USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy

My beloved home, the University of Southern California, has received a gift of $50 million from the Price Family Foundation in the honor of Sol Price.

I’m thrilled with this gift for obvious reasons, but mostly because Sol Price sounds like he was one really wonderful guy. With the Costco model, Price and his successor have disproved people that have said you can’t turn a profit if you work with unions, if you give people a living wage, or if you ensure benefits. That’s what I’d like to think we try to do here at USC: there are markets, there are institutions, there are individuals, there are groups; and the role of civil society is to mediate among all these. Our job as scholars of public policy is to foster that mediation through research and teaching.

Living up to that idea is another story…

The main reason why I think all bets are off with seniors and travel

I routinely hear arguments that the “greying of America” will mean that seniors will abandon their bad, auto-oriented, suburban lifestyle in favor of moving to walkable, transit-oriented urban communities. Or, at least, that we should provide them with the option of doing so by changing the supply of available housing to include more of the latter. I think that last argument–the ‘should’ argument–is actually the more compelling argument.

Anyway, the main reason I think all bets are off: the recession, the loss of home asset values, troubled pensions, and the fact that social security is in the political hotseat likely mean that, unlike the economically secure, comfortable cohorts of seniors we have seen in previous generations, this generation of seniors has had one economic threat after another roll in.

In terms of theorizing, that economic instability could mean anything, but it likely means staying in the workforce longer. I suspect that older workers are less job mobile than younger workers, so that means staying in their location, which means moving within region if they move at all–which doesn’t strike me as likely as moves can be expensive–while they hold onto jobs later. If they are not underwater with their homes, they may be unwilling to take a nominal hit on their major asset, their homes, and thus they hold onto the house rather than move.

I can tell you a different story, too, where the outcomes are different. Because they need to stay in the workforce longer but don’t have the same demand for space, they give up the house as they are no longer physically able to do the job and the house, and they trade that for a much cheaper condo closer to work and transit.

This moment in history, despite all its allusions to the Great Depression, isn’t like others. I just don’t think we have good priors.

Should California return its High Speed Rail money?

This LA Times cover story yesterday describes the activities of California Republican Representative Jeff Denham (Atwater) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who hope to claw back the money already awarded from the Feds–about $3 billion. It’s not just a clawback–it seems from the story they’d like the money reallocated to highways for the Central Valley.

I suspect the proposal has quite a bit of support, even among some Dems, as the consequences would be obvious: more money for us!

I think at this point that Brown has to get a credible commitment out of the legislature for the remaining funds, or else the money should revert–but not with a fat earmark for the Central Valley. And they have to find a way to get credibility back for CalHSR.

It would be a bit ironic, and not in a good way, if the hsr project, which has been justified largely on its contributions to environmental improvements, wound up acting as the budgetary compost for a ton of highway projects. Ouch.

Here are some of my comments in a story about the new HSR cost estimates in a story by David Futch of the LA Weekly.

Is transport too expensive? The Transportationist gets us thinking

David Levinson, the Transportationist, as usual, is thinking critically about the discussion about budget cuts in transport, and he’s got a provocative argument: transport projects cost too much to build. I’m fond of pointing out how failures to raise the gas tax erodes the purchasing power of the funds, but it’s also the case that costs have risen.

I don’t really disagree with his list of potential reasons. I only have a few additions, which may be riffs and variants on what he already has.

Some (additional) reasons why I hypothesize transport (and infrastructure) costs just keep going up and up:

1) The highest demand areas for maintenance and new stock occur in places that are expensive. I wonder how much of the costs of, say, intersections have to do with land costs. When Levinson asked why is it is so expensive–$175K–I began trying to think of private sector comparables, and I don’t have any except the house renovations: right now, looking at $15K to $20K for a new climate system, which makes no sense without new windows (another $10K). But that doesn’t include the land costs which are already sunk. So yes, the Northeast Corridor and California links of the proposed high speed make the most sense in terms of service and users, but they are also the most expensive to build. Ditto with LA’s subway down Wilshire. It’s a great corridor. It’s also west LA, where land just doesn’t get more expensive.

As urban land gets more intensively used, these costs get higher and higher.

2) Project creep. Standards have risen, as Levinson notes, but it’s not as though there aren’t a lot of what we might call side-payments in project development: noise walls hither and thither, etc. It’s hard for me to say that these costs aren’t necessary because the politics of getting something built pretty much requires the outlay.

And these are directly related to the first question, where the more densely settled the surrounding area, the higher the side payments.

3) Envy is a much bigger problem in public works than in personal life, I think. Jurisdiction X got a light rail link. I pay taxes for those things, why does Jurisdiction X get it when my neighborhood/district doesn’t? It’s a recipe for political hostages at budget time, as few political leaders have any reason to say “You know, the benefit cost on a project in my district just shows the project makes no sense.” It’s leads to two problems: projects that make no sense to serve some notion of geo-political equity, and project creep because if Jurisdiction X’s light rail stations had public art and golden knobs and a fountain, then my district’s light rail should have those and more. Combined with the Other People’s Money problem, this type of envy is a recipe for project creep.

There’s part of me that thinks that this problem might be addressed by forcing localities to pony up the cost of amenities out of property tax coffers.

4) One quibble with Levinson’s list: people do do benefit cost analysis all the time, but benefit cost is only as good as the integrity of the data and the analysts, and the whole process is too easy to roll. For development in California, I think CEQA forces agencies to get pretty financially committed to projects before they hit the “go” button in analysis. So by the time you’re there, you’re doing analysis to rationalize what you’ve committed to. With nonuser benefits and nonmarket benefits thrown in, the b/c ratio is politically constructed number. Perhaps it’s not CEQA–perhaps the commitment problem occurs everywhere, in that any line on the map causes a political firestorm, so that you have your rationales lined up before you draw anything.

Again, I’m not sure how to avoid this other than to have multiple groups paid to analyze potential projects–the proposing district and districts competing for the same funds. I’m sure we would find a way to make unsavory deals there, too.

I have no actual numbers or proof on these ideas. Maybe they are all small potatoes. Anybody got research they can have me read?

The UC and the lessons from Kent State

But today I, like many in the UC family of alums, am ashamed of the UC.

The lesson from Kent State should be foremost as we think about how to clear students from occupying campuses. When public institutions sanction police violence against their own youth, the lesson is clear: those in power know the system they are enabling is terribly broken, they know it’s obvious to every one, and they no longer seek to maintain legitimacy through decency or leadership. They just let force speak for itself.

Tiananmen Square.

If our democracy can not manage to treat student dissent with decency and compassion, where the hell are we? If we can’t tolerate youth, with its idealism and all the inconveniences and weaknesses that idealism entails, what use are our universities? After all, what time is there for radicalism in life, and a desire for change, if not when one is young?

Half of the professors I know whine that their students don’t care enough about anything other Fboo and texting, getting ahead, getting that business degree, getting those dollars in the bank. Well, kiddos, if you do care, don’t care on our precious lawn or we’ll have our goons pry your eyelids open, while you are clearly subdued, to make sure you’re good and blind when we start in with our billies.

I get that practical concerns have come to fore, and it’s time for them to go. That’s what grey hair and age do for one: you begin to be sensible, ghastly as that is. Students shouldn’t really be occupying or sitting in for the right to a permanent sleepover. I had thought they didn’t have any additional points to make, but I was wrong. Apparently, they have more things to teach us, like the brittle meanness of once-great public universities, in being incapable of removing *college kids* without getting all police-state on everybody. Oh noes! Not college kids sitting down! With linked arms! THE TERROR! Why, if I don’t burn out their eyes with acid, they might resist and I might break one of my Lee press-on nails doing my damn job.

I don’t get the anger

I don’t get why some people seem to burn with hate for the OWS folks.

Really? I don’t agree with large swaths of TEA party activism, but I don’t think they are wrong to have a set of values and act on them in a show of political dissent. That’s what political dissent is for. I think whining about taxes in the US is silly. But, hey, if it’s bothering you, you should feel free to say something and to make yourself heard.

Twenty years ago, it was possible to demonstrate your dissent by putting together a furious book, and you’d get attention out of it; 10 years ago you could have a furious blog, and it might get you some attention. But now your voice will be drowned out easily.

Is it really all that wrong to be worried about things like the costs of the bailouts, or underwater homeowners, the spiraling costs and growing inequalities in medical care (have you been to a doctor lately? I’d rather been seen my dogs’ vet! He seems to give a crap, at least, which is more than I can say about any doctor I’ve seen in the past 5 years); the growing burden of tuition, etc?

Is it really that wrong to camp out for a bit? Sure, it raised some municipal cleanup costs, but so do a bunch of other things, like parades and streets fairs, and nobody asks me if I want to pay for those.

I don’t think so. I think the bottom line is that democrats will a small d in the US have become so strident, and that toleration in the Locke sense of the word has become so thin, that people hate the public voice/presence of anybody who doesn’t hold their values.