Richard Little on a new infrastructure bank

Richard Little, senior fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, responds to the piece I highlighted last week from Felix Rohatyn and Rodney Slater proposing a new form of federal infrastructure bank in a letter to the Financial Times:

Despite the obvious passion of Felix Rohatyn and Rodney Slater, their call for a US National Infrastructure Bank as the solution to the nation’s chronic underfunding of infrastructure is a bit of a red herring (“America needs its own infrastructure bank”, February 20). What our highways, ports and waterways desperately need are more revenue, not a new financing bureaucracy.

The article goes on to point out that infrastructure banks do not create free money, and that the problem is, simply, that we need to face the facts that users of US systems need to pay more than they are now:

The unspoken reality of US infrastructure investment is that the users and beneficiaries of these systems (all of us) will have to pay a bit more for the privilege through taxes or tolls, regardless of whether the public or private sectors provide the financing. Until elected officials in the White House and on Capitol Hill muster the courage to share that fact with the American people, we will continue to have these interesting but quite pointless, conversations about the merits of an unneeded institution.

The other unspoken reality comes from David Levinson: Transportation Costs Too Much. He is kind enough to share the credit for the list with other bloggers who added to his 39 theses.

So I’ve tended to agree with Richard: we already have a lot of infrastructure banks in the US, and around the world, that US governments could borrow from if they wanted to. It’s not clear what a new one would bring into the mix. I’m still think about the REITS idea. Maybe I’ll get Richard Green to explain it to me some time over lunch.

Should we do away with academic publishers?

One of our brilliant students, Alan Hyunh, posted this article on my wall:

Why do we need academic journals in the first place? by Mathew Ingram.

There has been lot written about the boycott of Elsevier journals in the blogosphere, so I will be responding primarily with links, as my opinions have already been captured by others, with better writing than I can produce.

Let’s look at some of the original content from the NYT:

Last week 34 mathematicians issued a statement denouncing “a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary.”

The signers included three Fields medalists — Dr. Gowers, Terence Tao and Wendelin Werner. The statement was also signed by Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, who then resigned as one of the unpaid editors in chief at the Elsevier journal Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis.

“We feel that the social compact is broken at present by some publishing houses, of which we feel Elsevier is the most extreme,” Dr. Daubechies said. “We feel they are now making much larger profits at a time when a lot of the load they used to take has been taken over by us.”

There has been a huge shift in the past 30 years in the way that content is delivered. Mathmaticians no longer hand over pages of handwritten text to department secretaries to type and mail. Nor do publishers typeset with blocks anymore. For most mathematicians, you write in LaTex, and what the publisher has to do to get that to publication quality isn’t as time or labor-intensive as it once was.

Anthony Horowitz takes up the question about whether authors need publishers at all over at Gaurdian. He has a point: his publisher for his adult book allowed the book to go out with 35 typos in it.Publishing companies are notoriously unwillingly to do much marketing and promoting for your book. One wonders what, exactly, publishers do in the digital era if they aren’t proofing and marketing much.

Scholarly service and production is largely paid for by universities or external sponsors. Academics control the content, for the most part, voluntarily: most of us never get paid to review, and while editors are often paid, it’s not usually all that much. Elsevier and academic publishers make money off the ever-increasing pressures to publish: we’re clamoring to give them our intellectual property because our departments force us to, if we want tenure and promotion.

Moreover, Elsevier doesn’t really do all that much to promote particular journals. So what value are they adding, at the same time they are charging libraries very high prices for subscriptions?

That high pricing strikes me as the problem more than the idea that we should get rid of academic journals. And there’s a difference between getting rid of an academic journal and getting rid of an academic publisher. Journals still provide people with some services: they attract content according to a particular theme. They do editing and peer review, and we need peer review. In fiction publishing, you need a great story. In research, you need rigor in addition to a good story.

Tim Leunig has a response in the LSE blog (which you should be reading, as it’s excellent), where he responds to Elsevier’s excuse-making with “Hey, set your prices as you see fit, but the rest of us are entitled to note that your prices are too damned high.”

We should also point out that associations are just as guilty of this abuse of monopoly power. Scholars are expected to present their work at conferences, and this is extremely important for young scholars. And yeah: conference registrations are sky-high, and hotels scrape in the money from people who have no choice but to go if they want to remain scholars and/or get promoted. Departments are notoriously stingy with giving travel funds, so a lot travel gets funded out of the young scholar’s pocket, when they can hardly afford it.

My own opinions are captured very well by Don Taylor, also at LSE: The role of peer review journals cannot be replaced by Twitter, blogs, or anything else (and I really believe in blogs!). Absolutely everything Taylor says is right-on. Blogs are a supplement to, not a replacement for, carefully vetted writing of peer review.

That’s one of the reasons why I’ve thought about shutting down this blog. It’s undisciplined writing, as fun as it is, and as much as readers may enjoy it. I see it as an extension of my teaching.

You could, of course, peer review blogs, but that’s where we are heading with online journals anyway, so why do we need a blog format? The journal Science does the best job, I think, of levering web publishing. There are the short, accessible articles. Then there are the dense, for-academics, detailed appendices. But it’s all still as great and as rigorous as the old print version of Science–actually, it’s better. (And I’m old enough to have an informed opinion.)

Take a look at the Journal of Land Use and Transportation. It’s as good as anything that’s out there offered through a traditional academic publisher, better than many print planning journals. This is the future. (My only quibble: they should require people to submit their data the way the American Economic Review does. But this takes server space, I understand.)

Editors matter tremendously in journals, and that is what has made all the difference for JTLU. No, peer review isn’t perfect, and mistakes do get by, and brilliant new ideas do get blunted through consensus, and there’s too waaaaay too much politics. But that won’t change if you move to blogs or whatnot.

Andrew Whittemore on taking the Agenda 21 protests seriously

Andrew Whittemore has a nice piece up on the Atlantic Cities called Why Planners Need to Take Agenda 21 Criticism More Seriously. I disagree with his conclusions and what actually concerns TEA party types, but it’s a worthy read. There’s a great deal about planners’ sustainability claims that do not necessarily follow from logic, and planners aren’t always good diplomats or social marketers.

Here are a few points where I disagree with Whittemore, or where I interpret the political climate somewhat differently:

1. While New Urbanists and contemporary planners complain about regulation, they usually promote it, too–just their version of it. Jon Levine pointed out, in his excellent book, Zoned Out, that way too many zoning codes restrict free market development so that those who might demand higher densities are effectively regulated out by what is supplied. New Urbanists and planners have seized on this point to argue that their ideas are actually more free market because they wish to eliminate restrictive Euclidean zoning to enable a greater diversity of projects to go forward.

The same has been true of the reception to Don Shoup’s book, The High Cost of Free Parking. By eliminating parking requirements, we’re freeing up the market!

Ok, fine, but accompanying these calls to loosen regulatory controls of bad Euclidean zoning are demands for (supposedly good) form-based codes, urban growth boundaries, and maximum parking requirements, and those are regulatory, too–deeply so.

We wind up not fooling anybody who deplores government control, like the TEAP party folks.

2. Whittemore’s last point, about practicing what you preach is especially insightful, but I would have carried it further than urging more context sensitivity and local engagement. As it is, though, he’s right: the dialogue from planning is “We’ll let you participate, as long as you agree with the TOD/New Urbanism/whatever we think is right, so lucky you! I know! Let’s have a contest to see who gets to pick out the doorknobs for our rail station!”

I would push things a bit further in the recognition that just about every urban vision promulgated among planners has a social agenda intended to shape how other people live: You’re not exercising enough, you need this; you’re eating the wrong, non-local, non-vegan, non-blah blah blah foods, you need that; you’re getting around the wrong way, you need this here transit system. You need to do things differently, the way good people do them, so we’ll supply for you what we think you need.

There is a groundswell of impatience with paternalistic progressivism on both sides of political divide in the US, and I’m not entirely sure what planning and planners can do about it. For me, I wish there were more engagement with the social over the environmental agendas in the world–something that isn’t likely to wash with TEA partiers, either.

I know plenty of conservatives hate universities, but why do they believe their own kids are so weak and guillible?

I’m generally not ok with the “Lookit the craze balls things Rick Santorum said this week” frenzy that seems to be going on with journalists right now, but this past week he’s playing on one of the favorite whines of the ‘conservatives-as-victims’ narratives in the US: that colleges indoctrinate their kiddos away from their lurving family and community beliefs. He wants diversity in favor of conservatives. I love this. The party that has spent years screaming against diversity is now screaming for it:

On the president’s efforts to boost college attendance, Santorum said, “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.”

He claimed that “62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it,” but declined to cite a source for the figure. And he floated the idea of requiring that universities that receive public funds have “intellectual diversity” on campus.

Here’s the problem. University professors are Democrats and radicals, not unlike lots of employees in pubic institutions. That must mean: They’re Here to Brainwash Our Kids!

There are three main problems with this supposition. One is ugly and unfortunate, and the other two are actually quite wonderful.

Let’s start with the first ugly truth.

a) Nobody in most publicly funded research universities actually cares enough about undergrads to bother with trying to indoctrinate them. Yeah, I know, we’re all part of a secret pact that upholds the Liberal Cause (whatever the heck that is; it seems to be that you encourage constantly proliferating, probably specious rights claims that keep the party in self-destructive disarray, but ok. I’m doing my part for that.)

But you see, faculty pay as absolutely, positively nothing to do with how well we’ve supported the pact in the class room.

And our pay has absolutely nothing do with with how we get undergraduates to learn anything, doctrinaire or otherwise.

Our pay is 100 percent determined by research output. Anybody who says differently is lying to you. If I got a paper in Science and 1s on my evils, I would get a much bigger raise that year than if I published nothing and got 5s on my evals.

You want to know whose agenda drives a given department? Find the loudest, most self-promotional researcher, and the people who are better at the retail politics of departmental service. THOSE two types determine departmental policy and culture. Unless good teaching overlaps with one of those other skills (and even then, people downplay their teaching because there is such a stigma attached), the best teachers in the department are marginalized and treated like they have the “wrong priorities.”

The answer to this problem isn’t to turn colleges into High School v. 2 with some dumb prohibition about how faculty should teach 5 classes a day and never research. That’s the opposite silly extreme.

Instead, we should expect a balance between teaching and research. Research is good for teaching; teaching *can* be good for research if your department takes care of you and gets you teaching at least classes in your core area.

b) College students are far, far smarter and more independent that you think they are. Yes, they are young. Trust me, from my vantage point, they get younger every single year. But they’ve had 18 years, usually, in their families and their communities and churches. Now, I do think college classes and college experiences can be transformative. People do change when they leave their families and communities to encounter new peer groups.

There are always vulnerable people who can fall into the thrall of–to use Santorum’s language—false prophets. That can happen to vulnerable people in any context.

But the students in my classes, even the young ones, are way, way too sharp to be indoctrinated into anything. I couldn’t indoctrinate them if I wanted to. Period. If I tried, they’d say whatever they thought I wanted to hear on the exams, loathe me and my guts, and go on thinking whatever they do.

Yes, I’ve read God and Man at Yale. It’s fine book, but it’s a young book, written before Buckley was able to see when real loneliness and isolation set in: post-college adulthood.

It’s possible on every campus to join any political group you want, any fun sport you want, any activity you want, any church group you want. Most engaged students experiment. And lot of my students work long hours to be able to afford being here.

So the only chance I have of making an impression is to be more interesting than the other things competing for their attention. That’s not a position of power. Sure I hand out grades and letters of recommendation, but see above: they can just regurgitate whatever they think you want to hear to get past grades and whatnot.

Real leadership is way harder.

c) Just because somebody questions their faith, leaves a church, gets mad at their family, breaks from their family for a time, and moves away from their community does mean they are gone forever.

It’s my job as an old lady and a teacher, I have discovered, to be somebody that young people can rebel against in their own quest to forge identity and meaning. Oh, you old first wave feminists. You didn’t do it right. Oh, you second wave feminists, you didn’t do it right. Oh, your generation has ruined the world and mine must fix it.

What actually happens is more complex than that. But that’s what it boils down to. Remember the whole prodigal son thing?

The point is: just because people question their faith and family, or even leave it for a bit, does not mean they never ever return.

Ken Orski on the administration’s re-elect me-centered transportation proposal

I’m supposed to give a talk over in the Bedrosian Center on transportation and the Road to the White House. What the sam hill am I supposed to say at this point? The Senate, the House, and the White House have all put together fantasy proposals that are all about election-year posturing and symbolic politics—-because they all know what we should, by now, know: there ain’t nothing getting passed this year.


Ken Orski is more mature about this nonsense than I am over at the Infra Blog. He writes:

The President’s FY 2013 budget submission offered the Administration a rare opportunity to rise above partisanship and influence the ongoing transportation reauthorization debate in a positive way.

But, alas, it didn’t turn out that way.

Go read Mr. Oski’s piece because he, unlike me, is capable of talking about it without a) ranting and b) running to the liquor cabinet to see if there’s any Grey Goose to put in my orange juice (locally grown, organic, fresh-squeezed.)

I quit.

National infrastructure bank discussion from Felix Rohatyn and Rodney Slater in the FT

Unfortunately, the opinion piece is behind a paywall. For those of you who are subscribers, here is a link to whole piece. But I’ll quote the part that I think this is really intriguing:

Second, Congress can expand the definitions of Real Estate Investment Trusts (Reits) and Master Limited Partnerships to include investments in assets such as roads, water, ports, airports, transmission lines, waste water and bridges.

Reits are publicly traded corporate entities that invest in commercial real estate and pay a reduced or zero rate of tax on their earnings. In turn, Reits must distribute 90 per cent of their income to investors. Similarly, MLPs are publicly traded partnership vehicles that do not pay federal and state income taxes and return income to partners.

Applying the Reit/MLP model to infrastructure assets would attract investment from the deep US retail and institutional investor market, dramatically increasing funding support for new projects. Projects that were once unable to attract support could become financially viable, and more infrastructure projects could be supported.

Ok, now this is a really interesting idea that I hadn’t thought of. Since I don’t know much about Reits, I’d need to think more about this. I already have the opinion that way too much commercial property gets sweetheart deals at tax time, through TIFs and things like Prop 13, so I am not sure why, exactly, we need to have a tax incentive for infrastructure investment. I think there is *plenty* of existing demand for infrastructure bonds without sweetening the pot in this way. Maybe I’m wrong, though–I’m basing my comments on impressions rather than considered reflection on the data.

What are your thoughts? What have Reits done for commercial real estate that needs to happen for infrastructure?

The LA Times sets a new low for Op-Eds

The editorial page of the LA Times has for some reason fallen into the beliefs that a bunch of personal whining about how you can’t talk to relatives or neighbors with different political views sums up conservatives versus liberals in the United States.

Why I can’t talk to conservatives by Diana Wagman

Summary: A bunch of self-referential, tepid anecdotes about how people disagree and other rampagingly obvious platitudes. If you start thinking “YTF am I reading this?” halfway through, you’re not alone. Zzzzzzzzzzz

Why I can’t talk to liberals by Charlotte Allen

Summary: A bunch of self-indulgent whining about how she loathes her liberal family, despite numerous disingenuous asides to the contrary to salve her family-values conscience (since nobody else freaking cares) because her liberal family has the nerve to expect her to use reasoned arguments other than “my opinions are fact” and “my values are supreme because they are mine” in debates. Yet, nobody will debate with poor Charlotte because they are intolerant jerky poopyheads, unlike her, a paragon of open-mindedness.


Personal experiences are not interesting unless you, you know, actually have interesting personal experiences. Arguing with relatives and neighbors? Nope. Not interesting. Or useful.

To get smarter, go over and read Max Stephenson’s contribution to discussion democratic theory here.

Two picks from JUA suggesting that suburbs aren’t what planners think they are

Two picks from the upcoming issue of The Journal of Urban Affairs:

These are unfortunately paid links, but you might be able to find drafts if you look on Google. Please let me know in the comments if you do find a link to a free pdf.


ABSTRACT: This paper examines the location and growth of creative industries within metropolitan areas. In recent years, the creative industries have been increasingly sought after as potential engines of metropolitan economic growth. Although some research has been done on the location decisions by such firms and workers, it has primarily focused on interregional and intermetropolitan disparities. We use establishment-level data to investigate intrametropolitan (central city versus suburban) location and growth for creative industry establishments in 40 of the top 101 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). We compared the number of employees and total annual payroll in each location, and categorize them by region, population size, and creative employment growth. Findings suggest that although creative industries are more centralized, they are decentralizing faster than other industries in general, but this rate, and even the direction, varies widely across MSAs.


ABSTRACT:  A wealth of data drawn from cities and their nearby suburbs show that, consistent with place stratification theory, African Americans live in poorer quality communities than similarly affluent members of other racial groups. Yet, few have examined whether these trends are playing out in the rapidly growing exurbs, places that emerged in the post-Civil Rights era. Through a case study of African American migration to Los Angeles’s exurban Inland Empire, this article tests the applicability of place stratification theory by triangulating evidence from interviews with 70 movers with U.S. Census and American Community Survey data. Both sources reveal that the gap in neighborhood conditions among similar income racial groups is much narrower in the exurbs than inner city Los Angeles or its nearby suburbs, an outcome that participants attributed to the region’s rapid housing construction, relative lack of a history of who lives where, and resulting neighborhood diversity.

Ed Glaeser agrees with the anti-federalists

From his piece for Bloomberg:

DE-FEDERALIZE TRANSPORT SPENDING: Most forms of transport infrastructure overwhelmingly serve the residents of a single state. Yet the federal government has played an outsized role in funding transportation for 50 years. Whenever the person paying isn’t the person who benefits, there will always be a push for more largesse and little check on spending efficiency. Would Detroit’s People Mover have ever been built if the people of Detroit had to pay for it? We should move toward a system in which states and localities take more responsibility for the infrastructure that serves their citizens.

See, people? It’s not just me and bunch of wild-eyed Tea Partiers.