Saturday, February 24, 2018

Which are Worse: Train Salesmen or Cheap Car Salesmen?

Which are Worse: Train Salesmen or Cheap Car Salesmen?

Although car salesmen get accused of sleazy sales tactics the only ones I've encountered have been the utmost professionals. Train advocates however are a different matter.
Wanna buy a train?
My respect for car salesman right now is at an all time high having dealt with the highly professional Jim Leavitt of San Rafael and the truly amazing Steve Dolowitz of Petaluma Honda, who sadly passed away at the age of 56 in 2006.  However SMART and its many advocates seem to be adopting the tactics akin to cheap car salesmen. You know the one - it's called the four square system.

The salesman writes down:
  1. the price of the car
  2. the monthly payment
  3. the trade in value
  4. the downpayment
Then they work out which of the four elements you care about the most and before you know it the elements you fixated on are great and you're in the finance managers office signing away hundreds more than you needed to as the other elements have been twisted in the dealership's favor.

With SMART it worked like this. It was worked out that we the taxpaying voters of Marin and Sonoma cared deeply about reducing 101 congestion. Also being Marinites we liked the sound of anything that sounded sustainable and green, and what could possibly be greener than a train? Surely that's common sense. Who would ever question it?

Questioning the Unquestionable - is it Really Green?

But this is where the cheap sales-trick falls apart. If you dig deep enough, and it's nicely buried, you can work out the SMART trains' emissions. These are ultimately calculated based on "passenger mpg" and as with mpg the higher the number the better.

SMART is supposed to commence operations in late 2016. The locomotives are meant to have a lifespan of 30 years so this puts the midpoint of operational life at 2031.  Whitehouse legislation mandates that the average fuel economy of new cars in 2025, that's 6 years earlier, will be 54.5mpg (Source: the Whitehouse). Of course we need to adjust this downwards as:

i) It will take time for the existing vehicle fleet to be replaced. But the 2031 locomotive lifespan midpoint is 6 years beyond the Whitehouse mandate
ii) Advertised mpg for cars can be optimistic; the reality as we've all discovered comes in around 20% under (give or take)

So let's discount the average car's advertised mpg by 20%. Actually let's be more severe than that to keep the transit advocates happy - let's discount car advertised mpg by 50% and assume that the train mpg is gospel (for once, what they say is the reality).

A Heated Exchange between ME and Chief Tom Roach concerning the Marin IJ Article on the Kitchen

Stephen Nestel

Feb 19 (4 days ago)
to EricTomBillIRVINGIzabelaLeahJeff, bcc: Linda, bcc: Bill

I could not believe this article in the Marin IJ which will definitely be read by lawsuit happy lawyers intent on extracting fees from the CSD.

As you are well aware, the contracting process has been difficult and the latest iteration only INCREASES liability because it attempts to straddle government contracting regulations without fully complying. In addition, the world has been notified by Leah's quote the district is now prepared to spend “whatever it costs to get the job done.” .  It is a very reckless statement that surely will cost the district.  She should immediately qualify this to the public or step down from the board.

The board should IMMEDIATELY withdraw any construction agreements above $25,000 which will place the project under government contracting laws.  

Better to have a $25,000 kitchen than a $87,000 kitchen and a $200,000 lawsuit.

Let's use some commonsense.  The chief is about to retire, we need to concentrate on a mergers with SRFD or another agency before he leaves us.  This distraction will only take time and money away from far more pressing issues.



Feb 20 (3 days ago)
to meedreikosendipietrosheailschwartzizabela.perryleahegreenjnaylor567
There is no current bid for $25,000.  That company is no longer interested in working with the District.  And as far as I know there is no $200,000 lawsuit nor do I know of anyone threatening such a lawsuit.  I am working with a licensed registered contractor to come up with a reasonable bid to complete the project.  Stephen, your half truths and threats are doing very little to help the District complete business and will only further delay the project.  

Tom Roach


Stephen Nestel 

Feb 20 (3 days ago)
to TomEricBillIRVINGIzabelaLeahJeff, bcc: Linda, bcc: Bill, bcc: Brad, bcc: gklien
The district is wide open for a lawsuit given the administration of this project.  Of course, $200,000 lawsuit is simply just a guess what it could cost with an aggressive lawyer determined to milk the district.  The discussions are already in the public record where collusion, ignoring government contracting law and willingness to overpay for work is there for the world to see.  

You, Chief Roach are particularly vulnerable.  I am merely informing you to stop before walking into the alligator swamp.  Again, I suffer insults from you instead a measured evaluation of the facts.   Several contractors, I know will be willing to do it under the $25k limit.  Someone suggested that Granite Expo in Emeryville could do it under $20k.  Did you even explore this option?   The whole project, from the "emergency mold" until today, seem to be forced upon the district.  A serviceable kitchen could be had for FREE but the insistence on a luxury kitchen with favored contractors is the only one deemed acceptable by the Marinwood CSD.

If you ignore the facts, then regrettably this issue could become much, much larger.

Ms. Green can proclaim, "We will pay whatever it takes" but the district must back it up with our taxes.  Wouldn't it be better to secure the retirements of employees first?

Like many taxpayers in the district,  I don't have a trust fund or a six figure pension to look forward to.  Instead,  I see a deep sea of red ink from feckless spending. And spending means taxes.  

For the sake of the district, take positive action.  Go to Granite Expo today and get a quote.  If it is under $25k,  pull the trigger.  You'll show the public, that you are a good steward of taxpayer's money,  a leader for the department and will be remembered fondly in your retirement. 

Do the right thing.

Stossel: Supreme Court Ruling May Crush Unions

A Request to Correct the Lies in the Marin IJ story about Marinwood Fire Station goes unheeded.

An Open Letter to the Publisher of the Marin IJ requesting a correction to the Marinwood Fire Department Story.

I was shocked today at the above story about the Marinwood Fire department kitchen for its glaring omissions that were undoubtedly missed by Mr. Klein through the careful presentation of the story by Marinwood CSD staff and board members. It completely glosses over the glaring incompetence and indecision of the board and unethical and likely illegal contract practices.

I have filmed each meeting of the Marinwood CSD and can prove the following.

1.) A "mold emergency"  was discovered by Chief Roach in February 2017 which resulted in gutting the firehouse kitchen. Chief Roach had assumed that the mold was toxic BEFORE taking aggressive mediation.  Most people would have use a bucket of warm water and bleach first. 

2.)  Once the kitchen was gutted, the Chief requested an aggressive/expensive remodeling with luxury appliances, stone countertops, etc.  He received a bid of $24,999,  just a dollar less the amount required for government contract law to pay prevailing wages.  Looking at the bid, the public and a few board members remarked that the job could be done cheaper and a designer was hired to make a estimate.  Indeed, low end cabinetry would have cost the district about $5000 and could be installed in a matter of weeks.

A PRIVATE donation for the $25,000 was offered and REJECTED by the Marinwood CSD and Firefighters.  They wanted a better kitchen.   It would have been FREE to the taxpayers. Eric Dreikosen claimed they could not accept a donation for the kitchen because it was not prevailing wages.

3.) The fire department was displeased with the FREE Kitichen and insisted on high end luxury appliances, custom cabinetry, and moving plumbing and electrical which added tens of thousands to the cost.  One firefighter board member boasted that his oven cost $5000 and the firefighters deserve the same quality.

4.) The general manager, Eric Dreikosen, made the inaccurate claim that the job MUST meet government PREVAILING WAGE contracting law and only qualified contractors could bid.  The prevailing wage law is only required for contracts more than $25,000. The cost escalated to $85.000 to $118,000 BUT APPLIANCES WERE EXTRA.  The bids included work such as "soffit removal" when there wasn't any soffits to remove.  The bids was hastily written and totally inflated.  

5.) Next the board reduced the specifications. No stone countertops, stock cabinetry, etc and STILL the cheapest bid was $67k  but the bidder dropped out.

6.) The Chief and a board member personally knew the contractor from neighboring fire department and previous work.  They negotiated PRIVATELY with a personal friend in violation of Government Contract Law.

7.) After warning from the district lawyers, they finally put a bid out to the public and received meager response.  Again the board tried to privately negotiate in violation of public bidding process.

8.) Finally, the board agreed to $87k but the Chief assured the board that he has a personal relationship with the contractor and "everything will be okay"

9.) In today's Marin IJ, Leah Kleinman-Green proclaims "we will pay whatever it takes" to complete the job in an outrageous disregard of her fiduciary duty to Marinwood CSD taxpayers.
Leah Kleinman Green, Acting President of the Marinwood CSD Board "will pay whatever it takes". Of course all this means WE TAXPAYERS will pay "whatever it takes" Her reasoning is that she recently spent one million dollars renovating her 3 person office for the business she inherited.

Marinwood taxpayers have been screwed. There was never a "prevailing wage" requirement for a small $25,000 cabinet and countertop replacement. They would have been installed in a few weeks. Quality appliances suitable for our three man crews could be had for a few thousand dollars. 

This story is about feckless mismanagement, indecision, possible bid rigging and collusion and massive waste of time and resources.

Our firefighters deserve better. The public deserves better.  The resources should be directed to pay the arrears on our pension obligations not wasting it on mismanaged projects and legal liabilities.

I can provide FULL video of the meetings, the admissions of ignoring government contract law REPEATEDLY, ignorance of the law, collusion with bidders, the knowledge of  more competitive alternatives, the offer and rejection of the private donation and misquoting numerous laws.  

I ask that a rebuttal or retraction of the story in light of the missing information in the Marinwood Kitchen fiasco.

Editor"s Note: Neither the Marin IJ editor Robert Sterling or the writer Gary Klein,  even gave a courtesy response.  The sad truth is that the Marin IJ will seldom tackle controversy unless it is to attack its perceived enemies. The only truth about Marin politics is published by citizen journalists.  What a sad state of affairs for the county and the Marin IJ.

Friday, February 23, 2018



Transit ridership is down in a number of markets, but LA’s declines have attracted a lot of attention – and for good reason. LA has invested billions of dollars in rail transit but has failed to grow ridership, which is still below its 1985 levels. And ridership has actually been falling in recent years, even on the existing core rail lines. (New and expanded lines saw some growth).
I don’t see a grand narrative of transit decline at the national level. I think we need to look at local markets to see what’s going on. The Bay Area has seen pretty good performance vs. LA. New York’s ridership is up substantially in the last couple of decades, with recent declines intuitively related to operational reliability problems. It’s probably the same in other legacy cities like DC, whose Metro system has been problem plagued. Chicago’s rail declines have been tagged as resulting from cannibalization of off-peak trips by Uber and Lyft.
What about LA? A new study attributes the transit declines there to sharply higher vehicle access among the transit dependent population.
The study notes that a relatively small number of people and neighborhoods disproportionately fuel transit ridership. The median number of rides in LA is zero. The authors investigate several potential causes of transit decline – falling gas prices, Uber/Lyft, and neighborhood demographic change – but alight on rising access to vehicles as the most likely culprit.
A defining attribute of regular transit riders is their relative lack of private vehicle access. But between 2000 and 2015, households in the SCAG region, and especially lower-income households, dramatically increased their levels of vehicle ownership. Census data show that from 1990 to 2000 the region added 1.8 million people but only 456,000 household vehicles (or 0.25 vehicles per new resident). From 2000 to 2015, the SCAG region added 2.3 million people and 2.1 million household vehicles (or 0.95 vehicles per new resident).
The growth in vehicle access has been especially dramatic among subsets of the population that are among the heaviest users of transit. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of households in the region with no vehicles fell by 30 percent, and the share of households with fewer vehicles than adults fell 14 percent. Among foreign-born residents, zero-vehicle households were down 42 percent, and those with fewer vehicles than adults were down 22 percent. Finally, among foreign-born households from Mexico, the share of households without vehicles declined an astonishing 66 percent, while households with more adults than vehicles dropped 27 percent. Living in a household without a vehicle is perhaps the strongest single predictor of transit use; the decline of these households has powerful implications for transit in Southern California.
Public transportation is unlikely to fare well when Southern California is flooded with additional vehicles, especially when those vehicles are owned disproportionately by transit’s traditional riders. Much of the region’s built environment is designed to accommodate the presence of private vehicles and to punish their absence. Extensive street and freeway networks link free parking spaces at the origin and destination of most trips. Driving is relatively easy, while moving around by means other than driving is not. These circumstances give people strong economic and social incentives to acquire cars, and —once they have cars —to drive more and ride transit less.
The advantages of automobile access, which are particularly large for low-income people with limited mobility, suggest that transit agencies should not respond to falling ridership by trying to win back former riders who now travel by auto. A better approach may be to convince the vast majority of people who rarely or never use transit to begin riding occasionally instead of driving.
Click through to read the entire study.
Note that they don’t completely discount neighborhood change as a factor. They suggest that it needs more study.
What this study suggests to me is that LA’s ridership declines may be more entrenched than those in places like NYC and DC, which I believe could be reversed by improving reliability.

Photos show how Seattle’s favorite businesses vanished after Amazon showed up — and it could be an omen for the HQ2 city

Photos show how Seattle’s favorite businesses vanished after Amazon showed up — and it could be an omen for the HQ2 city

Construction in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, the home of Amazon's headquarters.Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderIn the past two decades, Amazon has grown from a startup birthed in Jeff Bezo's garage into one of the world's largest tech companies.

In the late 1990s, the online-retail giant planted its first headquarters in Seattle, Washington, where it now employs 40,000 people and spans 8.1 million square feet.

Amazon's presence has fundamentally changed the city, according to Cynthia Brothers, a 36-year-old Seattle native. In recent years, she has noticed that coffee shops, grocers, restaurants, and bars beloved by locals are increasingly shutting down to make way for upscale redevelopments.

Brothers — and many urbanism experts— argue that Amazon's rise has contributed to the closure of independent retailers, along with rising housing prices, increased traffic, and constant construction.

Seattle's gentrifying landscape inspired Brothers to launch Vanishing Seattle, an Instagram account that documents longstanding businesses that have shuttered. The photo project reveals a potential future for the city Amazon picks to house its new headquarters, called HQ2.

Take a look below.
View As: One Page Slides

Brothers began Vanishing Seattle in 2016.

Her first post was a video of a drag queen named Atasha, who performed Dream Girls’ “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” on the closing night of Inay’s, a longstanding restaurant and bar.

Brothers describes Inay's as a popular institution that served as a hub for Seattle's Asian-American and LGBT communities.

Inay’s closed due to a rent increase — something that has become increasingly common as Amazon becomes bigger in the city.
A man stands on a plaza on the Amazon campus, Thursday, April 27, 2017, in downtown Seattle. AP

Since 2000, the area has added 99,000 new jobs, with 30% of them in tech, contributing to a construction boom. As Seattle’s largest property taxpayer and private employer, Amazon has continued to spur an influx of high-skilled tech workers.
A street in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, the home of Amazon's headquarters. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Source: The Seattle Times (1 and 2)

Other startups have come to Seattle to ride out the tech boom.
A street in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, the home of Amazon's headquarters. Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

The city’s building stock has struggled to keep up with demand, contributing to higher rent prices. As a result, some longtime residents and businesses in lower-income neighborhoods have been driven out.
Viva The Sunlight Cafe, oldest vegetarian restaurant in Seattle. crosscut_news/Instagran

While the connection between gentrification and small-business turnover is complicated, a number of independent retailers are under pressure from soaring rents in Seattle, Brothers said.

Near Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union (a neighborhood called "Amazonia" by locals), the Hurricane Cafe was recently bought and demolished by Amazon. The company plans to build two office towers in its place.
Greenlake, a closed bar in Seattle. Vanishing Seattle

Nearby, a 50-year-old bar called 13 Coins closed on January 1 to make way for redevelopment. A few weeks prior, the Two Bells Tavern met the same fate.
Two Bells Tavern, a closed bar in Seattle. Vanishing Seattle

Two Bells' closure "hit people hard," Brother said.

Brothers says displacement is happening not just in Amazonia, but in neighborhoods across Seattle.
Antiques at Pike Place, a shuttered antique shop in Seattle. Vanishing Seattle

In Central Area, a half-dozen primarily black-and-immigrant-owned businesses served as deep-rooted community gathering spots.
Vintage graffiti on a new-demolished building in Seattle. Skkyphoenix/Instagram

The retail complex, called Promenade 23, centered around the Red Apple grocery store.
Big Apple, a closed supermarket at the now-defunct Promenade 23 in Seattle. Vanishing Seattle

But in 2017, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate bought the property to turn it into a 530-unit residential tower. Here's a rendering of what the development will look like:
Vulcan Real Estate and Studio 216

There’s reason to believe that redevelopment could threaten small businesses in the chosen HQ2 city, too.
Zanadu, a shuttered comic store in Seattle. Vanishing Seattle

Real estate website Apartment List recently looked at HQ2's potential impact on 15 North American cities, and found that it could raise rent prices by up to 2% annually.

According to the report, the HQ2 metro areas with the highest rent increases would include Raleigh, North Carolina (1.5% to 2% annually) and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1.2% to 1.6%).

As a Seattle native, Brothers fears that the city will continue to lose its staple institutions.
M & L Records and Models, a family-owned hobby shop in Seattle. daniellekuhlmann/Instagram

Referring to Amazon’s campus, she said the company “constructed an artificial neighborhood."
The Felix Building in Seattle. Vanishing Seattle

"People don't hang out after work or on the weekend. And what's there now? A West Elm and fitness club that costs $200 month. It's a cultural wasteland," she said.

“I worry about where the counterculture is going to go,” Brothers said. “Because the counterculture was Seattle’s culture. We need to create a city that’s not just about tech, convenience, consumption, and disruption.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018



From Disruption to Dystopia: Silicon Valley Envisions the City of the Future
The unaffordable Bay Area, Google’s new neighborhood ‘built from the internet up,’ and China’s police state each offer glimpses of what the tech giants plan to sell the rest of us.
02.18.18 8:44 PM ET

The tech oligarchs who already dominate our culture and commerce, manipulate our moods, and shape the behaviors of our children while accumulating capital at a rate unprecedented in at least a century want to fashion our urban future in a way that dramatically extends the reach of the surveillance state already evident in airports and on our phones.

Redesigning cities has become all the rage in the tech world, with Google parent company Alphabet leading the race to build a new city of its own and companies like Y Combinator, Lyft, Cisco, and Panasonic all vying to design the so-called smart city.

It goes without saying, this is not a matter of merely wanting to do good. These companies are promoting these new cities as fitter, happier, more productive, and convenient places, even as they are envisioning cities with expanded means to monitor our lives, and better market our previously private information to advertisers.

This drive is the latest expansion of the Valley’s narcissistic notion of “changing the world” through disruption of its existing structures and governments and the limits those still place on the tech giants’ grandest ambitions. This new urban vision negates the notion of organic city-building and replaces it with an algorithmic regime that seeks to rationalize, and control, our way of life.

In reality, Google is entering the “smart city” business in no small part to develop high-tech dormitories for youthful tech workers and the cheaper foreign noncitizen workers in the U.S., including H1B indentured servants; overall noncitizens make up the vast majority of the Valley’s tech workforce. Even as the tech fortunes have grown ever larger, the companies own workers have been left behind, with the average programmer earning about as much today as she did in 1998 even as housing costs in tech hubs have exploded.

The drive to redesign our cities, however, is not really the end of the agenda of those who Aldous Huxley described as the top of the “scientific caste system.” The oligarchy has also worked to make our homes, our personal space, “connected” to their monitoring and money machines. This may be a multibillion-dollar market soon, but many who have employed such devices at home—appliances that track our activities and speak to us like loyal servants—find them “creepy,” as they should, given that their daily activities are fed back to enrich the high-tech hive mind. Both the city and house the future may owe more to Brave New World than Better Homes and Gardens.

This is a vision of the urban future in which the tech companies’ own workers and whatever other people with skills the machines haven’t yet replaced are a new class of urban serfs living in small apartments, along with a much larger class of dependent persons living on “income maintenance” and housing or housing subsidies provided by the state. “Bees exist on Earth to pollinate flowers, and maybe humans are here to build the machines,” observes professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, from University College London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. “The city will be one big joined-up urban machine, and humans’ role on Earth will be done.”

This new urban form is an extension of the notion—shared by most top internet founders—that their industry will exacerbate inequality between the rich and the middle class, while eradicating abject poverty by making cheap essential goods. Companies prosper in this model by avoiding the messy reality of paying higher wages through automating ever higher-end functions.

As the hoi polloi cluster in small apartments, the choice spots will be left for the extremely wealthy workaholics who create technologies. Everyone else will enjoy leisurely prosperity—playing with their phones, video games, and virtual reality in what Google calls “immersive computing.”

This is markedly different from the capitalist system that emerged after the Second World War, when large employers like General Motors or Lockheed did not so consciously monitor their employees’ lives once they left work. The growth of these companies also allowed many working and middle class people to buy homes, primarily in suburbia, where they could separate corporate life from family life.

Silicon Valley remains stubbornly suburban in form, but the oligarchs now believe that “urbanization is a moral imperative,” notes author Greg Ferenstein, who has interviewed them extensively. Conveniently for the new rulers sopping up a share of the capital unmatched since the gilded age, cramming people into tighter and heavily monitored spaces also discourages them from having large families, or any children at all, and thus fewer “excess” people without coding skills to be housed and fed.

Even as the suburban garage remains the Valley’s preferred symbol, suggesting that anyone with a vision can build the next Facebook, in fact today’s giants prefer to buy up emerging innovators and to build dense urban complexes inhabited by workers who will become ever more corporate, consolidated, and controlled.

Even as the oligarchs’ apologists insist dense cities are “home to more innovation and income equality,” research shows quite the opposite, with San Francisco, for example, recently ranked by the Brookings Institution as America’s second most unequal city. Perhaps Facebook should look at what happens to its contract workers sleeping in their cars and working numerous jobs to afford to stay near the mother ship.

Unlike urban centers of the past, the new oligarchic city is not a mechanism that spurs individuals toward adulthood, family, or independence. Instead, the idea is to create a kind of extended adolescence or quasi-college experience, in which the tech giants or the government acting as their proxy gets to play dorm mother, encouraging people to behave and think in ways the oligarchs deem useful.

In this world, there is little room for home ownership. The oligarchs have endorsed Bay Area regulations that limit single family-home development and have helped created some of the world’s highest housing prices and rents. According to Zillow, rent costs now claim upward of 45 percent of income for young workers in San Francisco, compared to closer to 30 percent of income in metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. The average new mortgage for a home in San Francisco takes, on average, close to 40 percent of income, compared to 15 percent nationally.

Under this regime, the new generation of Bay Area residents seems destinedto live as renters, without enjoying equity in property. The 2040 regional plan for the Bay Area calls for 75 percent of new housing development to take place on barely 5 percent of the land mass, all but guaranteeing high prices for those who can (barely) afford to live crammed into small apartments.

One well-used rationale for densification lies with the assumption that building more units on these pricey pieces of land will help solve California’s severe housing affordability crisis. Yet in reality, construction costs for higher density housing are much higher—up to 7.5 times the cost per square foot of building detached housing. Nor will densification do much to address climate issues: Savings cited in a recent Berkeley study suggest that enforced densification would contribute less than 1 percent of the new emissions reductions the state has mandated by 2030.

Yet the CEOs of Lyft,, Square, Twitter, and Yelp, as well senior executives at Google, all support densification, and have rallied behind a new bill by California state Sen. Scott Wiener to strip local communities of most of their zoning powers to allow significant densification virtually everywhere there is basic transit or rail bus service. This shift in power from localities to the state follows the oligarch’s preference for centralized power that avoids the messiness of dealing with the local peasantry. Like your bucolic suburb or human scale urban neighborhood? Too bad. The oligarchs have spoken.

Instead of the lower density and relatively affordable post-war suburbs that “smart” planners and progressives have long mocked as cultural wastelands, the tech giants are pushing a 21st century high-tech update of the grim worker housing that dotted the Lancastrian and New England landscapes of the early industrial revolution.

In developing dense housing estates around their headquarters, the new “company town” for the 21st century will erase both privacy and financial independence. Firms like Google, Apple, and Facebook seek employees who embrace, as the New Yorker recently observed, “not only a life style but a fully realized life” based on a modernist version of “monasticism.”

Mark Zuckerberg, even as he fought to expand his own sprawling suburban homestead, envisions his employees living in crowded dormitories close to work, including a planned 1,500-unit apartment development near Facebook’s Menlo Park campus. Zuckerberg, like most oligarchs, prefers workers unengaged with the mundanities of family life.

“Young people just have simpler lives,” he explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. “We may not own a car. We may not have a family. Simplicity in life is what allows you to focus on what’s important.”

The man preaching this diminished view of urban life, of course, has a car, a family and all the benefits that come with a vast fortune. He is not part of the “we” he’s purporting to speak for.

The city that he is envisioning, that “we” are supposed to enjoy, will be organized not by civic loyalty but pools of constantly tracked personal information collected and sold by his company.

One early indicator: Google is working to create a new, “smart” neighborhood in an undeveloped 12-acre portion of Toronto called Quayside. Sidewalk, the Alphabet unit run by former New York Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, describes its vision for Quayside as the prototype for a city “built from the internet up… merging the physical and digital realms,” with its residents acting in effect as the company’s beta-testers.

This “smart” urbanity revolves around surveillance and relentless data-gathering. Swarms of monitoring sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets will be constantly on duty. Google would collect data about everything from water use to air quality to the movements of Quayside’s residents, using that data to run energy, transport, and all other systems. In this controlled environment, consent over pillaging personal data “goes out the window straight away” says David Murakami Wood, an associate professor at Queens University who studies surveillance in cities.

“The whole point of a smart city is that everything that can be collected will be collected,” Al Gidari, the director of privacy at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society in California, told the CBC. If smart cities really wanted to give people more control over their privacy, they wouldn’t collect any of it unless people opted in.

Relentless monitoring, no doubt, will create some efficiencies for things such as trash collection, but at an enormous cost to privacy. Where people walk, what they do will all be fed into Google’s advertising and marketing machine. Meanwhile, Google, Wired notes, will be gaining insights about urban life—including energy use, transit effectiveness, climate mitigation strategies, and social service delivery patterns—that it will then be able to sell to cities around the world.

While Canadians may still be able to object to attempts at this kind of control, citizens in Russia, India, and China are less likely do so. In China, tech firms are desperate enough for future profits to cooperate openly with the state’s surveillance and censorship regime in exchange for market access.

China presents the oligarchic city builders with a real-life laboratory for surveillance. In western China, where Muslim dissidents are a problem, Chinese authorities are testing a facial-recognition system that alerts authorities when targets stray more than 300 meters from their home or workplace. The state is also working on the harvesting of biometric data, smartphone scanners, voice analysis, and compulsory satellite-tracking systems for vehicles.

The tech giants, who know a market opportunity when they see one, are already selling gear and software to expand China’s surveillance state while the venture community in Silicon Valley is raising funds for startups specializing in these intrusive technologies.

What is occurring in Silicon Valley, being proposed in Toronto, and now implemented in China all points toward efforts by tech companies and governments to create new dense and data-driven cities that shape what the British academic David Lyon calls a “surveillance society,” where all of our data is shared with the governments and companies that use it to control us (PDF). In many ways these “cities” will be the opposite of the real thing, driven by a technological culture that, as David Byrne has suggested, substitutes spontaneous human interaction—the glory of the traditional city—with machine-driven interfaces.

The idea is not, to paraphrase the late William F. Buckley, to stand athwart the internet, yelling stop. But instead this is a call for urbanites and all citizens to rise up against the transformation of our cities into tech satrapies. One obvious step is enhanced anti-trust enforcement, something increasingly attractive on both left and right. Unlike in the internet boom of the 1990s, the current one has seen a dearth of new listings and a general decline in business startups, including in tech.

Another step would be to look toward Europe, which has taken an increasingly hardline stance against social media intrusion into personal lives, for ways to curb the tech oligarchs’ ability to control content on the internet and the profits that flow through it.

This is not about rejecting technology, but regaining control of it and being sure that its advances, and the information culled from our individual and collective lives, is used for our benefit, not only the private profits of a handful of monopolists. If giants aren’t allowed to hoard our information that is the source of their great power and profit, the incredible technologies at our disposal now should allow all of us access to ever more sophisticated information that provides the basis for decentralized self-government.

The more cities genuflect to firms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, the more our communities will be shaped not by our own preferences but by the controlling vision of oligarchs who know more than it’s pleasant to imagine about each of our habits, inclinations, and desires.

To maintain the freedom of the city requires that citizens, not the oligarchy, drive its development. Anything else undermines the very idea of democracy. When a city manager suggests that changes are dictated by data collected by the smart city operators, rather than popular sentiment, democracy itself has been unplugged.

This is the time to reclaim cities suited to human aspiration. We need to do this before control is ceded to a small tech elite that profits by shaping our future, stealing our privacy and nudging us toward a new era of mass serfdom.

California’s Proposition 13 turns 40 this year.

Paul Gann, left, and Howard Jarvis, hold up their hands on the night of June 7, 1978, as their co-authored initiative Proposition 13 limiting property taxes took a commanding lead in the California primary. Prop. 13 turns 40 this year, and may face challenges. (AP Photo/stf) ASSOCIATED PRESS


California’s Proposition 13 turns 40 this year. Its midlife crisis may be on the way

February 18, 2018 12:01 AM
Updated 10 hours 41 minutes ago

This year is the 40th anniversary of Proposition 13, the iconic property tax limit measure that California voters overwhelmingly endorsed in 1978.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that it’s also the 40th anniversary of efforts to repeal or alter Prop. 13’s provisions, and those on the left side of the political ledger – unions, particularly – may be trying once again this year to undo it.
An initiative awaiting clearance for signature-gathering would create a so-called “split roll,” preserving Prop. 13’s property tax limits for homes and residential rental units, but removing them for other commercial and industrial properties.
The up-front proponents are such good government groups as the League of Women Voters, which contend that the state’s schools and local governments are seriously underfunded.
Standing in the shadows, however, are public employee unions, which would benefit from having more money flowing to schools and local governments, especially since their budgets are being squeezed very hard by fast-rising pension costs.
How much more?
The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, estimates that a split-roll could generate net annual revenues in the $6-10 billion range.
Those are big stakes and while the unions could spend millions of dollars on a campaign to pass the measure, the business interests that would be paying more property taxes have even deeper pockets. After all, spending even $50 million to defeat a split-roll measure would be pocket lint in comparison to the multibillion-dollar stakes.
So, if the split roll measure makes it to the ballot, it would likely be one of those massively expensive ballot measures for which California is famous, or infamous.
Proponents would pound on providing more money for schools, which, polling tells us, are the most popular thing that government does. That was the theme of two successful ballot measures that raised income taxes on the wealthiest Californians in 2012 and 2016, and in fact per pupil spending has increased by 66 percent in the last seven years.
Opponents will raise the specter of undoing Prop. 13, which has consistently enjoyed high voter approval in polling over the last 40 years, arguing that if commercial property is hit with tax increases, homes will be the next target.
They also would point out that despite Prop. 13’s restrictions, property tax revenues have increased 12-fold since it was passed due to new construction and reassessment when properties change hands.
Finally, they may also contend – with a factual basis – that the extra money wouldn’t mean better schools and local government services, but rather would shore up pension funds that face huge unfunded liabilities.
So would California voters endorse a split property tax roll? Recent polling indicates its proponents would face an uphill battle.
The Public Policy Institute of California has tested the issue periodically and once found a fairly strong level of support among likely voters, but the most recent PPIC poll found it had slipped from 60 percent in 2012 to 55 percent in 2015 and just 46 percent now.
One rule of the thumb about contentious California ballot measures is that they must begin with strong support, well over 50 percent, if they are to have a chance of prevailing against well-financed opposition, so 46 percent is a very weak starting point.
In years past, split-roll advocates have loudly announced campaigns for it, only to quietly throw in the towel when it became clear they had little chance of winning.
Ultimately, therefore, the 40th anniversary of Proposition 13 may be a whimper, instead of a bang.
Dan Walters is a columnist at CALmatters. Reach him at