Timothy Egan practices a rare craft, writing, and he does it with such grace and charm that I hesitate to offer my two cents to the blogosphere. On the other hand, why not simply sit back and enjoy his exquisite pieces? This morning is no exception, as he reminds us of the splendid wilderness areas around us. Here is his opening, dateline Mount St. Helens. :
You’re on the crater rim of a volcano that is in a tenuous snooze. You expect the few burps of steam coming from the lava dome down below. You expect the sense-surround view of the Cascade Mountains on a day from perfection’s vault. What you don’t expect is finding a New Yorker, sitting near a snow cornice, munching a bagel.
Economic growth has faltered. When the housing bubble collapsed in the 2007-08 period, several trillion dollars of wealth vanished. (Where it went, I have no idea.) But it may be the housing market that leads a rebound, and there are signs of its revitalization.
First, let’s take a look at the relationship between housing sales and GDP (source: FRED).
I am not suggesting anything profound in the apparent correlation. Intuition alone would suggest that when a lot of people are buying houses the economy improves.
Now let’s take a look at what happened during the Great Recession. Here’s a chart showing housing starts over the last few decades.
One cannot help but notice the sharp, almost vertical decline from the end of 2007 to 2009. However, things are picking up, although we’ve got a long way to go before we get close to the post-war average.
The real estate industry developed a metric some time ago called ‘the affordability index.’ It compares the median home price with median household income. If the index is 100, then the median income is just enough to afford the median-priced home. Any number higher than a 100 suggests we collectively have more income than we need to buy that house, keeping in mind that income statistics are heavily skewed owing to increasing inequality. A factor that I’ve written about extensively. But let’s take a look at the index anyway.
Well, somebody’s got money. Yet they aren’t buying all that many houses at the moment.
The glimmer of hope can be found in that slight uptick at the end of the curve. Will it continue to escalate?
It appears that people are buying houses, after years of staying on the sidelines, and the demand is catching up with supply. This article in the Everett Herald confirms.
It’s 2007 all over again for the county real estate market as antsy buyers rush to buy what’s available in a tight supply of homes for sale.
Northwest Multiple Listing Service members notched their highest volume of new listings since June 2011, but the additions did little to ease inventory shortages. Brokers also reported the highest volume of pending sales since May 2007, along with anecdotes of bidding wars.
Gad. Bidding wars?
So, we should expect housing construction to resume as the available inventory is gobbled up. I have mixed feelings about this.
If, indeed, the economy’s performance is tied to housing, then a more robust housing market (sales and construction) would signal growing GDP. In turn, higher economic growth (people buying things, for example) will yield greater employment and, therefore, increased spending, which leads to more growth—and so on.
So what’s wrong with this picture, if an upturn in the housing market would seem to be a good thing? For me, it gets back to the type of housing and development patterns.
Having recently revisited the city of my previous residence, I came away depressed: little boxes made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same, as Tom Paxton wrote many years ago. The people who live in such sprawl have to use their automobiles to go anywhere. There are no stores or parks or restaurants within anyone’s idea of walking distance.
I realize that it’s ultimately about economics. Former agricultural land, especially, is dirt cheap, relatively speaking. Moreover, it’s easy to develop, and if each house is just about a carbon copy of the ones next door, cheap to erect an entire tract of homes. As long as people have no alternative, say living in a vibrant, mixed-use downtown area like much of Seattle, they will flock to exurbia to seek their American Dream.
Then we repeat the sins of the past.
I was born and raised in the suburbs. That’s all I knew until a half-dozen years ago, when my wife and I (though mostly me) decided to take up residence in beautiful downtown Everett, a smallish burg about 30 miles north of Seattle. Of course, there’s nothing beautiful about Everett, an old mill town sputtering to transform itself into a respectable city. But that process is evidently difficult, since nothing has changed since our arrival, save for more boarded-up storefronts, several shuttered restaurants, and two more apartment complexes, one housing low-income “artists.”
The reason people choose to live in cities (as apart from those who must) is the presumed amenities, those things that make urban living not only tolerable but, as in the case of Seattle, for example, enjoyable. My daughter, her husband, and their new baby live on Capitol Hill, just a few minutes’ walk to myriad restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, hospitals, grocery stores, and places in between. There is a hustle and bustle, where there is pervasive glumness and wanting for things to do in Everett.
In my case, I desired to be within walking distance to my part-time job, serving on the elected board of the public utility. It’s just 15 minutes away, and closer if I get favorable traffic signals. Our one car is a Prius, which my wife drives about a dozen miles roundtrip to a school where she teaches. So, we’re pretty green, as they say. We don’t use much electricity or gasoline.
Unfortunately, Everett is home to forlorn-looking single men, who plod along the sidewalks heading god-knows-where, dog shit, and cigarette smokers. By my informal reckoning, one out of every two people I encounter in my daily walks has a cancer stick hanging out of his or her mouth or clutched between fingers. Their congregations can be mistaken for a building fire, the smoke is so thick.
Oh, and there are banks, lots of them. As I understand, a couple of decades ago the wise city officials thought that it would be a splendid idea to designate downtown Everett the financial hub of the county. At the same time they permitted the construction of a mall several miles south. The predictable result was that longtime retail establishments like The Bon (now Macy’s) and J.C. Penney shut their urban doors to set up shop at the mall. Downtown, then, has dozens of nattily attired bankers and support personnel who, during the noon hours, walk from their offices to the handful of lunch counters then back again. At other hours of the day, the streets are occupied by the aforementioned forlorn, and businesses turn out the lights at five, as employees head for their suburban homes.
You may be getting the picture by now. Everett sucks.
It wasn’t always this way, and there is a large, wall-sized photograph at a non-Starbucks coffee shop of a once-bustling city, with lots of busy pedestrians, automobiles, and street cars. Yep, Everett had trollies on tracks a few decades ago. But that was then.
With one exception, which I’ll get to shortly, this downtown experiment has been a bit more than tolerable, since we live in a rather large apartment on the top floor of a fairly new building. We have splendid views of Mount Rainier (during sunny days), the Snohomish Valley, two mountain ranges, and Puget Sound. Lovely. Except…
When we first moved into our place our immediate neighbor, a single guy, thought the whole world would benefit from his obsession with playing his guitar and singing at the top of his lungs for hours on end. He wouldn’t shut up. To make matters worse, he electrically amplified his instrument. You see, we who live on the top floor at the south of the building share a large deck, with see-through metal railings between our respective spaces. On warmer days, the windows and sliding doors come open. The neighbor’s incessant bellowing and plucking crowd out what is normally a very quiet ambience. And I like quiet, because, as you’ve guessed, I spend a fair amount of my day writing and reading and researching. I don’t like disruption, and the neighbor was all about disrupting my peace.
I complained on several occasions to the building manager. I don’t know if it was cause and effect, but after a few months the guy abruptly moved out. His replacement is the best kind of neighbor. I don’t even notice her. Perfect.
A couple of days ago I experienced my worst nightmare. The guy was back in the building. As I met him coming out of the elevator on the top floor he said that he was living down the hall temporarily. Then, in two months, he would be returning to the same next-door apartment. There was glee in his voice and a hint of sweet revenge. He will once again give me hell.
When I confronted the building manager, reminding him of the troubled history, he merely shrugged, saying that the neighbor’s noise was permissible from early morning to nearly midnight. I disdainfully replied, “Thanks a lot,” before angrily walking away.
My wife and I have concluded that we are merely monthly rent checks to the manager, whose principal task is filling the apartments with anyone willing to pay. What to do?
We will likely return to the suburbs after my wife retires in a couple of months. I can’t say we’ll miss downtown Everett. After all, who likes loud neighbors and piles of dog shit?
Years ago my parents bought their groceries on the Internet, which were then delivered that same afternoon. This was in the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic is horrible most hours of the day. The firm didn’t last long, perhaps a function of trying to navigate a sprawling highway system within such a narrow window of time.
I mentioned a few posts ago that I observed an Amazon truck delivering groceries to Capitol Hill residents in Seattle. I understand that Safeway offers the same service, though I’m not sure about availability.
A couple of researchers at the University of Washington have studied the energy requirements of individuals trekking off to their local grocery stores versus having the food delivered to their door. It seems that the latter saves fuel and emits far fewer carbons vis-à-vis the former.
Via the Wonkblog.
I’ll focus only on the narrowest of implications, this one involving political biases and energy choices. One might think, for example, that conservatives would be interested in saving money. However, conservatives are more likely to dismiss or oppose the science of climate change. As it happens, that bias informs buying choices when it comes to light bulbs, for instance. Conservatives eschew CFLs and LEDs because they are “green” technology, even though the bulbs save both energy and dollars.
Those of us who live in the greater Seattle area are justifiably concerned about increasing coal exports via Puget Sound terminals. The trains extend for miles, blocking intersections for dozens of minutes, if not longer. What many of us may not realize is that those shipments from Wyoming, etc., are already underway. The battle is to prevent further exports.
In the U.S., cheap natural gas is rapidly displacing coal-fired generation. But China can evidently use all the coal it can get its hands on, and companies there are willing to pay a premium.
Yesterday, as I was walking home from the Snohomish County PUD along Hewitt Avenue, I crossed over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail line. Here is what I saw:
I had my camera on for only a few moments, so I didn’t capture all of the coal cars. But each car was filled to the brim and carries about 120 tons of coal. A ton of combusted coal emits 2.86 tons of carbon dioxide. A bit of arithmetic reveals that one carload will yield 343 tons of CO2. A coal train has about 120 to 150 cars. That adds up to between 41,000 and over 57,000 tons of carbon dioxide per train. The proposed terminal at Cherry Point, Wash., would handle about 30 miles of coal trains per day transported by BNSF. (More coal train facts here.)
We may not appreciate that wherever coal is burned all of us will experience the effects of increased carbon dioxide. While coal trains certainly pose an inconvenience for motorists, global warming could render the planet inhabitable for future generations of species, including homo sapiens.
The U.S. imports more oil from Canada than from any other country. Increasingly, that oil is extracted from Alberta shale deposits, and the process is both energy intensive and environmentally destructive. But Canada is hooked on oil and wants to export as much as possible. Existing transnational pipelines are near capacity; thus, the new Keystone XL, which would transport the shale oil to southern U.S. ports. Whether or not the new pipeline is built confronts President Obama. As you can imagine, the politics are as thick as the petroleum goo.
Are most of our northern neighbors in love with their oil and the revenues they bring? Writing for the New York Times, Canadian professor Thomas Homer-Dixon cites a recent poll showing 42 percent of his fellow citizens opposed to the pipeline. However, conservatives rule in Canada, and conservatives not only love the petrodollars, they deny global warming.
The Conservatives have slashed financing for climate science, closed facilities that do research on climate change, told federal government climate scientists not to speak publicly about their work without approval and tried, unsuccessfully, to portray the tar sands industry as environmentally benign.
What will Obama do? My guess is that he will approve the pipeline, notwithstanding his rhetoric on climate change. Sound familiar? Homer-Dixon, however, says that nixing the project “would be a major step toward stopping large-scale environmental destruction, the distortion of Canada’s economy and the erosion of its democracy.”
California is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Ironically it’s happening under a Brown, the son of Pat, who, I would argue, ranks among the top governors of the Golden State. The father helped establish the world’s greatest public education system, employed tens of thousands on massive public works projects, and generally presided over the state’s best years, a period marked by rapid economic growth that enriched millions of lives. I know this because I was there, having attended the schools through Berkeley and worked on the California Aqueduct Project that brought water from the Sierra Nevada to the agricultural fields of the Central Valley and millions of Los Angeles-area residents.
It’s 1992. The scene: Madison Square Garden. The event: the Democratic National Convention. On stage was my 16-year-old daughter seconding the nomination of Jerry Brown for president. Our family sat in the seats beaming, of course. During his acceptance speech, Brown grew suddenly misty, trying to control his emotions as he spoke fondly of his dad, Pat, who lay at home ill. Jerry had big ideas, too, including a Youth Conservation Corps that never got off the ground, though my daughter publicly committed to be part of it should it eventuate.
After two terms as governor himself, Jerry Brown then wandered into a political wilderness, returning as mayor of Oakland then as the state’s attorney general. He’s now in his third term as governor giving effect to more big ideas.
The Pacific Northwest’s Timothy Egan, writing for the New York Times:
The Great Recession cost the state 1.3 million jobs — a huge blow. And when Gov. Jerry Brown was sworn in for a long-interrupted third term in 2011, he inherited a budget hole of $25 billion. He cut spending, while convincing people to raise taxes. “Fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions,” he said, “but the basis for realizing them.”
And the same time, voters elected a Democratic super-majority in the Assembly, assuring that the Party of No would be irrelevant. Brown can crow — for the moment. “Against those who take pleasure singing our demise, California did the impossible.”
Brown is a seasoned visionary, becoming less prickly with age. In a memorable state of the state speech earlier this year, he tied the discovery of gold and the founding of Google to California’s “special destiny.”
The centerpiece of his vision is high-speed rail (also approved by the voters) and re-engineering the water system of the Central Valley to ensure that nature, agriculture and residential growth all have a future, no matter what climate change brings.
I wish the governor well, as well as his father. The state desperately needs Browns at the helm.
I got around to watching a PBS Frontline episode on the Obama administration. It begins with the 2008 campaign, showing us footage of various Obama speeches, and ends with his second inaugural address. If you embrace frustration, watch the program.
A recurring theme of the piece is Obama’s waffling on political strategy. As a candidate he promised bipartisanship, an end to red-vs.-blue America. So he tries it out as president, only to be thoroughly rebuked by the disloyal opposition, intent on just saying no. Obama at first reacts angrily, as if he’s not about to be fooled twice. But evidently he doesn’t like to personally confront or chastise or even mildly criticize either his political opponents or Wall Street bastards. He capitulates—again and again. As his progressive critics have asked, with this pattern of huffing and puffing followed by cowardly retreat, why should anyone take him seriously?
Frontline spent some time on a meeting at the White House called by Obama. He had invited, shall we say, the heads of the country’s largest financial institutions, those who had nearly destroyed the global economy and, but for the massive bailouts, would be in a pauper’s prison. The narrator described the men (no women) as nervous and anxious. In remarks leading up to the meeting, Obama had revealed his outrage over these CEOs who were once again drawing millions of dollars each in annual compensation while the Rest of Us were still struggling with the effects of the financial meltdown. But instead of taking bold action against the banks, such as nationalizing several, he not only let the executives off the hook; he offered them his political support! He had let Timothy Geithner’s cautionary advice trump the counsel of his other economic advisors, including Larry Summers—all of whom had advocated strong measures against the offending financiers. A few months later, Obama paid a visit to Wall Street wherein he pushed reform of its institutions. Conspicuously absent from the speech were the very same bankers. The emperor has no clothes—or teeth.
On major issue after major issue the pattern repeats. As a result, Obama has achieved little of his domestic agenda, settling for either nothing or a mere fraction of his intended objectives.
David Atkins, writing for Hullabaloo, has had enough. On the eve of yet another White House dinner between Obama and his Republican foes, this one to address the federal budget, he sighs:
We could go round the merry-go-round on this one again, but what’s the point? Senate Republicans aren’t about to give ground on anything resembling a reasonable budget that actually addresses the nation’s problems instead of slashing earned benefits to appease the nonexistent Bond Lords. So the President is either hopelessly naive in attempting to woo them or is actually aligned with their anti-entitlements position. There’s plenty of evidence, highlighted on this blog time and again, that the latter is the case.
I share the sentiment, though I hate to say that I’m disappointed. To feel the latter, I had to first believe that Obama was who he said he was. I was taken in by his rhetoric, and shame on me. After all, I’ve read enough Chomsky and Izzy Stone to know better. Lying is what presidents do. Yet, how cheap come our loyalties. A nice speech here and there and we’re hooked. But snookered is more apt.
Alas, the only solace is that Obama is neither Bush nor Romney. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, things could be much worse.