Public investing

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a periodic report on the nation’s infrastructure, assigning letter grades to each sector. In its most recent report (2013), the society gives an overall score of D+. The authors estimate that it would take about $3.6 trillion by 2020 to meet the country’s infrastructure needs.

This sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But the figure helps quantify just how much we’ve neglected our schools and roads, to name just two components. We have a $17 trillion economy. As always, how we choose to spend those dollars has everything to do with political focus and will.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S.’s total tax revenues represent about 25.4 percent of GDP. The OECD average is 33.7, with the highest, about 49 percent, being Denmark. At our current rate, cities, counties, states, and federal governments collect roughly $4.4 trillion per year. If the U.S. were to collect the OECD average, the country would realize $5.9 trillion/year. At Denmark’s rate, all governments here would collect about $8.5 trillion per annum.

So, we need only tax at the OECD average, or 33.7 percent, to add another $1.5 trillion a year. By 2020, we would have collected at least $7.5 trillion, or about twice the level recommended by the engineers.

I know. Not going to happen.

We had the future, then came the car

Writing for Crosscut, Leonard Garfield:

By 1890, Seattle’s streetcar system was electrified, linking and creating neighborhoods throughout the city.

Among the first successful routes: the Seattle Electric Railway line from industrial South Lake Union to downtown, built under the guidance of 28-year-old Luther Griffith and completed in just five days. In the following decade, streetcar lines to Ballard, Greenwood, Rainier Valley, West Seattle and other “streetcar suburbs” criss-crossed the city.

By the early 20th century, the streetcar system had scaled, consolidated first by the precursor to Puget Sound Energy and then acquired by the City of Seattle in 1918. By 1936, the city’s Municipal Street Railway system operated 26 electric routes, powered by the nation’s first municipally-owned hydroelectric system.

The parallel growth of a network of street railways – connecting Seattle to Tacoma, Renton, Everett and other population centers – put a seamless transit system within easy and affordable reach of nearly every Puget Sound resident.

At the same time, Seattle built two major rail hubs: King Street Station in 1906 and Union Station in 1911. They served thousands of passengers and handled enough freight to catapult Seattle to the largest economy in the Northwest.

But it wasn’t just about rail. Other civic innovations targeted different ways to increase mobility and economic growth through transportation.

The dramatic leveling of the city’s hills allowed the city to easily expand the transit system – while city engineers lay a complementary network of boulevards and bike paths (built with the upcoming century of growth in mind). And on the water front, civic engineers began building the Lake Washington shipping canal in 1911, which aimed to connect the region’s growing industrial economy with Pacific trade.

In each instance, Seattle leaders bet on the efficacy of engineering and the value of transportation innovations.

An electrified transit system facilitating rich and poor alike. What happened?

The rise of the automobile, federal investment in a national interstate highway system, and the growth of suburbia combined to render Seattle’s pre-War transit system less cost-effective and, for many politicians of the time, less attractive.

The emphasis on highways made short term economic sense: the extraordinary financial burden of maintaining the existing interurban rail system had vexed both the city and private operators almost from the beginning. By the early 1940s, the last streetcars had been pulled from service, scrapped and often replaced by trackless trolleys and buses.

The damn car!

I recently saw Elon Musk introduce battery storage (Powerwall and Powerpack) to an enthusiastic audience. He mentioned, somewhat in passing, that 100 million cars and trucks are produced each year across the globe, which is now home to two billion automobiles.

Since the mid-1930s, Seattle destroyed its urban, rail-based transit system in favor of individual cars and paved roads, inducing populations to scatter far and away from downtown. The result for us now is an antiquated, polluting, clogging car culture that drives a fossil-fuel-based economy, without which there would be no Mariners telecasts.

In response, Seattle is desperately seeking a solution it already had 75 years ago. And you think humans are smart.

The Supreme Court giveth…then taketh

Lest we run amok with zeal over the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, huge victories to be sure, the Supremes reminded us that a conservative majority has no problem with a filthy, dangerous atmosphere or with states killing criminals.

In separate 5-4 decisions, the Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority by imposing limits on fossil-fuel plants’ greenhouse gas mercury emissions and that states can use chemicals to execute criminals, even though such drugs have been linked to horrifyingly botched end-of-life events.

On plant emissions, the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to impose restrictions, provided they were “appropriate and necessary.” One would think that the scientific consensus is sufficient to satisfy the criteria: greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise exponentially, leading to accelerated planetary warming and extreme weather events mercury poses risks to the environment. Siding with the purveyors of filth, the Court majority, led by Antonin Scalia, dismissed the science in favor of process. Here is the New York Times:

…The challengers said the agency had run afoul of that law by deciding to regulate the emissions without first undertaking a cost-benefit analysis.

The agency responded that it was not required to take costs into account when it made the initial determination to regulate. But the agency added that it did so later in setting emissions standards and that, in any event, the benefits far outweighed the costs.

The two sides had very different understandings of the costs and benefits involved. Industry groups said the government had imposed annual costs of $9.6 billion to achieve about $6 million in benefits. The agency said the costs yielded tens of billions of dollars in benefits.

Regarding executions, the Times wrote:

Lawyers for the Oklahoma inmates, with the support of experts in pharmacology and anesthetics, said midazolam, even if properly administered, was unreliable. They pointed to three executions last year that seemed to go awry.

In April 2014, Clayton D. Lockett regained consciousness during the execution procedure, writhing and moaning after the intravenous line was improperly placed. In Ohio in January 2014 and in Arizona in July, prisoners appeared to gasp and choke for extended periods.

Justice Alito wrote that the inmates had failed to identify an available and preferable method of execution or made the case that the challenged drug entailed a substantial risk of severe pain.

It did not occur to the majority in each instance to consider the larger picture—that global warming mercury pollution is bad and must be arrested and that killing people to prove that killing people is wrong. Such considerations have nothing to do with the law, sayeth the Supremes.

UPDATE (June 29, 2015):

Dave Roberts, writing for VOX, judges the EPA opinion “pointless.” Read his piece to discover why.

The pope has spoken. So…

Pope Francis promulgated an encyclical on climate change and its impacts on the poor, especially. The document, delivered to the world’s Catholics, is both conservative and radical in its concept and temperament. Conservative, in that Francis invokes the Bible and past theologians to found his critique of capitalism’s excesses on long-standing moral precepts. Radical, in that Francis develops root causes of climate change and how it is and will continue to wreak havoc on at-risk populations across the planet.

Alas, popes speak and nothing happens. From Pacem in Terris and Laborem Excercens to Populorum Progressio and, now, Laudato Si, the Bishop of Rome condemns and implores. Yet, the matters of concern worsen. And if capitalism’s excesses are  the common cause, the critiqued economic system continues to accrete, depositing “filth” as it enriches a few at the expense of the many.

I fell away from the Church decades ago; my “soul” was never in it. The Church, after all, is for believers, those who hold that God exists, created the world, and somehow inheres in that creation, perhaps guiding and cajoling the faithful in their daily lives. Yet, I appreciated then and now the Church of my youth as an innately moral institution with something to say that is profound and provocative. It sits both within and without society, calling upon ancient verities to expose human shortcomings and, it always hopes, provide a pathway to redemption, in this world and, it believes, the next.

Of course, the usual suspects, the captains of industry and reactionary minds, quickly dismissed the pope and his encyclical. Such reaction is altogether predictable and historical. In the U.S., an entire political party rejects the very premise of Laudato Si, that humans are causing the planet to warm with untold consequences for earth’s most vulnerable.

Ironic, indeed, that a majority of Supreme Court justices and a significant plurality of Republican presidential candidates call themselves Catholic. They feel emboldened to follow their “conscience” in ignoring anything the popes write in opposition to their controlling political ideologies.

These same conservatives applaud the Church’s actions against the doctrinally permissive religious on issues of sex. Suppose the Vatican were to see fit to excommunicate Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas for his egregious policies against the poor in Kansas? Same with Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, or any of the Catholic Supremes who give license to corporations’ wealth extraction and sanction capital punishment, a punishment falling disproportionately on the nation’s poor?

If the Church wished to send a message, that would be a start.

How we live [U]

A most insightful piece by architect Mark Hinshaw in Crosscut on urban construction, patterns, and personal preferences. Both Millennials and Boomers are flocking to the cities, Seattle being one of them. Unlike our parents, we shun the suburbs and sprawl. Well, not all of us, certainly, as the clogged freeways attest. Hinshaw:

…In a sense, Seattle is a victim of its own success. With all the articles and rankings touting its culture, its music, its natural setting and its high-paying jobs are we really surprised that so many people want to move here? Even corporations that previously located in outlying areas — Weyerhaeuser, Facebook and Expedia, for example — are piling on.

The pace of development here has also been fueled by dramatic changes in the national demographic makeup. Households are smaller but more numerous. Boomers, who make up a quarter of the population, are downsizing and opting for more compact dwellings in urban places that offer transit, cultural amenities and high-quality health care. Millennials, another 25 percent of the population, are eschewing the suburbs in favor of density, diversity and public transit that only urban places offer.

As for new families departing cities for the house-cum-garage-cum-fenced-yard, Hinshaw suggests otherwise:

…In sharp contrast to past generations, Millennials are putting off marriage and kids. Moreover, their values are rooted in lifestyles that only denser urban places can provide.

We are seeing a sea change in the preferences of younger Americans. For one thing, Millennials are acutely aware of the environmental damage done to this country by five decades of outward expansion into an auto-dependent landscape. Climate change is only one negative outcome of those growth patterns.

But these preferences for denser patterns of development are being met with questionable design and inferior construction, as property owners scramble to keep up. New apartment complexes, often built with five stories of lumber, suffer under the wet and windy Northwest climate. Hinshaw:

Because wood expands and contracts in response to changes in weather and moisture content, certain types of rigid materials used on building surfaces pull apart at their seams, leaving cracks that wind-driven rain can penetrate. And penetrate it did.

Along with the accompanying mold and mildew, water damage led to massive insurance claims, litigation and costly repairs. For more than a decade, numerous buildings around Seattle were cocooned in plastic wrap while their exteriors were being reconstructed. As it turns out, only a few materials perform well when stretched across many floors of wood framing. Many of these materials, such as “Hardy” planks and metal sheeting, are, well, as boring as sheet rock, aesthetically speaking.

Hinshaw tells us that new materials are now available to withstand the soggy weather. We urbanites hope that developers and architects will offer better design.

I look forward to the second part of Hinshaw’s essay.


Here is part 2 of Hinshaw’s piece. He makes the case for shared walls.

Good for one, bad for all

Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) wrote:

[The individual] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. …[He] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

Thus became the organizing principle of modern capitalism: The individual pursues his or her own self interest and that in doing so the greater good is achieved for all.

Smith implies as well, and contra Rousseau, that one should not and cannot act with the purpose of benefitting society as a whole (the general will, say). To do so will frustrate the “industry” of the individual; writ large, the product of all individuals will be compromised, and the overall economy will perform below its maximum.

There is, we must admit, a certain elegance to the prescription. We are freed, indeed encouraged, to behave without regard to the general welfare. We do what we want and let the chips fall where they may, knowing that the “invisible hand” will sort out everything for the greater good. No need to plan, certainly. No need for a czar of bread or any other commodity or service.

Yet, we must acknowledge that the invisible-hand-led market has yielded some rather perverse outcomes, not the least of which is gross inequality. We must also consider market failures, environmental degradation being chief among them. One could make the case that rational behavior at the individual level actually yields collective irrationality, in which the very survival of species are at stake.

Against Smith, we might ponder the following:

From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits. For example, because most people lack their own means to produce income, they must sell their labor power to companies, which in turn must normally pay a high enough wage for the reproduction of workers and their families. However, although requiring people to work in order to live, the economic system does not guarantee a job for everyone who wants and needs to work. Nor do the available jobs necessarily pay sufficient wages for a decent existence…Practices that make eminent sense for the individual capitalist or company, such as paying only the minimum wage necessary in order to obtain sufficient workers with the needed skills, end up being a problem not only for workers, but the capitalist system itself. Low worker income contributes to problems of effective demand.*

In seeking to maximize profits (the difference between revenues and costs), the employer pays the lowest possible wage to his or her workers. Makes sense, you might say. But when all employers, or at least a significant portion of them, do the same, workers lack sufficient income to buy products and services produced by those employers. Of course, workers could purchase on credit, foregoing future income to satisfy immediate needs or wants. That would seem to be the preferred solution of the employers. However, and as it happens on occasion, workers react to accumulating debt by curtailing purchases in favor of deleveraging. If enough workers do the same, the problem of effective demand returns.

Yet, this system of production and consumption bodes ill for the planet as a whole, since waste is ignored. In effect, we billions of humans soil our own nest. The unanswered question: Will we deplete the natural resource stock before we render the earth uninhabitable?


* Fred Magdoff, “A Rational Agriculture Is Incompatible with Capitalism,” Monthly Review, March 2015

Cities are for people, not cars

Whenever I see then-and-now photographs of urban streets I’m invariably struck by the difference in the number of pedestrians. There were far more in the days preceding the onslaught of the automobile.

Today, city transportation engineers endeavor to maximize vehicular traffic. So they design for and build wide streets with multiple lanes and signals that facilitate the flow of automobiles and trucks. Pity the poor pedestrian, who struggles to avoid merciless motorists who, understandably, treat pavement as their exclusive domain.

Vox gives us photographs of street locales both before and after the automobile took over. An excerpt from the linked article:

In the early 1900s, “pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking,” Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, told me for a recent article about the creation of the crime of jaywalking.

Obviously, that didn’t last long. As cars began to spread, accidents increased, and automakers embarked on an aggressive campaign to redefine who belonged on the roads, eventually restricting pedestrians to crosswalks.

It worked so successfully that, today, few people are aware that city streets were once a bustling mix of pedestrians, streetcars, pushcart vendors, and children at play — an environment that Norton likens to a city park.

Cars are now a necessity, since sprawl separated the land into places to live (the suburbs) and places to work (usually cities). City officials mandated more parking spaces, an added expense to private and public businesses caught up in a vicious cycle: either accommodate the car or shutter your doors. The auto-dependent suburbanite rarely enters the city, preferring to shop at malls surrounded by enormous asphalt lagoons.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that rooftops generate retail. Build and they will come?