Monthly Archives: December 2010

New Year’s at Venice Beach

Tonight, we’ll be celebrating the nuptials of a dear friend in Venice. What better way to start the New Year?

I love the winter beach in southern California; I especially like overcast days, when nobody is on the beach but me. Today, however, it’s going to be bright, sunny and cool: just the right sort of clear night for a New Year.
Happy New Year, everybody!


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SPPD Review Call for Submissions

SPPD Review

The student-run journal of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development

In Spring 2011, SPPD will release its next publication of its first-ever student-adjudicated academic journal, The USC SPPD Review. On behalf of the editorial committee, we invite you to submit your work for our upcoming online issue!

REQUIREMENTS:

Submissions must have been originally written for an SPPD class in the past year (January 2010 onward), contain Chicago-style citations, and contain a maximum 250-word abstract. Above all, submissions must be modern, relevant, and polished. No page limit is enforced.

Students may submit up to one individually written paper, and/or up to one group assignment (with the permission of all group members). Selected pieces may be subject to further editing by the Journal’s senior editors and/or faculty advisers.

DIRECTIONS FOR SUBMISSION:

· E-mail paper to sppd.review@gmail.com by Monday, 1/17/2011

· Include: your name, phone number, preferred e-mail address, SPPD course name, number, and professor.

Submissions are due no later than Monday, January 17th, 2011.

Papers will be reviewed through a blind review process by the student-run committee. One piece per degree program will be selected for this season’s journal. All students, faculty, and the general public will be able to access the journal online through the SPPD website.

If you have any questions, please contact sppd.review@gmail.com or visit our www.sppdreview.com to submit online.

Thank you for your support!

Aurea Adao & Brettany Shannon

Co-Editors-in-Chief, USC SPPD Review

Eleanor Chen

Managing Editor, USC SPPD Review


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Goodbye to Dennis Dutton

The Los Angeles Times has a lovely obituary up for Dennis Dutton, the creator of the Arts and Letters Dail, The Dutton name is a familiar one throughout southern California; his brothers owned and ran Dutton’s Books, gone (and greated missed) in 2008.

A quote from Professor Dutton:

“A few years ago, Bill Gates was boasting that we’ll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let’s expand ourselves intellectually.”


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The Gilt Fading on the Golden State: Richard Walker in the New Left Review

The New Left Review is one of those magazines I spend way too much money for simply because the writing is always so spectacular. There are three articles well worth the price of a copy in this issue: one is a piece on Tehran, a paradox of postmodern city by Asef Bayat, another concerns the dominance of informality and the erosion of wages by Micheal Denning (free access) and Richard Walker’s The Golden State Adrift (also free access).

Walker’s piece does a brilliant job explaining why I am so worried about Califronia’s fiscal mess, covering the housing mess in particular. I would give my right arm to be able to write a sentence as perceptive and clear as this one, on the way that rich whites are hammering coffin nail after coffin nail into the state’s future:

The fading white plurality continues to exert a disproportionate influence on the state. Markedly older, richer and more propertied, the white electorate has correspondingly conservative views: for many, immigrants are the problem, the Spanish language a threat, and law and order a rallying cry. Even the centrist white voter tends to view taxes as a burden, schools of little interest, and the collective future as someone else’s problem.

Go read.


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Very cool things I am getting to do

1) I am going to be on a panel with Ian Parry in February. Total fangirl moment!!! I wonder if he’d sign my copy of the Washington, DC congestion charging study for me?

2) The book reviews editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association has asked me to contribute one of a group of reviews of the 10th anniversary edition of Suburban Nation. I’m honored, even if I am not entirely sure how to review such a flawed but important book.


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Bridalplasty: taking hatred towards women to a new, entirely unnecessary level

Holy freaking sweet cracker sandwiches, people. While I was busy pointing out what a snorefest Sarah Palin’s show is, E! (apparently run by Satan) has a new game show: Bridalplasty, where:

Brides-to-be compete in challenges to earn plastic-surgery procedures in a quest to win their ultimate dream wedding

Here’s a description of an episode:

Bridalplasty: Sporting of a Sparrow
With just eight girls left, the brides are tested on their bedroom knowledge and find themselves in difficult positions battling for this week’s surgery.

Next week’s episodes: the bride that might disappoint her man is publicly stoned! While the one who wins gets life-threatening unnecessary surgery.

Maybe this is God’s way of showing me there are worse ideas than HSR in Corcoran. GAH!! Give me Sarah Palin shooting things for no reason other than bloodsport any day if these are our entertainment choices.


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Culture Wars Nonsense around the HSR and a Technocratic Answer

The Economist, usually one of my go-to places for sanity, has a piece up on HSR that strikes me as nonsense. Ryan Avent wants to turn the debate around HSR into a ‘culture wars’ thing–what media outlet doesn’t want to turn everything into grist for the culture war?–from everything to HSR to obesity.

Even in assigning blame to the culture war between the technocrats and the haters—those uneducated Americans who hate the elite, and thus, the elite’s fancy dancy HSR system—Avent misses the mark by a long shot. It’s a classic case of “don’t deal with the real policy issues: blame the Republicans and Democrats!”

Why, exactly, should some segments of the US—who are unemployed and low-income and, thus, seldom if ever undertake inter-regional travel—support using tax money to build a new system for people, like me and Avent? Why? Is that opposition really ignorance? What, exactly, is HSR promising people who live in Lubbock, Texas? Or Cairo, Illinois?

Moreover, Avent is just wrong: it’s not just the permanently discontented and iggnerant Tea Party types that think HSR is a bad idea right now. I have a real-deal PhD, and so do a bunch of other people who are concerned, and we’re not on board with the California HSR, for the following, highly technical reason:

California is broke. Broke broke broke. Brokity-broke-broke-broke.

The real situation is worse than that: California is $28 billion in the hole. This Year. Next Year? Next year will be worse. That’s billion with a b. And growing.

So while English writers whinge about Americans’ whinging, they are missing a big part of the financial picture: infrastructure is financed much differently in the US than in Europe. While the US Federal government has some money to put up, states have to put up the rest. That’s a vastly different arrangement than what happened with building HSR in Europe, where the EU has a infrastructure bank.

So if Obama and the Dems want their HSR so damn badly, they should get off their fannies and start making some real-deal progress rather than handing out the 1 and 2 billion amounts that, unfortunately, translate to chump change in the actual funding needed. I favor an infrastructure bank, but having the guts to pursue a small increase in the gas tax would be fine, too. Or going after an general appropriation. Whatever.

Let’s remember: it took $4B to replace the Bay Bridge–alone. One bridge. It took $5 billion to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. One. Bridge.

Secondly, Avent’s whipping out the 100 million population growth number made me laugh. That means we need inter-regional HSR instead of building urban subways or heavy rail? That’s what that number means? It doesn’t make sense. Yes, there will be greater demand for inter-regional travel, but there will be much greater demand for within region travel–there always is. That means if we are gong to spend billions on transit, the resources should be going to urban transit systems first.

But, then, I’m just ignorant.

We note should that even HSR’s supporters, like Senator Alan Lowenthal, have started to question the feasibility of what California is doing. HT to Joseph Cordes on this story.

In this CNBC story, the cost estimate is reported at $43 billion. Now, the last I checked, it was $34B. Was there another announcement that the costs are going to be more than what we promised voters, or is the $43B just a typo?

Oh, hell, what’s $10B among friends? (It’s the GDP of Moldovia).

Finally, I can’t stand it when rail advocates like Avent whine that “rail is held to a standard that no other infrastructure is.” Oh booty hooty hoooooo. Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere?” Remember the “Road to nowhere?” If you want billions in public money for your project, then you need to show people that it’s worth what they are paying for it. Wah wah wah. Schools have to, convention centers have to, health care has had to, every other type of government spending program, with the possible exception of defense and homeland security, has to justify the billions they get. Nobody hands you a blank check, no matter how cool those Chinese trains are.

PS: Where’s all this money you can make from dissing HSR? I’m not getting any. Unlike people who advocate for HSR, who aren’t making any money a’tall. Poor things.


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On the reading of “old” scholarly contributions

One of my wonderful planning theory students was clearly worried about my using a chapter from Manuel Castells’ The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. In particular, I use the chapter on the formation of San Francisco’s Castro district as a means to discuss cosmopolitanism and the tensions that arise between integration and invisibility and using urban space and enclaves as a means to create power and visibility in urban politics.

“Have you thought about using something more….recent…about San Francisco?” he asked.

In a word, no. I haven’t.

It’s my opinion that the City and the Grassroots is, by far, Castells’ best book, and given that he has written wonderful book after wonderful book, that’s saying a lot. In fact, I think that The City and the Grassroots is one of the best books written about the city, ever, period.

But doesn’t the fact that it was published in 1983 make it dated?

How, really? Did the Castro re-form itself? Certainly, the place has changed, but the fact that the city didn’t stay frozen in time does not invalidate or erase Castell’s point: that the formation of a gay space was intentional, political and effective, at least for awhile.

Where do students get this idea that you can’t read anything over five years old? Are there teachers and parents out there telling them that a book written about Plato in 1960 can’t be any good? No, I don’t necessarily want you reading atmospheric science from 1983. But should you really not read Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan simply because it’s old and doesn’t have some of the newer Must Reads on there? Honestly, if you follow the no-older-than-five-year rule, you won’t read most of the contributions that win Nobel Prizes for their recipients, and I’m here to tell you, you really need to read William Vickrey.


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The Expo Line and Who is Overpaid in Transit Construction Contracts

Richard Green notes on his blog that:

A light rail line going by USC–the Exposition Line–has been under construction for some time now. For a considerable time, the site featured a sign that said the line would open in 2010. Now the estimates are that it will open some time in 2011 or 2012. At the same time, when I walk by the project, I can’t say that the workers building it show a great deal of, shall we say, urgency about getting the thing done.

At the same time, I don’t hear a lot of people who are upset about how far behind schedule the project is. Maybe this is because no one is planning to take the Expo Line. Maybe it is because peoople have such low expectations of LA Metro that they are not surprised, and therefore not outraged. Either way, it suggests a problem.

First off, it’s a bad idea to conclude anything about work effort based on what you observe by walking by. That’s like the people who judge professors by saying we “only teach two hours a week.” It’s not a valid sample, and it’s very had to evaluate other people’s work effort when you have never done the job yourself— and that’s particularly true of white collar workers passing judgment on blue collar workers engaged in dangerous and often tiring work–during a recession, no less, where anything that extends their work hours has direct implications for their family’s ability to eat and pay rent (unlike salaried work).

More to the point, Richard is mistaken when he concludes that people are not upset. The LA Weekly recently published a story called L.A.’s Light-Rail Fiasco which eviscerates the CEO of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, Rick Thorpe, for salary and his conduct. Rick Thorpe is exactly the sort of transit guy who becomes a free agent and CEO: relentlessly self-promotional and confident, any previous successes get attributed to his leadership. So he picks up stakes, gets recruited away, commands an enormous salary, and builds a brand for himself that he delivers projects on time and on budget.

From the LA Weekly Story:

The reasons behind the fiasco are as numerous as they are complex. But at its core, it’s a simple story: Somebody had a clever new idea, and it backfired.

In this case, that somebody is Rick Thorpe, CEO of the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority and one of the leading lights in light rail. He sold elected officials on a new type of contract, which he said would bring the project in cheaper and faster than it could be done by traditional means.

Colleagues from other transit agencies warned that the idea might not work. In the name of holding down costs, it could inadvertently create incentives that would drive costs up. But Thorpe pressed ahead anyway, and the elected officials charged with overseeing the line put their faith in his expertise.

Now, four years into the project, the results are plain.

“It just doesn’t work,” says Dan Peterson, an arbitrator with 50 years of experience in public works projects. “They’re trying to save 20 cents and it’s costing them $20 million.”

Thorpe and the MTA board argue that the contracting approach does, in fact, work. It is a process of negotiated design-build that, in Thorpe’s mind, prevented contractors from getting windfalls as they sometimes did under the design-bid-build process that has been industry go-to contracting process for a long time. However, the project where Thorpe’s innovation is supposedly working is not just behind schedule: it’s now 40 percent overbudget (to the tune of $260 million).

Now, you would think that Thorpe would know better than to be too fussy about contractors making money, based on this bit of info:

As CEO of the Expo Authority, Thorpe oversees a staff of 15 and earns a salary of $334,000. He makes more than the CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, who is responsible for 8,000 employees.

Thorpe’s self-branding that captured this salary is one of the major flaws of leadership both in the public and in the private sector. Once shareholders or board members believe you are some kind of magician, and they will if you are fortunate and if you blow your horn hard enough, competence is no longer enough. And as anybody who has built anything or completed any public project knows: 1) given all the barriers and problems, it’s amazing that anything gets built, ever, let alone on time and on budget, and 2) nobody, no matter how smart, confident, or charismatic gets anything built all by themselves. It takes a team, and while teams need managing, it is really easy to overstate and overcompensate the contributions of management when things go right and to make excuses when things go toes up.

There is another side. Why shouldn’t public managers good at their jobs make more than doctors or other professionals? Thorpe is a CEO, after all, and this is a major project, and major projects are tremendously hard to deliver, and private-sector CEOs make much much more.

However, the management and incentive contradictions emerge quickly. If you are paid $300+K a year to run something, your desire to finish it on time–particularly when you still have a board that rushes to your defense and you are no longer a hungry young guy building your brand–is low. Unless there are bonuses in Thorpe’s contract for on-time performance, he has little reason to protect the project from delays at this point, given all many reasons why projects get delayed in construction and the halo surrounding him personally.

Moreover, if you make your money because you are such an excellent manager, there is also the desire to innovate practices that reinforce the need for *management* on this project and future projects.

And from the what the LA Weekly reports, this “make management work” approach is right at the center of the problem. Instead of hammering out the details of the contacts up front–as with traditional design-bid-build contacts–Thorpe’s “negotiated design-build” requires the agency to keep their hands in project management more so than under traditional design-build where they would have been managing the contracts primarily–instead of negotiating as they go along.

In the end, I’ve always argued that there is very little wrong with the design-bid-build process.The US built most of the Interstate system with the approach and most existing transit, water, sewer, and other infrastructure this way. Where Thorpe sees the potential for “windfalls”, I see an incentive for construction companies to keep costs down so that they can increase profits. In the hands of a competent agency contract manager keeping track of the as-builts and project specifications, you shouldn’t end up with a poor-quality project. Instead, you provide an incentive on the part of the construction companies to keep employees hopping and to strike hard bargains with suppliers in the hopes of getting in under budget so that you can walk away with that the built-in cushion. The bidding process keeps companies from building in too much of a cushion. Innovations here have almost always struck me as cases of fixing something that wasn’t broken–to the overall detriment.


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The Best Book of the Year: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

One of the things that I think we have to figure out, and soon, is proper regulation of financial markets, if we are going to climb out of the hole we are in. In many circumstances, I tend to argue that regulations are too inflexible to deliver good policy. But in financial markets, a certain amount of standardization at this point–perhaps with sunsetting–would make a lot of sense.

Nobody makes that case better than Michael Lewis in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. There is much to kvetch about in this book: I get weary of the ‘hero’s journey’ take that writers like Lewis adopt in order to tell their stories journalistically rather than using evidence. And it’s a pretty one-sided book. Yet, I sat through seminar after seminar after seminar with economist after economist after economist who couldn’t explain WTH happened as clearly as Lewis does in this book. That’s a real gift, and a real contribution to the discussion about how to go forward.


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