House voyeurism in the age of austerity in the FT

The Financial Times has a little piece on how British reality TV has changed in response to the downtown.

I honestly do not know how people watch the Home Channel. I admit that I have loved This Old House for years, the original, back-in-the-day program because I like old houses and the program actually told you a lot about them, the history of the design movement the house reflected, and good methods for renovation. We all knew that the people renovating the three-story Georgetown townhouses and the Manhattan brownstones were rich, yuppy millionaires, and we secretly hated them, but we got to see inside a process and a house we were never going to get to see either as laborers or as guests. Oh, and Norm Abrams is about as cute as they come in real life.

However, the home “interior” shows, which are all decorating rather than design, are super barf-worthy. The ‘design’ always boil down to the same principle: eliminate anything that might look like people actually live there (books! toys! all clutter!) then make it look like some sterile environment from a magazine, then we’re supposed to clap and pay more for the vision that confronts us.

All these makeovers always end up making places look like therapists’ waiting rooms.

My loft is full of books and dogs and cats and people and confusion, by contrast.

The new movement, according to the FT, is based on watching people lose their homes and possession. I don’t find this any more entertaining than listening to decorators cattily criticize somebody’s wallpaper choice.

Who Mourns for Adonis*?

Students never let you get away with anything. One of my former students, Peter McFerrin, responds to my lack of fact-checking on yesterday’s post with a brisk set of corrections, as we wouldn’t want to mislead the public on anything kitschy:

Corrections: First off, it’s Hancock Park, by the “FHP” sign on the roof of “Youngwood Court” (the name the owner, Norwood Young, gave the house). Second, they’re actually Davids, I’m pretty sure. I have an incredible photo set of the 2009 version of The House of Christmas Davids. Three words: Black Power Santa.

I did try to fact-check, but I’ve never looked at the statues closely enough to see they were Davids, so my searching came up empty–I thought it was weird that I couldn’t find anything, as it was a pretty big controversy. Once you get that part of the puzzle, you can find the rest of the story from Apartment Therapy.

I love the comments: He’s made it impossible for his neighbors to sell their houses yada yada (Uh, huh. It couldn’t be that they are asking too much for their houses, either.)

Anyway, now you can see the Davids, in their full glory. What do you think?

At least Hancock Park is, in fact, millionaire-land. Got that part right.

*Peter, I know, I know, the proper reference is Who Mourns for Apollo, but I needed the link to yesterday’s post.

Oak Park backs down, property rights examined, and the 24 Adonises of Larchmont

Vis-a-vis the media examination and outrage leveled at them, Oak Park backed off threatening a woman with 93 days in jail for having a vegetable garden rather than a suburban lawn.

They have a picture of the garden, so you can go judge for yourself. I think it looks fine.

My good friend Jesse and I disagree on this one: Jesse knows a lot about land use law (he’s an attorney), and he argue in the comments, convincingly, that:

However, that’s the norm. I have pressure from my neighbors to keep the grass mowed and looking good and it enhances the value of my property (and my neighbors’ property). So, it has the reciprocity of advantage that zoning generally does- I’m limited in what I can do with my property, but my neighbor is too. I don’t care whether the woman is a liberal or not, but I bet if her neighbor, for example, filled their lawn with orange and maroon Hokie birds*, she would complain very loudly. Same thing. It’s a slippery slope. If she’s allowed to do whatever she wants with her front yard, then so is everyone else.

Jesse nicely explains the rationale for zoning here: It’s a form of mutually assured property value stabilization agreements.

I should have realized that I am more of property rights hawk than Jesse is. I think that governments that don’t take property rights seriously (or any other rights) are dangerous, period.

There are other issues here. In the Oak Park case, they just made themselves look like jerks in front of the country–yet another example of bureaucrats gone wild in an ongoing Tea Party discourse about the evils of government. Even if you think she should have a lawn, I’m just not willing to use public money, in a fiscal crisis zone like Michigan, to stick somebody in jail for it. There are just plain bigger fish to fry. That’s just an obvious abuse of government’s power to incarcerate: do something else, like cut off her services or increase her fines.

The most well-articulated challenge to the rights-view I have ever read comes from Mary Ann Glendon in her book RightsTalk:The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. In it, she lays out the communitarian objection: community norms matter. She argues against homosexuality, for example, because it flies against community norms. It bothers the rest of us, so it’s not legitimate.

The zone of public ethics is a tension between these communitarian and individual questions: how much should my behavior defer to the wants of community or family or whatever group, and how much should they accommodate me and my preferences as an individual? It’s a simplistic formulation: most of us are inseparable from our groups, but in modern life humans are too numerous and mobile for shunning to work as a means of punishing a person back into the community’s norms. If Oak Park residents stopped speaking to her, she could always chat with her Facebook friends and order groceries from Amazon.

My tendency when evaluating the We or Me tradeoffs of controversies like this is to examine the harm. In my opinion-y view, harm should be real harm. Not imagined harm, not he’s-looking-at-me-funny harm. Real harm. A human manure composting plant that has piles of fetid human waste uncovered on the lawn? Health hazard. Vegetables? No. Refinery? Yes. Taco Stand. No (unless you count the cholesterol–so let’s say a fruit stand instead.)

To take an extreme, a recent New Yorker cartoon had a woman glaring at a man sitting at a nearby restaurant table, where he was clearly enjoying the bread basket, as she confronted him with “Do you mind?” with the caption “Secondhand carbs.” To me, it epitomizes the “he’s looking at me funny” entitlement that underscores a great deal of aesthetic regulation.

It’s tempting in American life, which has pitched home ownership into a sacred thing, to treat something that might affect your property value as Real Harm. I’m not willing to do that. For one thing, it does cause people real harm on the other side as well: if you really do have a preference to fill your lawn with Hokie birds (which while ugly, is also temporary and fixable), than why should the person who doesn’t want them win the day just because they got the regulations in place prior to the first person’s preference? If it’s a nuisance, why can’t Coase sort it out rather than regulation? You don’t want her to garden, you negotiate a price for her to not garden—rather than assessing a fine FOR gardening.

This strikes me as a much more dynamic embodiment of communitarian principles than regulation.

For example, there is a house in Larchmont that has 24 white plaster Adonis statues in front. Larchmont is millionaireland in Los Angeles, one of many, and the neighbors went crazy and passed a bunch of rules to make sure that nothing like that will ever happen to besmirch their streetscape ever again. Meanwhile, he’s grandfathered, so he wins the day. That’s not communitarian. Communitarian rules would involve the negotiating of a consensus around objections and preferences–not whoever won the “most homogenized regulatory preference” race.

Real harm versus nuisance is a muddy area. But, there are houses in Berkeley, California, with vegetables in their front yard, that sell for 8 times what the manicured lawn places in Oak Park sell for. In fact, Berkeley’s diversity of built and plant forms (along with the gazillion things California has done to make land scarce and Berkeley impossible to reproduce) contributes to the land value. Maybe the context and community norms matter, but it is just as likely that enforced homogeneity of codes depresses values as well as stabilizes them (in fact, that’s what the theory would suggest).

*Voila Capture96

My scintillating advice on Carmageddon, with added snark for free

Here’s my brilliant quote from the AP story: :

“It’s going to be fine, people had a lot of warning,” said Lisa Schweitzer, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California.

Yeah, stand back. I gots a me a PhD.

However, I have to say, this reporter for the AP, Daisy Nyugen, was a pleasant lady to chat with. I’m just sad I didn’t say anything smarter for her to use.

If you’re upset that there are no trains on the west side of LA to help you cope with the 405 going off line, here are a few words of advice:

1. Don’t kill the next subway proposal that comes along after it has a construction problem, a problem which could easily be engineered for (like an improperly capped oil site with trapped methane, which wasn’t the agency’s fault, btw–private company’s fault), and don’t use that as a thinly veiled rationale upon which to indulge your rampaging NIMBYism.

2. Don’t get your US representative to write riders into Federal law that you can’t build subways anywhere along the most-promising westside LA route.

3. Don’t get your County Supervisor to spearhead an initiative to prevent any local options sales tax funding being spent on subways in the region (thereby restricting everybody else to slow-as-molasses light rail while indulging your NIMBYism).

4. Do try to get over your spoiled, entitled gazillionaire selves long enough to pull your heads out of your fanny to recognize that transit service–particularly the gold-plated billion-dollar system you will get simply for being your special, special selves–is a residential amenity.

Because, you see, if you hadn’t done any of the first 3, and if you had done #4, you’d have a subway down Wilshire already, and perhaps a parallel route to the 405 because Metro wouldn’t have had to waste years coddling you, handling every proposal that affects the west side with kid gloves, and putting off construction anywhere near you people because every time they do, they walk into a billion-dollar political shitstorm.

Just a few tips from your Auntie Lisa.

Losing apex predators and ecosystem disruption

A new study sponsored by the national science foundation describes a manuscript that just appeared in Science. From the NSF write-up:

“The top-down effects of apex consumers in an ecosystem are fundamentally important, but it is a complicated phenomenon,” Estes said. “They have diverse and powerful effects on the ways ecosystems work, and the loss of these large animals has widespread implications.”

Estes and co-authors cite a wide range of examples in their review, including:

The extirpation of wolves in Yellowstone National Park led to over-browsing of aspen and willows by elk; restoration of wolves allowed the vegetation to recover.
Dramatic changes in coastal ecosystems followed the collapse and recovery of sea otter populations. Sea otters maintain coastal kelp forests by controlling populations of kelp-grazing sea urchins.
The decimation of sharks in an estuarine ecosystem caused an outbreak of cow-nosed rays and the collapse of shellfish populations.

Unidentified vegetable object (UVO) in my pinko-commie CSA garden box

I opened my pinko-commie CSA box this week to find a vegetable that I can’t explain.

Voila Capture95

So far, it’s been good for poking my spouse with.*

*Oh, please, I don’t poke* him hard. It might bruise the vegetable.

So far, Brilliant Reader and fellow UCLA peep Tim suggests it is an Armenian Cucumber. Does anybody know what to do with them, other than annoying one’s spouse with it?

Continuing the Times discussion to respond to emails I’ve received

I had a flood of emails after the privatization piece appeared in the Times, and I don’t have time to respond to everybody, I’m sorry to say. However, to the guy who spent roughly a page and a half telling me that of course I would support higher taxes because I am a blood-sucking professor growing fat off the taxpayer, I just want to say one thing: USC is a private university, m’kay?

Now that I have that out of my system, we can talk about some of the other, more interesting questions that came in.

Are you saying we should or shouldn’t privatize?

I’m not saying either one. I am saying that privatization is inevitable if Americans don’t want to pay taxes for infrastructure.

We can cut back on supposedly “wasteful” projects (and we should), but those are about a millionth of a fraction as important to the total, overall maintenance needs budget than Tea Partiers make them out to be. We’ve had years and years of shrinkage in value from the gas tax because we don’t index it for inflation; in the interim, demand has risen. The fund shrinks, on and on. With the recession, demand has scaled back a little, but when you are using facilities and your funds are shrinking, the money for maintenance and repairs has to come from somewhere. And in a no-tax situation, that means privatization, or letting your maintenance go.

In general, there is very little evidence that suggests private infrastructure costs anybody less than projects simply owned and operated by governments. There are many reasons for this finding: privatization deals are often hamstrung politically–e.g., concessionaires limited in what they can charge no matter what the demand or unforeseen operating issues they can’t recover, etc etc etc, forced operation in faraway, unprofitable areas, etc. Many argue we haven’t seen terribly fair experiments with privatization, and they may be right. But they also may be wrong.

Is the US really in as much trouble as Greece?

No. The US economy, even with our recession, is massive; our debt is a portion of our total productive capacity. Greece, on the other hand, is underwater for lack of a better term. There’s a big difference there.

Forced privatization, however, can come from multiple sources. In Greece’s case, they have to sell, period. In our case, we could decide tomorrow to tax ourselves to get the revenues we need to maintain our existing system.

But if you simply defund infrastructure maintenance, the assets go to pot or you force governments to go looking for private investors. And that’s where the US is. We’re making bad decisions to defer maintenance and to seek public-private partnerships on new projects (which everybody still loves, all the chattering about “cutting the fat” notwithstanding).

The basic point of the op-ed is that yes, we can try to force gummint to privatize its services. But cutting off the funding and not maintaining the assets is a terrible way to do that, and forcing down government bond ratings is a Stupid McStupid way to do that.

But I think government is just too big and out of control. I want more privatization.

The better way to go forward with privatization, if you really, really, really ideologically hate government and would rather live in a world of tolls and fees for quasi-public goods, is to let government negotiate privatization deals when the assets are in good condition (desirable), and they can bring to the table something other than the concession rights—the ability to absorb some of the capital risks associated with large-scale infrastructure. That ability to deal with the risks associated with building and maintaining large-scale facilities, with bond financing, is really what governments can bring into public-private partnerships. If you constrain that ability with tax aversion and letting bond ratings go to pot, you hamstring the ability for institutions, both public and private, to draw on the sort of deeper, longer-term revenue-smoothing commitments that you need to build something like a train line between San Diego and Sacramento rather than a hotel.

Not keeping our infrastructure maintained is a bad strategy, even if we DO want to get parts of it out of gummint hands: private companies do not necessarily want to run concessions on poorly maintained facilities, and they do not want to inherit a maintenance risk. Used cars that have a certified maintenance record with them usually have a price premium over those that don’t–just so.

My taxes are already too high. I can’t stand anymore.

That may be true, but one final word of caution. There’s a reason why every single commentary on infrastructure privatization always includes the words “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Because there is no such thing as a free lunch in infrastructure. If you privatize infrastructure, you may (or may not) have lower taxes over time as those facilities move into private hands.

But Santa Claus doesn’t run private infrastructure projects: profit-making companies do. They need to charge tolls and fees for you to use their stuff so they can stay in business. So on the one hand, I’m told that Americans HATE tolls and fees, too. Well, best get over that if you want privatization because that’s how road/parking/park/school/etc concessionaires make their money.

Maybe the sum total of what you pay when you select out of some services and select in to only those you patronize, but there is little evidence to suggest that actually works out. There are always cross-subsidies, even in privately produced goods (the beer pays for a lot of the food in restaurants, etc).

Gummint workers are lazy and incompetent. We’d get better service if our roads were in private hands.

Ok, but if we weren’t all working in the same place, Dilbert wouldn’t be as funny as it is, now would it?

One thing that private companies do tend to be able to do better than governments: they differentiate levels of service to let people buy into the service level they want. It’s very hard for governments to charge a “first class” and “third class” fee on tax-supported goods. Service differentiation can really make a big difference in how well services are fit to market demand.

However, service quality on privately owned concessions tends to vary, too, for a whole bunch of reasons. Remember when United Airlines was putting the hammer down on its employees in the mid2000s? Worst. Service. Ever. Heaven Help You if your flight got cancelled.

Of course you want us to spend money on infrastructure! That’s how you make your living! You’re writing out of self-interest.

I hear this charge a lot. Truth be told, it doesn’t matter to me professionally whether we privatize or not. I have private companies asking me to consult, I have governments that ask me to consult. My skills are portable between sectors.

Ultimately, I think it’s an open question about whether we need to spend more money overall on infrastructure. Is it more important than education or health care? I can’t presume to answer that question. But it’s really hard to maintain markets and everything Americans say they believe in if nobody can get decent water service, our energy grid is outdated, and we have potholes big enough to swallow 1980s Buicks. Infrastructure is one of those things where you have to spend money to make money: casinos, for example, have routinely built their own little transit and road projects to make it easier for their customers to come gamble.

So whether we strategically disinvest or not, whether we decide never to build HSR or anything new ever again, we do have to maintain our system if we want to function as an economy. It’s like this: you either pay for repaving, or you pay for new shocks and struts on your car more often than if the roads were in good repair.

Keep the questions coming if you like, and thanks for reading.

A primer on CAFE standards and “Better Than Nothing” Policies

My brilliant colleague, Richard Green, an economist, is acting like an economist about CAFE standards over on his blog. I have a retort, though an addled one. Peter Gordon, another brilliant and genteel colleague of mine, has also weighed in. Economists agree: a carbon tax is the way to go.

CAFE stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. It’s one of those regulations that people tend not to understand terribly well because the rules are complicated. Here’s a nice overview by NHTSA.

President Obama, like just about everybody else for the past 20 years, wants to raise CAFE standards. For passenger vehicles, Obama wants to go from 25 mph to 39 mph by 2016 (that gives us 5 years to get there).

The rules pertain to a harmonic mean fuel economy of the fleet of cars that a manufacturer produces in a given model year. During the SUV craze (which doesn’t seem to be over if west-side Los Angeles is any indicator), US manufacturers could cash in on gas guzzling SUVs because they were not really considered passenger cars (defined by a weight of 8,500 pounds). The original limit was intended to keep farm and industrial equipment exempt from regulation, such as medium-duty trucks used by farmers and contractors. The wrangling over getting a set of light-duty truck fuel standards (for urban SUVs, used almost exclusively as commuting vehicles) took us a decade, and the damage was done. SUVs not subject to the standards have already penetrated the US fleet, where they will stay on average for 7 to 12 years. We have to make sure those glitches are gone if any revamped regulation–at all–is to be effective in raising fuel economy.

The penalties for CAFE noncompliance have also not risen concomitant with inflation. BMW and Mercedes famously have paid CAFE fines just about every year from 1983 to just recently (2008, largely because of the recession affecting their US sales). Right now, I believe manufacturers have to pay $55 for each vehicle they sell per each 1 mpg below their fleet target. Those types of penalties can be relatively small, and for luxury importers like BMW and Mercedes, they can easily pass those costs along to their buyers.

Automakers can get thus around the law–that’s a problem. And in addition, some economists have argued that by forcing fuel economy, cars became less safe than otherwise:

Lave, Charles and Lester Lave, “Fuel Economy and Auto Safety Regulation: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease?” Pages 257-290 in Essays in Transportation Economics and Policy: A Handbook in Honor of John R. Meyer, edited by Jose Gomez-Ibanez, William B. Tye, and Cliffor Winston, Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1999.

(aka one of my favorite transportation books of all time).

The argument: cars had to get lighter and thus they got less crash-safe.

As a result, CAFE has few friends other than environmentalists, and many environmentalists I think have stopped advocating around car technology in favor of advocating for Smart Growth or the New Urbanism. After all, raising fuel economy just makes cars less expensive to use, and that flies in the face of the ideas behind these two urban models.

So here are my problems, in a set of bullet points:

1) Yes, absolutely, a carbon tax or simple higher petrol taxes would accomplish the same thing as revamped CAFE standards, and at lower cost. However, I don’t see how a tax would avoid the same safety issues that Lave and Lave (1999) talked about. The basic engineering principles mean you go lighter if you want to use less fuel; we don’t have any strap-on technologies analogous to the carburetor in 1980s or fuel injection that we can turn to. The alternative would be more hybrids, which are also lighter.**

2) Tax aversion pretty much seems to be controlling the world of US policy right now. I’m told that any and all taxes, even ones that would be good for us like most Pigouvian taxes, are off the table, forever and ever, amen.

3) So that means we are left with fuel economy regulation or…nothing?

4) Nothing may have fairly steep consequences. By far—BY FAR–the most effective thing we could for climate change emissions reduction in transportation is improving the fuel economy of the passenger fleet on the road for the next 20 years. Not even in analyses written by the most religious New Urbanist/Smart Growthy people can fudge the fact that most substantial, most immediate gains to be had in climate policy come from changing fuel economy as VMT changes marginally in response to built environment changes, and those built environment changes are happening slowly–even more slowly now that the recession has become permanent.

5) So, yes, it’s costlier and more convoluted to regulate cars via CAFE, but if it’s the only game in town, the additional costs associated with raising the fuel economy of the fleet becomes the price tag of tax aversion—not the fault of the second-best policy. It’s a legitimate democratic choice for voters to prefer to avoid taxation in favor of a costlier strategy. We can’t blame the costlier strategy for being costlier if the optimum isn’t the optimum according to voter preferences. I didn’t make up these rules: but Americans would rather pay more overall for fuel economy changes than pay taxes, well, that is what it is.

This “better than nothing” is the argument made to me for years about congestion pricing. Voters hate it; we aren’t going to do it. So we’re going to build lots of trains to alleviate congestion, and those trains will, in turn, be underused because we’re not pricing autos properly. But building and running half-empty trains is a “better than nothing” policy.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But it’s a debate worth having.

**See comments for Gabriel Rossman’s referral to the Continuous Variable Transmission technology, which would allow for fuel economy improvements without going lighter. (I still wonder, though, because the models where the CVT has been employed aren’t taking us up the economy notches that a harmonic average of 39 would need to go–the Cube, the Maxima, etc. Remember that this is a harmonic average. You have a number of ways of achieving it, and one of the most expedient is chopping off your lower tail of the distribution of models you are producing.)

Goodbye to Betty Ford

I admired and respected Betty Ford–two things I will never say about Nancy Reagen or Barbara Bush (but I will say about Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton). Ford supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and sincerely used the press to highlight her illnesses–cancer and alcoholism–to help other people identify and seek help. When I was young, I found her to be remarkably brave, given the shame directed at alcoholics, let alone female ones. I still believe that.

Here is a nice, full obituary from the Telegraph.