Danaus plexippus

Yesterday, I worked outside writing on something I would rather not work on, while I enjoyed the garden. My company were some birds I’ve discovered are “lesser goldfinches” which strikes me as a rather value-laden label. Were I them, I would demand to be called mustard-colored finches. Along with them was a gorgeous monarch butterfly, who flew back and forth from milkweed to milkweed.

I have rather a lot of milkweeds, as I like them, and if you plant them, they reseed like crazy (one of the reasons I like them.) In the corner near my porch, where this dear lady monarch was, I have two kinds of milkweeds where she could lay her eggs: one called “Mexican milkweed” and another called “Gay Milkweed” (neither of which are Bill O’Reilly approved to work in California). She passed between them, and I spent my afternoon writing away and absent-mindedly watching her.

Battery life drove me inside to plug in, and when I came outside later to tuck some tiger lilly bulbs into the ground, I stopped, startled, to see the monarch, struggling at the base of my white rose. She stretched out her wings, a struggle for her, and then stopped, falling to her side. My lively little acquaintance had laid her burden down, as the old ladies who cleaned my childhood Catholic church in Iowa used to say. A child then, I couldn’t understand what they’d meant: how could dying be anything but a burden itself? When you are young, you are so new to life you can’t imagine welcoming death. Now that I am middle-aged, I know exactly what those women meant.

I hopped online later in the day to find out that monarchs, Danaus plexippus, migrate every fourth generation. That generation gets a few more weeks of precious life than the others, so that they can fly from the northern US to the south, particularly California and Mexico, where they lay their eggs and then die.

I feel oddly honored to have shared her last afternoon and her last moments; I am glad it was one of those magnificent southern California fall days, with warm, gentle breezes. I wonder if she, like E.B. White’s Charlotte or St. Exupery’s rose, knew just how exquisite she was; whether in the insect mind there is such a thing as awareness of the end, or of delight in accomplishing what she set out to do. If not perhaps there is a peace that comes from blankness until there is nothing.

On teaching adults, even when they are young

I rather dryly pointed out to one of my wonderful colleagues–a terrific and caring teacher–that her students are, in fact, adults when she was reacting to them–college age students–rather in a way that you might with younger students, such as those of high school age.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? I mean, most college students aren’t much out of high school.

Here’s my thinking. When you render your college-age students younger than they are, you are not helping them understand what it means to learn as adults. This is much trickier than otherwise seems. One bad thing about teacher-student and child-adult dichotomies is the idea that teaching goes only one way (it doesn’t); or that you reach an age where you no longer need mentors and role models. That is, simply, not true in my experience. There are many things you have to learn as an adult, and the way you do that is by engaging with other adults qua adults— a bit at time, yes, but still, as an autonomous person capable of agency.

This is not to say you are all that good at being an adult when you are a young adult. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t respect the agency that comes with adulthood.

Adult problems are the most difficult: cancer, the loss of children, parents, friends. Making choices of paralyzing difficulty with very high economic and relationship consequences. Those are the things that you need help with as you grow more and more into adulthood—and facing those with students and proteges is a lot more complex than treating them like they are incapable of making choices about sex or booze or whether to study or go mess around. In general, natural consequences and their own intellect will help them clarify their own choices and priorities there.

The other stuff–the stuff of real adulthood–is cripplingly harder, and those are situations where friends and mentors are in desperately short supply, when you need older friends to inspire and protect you.

Maryland’s gas tax proposal and the politics of subsidies

The WashPo ran a story yesterday on a state commission’s recommendation that the Maryland raise the gas tax by 60 percent. The proposal would raise the tax from 23.5 to 38.5 cents per gallon.

Like just about everywhere else, Maryland hasn’t raised its tax since 1992, which means most of the purchasing power of their state coffers is a fraction of what it was back then. And they have identified about $40 billion in projects to do, with a shortfall of $12 billion.

They would also increase vehicle registration fees and, it sounds like, transit fares.

It’ll be interesting, as always, to see how this recommendation fares. Here’s a quote:

“We’ve got to be adults about this. We’ve got a serious problem. The federal spigot is running dry, and we can’t print money,” Bauman said. “Once assurances are made that the trust fund will be protected, I think this is a package that people can accept.”

Rail interests are already starting in:

For one, the plan doesn’t answer the question of how Maryland will pay for its share of the proposed Purple Line light-rail project connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which could cost nearly $2 billion, or the proposed Red Line expansion on Baltimore’s transit system. The commission endorsed studying whether the state should also set up regional taxing authorities to fund those and other projects.

So the Feds are devolving transit to the states and the states, in turn, are devolving transit funding to regions.

I got yelled at the other day about refusing to acknowledge the socialistic, subsidized system we have for cars with the huge subsidies that motorists enjoy while rail is just at a huge disadvantage. In general, I interpret this as “I’m mad at you because you should be outraged, and you’re not, that the infrastructure we have is not the infrastructure that *I* want.” It’s reasonable to want different infrastructure, but I’m not sure why I’m meant to get outraged because the truth is, yeah, cars are subsidized, but transit users get subsidies, too, and rail riders get much bigger subsidies per ride than everybody else. They’re special, but not, apparently, special enough to suit this outraged person.

What strikes me as unreasonable is the tendency to want to raise costs on motorists and then expect them not to turn around and demand infrastructure projects that suits them. How many times we gotta do this, folks?

In theory, we should have a high petrol tax that goes straight into the general fund and gets doled out like any other revenue, with projects being allotted out of general fund so that they are debated right along with education and policing, etc. In reality, gas taxes in the US have always been targeted to serving the group that pays the tax into a special fund. So if we want to blame a culprit for overdeveloped auto infrastructure and underdeveloped transit infrastructure, we could blame the way infrastructure is budgeted.

But our financing dustups should be making it more obvious than ever: motorists pay for a lot of what’s going on, including transit investment. Now that the feds are trying to take themselves out of the game, it’s going to become a bit of a hot potato who is going to provide for capital subsidies to transit investment because there are precious few cities that are going to want to dip more into their general fund to help build transit.

In addition to the typical modal hair pulling, we’re starting to see inter-jurisdictional claims of social equity that strike me as utterly specious for the most part. It runs like this: if you are going to tax suburb X, you’d better put a project in suburb X, no matter how stupid and wasteful that project is. Why? Because it’s sinful to expect the residents of suburb X to contribute, no matter how much or how little, to the well-being of the region to which they are attached, without quid pro quo. It’s a recipe for overcapitalization. I’m willing to buy the jurisdictional arguments surrounding equity if we are talking about jurisdictions of poor people: you don’t get to tax south LA to benefit west LA (subway to the sea funded by sales tax, anybody?), unless you really are providing a smart project that really enhances the system (the return argument in favor of sales taxes to fund the subway to the sea.)

What I learned from Richard Green recently about California and Texas

Recently I attended an undergraduate class to speak in tandem with Richard Green, who is the director of USC’s Lusk Center and one of my favorite bloggers.

So California has a lot of underwater mortgages while Texas does not. The question becomes why? Is it because one was bad and sprawling while another was wonderful and smart growth-y? That doesn’t seem likely, though California has a lot of big houses in places that make no sense for big houses, where overcapitalized consumers with incomes who could not support the loans bought (Fresno, Riverside.)

Both had a lot of built during the boom.

California makes it hard to build housing; the environmental and building regulations are very hard to get through. Texas makes it easy. As Richard says, if you’ve got a pickup and a shovel, you can build a house in Texas.

So why does California have so many foreclosures while Texas has so few? Upright moral fiber of its denizens? Free markets?

Turns out not. Most of the mortgage interest innovations that opened up subprime lending for larger numbers of borrowers in California were illegal in Texas. Market regulation at a different point.

Very interesting.

Matt Kahn on improving education

The always-brilliant Matt Kahn has posted a few points on how to improve education. My favorite is:

Fifth; Professors who stink in the classroom should be identified and punished. There are lots of crappy jobs that have to be done in Departments. Give these assignments to the profs who stink in the classrooms . I recall that when I was a student at Chicago, there was one prof who had only 1 student registered for his class. He was rewarded for doing a bad job by having no work to do. Bad incentives! To pull this off requires a Chairman of the Department who is tough enough to deal out punishment. Most profs play nice but this holds back the university. Departments need enforcers. Charles Oakley should make a comeback.

I’m less a fan of punishment and more a fan of actually, well, recognizing teaching as part of the job and incentivizing. If you, like me, routinely teach 70+ students in a class when others are teaching 10 student classes, you should be given more course credit for teaching that student load than the 10 student classes. Yet, my 70+ student course counts as 1 class in my course load, and the person with 10 students counts that as 1 class in his course load. It’s baloney and we all know it.

Although it is tooting my own horn a bit, for classes that I routinely teach, I’m regarded as an excellent teacher and a good mentor to young folks who want to enter the planning profession or the academy.

In general, my colleagues and my administrators could care less about my contributions in this realm. It’s all about what I published recently. I don’t think there’s a direct tradeoff between teaching and researching well–I think you can do both well, and there are lots of exemplars of people who are wonderful at both. But good research takes time, and good teaching takes time, and there is only so much time. With the incentive structure I face, I am much, much, much better off publishing one more paper a year, however marginal that contribution, than giving that time to students.

I just call it like I see it.

Facing the reality of new infrastructure: LA Times story on CalHSR routing

Yesterday’s LA Times ran a story entitled California bullet train: The high price of speed. The tag line for the Facebook entry was “What HSR Would Destroy in California.”

From the story:

Almost every city and county along the proposed route loses something, but none more than Bakersfield. More than 228 homes and more than a half dozen churches would be taken, many of them in low-income minority communities on the city’s east side. The rail authority’s plans have both homeowners and government agencies confused.

Ok, now we need to quote somebody saying something along the lines “can’t make omelets without breaking a few eggs” right? We’d be right back to Interstate Era planning.

I’m not sure why this story is a surprise to anybody, as this is a huge, new project. There simply isn’t existing right of way for large stretches. And while you can criticize the HSR authority, the story of how Bakerfield boosters originally welcomed the plan only now to have misgivings as it gets more and more real should give us all pause. Are they just a bunch of hypocritical NIMBY folks? I don’t think so. The California High Speed Rail Authority has been pretty strategic in marketing the project early for ballot measures. Their mantra has been: ” The system will be great, don’t worry about the details, or the lines on the map, what’s important is that it’s coming to you.”

Then, with implementation, the lines on the map and promise of a new service accompany the very real sacrifices that come with building such a large project. It’s not what you envisioned. It’s your friends and neighbors being forcibly moved. The abstract jobs jobs jobs! idea constantly pushed comes along with the likely destruction of existing businesses.

It’s a hard, obviously redistributive act of government–and it always is, every time something like this gets built. We try to cloak everything in “win-win” language, but there are few real win-wins in projects like this. The building of the Interstate System was exactly the same.

My students in planning theory had to discuss this idea of how do you create knowledge about the future? It is, as Yoda says, always in motion. Your decisions shape it. What should have been done differently here, if anything?

Some new climate studies summarized by the Economist

There are two new articles on climate change in this week’s Economist online. The first, details how the arctic ice cap is melting much faster than models predicting, which should probably surprise no one–models are models after all, and we’ve seen underestimation before from this field. The summary is depressing, as the short-term mitigation is relatively easy and would also benefit human health (soot is bad for everybody). Whatevs, right? If personally don’t believe in something hard enough, it won’t happen. Reassured, now? Me neither.

The second report examines some new insights yielded from cloud chamber experiments. I don’t quite understand everything that they are doing, but the idea of small-scale experimentation is extremely cool. It’s worth watching the video attached to the story.