Category Archives: News commentary

The Who-Gets-to-Decide Crisis

“There is now a consensus that the United States should substantially raise its level of infrastructure investment,” writes former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers in the Washington Post. Correction: There is now a consensus among two presidential candidates that the United States should increase infrastructure spending. That’s far from a broad consensus.

“America’s infrastructure crisis is really a maintenance crisis,” says the left-leaning CityLab. The “infrastructure crisis is about socialism,” says the conservative Heritage Foundation. “There is no widespread crisis of crumbling infrastructure,” says libertarian Cato Institute. “The infrastructure crisis . . . isn’t,” agrees the Reason Foundation.

As Charles Marohn, who classifies himself as a traditional conservative, says, the idea that there is an infrastructure crisis is promoted by an “infrastructure cult” led by the American Society of Civil Engineers. As John Oliver noted, relying on them to decide whether there is enough infrastructure spending is like asking a golden retriever if enough tennis balls are being thrown.

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The Democrats’ Fair Housing Plan

Vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine’s outline of Hillary Clinton’s housing plan focused on racial discrimination. While that’s an important issue, it isn’t really at the heart of Clinton’s housing plan. In fact, it isn’t even mentioned in Clinton’s platform.

Instead, the heart of the plan is huge subsidies to middle-class homebuyers aimed at increasing homeownership. Clinton proposes to give anyone who earns less than a region’s median income up to $10,000 to help with a downpayment on a house.

There are several problems with this idea. First, Clinton doesn’t restrict the grants to first-time homebuyers, so it is likely that the program won’t significantly increase homeownership. Second, the median family income in a dozen urban areas, from Boulder to San Jose, is more than $100,000 a year, so a lot of well-off people would qualify free federal money. Third, the $10,000 would only be given to people who can match it with their own savings, and since nearly half of all Americans don’t even have $400 to spare, not much of Clinton’s promise will reach low-income people.

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Trump Doubles Down on Hillary

Last week, the Antiplanner compared the Republican Party platform, which promised to reduce wasteful transportation spending, with the Democratic platform, which promised a huge increase in infrastructure spending. Yesterday, Trump endorsed the Democratic side, promising to double whatever Hillary says she will spend. Since Hillary Clinton has called for about $275 billion worth of spending on infrastructure, Trump must want to spend more than $500 billion.

“We have many, many bridges that are in danger of falling,” said Trump. Not exactly. According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2015 the United States (including Puerto Rico) had 58,791 “structurally deficient” bridges. But that doesn’t mean these bridges are in danger of falling. “Structurally deficient” means that the bridge has some defect that may require greater-than-normal maintenance or limit the amount of weight that can cross the bridge.

As near as I can tell, the last time a bridge fell because it was structurally deficient was 1989, shortly proceeded by one in 1987. Those collapses led to new rules and monitoring systems that have greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the problem.

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A Plank Worth Supporting

The current administration’s transportation department “subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit,” notes page 5 of the 2016 Republican Party Platform. For example, the administration’s “ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.'”

In contrast, Republicans pledge “to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government,” including mass transit, “bike share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations.” The platform notes that more than 20 percent of federal highway revenues go to mass transit, yet transit is “an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” (Really, six big urban areas, namely New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco-Oakland, and Boston, where two-thirds of transit rides take place.)

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The Arrogance of the Elite

America needs less democracy to avoid tyranny, says Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine. America “suffers from too much democracy,” agrees Richard Cohen in the Washington Post.

Anyone who supports Donald Trump is a traitor, writes Charles Pierce in Esquire. James Traub in Foreign Policy calls Trump and Brexit supporters “ignorance masses” and says it’s time for the “elites to rise up” against them, or at least to “un-delude them,” perhaps in re-education camps.

These elites act like crybabies who don’t get their way. They use bad names for anyone who disagrees with them. They say they know best and anyone who disagrees must not (as Traub puts it) “believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history.”

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Class Consciousness

In a reversal of stereotypes, “Democrats have become a party of the wealthy” admits Fredrik deBoer in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, Republicans–much to the chagrin of some Republican “elites”–have become a party of the working class.

The Antiplanner was reminded of this when I saw a report saying that 29.4 percent of Americans were now “upper middle class,” which the report defines as having incomes of $100,000 or more for a family of three (or roughly $82,000 for a family of two, $115,000 for a family of four, etc.–see page 3 of the report). This highlights something the Antiplanner has said several times before: the real social divide in America is not between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, but between the 30 percent and the 70 percent. Specifically, about 30 percent of working-age Americans are “knowledge workers,” and generally have college degrees, while 70 percent do physical labor, and generally don’t have college degrees.

As the Antiplanner has previously noted, there is a lot of confusion about the term “middle class.” Surveys show that nine out of ten Americans consider themselves to be middle class, but in fact, six of them are wrong. Class is not distinguished by income, though it certainly influences income. The Antiplanner spent the first 20 years of my career earning a very low income, but I was college educated with college-educated parents and definitely had middle-class attitudes (never mind the fact that many of my peers scorned the “middle class” even as they formed a part of it).

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The West Isn’t Disappearing

“The West is disappearing,” claims a new report by the Center for American Progress. They should rename themselves the “Center for Alarming Americans,” as the report is pure hokum.

Based on data from 2001 and 2011, the report found that the West “loses” 432 square miles of land per year, or about an acre every two-and-one-half minutes. This sounds so alarming that the San Jose Mercury-News reported that California is “losing most land to development.” “Most” means “more than half,” but by any definition, far less than half of California has been developed.

The eleven contiguous western states have a total of 1,173,990 square miles of land. At 432 square miles per year, it would take 2,718 years to develop them all. Since half of the land is federal forests, parks, and rangelands that will never receive more than a modest amount of development, there doesn’t seem to be much to worry about.

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Memo to Foxx: Put Money Where It Works

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx came to Portland the other day and said cities needed to find “moonshots” to fund their transportation programs. He criticized Congress for passing a $302 billion, five-year transportation bill last year because it “locks in a sustained period of underinvestment.”

If by “moonshots” Foxx means a magic formula for fixing congestion and other transportation problems, then Portland is the wrong place to look. The Portland area has already spent well over $4 billion on a light-rail system, yet as of 2014 light rail carried only 1 percent of the region’s motorized passenger travel and no freight. Update: Meanwhile, the last shipping company that delivered containers to the Port of Portland has quit because the city and the port have put being “green” above freight mobility. Despite this, the region’s leaders now want to spend $2 billion more on another 11-mile line.

It would be great if we could build all the light rail, high-speed rail, bike paths, highways, and dirigibles that anyone would ever want to use. But some people don’t want to accept that we live in a world of scarce resources, and to be successful at anything we have to use those resources as effectively as possible.

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Happy Birthday, Jane Jacobs

As noted in today’s Google doodle, today is Jane Jacob’s 100th birthday. No doubt many people will write positive things about her. However, as the Antiplanner has noted before, her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is overrated.

Jacobs made two points, one of them right, and one of them wrong. Her correct point, which is celebrated by many libertarians, is in recognizing that urban planners don’t understand the cities they claim to be designing. The hubris of planners writing 50 year plans when they don’t even know what’s going to happen five years from now would be amusing if the consequences weren’t so expensive.

Jacobs wrong point, which is celebrated by many urban planners today, was in thinking that she did understand cities. She thought she understood her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, New York, but she didn’t understand it very well. She reduced her understanding to four simple “conditions” that she said all cities needed: mixed uses, short blocks, a mixture of old and new buildings, and density of residents and jobs. Her application of these oversimplified conditions to all “great cities” made her just as guilty of hubris as the planners she criticized.

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