Category Archives: News commentary

Austerians or Common-Sensicans?

The Greek debt crisis has Paul Krugman waging a verbal war against those he called Austerians, meaning economists who think the solution to being up-to-your-ears in debt is to cut back on spending. (It’s also a pun on Austrian economics, which generally opposes government intervention in just about anything.)

“Greece was overspending, but not by all that much,” claims Krugman. “It was over indebted, but again not by all that much. How did this turn into a catastrophe that among other things saw debt soar to 170 percent of GDP despite savage austerity?” The answer, he argues, is the austerity measures themselves “are the obvious culprits.”

Never mind the fact that tax avoidance in Greece is a national sport, that Greece doesn’t bother to make sure people pay user fees for public services like rail transport, and despite collecting so little fares the country lavishly pays rail workers an average of nearly $75,000 a year so that the rail system costs seven times as much to operate as it returns in revenues. Krugman’s solution is to spend more, thus effectively excusing people for not paying taxes or fares and for demanding high pay and pensions for jobs that produce little economic benefit.

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Two-Month Extension for Highways/Transit

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to extend federal funding for highways and transit for two months. The Senate is expected to pass similar legislation later this week. While transportation bills normally last for six years, this short-term action, which followed a ten-month extension last fall and a two-year extension in 2012, has proven necessary because no one has been able to rustle up a majority agreement on the federal role in transportation.

For those who haven’t followed the issue, the federal government collects about $34 billion a year in gas taxes and related highway user fees. Once dedicated to highways, an increasing share has gone for transit and other uses since the early 1980s. Compounding this was a decision in 1998 to mandate that spending equal to the projected growth in fuel taxes. When fuel tax revenues stopped growing in 2007, spending did not, with the result that annual spending is now about $13 billion more than revenues.

Under Congressional rules, Congress must find a revenue source to cover that deficit. The Antiplanner’s colleague at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, thinks that the simple solution is for Congress to just reduce spending by $13 billion a year. That may be arithmetically simple, but politically it is not as too many powerful interest groups count on that spending who have persuaded many (falsely, in my opinion) that we need to spend more on supposedly crumbling highways.

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U.S. Land Worth More Than $23 Trillion

A new study from the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that America’s land, exclusive of buildings or other improvements, was worth nearly $23 trillion in 2009. It has undoubtedly increased since then. The analysis, which was summarized in a Wall Street Journal blog post yesterday, presents estimates by state (for the lower 48 states only) broken into three categories: federal, developed, and agricultural.

Nationwide, the three categories add up to about 76 percent, leaving 24 percent in an implied “other” category. However, in a few states, the three categories add up to more than 100 percent, suggesting that developed federal lands are counted both in the developed and the federal categories. There may also be some overlap between federal and ag land.

Most of the important data are found in table 3, which the Antiplanner transferred to a spreadsheet for a more detailed review. The table shows that, nationally, ag land is estimated to be worth an average of about $2,000 an acre. However, it is worth much more–$5,000 to $16,500 an acre–in a few smaller eastern states including Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. The higher values in these states probably reflect the competition for that land by exurbanites.

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Wedding Cakes and Prisoner’s Dilemmas

Liberals and libertarians both support gay marriage, but tend to divide on the question of whether a baker in Indiana should be required to make a cake for a gay wedding. “A homophobic baker shouldn’t stop a same-sex couple from getting married,” argues John Stossel. “Likewise, a gay couple shouldn’t force a baker to make them a wedding cake.”

Stossel reasons that, “Lots of other bakers would love the business,” while “the free market will punish” businesses that are racist or anti-gay. Of course, “there are a few exceptions,” he admits. “In the South, people banned from a lunch counter had few other choices. The Civil Rights Act’s intrusion into private behavior was probably necessary to counter the damage done by Jim Crow laws.”

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A Lesson about Big Government

The resignation of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber after just a little more than a month of his fourth term in office could be seen as making a case for term limits. But really, it is a classic example of the pitfalls of using big government to solve social problems.

Oregon limits governors to two consecutive four-year terms. Kitzhaber was in the governor’s mansion from 1995 to 2003. Then, Putin-like, after letting someone else be governor for a couple of terms, he ran again and won in 2010. Despite warning signs from Pulitzer-Prize-winning Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss, Kitzhaber coasted to victory (endorsed by Jaquiss’ own paper, among others) over a Republican legislator who represented one of the least-populated, and therefore politically inconsequential, parts of the state.

What brought Kitzhaber down was clear evidence that his girlfriend, Cylvia Hayes, who called herself the First Lady of Oregon and bragged that she was his “policy advisor,” aggressively used her connections to the governor to get contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby the state on energy policy, among other things. Rather than attempt to show that Hayes was keeping her roles as First Lady and lobbyist separate, Kitzhaber stonewalled public access to emails and even reportedly ordered his staff to destroy thousands of such emails. It was this stonewalling, more than the corruption charges, that led major Democrats in the state to turn against the governor.

Kitzhaber is a charismatic man who has a reputation with working with people on both sides of the political aisle. Yet this is far from his first major political scandal that cost taxpayer millions and involved questionable actions on the part of his friends and associates.

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Late Night Boston

What gives transit riders such an incredible sense of entitlement? The state of Massachusetts has to close a $175 million budget gap. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA or “the T” for short) is still suffering from a huge maintenance shortfall. Yet Boston transit riders think they should get 24-hour transit service, no matter what the cost or how few people use it.

An experiment with late-night transit service–running certain buses and trains until 2:30 am instead of just 1:00 am–has attracted an average of just 17,000 riders per day, or less than 12,000 per hour, at an annual cost of $13 million. For comparison, before the experiment began, the T carried nearly 1.4 million riders per weekday, or close to 700,000 per hour for the 20 hours the system had been open. Plus, at least some of those 17,000 riders would have used the T anyway, just at an earlier hour.

Transit advocates say longer hours are needed to “retain talented young professionals and tech workers while boosting night life at the same time.” But when the T asked the “corporations that could ultimately benefit from the service by retaining young talent” to contribute to late-night operating costs, they got less than 7 percent of the cost of extending service hours.

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The Ideal Communist Climate-Friendly City

To stop climate change, Al Gore wants to spend a mere $90 trillion rebuilding all of the world’s cities so that everyone is living in such high-density neighborhoods that they don’t need cars. While a few curmudgeonly types might think that $90 trillion sounds like a lot of money, it really isn’t, say Gore and former Mexico president Filipe Calderon. After all, the world is probably going to spend the $90 trillion on something in the next few years anyway, so what’s wrong with spending it on this?


Gore wants to rebuild this dumb-growth city into. . .

Gore made the proposal at an economics conference in Davos, Switzerland attended by billionaires who fly in on private jets so they can tell other people they need to get used to consuming less. Of course, neither Gore nor the other millionaires and billionaires at the conference expect to be stuck living in a high-density apartment any time soon.

this smart-growth city (illustrations by Alain Bertaud).

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Liberals and Libertarians

Brutality on the part of overly militarized police forces. Too many people in prison due mainly to a war on victimless crimes. Routine torture. The national surveillance state. A president who believes he can remotely kill anyone he wants without trial or due process.

Assett forfeiture. States and cities that routinely take away people’s property rights without compensation or take people’s property with compensation to give to private developers on the pretext that, because the new owners will pay more taxes than existing owners, it is in the public interest.

These are a few of my least-favorite things about America today. This list heavily overlaps eleven reasons why liberal Dave Lindorff is ashamed to be an American. On most of these issues (except, perhaps, regulatory takings), liberals and libertarians are in full agreement.

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Champions at Making Promises

The White House has applauded Portland and fifteen other local governments as “climate action champions” for promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the White House should have waited to see whether any of the communities managed to meet their goals before patting them on the back.

Take Portland, for example. The Northwest city’s modest goal is to reduce Portland and Multnomah County emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Planners claim that, as of 2010, the city and county had reduced emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels. However, this claim is full of hot air as all of the reductions are due to causes beyond planners’ control.

Almost two-thirds of the reduction was in the industrial sector, and virtually all of that was due to the closure in 2000 of an aluminum plant that once employed 520 people. The closure of that plant hasn’t led anyone to use less aluminum, so all it did was move emissions elsewhere.

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ARTIC Chill

Next week, Anaheim California will open the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, which is a grammatically contorted and glorified way of saying “Anaheim train and bus station.” A recent article suggests that some people think the station is an architectural monstrosity, but the real question that should have been debated is cost: was it really worth $185 million to build a train and bus station?


All this could be yours for a mere $2,784 per square foot. Click image for a larger view.

At 67,000 square feet. the station’s cost works out to an incredible $2,764 per square foot. Can you imagine any private firm spending that kind of money on a building to serve even the most profitable business, much less a money-losing one?

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