The City is about to pony up $1 million for a "public service" campaign (starring Ray Benson) to educate us about the new water conservation regulations.
Austin, of course, is running a well-publicized budget deficit. Library hours will be cut. City departments will be left understaffed. Our infrastructure will no doubt be starved of investment for yet another year. (How many feet of sidewalk would $1 million buy?) But the City intends to press ahead with its gold-plated advertising campaign.
Because our city leaders insist on conserving water by fiat rather than price, public service campaigns such as this one are an unfortunate necessity. The city refuses to incentivize us to conserve water through rational pricing, so it has to tell us to conserve water. It will cost $1 million to tell us the first time -- and hundreds of thousands per year more for dedicated staff to tell residents one at a time.
What makes the City's refusal to raise prices so idiotic is that if its advertising campaign succeeds, the City is guaranteed to see further declines in revenue. It's simple: If you sell less water at the same price, you get less money. Spending $1 million on a campaign to slice City revenue is a dumb idea any year, but it's especially dumb when we are staring down a big budget deficit.
On the other hand, if the City adopted a rational pricing system -- if it simply raised prices for large water users -- total revenue would actually rise as the City met its conservation goals. And the City could save $1 million on advertising to boot. These silly top-down regulations regulations will cost the City millions of dollars in the end.
The water restrictions are Leffingwell's baby. They are a terrible, wasteful mistake. Leffingwell should demonstrate some political leadership by pushing for a sensible pricing scheme.
I didn't believe it, so I checked my calculations three times: Texas has a weighted density of 3,042 people per square mile. 1,704 of its 4,388 census tracts, or 39%, are denser than this (hundreds are much, much denser). The median census tract has a density of 2,000 ppsm. In 2000, roughly 8.8 million Texans lived at a density of over 3,000 ppsm; roughly 11 million lived at over 2,000 ppsm.
As a benchmark, the Census Bureau uses 1,000 ppsm as the threshold density for urbanized areas. Atlanta's urbanized area has a weighted density of 2,362 ppsm, which means the average Texan -- East Texas farmers and West Texas ranchers included -- lives at a higher density than the average resident of Atlanta's urbanized area.
I guess Texas's standard density of 78 ppsm doesn't quite convey how the average Texan lives.
All data from the 2000 Census.
(My eyes were a little blurry when I wrote this last night. Maybe I'll check my numbers once again.)
There's a lot of buzz over Walk Score, the site that rates neighborhood walkability. Using a Google-sitic algorithm, it first tallies the restaurants, coffee shops and other destinations near a given address and then gives them a numerical weight based on their distance from the address. Neighborhoods with interior retail tend to score high; neighborhoods without interior retail tend to score low.
Walk Score has been around a while, but it has gotten a lot of publicity recently over its "most walkable cities" list. (As Forbes, Men's Health, and Maxim have shown, you can't go wrong with a "top American cities" list.) Austin ranked a mediocre 29th among the 40 largest American cities. Cue anguished nail-biting.
While I agree that Austin is not very walkable, I don't think Walk Score provides a meaningful metric. Take its ranking of Austin's neighborhoods. Downtown and West Campus, not surprisingly, get the top scores, and both are quite walkable. But a neighborhood's Walk Score doesn't really tell you anything about whether the neighborhood is a decent place to walk because it doesn't account for sidewalks, shade, or traffic. Ignoring a neighborhood's urban form can yield some funny ratings.
For example, Walk Score's map of Austin paints the neighborhoods along Research Boulevard a walkable green:
I'm pretty sure no one's walking to the restaurants and strip malls on the 183 frontage roads.
My neighborhood (South Lamar) scores a "somewhat walkable" 61, which sounds low for an older neighborhood just a couple miles from downtown. But it's really too high. None of my neighborhood's three main interior streets -- Clawson, Del Curto, or Thornton -- has a sidewalk. Even if you make it to South Lamar, there is precious little on our side of the street -- and God help you if you want to cross the street. Unless you're walking to Taco Xpress, Walgreen's or the bus stop, you've got slim pickings.
A very nice chart depicting the distribution of U.S. census tracts by density. Just eyeballing it, it looks like most Americans live at a density of 2,500+ ppsm. (The area under the curve represents total U.S. population.)
The tomato growers, not surprisingly, want the U.S. government to compensate them for the havoc it wreaked. To the tune of $100 million. Note that this probably understates the total cost. $100 million is the tomato growers and shippers' estimate of their own damages. The total cost including losses to downstream users, particularly restaurants, is much higher. (I can personally attest that Chipotle lost several lunch sales while it was out of salsa.)
Should the government compensate tomato growers?
I don't think tomato growers have a compelling equitable case. Over the long run, the price of produce ought to reflect the risk of random, FDA-induced scares. Think of FDA as a freak hailstorm or 100-year flood; a portion of the price of produce reflects the cost to growers of self-insuring against government-induced catastrophe. Compensating tomato growers may give them a windfall.
The real case for compensation is that the government needs proper incentives. If it doesn't pay for the damage caused by bogus scares, it has an incentive to over-warn. FDA officials face political punishment for acting too slowly to quell a genuine outbreak, but little sanction other than embarrassment for acting too aggressively. And since FDA has the experts, it is difficult for the public to assess whether it indeed acted too aggressively.
The solution is to have Congress pay compensation on a case-by-case basis. Presumably, FDA officials want to protect their budget, and it is a bad budget-preservation strategy to force your paymasters to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars for your blunders.
Yes, there are problems with this. It is difficult even for Congress to determine when FDA has blundered. And making growers unconditionally responsible for outbreaks gives them an incentive to police their industry. But we don't want to encourage over-policing -- we don't want to pay for too much safety -- and FDA overreactions don't give anyone the right incentives.
Harvard urban economist Ed Glaeser, whose work I often cite, recently touted Houston in a New York Sun column:
New Yorkers are rightly proud of their city's renaissance over the last two decades, but when it comes to growth, Gotham pales beside Houston. Between 2000 and 2007, the New York region grew by just 2.7%, while greater Houston — the country's sixth-largest metropolitan area — grew by 19.4%, expanding to 5.6 million people from 4.7 million.
Houston's great advantage, it turns out, is its ability to provide affordable living for middle-income Americans, something that is increasingly hard to achieve in the Big Apple. That Houston is a middle-class city is mirrored in the nature of its economy. Both greater Houston and Manhattan have about 2 million employees.
In Manhattan, almost 600,000 of them work in the idea-intensive sectors of finance, insurance, and professional services; only 2% are in manufacturing, and fewer than that in construction. Finance increasingly drives New York City's economy as a whole. By contrast, Houston is a manufacturing powerhouse that makes machinery, food products, and electronics, with a retail sector twice the size of Manhattan's and lots of middle-class jobs.
Housing prices are the most important part of Houston's recipe for middle-class affordability. In Gotham, the extraordinarily high housing costs aren't a problem for the hyper-rich. With enough money, you can live in a spacious aerie overlooking Central Park, shop at Barney's, eat at Le Bernardin, and send your children to Brearley or Dalton.
The abundance of poorer immigrant New Yorkers, in turn, tells us that for people simply seeking a lifestyle that beats rural Brazil, the city's many entry level service-sector jobs, wide array of social services, and extensive public transportation can offset high apartment prices.
But what if, like most Americans, you are neither a partner at Goldman Sachs nor a penniless immigrant? Consider an average American family with skills that put them in the middle of the U.S. income distribution — nurses, sales representatives, retail managers — and aspirations to a middle-class lifestyle. What kind of life will such people lead in Houston and New York City, respectively?
The Houston family is effectively 53% richer and solidly in the middle class, with plenty of money for going out to dinner at Applebee's or taking vacations to San Antonio. The family on Staten Island or in Queens is straining constantly to make ends meet.
The permitting process in Manhattan is an arduous, unpredictable, multiyear odyssey involving a dizzying array of regulations, environmental, and other hosts of agencies. A further obstacle: rent control. When other municipalities dropped rent control after World War II, New York clung to it, despite the fact that artificially reduced rents discourage people from building new housing.
Houston, by contrast, has always been gung ho about development. Houston's builders have managed — better than in any other American city — to make the case to the public that restrictions on development will make the city less affordable to the less successful.
But Houston's success shows that a relatively deregulated free-market city, with a powerful urban growth machine, can do a much better job of taking care of middle-income Americans than the more "progressive" big governments of the Northeast and the West Coast.
The right response to Houston's growth is not to stymie it through regulation that would make the city less affordable. It's for other areas, New York included, to cut construction costs and start beating the Sunbelt at its own game.
I was surprised by the harsh reactions to this column. Ryan Avent, one of the best urban-economics bloggers around, called the piece "a lazy, wrongheaded, and deeply ideological thumb of the nose to the rest of us urbanists." (Not all the reactions to Glaeser's piece were negative. Tory Gattis, not surprisingly, liked it.)
I think the negative responses miss Glaeser's point.
I've used "Austin Contrarian" as both the name of this blog and my nom de plume since I began blogging almost two years ago. I've never been after anonymity; anyone could have clicked on the "about me" link at any time and seen that this blog was written by Chris Bradford.
No, it has always been a Google issue. I'm in an adversarial business, and there are plenty of lawyers who Google their opposite. Why, I thought, should I make it easier for them?
Well, screw 'em. I've written about 250 entries; I may have gotten things wrong from time to time, but I haven't written anything that I regret.
A blogger is more credible when he uses his or her name. So I intend to start using mine. I will not re-name this blog. And to avoid confusion and maintain some continuity, I'll continue posting my comments here (and elsewhere) using the "AC" handle. But I'm adding my name to the banner and at the end of my entries.
I will be frantically busy for the next week, so blogging will be light. One last thought before the blackout:
A few months ago, I argued against the very vocal campaign to ban plastic bags in Austin. I argued that the save-landfill-space argument was dumb. I argued that the reduce-petroleum-and-therefore-greenhouse-gases argument was dumb. No one offered a convincing rebuttal, and I still believe these are flimsy arguments at best.
Plastic bags do end up as litter sometimes. But I didn't see any particular reason to treat plastic bags differently than other litter in waiting. If we want to impose a tax on bags to discourage their use, we ought to do the same with fast-food sacks and sandwich wrappers.
That never sat right with me, though. After thinking about this issue in the shower for eight solid months, I've concluded that there is one difference between plastic bags and other forms of litter:
Property owners do not have an incentive to pick up plastic bags.
The main externality from litter is that we have to look at it. Fortunately, property owners usually have an incentive to clean it up. Heavier litter usually stays where it falls. If I find a beer bottle on my property, I will pick it up, because I know it will be there the next day, and the next, and the next.
Plastic bags are different because they will simply blow away. I know that, so even if a plastic bag lands on my property, why take the time to pick it up and put it in the trash (other than altruism)? I won't have to worry about it after the next breeze.
A case in point: About two months after my plastic-bag piece, I spotted a plastic bag stuck in a tree in front of my house. I thought that was funny, so I snapped a picture and posted it. In my excitement, I forgot to pull the bag out of the tree. It occurred to me a few days later that I had never thrown away the bag -- and, of course, by then it was gone. Someone else's problem, I guess.