Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Endorsements: CA Prop. 1A High Speed Rail. & more...

2008 is turning out to be a MASSIVE election. Since I have become old enough to vote, I can't think of another election where SO MUCH has been on the line, in SO MANY places. Here's a quick run-down of the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS.

United States President:

Barack Obama.

Do I need to explain this to anybody? He's the man.


Proposition 1A, High Speed Rail:

California truly can lead the nation if it passes Proposition 1a, by building a world-class high speed rail system to connect all of its major cities with one another. This in turn will probably jump-start a serious national discussion about high speed rail, as Congressional Representatives and Senators seek to bring home some high speed rail action to their own states when California brings up the topic of federal matching funds. Places in the world that already are boosting their economies with High Speed Rail (or planning to) include Mexico, Argentina, China, Taiwan -- oh yeah, and Japan and Western Europe. Not to mention jobs; 160,000 jobs will be directly created as a result of the project, and 450,000 jobs over the long term. That is more jobs than currently exist in the entire state of Alaska.


Measure Q, SMART rail:

Sonoma and Marin counties have voted in the past on the issue of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project. It has always received greater than 50% of the vote, but never yet passed the 66.6% threshold required to raise the sales tax to fund construction of the project. Since the last time it was on the ballot, it has been tweaked to include night and weekend service proposals, as well as perfect the accompanying two-county-long bicycle trail. Several cities on the proposed alignment have already begun focusing their growth around the train stations (which in many cases already exist), including Cloverdale, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Novato and San Rafael. This is the High Speed Rail project-equivalent for the North Bay (at least for Sonoma and Marin counties), and it is equally important for those areas. It will become the transportation centerpiece for these communities, tying them to one another and offering their residents the currently-unavailable option of NOT DRIVING to leave town. And, for those folks that would prefer to see, say, a dedicated-ROW Rapid Bus system: That is not the question on the ballot. This is the chosen technology, this is the proposal that currently has legs, and this is the project that will restore the livability of your communities.



Oregon is currently home to the only remaining Republican United States Senator on the west coast of the lower 48 states, Senator Gordon Smith. He's worse than useless -- he's a rich playboy who owns a frozen-food packing plant, employing illegal aliens to pad his own pockets while doing nothing for federal immigration reform. This is an extremely tight race, so if you're an Oregonian, well, I probably don't need to tell you to be sure and send in your ballot and vote for MERKLEY FOR SENATE!

There are other endorsements I could make (California: Yes on 2, Yes on 5, No on 8), but those are really the MOST CRITICAL ISSUES.

Further, if you're an Oregonian, you already know... but if you're a Californian, I highly recommending registering as an absentee voter, or otherwise securing for yourself the right to vote by mail. I can't tell you how helpful it has been for me to go online and google things as I'm filling out my ballot. Especially for those issues where I had not yet made up my mind prior to seeing the ballot, this is so valuable that I really can't stress it enough.



P.S. A disclaimer, and a special notice. After October 31st, 2008, I will no longer be with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, CA. I have accepted an offer to go join Peter Calthorpe & Associates in north Berkeley, CA as a Senior Planner in their regional planning division. One of my first projects there will be to work on a land use vision for California that is centered around the High Speed Rail project. So, while I will still have a job (and the vision project will continue forward) even if Proposition 1a fails, I would much prefer for my first project at Calthorpe to be relevant. So, tell everybody you know to vote Yes on Prop. 1a... they can do it for me, if for no better reason!!! :-)

Monday, October 06, 2008

Quote of the Week

"I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered."
Thomas Jefferson 1802

Old TJ wasn't specifically talking about our current situation in his warning about banks... not exactly, anyways. The Federal Reserve still controls "the issue of their currency"; but regardless, the banks are involved enough that the children of property owners are waking up homeless on this continent, which our forefathers conquered.

Or, am I overstating the case with regards to the current mortgage catastrophe? Is all of this just a natural part of a healthy market cycle?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Will the election be fairly counted in November 2008?

In states where electronic voting machines will be used with no verifiable paper trail, the answer can only be:


If you have not done so already:


It's the only way to guarantee that your vote will have have verifiable paper trail.

Also, make sure that you vote EARLY, so that your ballot will be counted well before the polls close.

To register as an absentee voter, go to:


You should do this NOW, as voter registration deadlines are pretty much here already -- there's not a minute to waste, if you still need to register as an absentee voter!

Happy voting in 2008!


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Obama-nomics not actually bad for the economy...

Annual rates of employment growth, by president (from Krugman):

Michael Boskin, the chief economic adviser during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, has declared that Obamanomics will be bad for the economy.

It doesn't seem like there could be anything worse for the economy than having a Republican president in office, according to the above bar chart.

When will this country learn that trickle-down economics just does not work? That government spending is real spending in the economy, and public works projects actually do create new, real, good-paying jobs? That running a massive deficit for the federal government is not the healthiest way to run the economy? That spending hundreds of billions of dollars to invade other countries does little or nothing to improve the situation within our own country?

Obama may have his problems. But I don't think that being bad for the economy is one of them.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Will California be the next to go Idaho-Style?

I'm referring, of course, to Idaho's law that allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, and stop lights as stop signs.

Currently, there is a media buzz about something less then a proposal (call it a topic of debate at an obscure committee of an obscure regional government) to perhaps push for a similar law to be passed by the California Legislature, assuming a legislative sponsor and the requisite votes could be found.

First, on Wednesday June 18th (2008) the Examiner kicked off the coverage with the article, Proposal would change rule for bicyclists at stop signs, which scooped every other media outlet on the topic. It also cast a rather critical eye on the subject, claiming that "police said the idea would likely lead to more bicycle-to-car collisions."

The, on Thursday the San Francisco Bay Guardian responded with a much more positive take on the topic in their article/blog post Let's change the bike laws. They lay out a very good rationale for why the law change makes sense, and why it may encounter plenty of opposition even so.

KCBS, the SF Bay Area television station, posted this article on their website, quoting the argument that "they do it already, why not make it legal? (My paraphrasing.)

Following up, SFist put up the post, Cyclists to Legally Run Red Lights?.

The proposal, in its current form (a memo to the Regional Bicycle Working Group by MTC Regional Bicycle Planner Sean Co), was posted by the San Francisco Bay Guardian on their website.

On Friday, the media storm continued. Bronstein from the Chronicle chimed in with his own aghast reaction in the column Should we change the laws for cyclists? The Examiner continued its negative coverage of the issue with not just one but three articles: The article Plan allowing bikes to cruise through intersections is idling, the editorial How to make city traffic worse and the headline for the letters page, To stop and roll, that is the question.

All of this over one presentation at one meeting. If anything, the proposal is attracting attention. What comes next is anyone's guess.

Interestingly, back in May the San Francisco Bay Guardian posted a story on this same topic, The Bike Issue: Don't Stop. And, I had previously blogged on this topic back in February, 2007. Let's hope that the momentum keeps building for this, until we get the law passed in all the West Coast states!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Gas & Diesel Prices Should Be Higher (Like, already $5 a gallon)

I've been watching the recent run-up in gas and diesel prices, and comparing them to the recent run-up in oil prices per barrel, and to me, the numbers don't quite add up.

So, I decided to make a quick spreadsheet to confirm my suspicions. Nothing complicated -- I just took some readings of the oil price, average gas price at the pump and average diesel price at the pump. I did this for winter, spring, summer and fall (January, April, July & October) of 2007 and 2008, and then again for January and May of this year.

For example, in January 2006, the average price of gas (U.S.) was $2.35/gal. The average price of diesel (in Oregon) was $2.41 a gallon. The oil price per barrel was $62.50. This resulted in a ratio of 0.00376:1 for gas, and 0.00386:1 for diesel; that is, the price of a retail gallon of gasoline (including taxes) was 3.76% of the price of a barrel of oil, or 3.86% for a gallon of diesel.

Simple stuff.

In July of 2007, just to give another example, gas was $3.00/gallon (4.14% of a barrel of oil), and diesel was $2.83/gallon (3.90% of a barrel of oil).

Now, however...

In May of 2008, gas is about $3.80/gallon (nationwide U.S. average, your pump price may be considerably higher), and diesel is at an average price of $4.15 (though obviously, it's selling for higher in many places).

That's about 2.86% of the price of a barrel of oil (which just hit $133 yesterday) for gas, and 3.12% for diesel.

The average ratio from January 2006 through January 2008 was 3.80% for gas, 3.97% for diesel.

If we just multiply these numbers by the current price of a barrel of oil, we see that...

Gas SHOULD be selling for $5.05 a gallon, and diesel SHOULD be selling for $5.28 a gallon.

Let me repeat that...


GAS: $5.05/gallon

DIESEL: $5.28/gallon

(Based on what prices SHOULD be, according to historical average ratios of gas & diesel pump prices to the price per barrel of oil over the past two years)

For whatever reason, as far as I know, we haven't seen these average prices anywhere in the country, not even in downtown San Francisco (sure, a couple of stations have already passed the $5 a gallon mark, but not the city as a whole). And that's the most expensive major market in the country, by most measures, when it comes to retail gas prices.

You can quibble with my methodology. This is not a Ph.D. thesis. It's just a back-of-the-envelope calculation.

My prediction? Unless oil prices come down rapidly and steeply, we're going to see pump prices rocket past $5/gallon for both gas and diesel. The only question is when. Next week (after Memorial Day)? Next month? I don't see how the currently-low prices are sustainable.


Oil Prices per Barrel
Gasoline Prices at the Pump
Diesel Prices at the Pump through Feb. 2006
Current Diesel Price

Finally, here's the spreadsheet:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bicycles: Faster than Cars, Even on Freeways

Well, at least, in L.A., during rush hour:


The "Crimanimalz" decided that, to make a point about bicycling in the City of Cars, they needed to take their message -- and their bicycles -- to the freeways. Now, they ride the sinewy ribbons of concrete during rush hour, and get from point A to point B faster on their human-powered two wheels than anybody in their steel coffins with wheels.

How's that for Critical Mass?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Endorsement: Chris Smith for Portland City Council

I'm going to keep this brief, because not everybody reading this blog is in Portland:

Please consider voting for Chris Smith for the Portland City Council, if you are registered to vote in Portland, OR. He's the most qualified for the seat, and with Willamette Weakly endorsing his opponent Amanda Fritz, he will need all the help he can get to be elected.

He's been on the board of Portland Streetcar for ages, and he runs the Portland Transport blog, about improving the quality of transportation in the city. In that arena, he would make a nice complement to a Mayor Sam Adams to provide progressive, visionary leadership for the city.

More info can be had at his web page: http://www.citizensmith.us/.

That's it for my endorsements for this primary, though I am personally against all of the three ballot measures on the ballot. More police-state crap, IMHO.


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

R.I.P. Albert Hofmann, 1906 to 2008

Rest In Peace, Albert Hofmann, 1906 to 2008. The father of LSD. 102 is pretty good for a psychaedelic adventurer:


This interesting little comic tells his story in an easy-to-read way:


Many folks have hypothesized that, without LSD, the modern computer age would never have received the required inspiration. LSD trips directly inspired the creation of, among other things, the computer mouse and the Apple Macintosh, according to this Wired news story: http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/01/70015?currentPage=all.

A further list of celebrities who have used LSD is here: http://www.nndb.com/lists/447/000085192/.

About his discovery, Hofmann once said:

"I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be."

The complete text of his book, _LSD: My problem Child_, can be found here: http://www.psychedelic-library.org/child.htm


Monday, March 10, 2008

Stuff White People Like

This is probably the finest piece of urban anthropology concerning modern North American liberal white culture.

Here's the current list of Stuff White People Like, with my thoughts on each (as a bona-fide white person) of the Top Ten:

1. Coffee. Yup, it's true, white people like coffee. Personally, I went through a period (after starting on Coffee People's Black Forest Mochas -- soy, of cource, and triple) where I drank soy chai (I'm lactose-sensitive, not trying to watch my weight), and then for a while I drank yerba mate. But, now I have an espresso machine & grinder at home, and roast my own beans to make my own cappuccinos -- with hemp milk, 'cuz it froths better than soy. I still drink yerba mate in the afternoons, though. And yeah, as a guy I don't really admit to drinking coffee, but for a different reason -- I only drink soy/hemp cappuccinos, not straight coffee... for the most part. :-)

2. Religions that their parents don't belong to. Hmm, I think this may apply to Baby Boomers more than Gen X or Gen Y, given than mainly this applies to a drift away from traditional church-based Christianity, and once that drift has occurred, I'm not sure that successive generations really pursue the matter in a manner different from their parents.

3. Film Festivals. Yup, white people do seem to enjoy film festivals -- either in their own town, or somewhere else if they are satisfied with the local one(s).

4. Assists. For a minute, I thought the author was going to get homoerotic with this one, but no -- they were talking about sports, and claiming that white guys like to pass in basketball 'cuz they generally have a problem with dunking, and also are trying to make up for slavery.

Ooooooooooookay. Sure, whatever. I guess I'll buy that.

5. Farmers Markets. Yeah, white people dig these. Organic farmers markets, even better. With a pub serving microbrews nearby -- perfect!!

6. Organic Food. See above -- take anything, offer an organic version of it, and automatically you can charge a higher price and white people will gladly pay it. Paul Newman figured this out with Oreos (Newman-O's!) and he's been making money hand over fist ever since (but x% goes to charity!). Personally, I think that Whole Foods is just the only organic food option that most white people have, and they rave about it because it's better than Safeway. They like that it sells all kinds of organic stuff. If they had a better alternative (i.e. more local, less corporate), they'd shop there, but they don't, so they go to Whole Foods.

7. Diversity. But only, apparently, as it relates to restaurants (and definitely not when it refers to the drivers of the other cars in the same traffic jam as them). Ethnic food is great, and white people realize this. The same food all the time can get old. So, it's a constant juggle between Mexican food (burritos), Thai food, Japanese food, Chinese food (but only in a pinch -- this is a kind of second-rate ethnic food, mainly due to concerns about MSG and general lack of perceived quality), and if you're in a really diverse place

8. Barack Obama. Unless, of course, they prefer one of the white people running for that job. But, point taken -- white guilt might be the root cause of some of Barack's support.

9. Making you feel bad about not going outside. Yeah, as a white person, I always wonder -- why don't I see more black people (specifically) out hiking, camping or generally doing those back-to-nature types of activities? Do they just not get the general feeling of urban oppression and drive to spend some time in the forest? Is there some other explanation, like they really would just prefer to sit at home, watch sports, drink beer and play video games?

10.Wes Anderson movies. These movies, i.e. _The Royal Tenenbaums_ or _The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou_, do seem to be a staple of current White Person culture. Personally, I liked the latter, but found the former to be a bit tedious and even boring at times. Whatever, they're just movies. Mindless entertainment. I much preferred _American Beauty_ in terms of being a message movie (message being, living in the suburbs and pursuing the classic vision of the American Dream is not all it's cracked up to be -- look, here's the dark side, or what really goes on).

Anyways, I just had to share this link, and my thoughts. Nice to have a meta moment with relation to the dominant urban liberal white culture, eh?


P.S. For those who don't wanna click, here's the full list:

#1 Coffee
#2 Religions their parents don’t belong to
#3 Film Festivals
#4 Assists
#5 Farmer’s Markets
#6 Organic Food
#7 Diversity
#8 Barack Obama
#9 Making you feel bad about not going outside
#10 Wes Anderson Movies
#11 Asian Girls
#12 Non-Profit Organizations
#13 Tea
#14 Having Black Friends
#15 Yoga
#16 Gifted Children
#17 Hating their Parents
#18 Awareness
#19 Traveling
#20 Being an expert on YOUR culture
#21 Writers Workshops
#22 Having Two Last Names
#23 Microbreweries
#24 Wine
#25 David Sedaris
#26 Manhattan (now Brooklyn too!)
#27 Marathons
#28 Not having a TV
#29 80s Night
#30 Wrigley Field
#31 Snowboarding
#32 Vegan/Vegetarianism
#33 Marijuana
#34 Architecture
#35 The Daily Show/Colbert Report
#36 Breakfast Places
#37 Renovations
#38 Arrested Development
#39 Netflix
#40 Apple Products
#41 Indie Music
#42 Sushi
#43 Plays
#44 Public Radio
#45 Asian Fusion Food
#46 The Sunday New York Times
#47 Arts Degrees
#48 Whole Foods and Grocery Co-ops
#49 Vintage
#50 Irony
#51 Living by the Water
#52 Sarah Silverman
#53 Dogs
#54 Kitchen Gadgets
#55 Apologies
#56 Lawyers
#57 Juno
#58 Japan
#59 Natural Medicine
#60 Toyota Prius
#61 Bicycles
#62 Knowing What’s Best for Poor People
#63 Expensive Sandwiches
#64 Recycling
#65 Co-Ed Sports
#66 Divorce
#67 Standing Still at Concerts
#68 Michel Gondry
#69 Mos Def
#70 Difficult Breakups
#71 Being the only white person around
#72 Study Abroad
#73 Gentrification
#74 Oscar Parties
#75 Threatening to Move to Canada
#76 Bottles of Water
#77 Musical Comedy
#78 Multilingual Children
#79 Modern Furniture
#80 The Idea of Soccer
#81 Graduate School
#82 Hating Corporations
#83 Bad Memories of High School
#84 T-Shirts
#85 The Wire

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Great, so now bicyclists=terrorists?

Yeesh, sometimes the guv'mnt will stop at nothing to seek ways to terrorize bicyclists:


Because they had video of a bicyclist near the military recruiting center in Times Square that was bombed at 3am, they were stopping bicyclists for questioning who were riding through Times Square during the morning commute?

How much sense does that make?

If they had seen a car near the bombing at 3am, would they be stopping cars driving through Times Square during the morning commute?


Cops are idiots.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

R.I.P. Sheldon Brown (July 14, 1944 - February 3, 2008)

OK, I know, every bicycling blog, organization or spammer on the planet has already beat me to the punch with a report, commentary or diatribe related the passing last weekend of the late, great Sheldon Brown into the great bicycle track in the sky.

But, as you regular readers of Underground Science (all three of you -- you know who you are) know, this blog is not the place to look for the scoop, for late-breaking news, or for information found here first and nowhere else.

Nope, Underground Science prides itself on getting the dirt to you last, or at least, well after some other folks have already posted on it about a thousand times. We like to be an entertaining and moderately useful secondary source. You can keep your primary sources in your a href tags, thank you very much!

So, in that spirit, I present to you some of my favorite aspects of the Sheldon Brown website.

First off, he was a pioneer in many fields of bicycling... including, as you may have noticed from the title photo of this post, riding a tandem solo, from the rear seat. He, in fact, built many tandems by combining two separate bicycles into one, and describes how to do so here. As he says, "If you are not already a tinkerer who can fix most anything that can go wrong with a bike, you are not ready to build a tandem. This design is best suited to teams with small stokers, because a large or even medium-sized stoker will likely feel cramped by the short rear top tube. In addition, the single-bicycle parts may not give good service with a heavy team."

He goes over in detail why you would want to do such a thing in the first place (ride a tandem, that is):

Why Ride A Tandem?

Riding a normal, single-rider bicycle is a very rewarding experience, but a tandem bicycle adds a whole new dimension to cycling. Different tandemists choose the long bike for different reasons:

* A tandem allows two cyclists of differing strength and ability to ride together, pleausurably. The faster rider doesn't need to wait for the slower one; the slower rider doesn't need to struggle to try to keep up with the faster rider.

* A tandem turns the basically solitary, individualistic activity of cycling into an mutual experience that may be shared by a couple.

* A tandem allows handicapped people who couldn't otherwise ride a bicycle to share in the joy of cycling.

* A tandem can allow a parent to share cycling at an adult level of speed and distance with a child.

* A tandem is the ultimate rush for cyclists who enjoy the sensation of high-speed cycling.

Whatever your reason for choosing (or considering) a tandem, this article will attempt to cover some of the things that every tandemist should learn.

Sheldon also was a huge advocate of fixed-gear bicycles, as well as fixed-gear tandems! And, as an experienced tandem Captain, he is well aware that a tandem is, in fact, a bicycle ridden by _two_ people:

The rear rider is commonly known as the "stoker." Other names for the rear rider include "navigator", "tailgunner" and "rear admiral" or "R.A." The rear rider is not a "passenger", but is an equal participant. The stoker has two main responsibilities:

* The stoker serves mainly as a motor. Since the stoker is not called upon to control the bike, this rider should be able to actually generate more power than the same rider would on a single bike. Depending on the strength and endurance of the stoker, this may take the form of a steady output or may be held in reserve. If the stoker is acting as a "reserve," it is OK to take it easy for general cruising, so long as the stoker can help out with a burst of power for the climbs. Since starting up on a tandem is a bit trickier than on a single, the stoker should apply as much smooth power as possble when starting up, to get the bike up to maneuvering speed quickly.

* The stoker's other major responsibility is a negative one: The stoker must not attempt to steer! Unpredictable weight shifts on the part of the stoker can make the captain's job much harder, and can lead to crashes, in extreme cases. The stoker should keep in line with the centerline of the bicycle, and lean with it as it leans through corners. When the stoker needs to shift position on the saddle, or adjust a toe strap, or take a drink, it is vital that they do so without disturbing the equilibrium of the bicycle. These activities should not be attempted at all while the captain is dealing with tricky traffic situations or narrow spaces.

The stoker can also do a bit of back rubbing now and then, as well as taking photograhs, singing encouraging songs, reading maps, etc.

He also includes advice on starting from a dead stop on a tandem, including "common incorrect techniques," including "The Cowboy Mount, which involves standing next to the bike, putting one foot on a pedal, then swinging the other leg over the saddle while the bicycle is in motion. Try this on a tandem, and you'll kick your stoker in the head!"

Sheldon Brown's most prized innovations often were released on April 1st. Since that's a little ways off, however, I'd like to present some of my favorites here...

If you've got a tandem, you might be tempted to ride it for a long while. Perhaps even overnight. But, you've already got the weight of two people on the bike. Why add extra stuff? Go credit-card touring! And if you do so, you might want to use Sheldon Brown's extra-light drilled-titanium credit card.

But, say you've got a baby... not a kid, but an actual baby, much too small to hide away in a trailer, much less plop on a seat and expect it to pedal. Then, you'd need a carrababy, to allow you to comfortably carry your child on the bicycle.

And finally, if adding a stoker to the back of your bicycle (by home-building a single-speed rear tandem addition onto it, of course) doesn't quite give you the speed increase you desire, if you travel mainly in north/south directions, you could use a Geomagnetic Booster device!

Rest in peace, Sheldon. You will be missed. Especially on April 1st. :-)


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Fat Tuesday

Happy Super Fat Tuesday!

(Shouldn't need to explain it, but -- it's Super Tuesday, with primaries in ~24 states, as well as Fat Tuesday, which I will freely admit I know nothing about except that it's somehow associated with Mardi Gras and New Orleans. And, I dunno, probably Catholicism or something. I'm not going to even bother Googling it. Just tell me if you really want me to know.)

As an Oregonian reporting from the San Francisco Bay Area today, I've got a rather unique perspective to offer, I think. My day started off by hearing Senator Obama on the KFOG morning show (interview is archived here: http://media.kfog.com/kfog/barack_ms0208.mp3)... and finding out that all of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead turned out last night to do a benefit concert for him!

So, first the entire Kennedy clan (including California's first lady, the wife of the guvernator) -- then the Dead?

What's next, the Dead Kennedys?


I've been asking everyone I talk to how they voted, or intend to vote. It seems to be about nine-to-one in favor of Obama.... now, that's of course a very slanted sample, but even a few weeks ago, a lot of people were on the fence. Now, they've decided... and some of them have been huge surprises to me! (Like my buddy, whom I thought was a Libertarian... but who told me that, in all reality, he's not a member of any organized political party. He's a Democrat -- to quote Will Rogers.)

Personally -- I'm an Oregonian, I don't vote until June. Not my horse race today.

But I do think it's interesting how much momentum Obama is picking up.

It reminds me of the time that Bill Clinton and Al Gore came to Portland for a rally in Pioneer Courthouse Square. I was in school then, and a bunch of us got excused from class to go down and check out the rally (hey, we were MLC'ers). It was the biggest... celebration... that I'd ever been a part of. People were so exuberant to have the opportunity to shake the hands of either of those great men! They were absolutely ecstatic about them coming to Portland, and appearing for free in Pioneer Square for everybody to meet & hear them! Especially after twelve years of Reagan/Bush (this must have been in 92...), it was so cathartic.

Maybe Obama has the charisma to bring about times like those again -- times of optimism and hope for the future, under a responsible new president who really inspires people to believe that he will make a change for the better. And maybe that's more important than Clinton's much-vaunted foreign policy and domestic policy skills. I don't know, but I do know that I'm very excited to find out what the results are of the elections today!

Yes, Obama's health plan is not as good as the Edwards plan, which Clinton basically copied. However, there's a good case to be made that if Obama is elected, Clinton may become Majority Leader in the Senate, so her health care plan could be the one that gets enacted after all, following the sausage-making of the legislative process. And I don't think that Obama would go so far as to veto over the details in a health care proposal.

So, as much as Krugman has been spilling ink (and bits) to poke holes in Obama's health care and other domestic policies (Social Security, etc.)... and I don't dispute that he's right... I don't think this election should be confined to one issue. And maybe hope, optimism and change really should count and be defining characteristics, as long as positions on the issues aren't absolute deal-breakers?

I'll conclude with a quote:

Clinton's great successes, the ones he and his wife tout on the campaign trail, were really the fulfillment of Reagan's principles. It was Clinton, after all, who declared, "The era of big government is over," and was able to back that up with actual decreases in the size of government. It was Clinton who actually balanced the budget, who reformed welfare. Reagan set the politics; Clinton played the steward. This is not, it should be said, an attack against Clinton. He governed in a difficult ideological atmosphere—in Reagan's America, not his own. And in Reagan's America, Newt Gingrich and his followers were intent on enacting a far crueler version of Reaganism. Clinton, sensing their threat, smartly co-opted their principles and refashioned them as part of a relatively progressive and unquestionably compassionate agenda. In doing so, he succeeded in making some admirable policy advances (the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a rise in the minimum wage, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit) and staving off their most dangerous initiatives.

Hillary Clinton, similarly, means to govern within the ideological confines of the moment and to tirelessly work to implement better policy. Happily, compared to 1992, it is a moment more amenable to the progressive agenda, largely thanks to George W. Bush's eight-year project to discredit conservatism. (As John Kenneth Galbraith once said, "liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are painfully aware of the alternative.") A talented bureaucratic leader may prove best able to press the advantage and transform sentiment into substance. And Clinton is, by all accounts, exactly that. Her understanding of the bureaucracy is deep, and her command of the relevant policy is masterful. Given the circumstances, she will push, with savvy and determination, for the best policies possible.

But she largely accepts the circumstances, or at least her inability to change them through the application of her own charisma. Obama, by contrast, focuses more on changing the circumstances in which the legislation is made. The promise of his presidency is less its capacity to change our policies than its capacity to change our politics. He is the more likely to address, forcefully and eloquently, a culture that accepts grotesque CEO pay and rampant inequality. She is more likely to push workable solutions aimed at curbing those blights. She promises to ride the bureaucracy; he promises to drive the mood. He promises to replace Reagan's vision of an individualistic economy with the progressive dream of an interconnected economy; she promises to work tirelessly to redress the inequities of our current economy. She promises to care for our economy; he promises to change its values. She wants to be the more liberal Clinton; he wants to be remembered as the progressive Reagan. To choose between them requires not so much an analysis of their policies as a judgment call on our politics. It requires deciding whether our country needs a talented steward or a visionary.
(from Ezra Klein's post today.)

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Housing Bubble and New Urbanism

There has been a lot of ink spilled (and bits, er, sent) over the housing bubble in the past few years. Paul Krugman famously pointed out that this bubble had two dimensions: 1) The Zoned Zone -- Coastal America, consisting of places like Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Boston, and 2) Flatland -- the rest of America. The bubble largely is a phenomenon of The Zoned Zone dragging up the averages of the rest of the country, supposedly.

However, as the "Hissing Sound" gets louder, as the bubble deflates/pops/continues in time, it is becoming apparent that there is also a second dichotomy at work, within The Zoned Zone: Urban Centers/Urban Places vs. non-transit-served suburbs & exurbs. One recent opinion pieces asks if this is the End of Sprawl?

So, this is a question, for Professor Krugman and others who study this issue: What does this mean on a macroeconomic level for the national economy, the housing bubble and the building industry? Do proposals for "fixing" the bubble problem need to take into account such an urban/suburban dichotomy?

Specifically, if the central cities of San Francisco, Portland, New York, etc. can weather a burst in the housing bubble without sustaining too much damage, but if their non-transit-served suburbs will take the hardest hits, what does this mean for policy fixes? That is, there seem to be portions of the Zoned Zone that actually have characteristics of the Flatlands, i.e. plenty of housing was built and built and built, sprawling further and further away from the central cities, but the market characteristics of these places, influenced by their proximity to the Zoned Zone, experienced the same bubble-esque excesses.

Krugman points out that metropolitan areas like Los Angeles are experiencing housing bubbles larger than anything we've previously seen. Yet, within the San Francisco Bay Area at least, there is a wide disparity between places like Fairfield, where prices have fallen more than 20% already, and San Francisco, where prices are holding steadier (only falling 6% to 7% thus far). But even within the City of San Francisco, there are actually two housing markets -- one which consists of walkable urban neighborhoods served by high-quality transit (er, I mean, MUNI and BART), and the other, more suburban neighborhoods. And the more suburban part of San Francisco is also seeing 15%+ drops in home prices.

According to the NY Times, there are now more than 2.1 million vacant, unsold homes in the United States, representing 2.6% of the national housing stock -- apparently, a higher number than was ever seen during the housing crunches of the early 1980s or 1990s. But how much of this vacant housing stock is suburban in nature, and how much is located in more walkable urban areas served by high quality transit?

Do the suburbs themselves need to be re-tooled and rebuilt to allow their residents to live in homes that can be competitive on the housing market again? Is there a way to save the suburbs and exurbs?

If so, does this mean that, as a nation, we need to look at rebuilding our suburbs more along the lines of New Urbanism principles, specifically ensuring that, say, 90% of all residences are within walking distance of a neighborhood retail center (and thus can pass the "quart of milk" test, i.e. their residents can wake up in the morning and walk to a nearby store for a quart of milk without too much hardship before breakfast), and are served by high-quality transit that provides a true alternative to driving for some trips?

Should we look into re-building our country to be more like the image of post-war Britain, circa 1955, depicted in this video about bicycle excursions by train? With communities that do not intrude too much on the countryside, that are within bicycling distance of rail service connecting to the major cities, that offer economies sufficiently self-contained that they are not completely reliant on cheap fuel for their automobiles to keep their housing prices competitive?

I'm not arguing that there is no housing bubble for the central cities, the walkable places with good transit. However, currently Seattle and Portland are the only cities in the United States to not yet experience a fall in their housing prices over the past 1-year period. And even these cities are now seeing month-to-month housing price declines, though still of less than 1%. What I am saying, however, is that it is likely that central Portland will retain more value than, say, suburban Wilsonville or Salem; that central Seattle will retain more value than, say, Bellingham; and that central San Francisco will retain more value than, say, Fairfield. And this is because, as fuel prices rise, the Baby Boomers age and retire, and people have fewer children, more folks will want to live in walkable places where they don't have to drive for every trip, and fewer are going to want to be isolated in suburbs where the automobile is their only mode choice for just about every journey.

And I'm asking, what does this mean for the future? How should we plan to deal with this? What policy implications might it have?