambkin.
Katie "Little Bo Peep" Rice, Marin Supervisor watches passively while the county of her birth
 gets turned in a dense, urban landscape by a juggernaut of special interest groups, developers, and her fellow supervisors.
After our human scale, livable Marin is replaced by high density development,
will she be able to "tack the tail on her lambkins"?

Richland County, SC Special Response team makes you safe with "The Peace Maker"

Editor's Note: Do we want these militarized police forces in operating in Marin for routine enforcement of our laws?  Notice the nice touch of this photograph, having all them pointing their weapons at the camera. The tank is called the "Peacemaker", a new low for government double speak.  
From the Richland County
sherrifs website:

The Special Response Team is classified as a FEMA Type 1 SWAT Team and serves as one of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Regional Response Teams for South Carolina. SRT is a part time team comprised of sworn deputies who are chosen to serve on the team in a voluntary capacity. In addition to the Special Response Team, team members perform their duties in full time positions within the Richland County Sheriff's Department. These divisions include, but are not limited to: Uniform Division, CAT, Drug Suppression Team (DST), Traffic Division, K-9, Narcotics, Internal Affairs, Reserve Program, Training Division, Crime Scene Lab, and DEA Task Force. Special Response Team Members are on call bi weekly throughout the year enabling them to respond to pre-planned and call-out operations.
The team also provides mutual aid for the Fort Jackson Military Base as well as providing assistance for other State and Federal Law Enforcement Agencies with operations in Richland County.
It is the mission of the Richland County Sheriff's Department Special Response Team to provide protection and safety for innocent civilians and Law Enforcement personnel while reducing the possibility of injuries or death during high risk incidents.

Sheriff Lott with the SRT and "The Peacemaker"
Examples of High Risk Incidents include but are not limited to: Hostage Situations, Barricaded Suspects, High Risk Search and/or Arrest Warrants, Armed Suspects, Sniper Situations, Anti Terrorism Events, Active Shooter Situations, Dignitary Protection Events, High Angle Assaults, Waterborne Assaults, and Civil Disturbances.
Training Requirements:
Members on the Special Response Team are expected to perform at a higher standard due to the danger and complexity of the missions presented. Members on the team are required to pass a quarterly physical fitness test and an annual 40 hour recertification qualification in order to retain their position on the team each year.

Duties & Responsibilities:

SRT COMMANDER: The SRT Commander is a full time position and is responsible for all the teams within the Special Response Team, overseeing all SRT operations, develops and executes Incident Action Plans for pre-planned and call-out operations, develops and implements all selection criteria for new candidates trying out for the team, and assists with selecting new candidates for the team. The SRT Commander also conducts all the internal yearly training for the members on the team.
ASSISTANT SRT COMMANDER: The Assistant SRT Commander provides assistance with monitoring Incident Action Plans during operations, assists with new candidate tryouts, selecting new candidates for the team, conducting yearly internal training for the team members, and assumes the duties and responsibilities in the absence of the SRT Commander.  
ENTRY TEAM LEADERS:  Entry Team Leaders are senior SRT Operators who have been selected by the SRT Commander to lead their team during operations in accordance with the Incident Action Plans. Team Leaders are responsible for maintaining their team's operational readiness at all times and assist with new candidate tryouts and new team member selections.
ASSISTANT ENTRY TEAM LEADER:  The Assistant Entry Team Leader performs the duties of an operator on the Entry Team and provides assistance to the Team Leader with monitoring Incident Action Plans during operations, assists with new candidate tryouts as well as new team member selections. Assistant Team Leader also assumes the duties and responsibilities in the absence of the Entry Team Leader.
ENTRY TEAM OPERATOR:  Entry Team Operators receive training in special weapons and tactics and secure the crisis site during high risk SRT operations.
TACTICAL SUPPORT TEAM:  Tactical Support Team Operators are responsible for assisting with logistics as well as providing security on a primary perimeter at a crisis site during SRT operations. The operators on the Tactical Support Team will be promoted to an operators position on the Entry Team when a position becomes available.
TECHNICAL SUPPORT / TEAM: Technical Support Team Operators assist the Incident Management Team (IMT) with SRT Technical Support, driving the  SRT vehicles to and from SRT operations, maintains and issues specialized SRT equipment during operations, ensures the SRT special vehicles are operational, and provides information technology and communications support for SRT during operations.
SNIPER/OBSERVER: Sniper Team Operators provide surveillance intelligence gathering through stealth and direct visibility for SRT operations and for other divisions within the Richland County Sheriff's Department. These operators also provide security protection for innocent civilians, first responders and SRT operators during high risk operations
MEDIC TEAM: The Medic Team is a part time team comprised of an Internal and External Team. Internal Medics are Reserve Deputies with the Richland County Sheriff's Department and provide emergency medical care for the SRT members during High Risk Operations.  External Medics perform full time duties with Richland County EMS and are not armed officers. These medics provide emergency medical care in a hot zone when security is provided by SRT operators.
EOD / BOMB TEAM:  The EOD / Bomb Team is comprised of a full time commander and several part time technicians. Part time technicians still hold full time positions within the Richland County Sheriff's Department. These technicians assigned to the EOD/Bomb Team are certified at the State and Federal level to handle suspicious or found devices, post blast occurrences, suspicious packages, explosive breaching, and underwater explosives.

Pentagon is having a "Everything must go sale"

This is how the Larkspur/Corte Madera armor plated Humvee will look if armed with a 50mm machine gun.

This is how the Larkspur/Corte Madera armor plated Humvee looks today behind the Twin Cities Police Department on Doheny Drive.  It is now hidden underneath a tarp after this picture emerged.  Note that the letters simply say "police" without identifying the department.  This makes me wonder how this will be used.  Will other departments be using this? 

Here is the Richland County Sheriffs tank they call "The Peacemaker".  A very Orwellian nickname.  What in the world are our police departments doing with these weapons of war?  They have neither the skill nor training on these weapons.  What possible mission could these be used in a free democratic society? 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday Night Movies

Michael Robbins Furniture from Element Media Santa Fe on Vimeo.

rising vessels II from Benjamin Portas on Vimeo.

1982 from Gina Breslau on Vimeo.

a wander through Hong Kong from Billy Boyd Cape on Vimeo.

HOUT from HOUT on Vimeo.

Find Snowboarding: KAZAKHSTAN from TransWorld SNOWboarding on Vimeo.

Dripped from ChezEddy on Vimeo.

Living With Jigsaw from Chris Capel on Vimeo.

The Nether Regions from WÖNKY Films on Vimeo.

Gone South with Vita Brevis Films from VITA BREVIS FILMS on Vimeo.

Pional - It's all over from Tomás Peña on Vimeo.

STUFF PICK from Ground's Oranges on Vimeo.

Paris Through Pentax from Maison Carnot on Vimeo.

Henry Kissinger on the Assembly of a New World Order

Editor's Note: Kissinger observes that wars and political strife are "bad for business".  His solution?  A new world order governed by elites in regional governing entities.  Sound Familiar?  This is essentially the idea behind  United Nations Agenda 21.

 Republicans have megalomaniac dreams too.

They see salvation in business and economic prosperity.  Some want the international barriers to markets lowered so international corporations can have a better business climate.  This is just corporatism not true free market capitalism or democracy.  While I am not a fan of big government, neither am I enamored with the altruism of big business.  The elite politicians and corporate titans want to concentrate their power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.


What happens to be wrong with the peaceful coexistence of nations living beside one another?  Is economic prosperity and government efficiency the acme of democratic evolution or is freedom and liberty?  Apparently, "geniuses" like Dr. Kissinger feel elites alone are up to the task of guiding our lives.  Don't believe it.


Henry Kissinger on the Assembly of a New World Order

The concept that has underpinned the modern geopolitical era is in crisis

Henry Kissenger when he was Secretary of State for Richard Nixon

The concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis, writes Henry Kissinger. Above, a pro-Russian fighter stands guard at a checkpoint close to Donetsk, Ukraine in July. European Pressphoto Agency 
Libya is in civil war, fundamentalist armies are building a self-declared caliphate across Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan's young democracy is on the verge of paralysis. To these troubles are added a resurgence of tensions with Russia and a relationship with China divided between pledges of cooperation and public recrimination. The concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis.
The search for world order has long been defined almost exclusively by the concepts of Western societies. In the decades following World War II, the U.S.—strengthened in its economy and national confidence—began to take up the torch of international leadership and added a new dimension. A nation founded explicitly on an idea of free and representative governance, the U.S. identified its own rise with the spread of liberty and democracy and credited these forces with an ability to achieve just and lasting peace. The traditional European approach to order had viewed peoples and states as inherently competitive; to constrain the effects of their clashing ambitions, it relied on a balance of power and a concert of enlightened statesmen. The prevalent American view considered people inherently reasonable and inclined toward peaceful compromise and common sense; the spread of democracy was therefore the overarching goal for international order. Free markets would uplift individuals, enrich societies and substitute economic interdependence for traditional international rivalries.
In the Middle East, religious militias violate borders at will. Getty Images
This effort to establish world order has in many ways come to fruition. A plethora of independent sovereign states govern most of the world's territory. The spread of democracy and participatory governance has become a shared aspiration if not a universal reality; global communications and financial networks operate in real time.
The years from perhaps 1948 to the turn of the century marked a brief moment in human history when one could speak of an incipient global world order composed of an amalgam of American idealism and traditional European concepts of statehood and balance of power. But vast regions of the world have never shared and only acquiesced in the Western concept of order. These reservations are now becoming explicit, for example, in the Ukraine crisis and the South China Sea. The order established and proclaimed by the West stands at a turning point.

First, the nature of the state itself—the basic formal unit of international life—has been subjected to a multitude of pressures. Europe has set out to transcend the state and craft a foreign policy based primarily on the principles of soft power. But it is doubtful that claims to legitimacy separated from a concept of strategy can sustain a world order. And Europe has not yet given itself attributes of statehood, tempting a vacuum of authority internally and an imbalance of power along its borders. At the same time, parts of the Middle East have dissolved into sectarian and ethnic components in conflict with each other; religious militias and the powers backing them violate borders and sovereignty at will, producing the phenomenon of failed states not controlling their own territory.

The challenge in Asia is the opposite of Europe's: Balance-of-power principles prevail unrelated to an agreed concept of legitimacy, driving some disagreements to the edge of confrontation.
The clash between the international economy and the political institutions that ostensibly govern it also weakens the sense of common purpose necessary for world order. The economic system has become global, while the political structure of the world remains based on the nation-state. Economic globalization, in its essence, ignores national frontiers. Foreign policy affirms them, even as it seeks to reconcile conflicting national aims or ideals of world order.
This dynamic has produced decades of sustained economic growth punctuated by periodic financial crises of seemingly escalating intensity: in Latin America in the 1980s; in Asia in 1997; in Russia in 1998; in the U.S. in 2001 and again starting in 2007; in Europe after 2010. The winners have few reservations about the system. But the losers—such as those stuck in structural misdesigns, as has been the case with the European Union's southern tier—seek their remedies by solutions that negate, or at least obstruct, the functioning of the global economic system.
The international order thus faces a paradox: Its prosperity is dependent on the success of globalization, but the process produces a political reaction that often works counter to its aspirations.

A third failing of the current world order, such as it exists, is the absence of an effective mechanism for the great powers to consult and possibly cooperate on the most consequential issues. This may seem an odd criticism in light of the many multilateral forums that exist—more by far than at any other time in history. Yet the nature and frequency of these meetings work against the elaboration of long-range strategy. This process permits little beyond, at best, a discussion of pending tactical issues and, at worst, a new form of summitry as "social media" event. A contemporary structure of international rules and norms, if it is to prove relevant, cannot merely be affirmed by joint declarations; it must be fostered as a matter of common conviction.

The penalty for failing will be not so much a major war between states (though in some regions this remains possible) as an evolution into spheres of influence identified with particular domestic structures and forms of governance. At its edges, each sphere would be tempted to test its strength against other entities deemed illegitimate. A struggle between regions could be even more debilitating than the struggle between nations has been.
The contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions and to relate these regional orders to one another. These goals are not necessarily self-reconciling: The triumph of a radical movement might bring order to one region while setting the stage for turmoil in and with all others. The domination of a region by one country militarily, even if it brings the appearance of order, could produce a crisis for the rest of the world.
A world order of states affirming individual dignity and participatory governance, and cooperating internationally in accordance with agreed-upon rules, can be our hope and should be our inspiration. But progress toward it will need to be sustained through a series of intermediary stages.
To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?
For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions' histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America's exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy.
Dr. Kissinger served as national security adviser
 and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Adapted from his book "World Order," to be published Sept. 9 by the Penguin Press

Editor's note: Though I cannot vouch all the claims, I find this article on Kissinger interesting HERE