Monthly Archives: March 2011

Update on Yellowstone Wolves

“Many people hoped that introduction of wolves into Yellowstone would bring down elk populations and allow ecosystem restoration,” the Antiplanner noted last week. “While the wolves have changed park dynamics (to the detriment of coyotes but in favor of foxes), they haven’t made much of a dent in elk numbers.”

On the prowl in Yellowstone.
Flickr photo by TBanneck.

While this isn’t entirely wrong, it turns out I am behind on the latest science. Oregon State University ecologist Robert Beschta has shown that, while wolves haven’t greatly reduced elk numbers, they have greatly changed elk behavior. Specifically, by forcing the elk out of meadows and into forests, the wolves have promoted the recovery of willows. That, in turn, is leading to the reestablishment of beaver colonies, which are creating wetlands and promoting habitat for other species.

Video of wolves in Oregon taken December 30, 2010.

WIth wolves now entering Oregon and Washington, we can expect to see more ecological changes. Thanks to Andy Stahl for this information.

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Antiplanner’s Library: Freefall

Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz‘s take on the 2008 financial crisis is simple: Free markets are bad; government is good; we need more government. This is, essentially, a reiteration of what is known as the Greenwald-Stiglitz theorem, which states that markets are imperfect, so “government could potentially almost always improve upon the market’s resource allocation.”

A flaw common to both the Greenwald-Stiglitz theorem and Freefall is that, while Stiglitz goes to great efforts to show that markets are imperfect, he makes no effort at all to show that government will do better. His theorem says government could potentially do better, and another one of his theorems says an “ideal government” could do better, but the real question, which he never addresses, is whether a real, not ideal, imperfect government will actually do any better than an imperfect market.

Freefall makes no genuine effort to analyze the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown. Instead, Stiglitz merely uses it as another example in his case for bigger government. The crisis resulted from the failure of American capitalism, he says, and he dismisses any other explanation (if he mentions it at all) as “sheer nonsense” (p. 10).

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EUs War on Cars

Some people say the “war on the automobile” is a right-wing myth. Then the European Union goes and proposes to ban cars (or at least fossil-fuel-burning cars) from cities by 2050.

To complement this ban, the EU proposes to significantly increase fuel taxes (as if they were not already high enough). It also hopes to reduce air travel and, using taxes and incentives, increase rail’s share of trips over 300 kilometers (186 miles) to 50 percent. (Rail has about a 10 percent share of travel today.)

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The Washington Times Gets It Wrong

The Antiplanner generally appreciates the efforts of the Times, a fiscally conservative paper that tries to watchdog government agencies that waste tax dollars. But an editorial last Friday about highway user fees missed the point.

The article was written in response to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on highway user fees. “The claim is that driver’s aren’t paying their fair share because the $35 billion collected in federal gasoline taxes doesn’t cover highway spending,” the Times charged. That, however, is a misrepresentation of the CBO report.

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Who Should Pay for America’s Jewels?

National parks are one of the most popular programs of the federal government. Yet the National Park Service is also an increasing burden on taxpayers. Appropriations to the agency have doubled since 1991, and even after adjusting for inflation they have grown by a third.

What have taxpayers received for this money? One of the most important outputs of the parks is recreation, but national park recreation use peaked in 1987 and has stagnated or declined since then. Visitors spent 11 percent fewer days in national parks in 2010 than in 1987.

By coincidence, 1987 was also the year Alston Chase released his book, Playing God in Yellowstone, which for many people (including the Antiplanner) was the first signal that all was not well within the National Park System. Ironically, Chase started working on the book at the request of the Yellowstone Park Foundation, which wanted him to write a puff-piece that it could sell in its stores in park visitor centers.

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Antiplanner’s Library: Fool’s Gold

As previously noted, the Antiplanner has been reading a lot of books about the financial crisis lately. Some have tried (but failed) to be comprehensive. Most cover just a slice of the crisis, such as Bear Stearns (House of Cards) or Lehman Brothers (A Colossal Failure of Common Sense)

One of the most valuable books of the latter sort is Fool’s Gold, which focuses on J.P. Morgan. Curiously, this book has gone through a series of at least four subtitles:

  1. How an Ingenious Tribe of Bankers Rewrote the Rules of Finance, Made a Fortune and Survived a Catastrophe
  2. How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets, and Unleashed a Catastrophe
  3. How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe
  4. The Inside Story of J.P. Morgan and How Wall St. Greed Corrupted Its Bold Dream and Created a Financial Catastrophe

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Is LaHood Admitting Defeat?

Last week, Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood designated the Boston-to-Washington corridor as an eleventh high-speed rail corridor. This makes Amtrak eligible for some of the $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds released when Florida rejected federal funds for the Tampa-Orlando route.

Of course, $2.4 billion won’t even scratch the surface of Amtrak’s $117 billion plan to speed up trains in the Northeast Corridor. But Amtrak would probably use the funds to smooth a curve or two, improve stations, or buy another couple of trainsets.

The Boston-to-Washington corridor already has the fastest trains in America, with an average speed of 81 mph between New York and Washington (but a paltry average speed of just 64 mph between Boston and New York). Since the whole point of Obama’s plan was to bring such fast trains to other parts of the country, why is the administration now inviting Amtrak and states in the Northeast Corridor to apply for rail funds?

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Teachers Union and Tea Party Agree

After the dispute in Wisconsin, it is hard to believe that school teachers and Tea Party members would ever agree on anything. But 150 teachers and other school advocates held a protest march in Chicago demanding an end to tax-increment financing (TIF)–something that most Tea Partiers would readily agree to.

The protesters noted that half of the $500 million going into Chicago TIF districts would otherwise go to schools, and they demanded that one TIF district business owner–a Cadillac dealer that received more than $8 million in TIF subsidies–write them a check for $4 million. The business owner asked police to arrest them instead.

TIF advocates noted that TIF really didn’t cost the school districts anything. Under Illinois law, the schools prepare their budgets and tax rates are set sufficient to fund those budgets. The people TIF hurts are taxpayers who must pay higher rates to keep the schools running since some of the money that would have funded schools is going to subsidize developers instead. So maybe the teachers union and other groups that organized this protest should contact the Illinois Tea Party to gain their support.

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New Comments Policy

The Antiplanner has traditionally allowed anyone to post anything they want as a comment. Although I dislike namecalling and ad hominem attacks, I regard them as more reflections on the commenter. A couple of commenters — you know who they are — primarily engage in namecalling and I’ve urged others to simply ignore them.

But Friday someone took the trouble to look up personal information about another commenter and posted it in a comment. The person who the comment was about complained and asked me to delete it, which I did. I also sent an email to the address of the person who posted the comment explaining why I deleted their comment.

Instead of respecting my wishes, the person reposted the comment. Either they ignored my email or they used a fake email address when they signed up and never received my email.

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Antiplanner’s Library: Triumph of the Cities

The ideas of many urbanologists are heavily influenced by the cities in which they lived or grew up. To defend her mid-rise Greenwich Village neighborhood from “urban renewal,” Jane Jacobs extolled the virtues of such neighborhoods and excoriated both high-rises and suburbs. Many urban planners today, fresh out of college, remember the lively streets of their university neighborhoods and don’t understand why residents of quiet suburbs don’t want to see their own streets turned into such neighborhoods. I myself have been focused by my revulsion to the authoritarian dictates of “smart-growth” planners in my home state of Oregon.

“One’s own tastes are rarely a sound basis for public policy,” says Harvard University urban economist Edward Glaeser. “For the government to mandate a single style of urbanism is no more sensible than for the government to enforce a single style of literature.” While I completely agree with this point of view, his new book, Triumph of the City, is strongly colored by his own upbringing in a 1,300-square-foot high-rise apartment in Manhattan (p. 147).

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