Thursday, April 19, 2007

We bring you ... order!

One phrase that keeps coming up at planning meetings and council meetings and board of supervisor meetings, and in propaganda from the various ministries is "orderly growth." The way it's usually used is "the purpose of the ordinance (or zoning or the commission) is to encourage 'orderly growth' in the community." Every time I hear that, I want to jump up and ask them what in the hell that is.

Well, now at least we have a clue. Here's a story about "orderly growth's" evil and opposite twin, "haphazard growth!"

In fact, the reporter tells us this is an "object lesson" in haphazard growth. Theme alert: notice the words 20th century and growth patterns mentioned? The narrative of that theme goes something like this: All these GI's came home from WWII and they "needed a place to live" so crafty fellows like Levitt built these terrible little cheap boxes scattered hither and yon and thus condemned a generation to an existence in suburban banality and sprawling isolation. A lot of newspaper editors repeat this tale a lot. Perhaps to convince us of something. Personally, I don't buy it but that's another story. For more reading about 'the burbs' and how "sprawl" might actually improve our lives, read David Brook's On Paradise Drive.

Far from condemning past haphazard "building out" of Sacramento, this story is an object lesson in how poorly these planning commission make decisions. Or, at least how much worse the decisions made by commissions is than the choices freely made by individuals.

Notice another theme: Sacramento "build out?" Does Sacramento build things? Or do people build things?

We're being told that this little strip of land has been "blighted" and unused because "no one ever bothered to change the zoning..." Well, who exactly was responsible to decide what should be there? Doesn't someone own this land? Is the owner happy with it? Does the owner want to sell it? We'll get back to that.

The rest of this article is the same song and dance about "housing prices" and some ad copy from the house builder. (1,350 to 1,765 square feet!... priced from the low $200,000s to the mid-$300,000s!)

We are told, eleven of the "units" will be "sold below market rates?" Doesn't anyone notice that's technically impossible? Whatever you sell something for is the market. What they mean, but don't want to say is they are going to use money taken from you (taxes) to purchase the "units." It makes the developer sound a lot nicer, like they are giving something away to the poor -- like a charity, to phrase it they way they did. But what they are really doing is taking from you to enrich themselves. In other words, they sell the house for full market price except that the poor person pays some of it, and you the taxpayer pays the rest of the cost. Either way, the developer gets his full profit. That sounds a lot different than the way it's presented in The Bee story, doesn't it? The Bee reporter makes it sound like the developer is some kind of humanitarian who's giving away houses to the poor at lower cost. Interesting how propaganda works, isn't it?

Let me get back to the main idea here, and I don't think I've explained it too well. What is wrong with this idea of "haphazard growth" vs. "orderly growth." The Bee article implies the assumed party line, that "haphazard growth" is bad and what causes "haphazard growth" is that old post-war idea that you should just be free to build where you want. In other words, see how bad things were before there was a planning commission to tell you where to build a house and what you can do with your own land? You see, we are told, back in the olden days, evil or dumb people would just selfishly build things on their land where they wanted. And see what problems this causes?

Except that all this "haphazardness" was caused by government regulation, not choices in the free market. The article admits it's the "zoning regulation" that was the problem. But they never ask the obvious question, why do we even need a zoning regulation? What would happen if there was no such thing? Heresy you say? Do you know there are places, including some major cities in the U.S. that don't have any "zoning?" And, surprisingly, the "patterns of build out" turn out to be just about the same, or better than the "planned and orderly" growth dictated by a commission. (Example, Dallas/Ft. Worth Texas). Still don't believe it? Then how was just about the entire nation built without zoning boards? The first zoning laws didn't appear until the early 20th century and weren't widespread till just a few decades ago.

The answer is that the free market, i.e. choices made by individual people looking out for their best interests results paradoxically in what is best for the entire community. (See "Adam Smith")

I'll just leave you with this to think about. In all the words in that article, why isn't one simple question answered? Who owns this land?

Why isn't that even worth mentioning? You'd think that was the single most important fact of the entire story. What does this tell us about land use policy and political influence for fun and profit?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Newspapers echo party line, ignore contrary evidence

Why is it that nearly every news story just repeats the party line? This one isn't the only story like this. In fact, I've met Paul Burgarino a few times and he's really trying hard. I like that. But it seems like he was simply overwhelmed by the number of spokesmen the city provided (they have an unlimited number -- they are paid to say what they are told to say) and how each one spouted the identical line like it was a mantra: "It's not about money, it's for your safety... etc." But no matter how many city workers step up to the microphone and make the same assertions, this doesn't tell us anything unless we ask for any evidence that any of these claims are actually true. Isn't it obvious that they aren't "informing" the populace, they are "selling us" on the idea. Heck, at least the citizen critics who spoke at the city council meeting had different opinions, suggesting that they are thinking for themselves. But the government spokesmen and the vendor don't vary from their reality defying insistence what we say is true no matter what the evidence shows.

Maybe I'm asking for too much. After all, check out this story from the Washington Post: Red-Light Cameras Fail to Reduce Accidents. It's no different. Even faced with the numbers and three independent traffic experts saying without the slightest doubt the data clearly show that the red light cameras cause more traffic accidents, the chief of police simply asserts they make us safer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Red light camera supplier determines we should buy their product

Unknown to most in Manteca, Redflex Inc. set up cameras to "survey" some intersections in Manteca. They wanted to determine if there were enough red light violations to make installing a "red light camera" system feasible.

Redflex is the company that contracts with Modesto and Stockton to supply their red light camera systems.

After videotaping various intersections in Manteca. The company that profits from the installation of their red light cameras came to the none too surprising conclusion: By Jove! You need to purchase our product! Lives are at stake!

Doesn't this sound a little suspicious to anyone?

My guess is that the guys who drive around servicing the cameras were going from Modesto to Stockton and noticed that Manteca was right in between, they probably figured wouldn't it be great if we could set up some of these red light cash generating machines in Manteca.

A lot has been written about red light cameras, and I'm not going to repeat all those words here. Like a lot of things, I'm sure neither side of the issue is the absolute truth. Here you can read the various comments yourself.

The best report on the issue is a massive five part series by Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard. This report can be summed up:
Red-light cameras are ... coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought.

This report was "blasted" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which
represents the interests of the auto insurance industry. The IIHS simply asserts that
all the critics are "not scientific." For example, they criticise the Labash data as
"unreliable" and say things like his data shows some accident rates going up
after the installation of red light cameras -- and since "we know this can't
possibly be true" those studies should be disregarded. In other words, to the
Insurance Institute, only data or studies that support their position can
possibly be considered "true." hmm. I should point out that the IIHS represents the
companies that sell automobile insurance. And since the premiums
insurance companies can charge is regulated, each red light ticket permits them
to charge more for auto insurance. Red light cameras are a cash cow for the
insurance companies -- regardless of their effectiveness.

Some of the "studies" that show positive effects were done at the same time the State of California increased the fines for red light violations from $104 to $271. But the IIHS attributes the decrease in red light running to the product they help sell. They can't explain how red light running decreased by about the same amount at
intersections where there was no cameras installed. Sometimes they pull out the
term "spillover effect." Maybe. But the effect was seen all over the state.
That's some major "spillover!"

Actually, I am repeating some of what was written on the subject. But if you take the time to study the subject, you'll be struck by the overall lack of data, one way or another. This is acknowledged in one of the few semi-scientific studies done by the federal DOT.

Note how this study talks about "the paucity of definitive studies..." Other points from this study:

  • Crash effects detected were consistent in direction with those found in many previous studies: decreased right-angle crashes and increased rear end ones.

  • There were weak indications of a spillover effect that point to a need for a more definitive ... study of this issue.

  • ... estimates of the safety effect ... vary considerably. The bulk of the results appear to support a conclusion that red light cameras reduce right-angle crashes and could increase rear end crashes; however, most of the studies are tainted by methodological difficulties that would render useless any conclusions from them.

  • Check out the tables of costs. They attempt to put a dollar value on each type of accident, and more or less decide that that since the side impact crashes cost more, even though the rear end crashes are increased there's a marginal benefit. That's reassuring. Except that this analysis depends on carefully choosing which accidents to "count."

  • The DOT study revealed one other negative effect that no one had detected before. Paradoxically, they found that although right angle crashes were decreased, those that did occur were more serious. The conclusions of this study are tempered with the caution that they may not be valid if "the statistically non-significant shift to slightly more severe angle crashes remaining after treatment is, in fact, real." "Non-significant" is a statistical term that means there wasn't good enough data to tell if this increase in severity of the accidents was just "a fluke" or if it was real.

There were a few other points I wanted to bring up at the meeting, but didn't get to them with the time constraints:

  • What about people driving around without licenses? The local scandal sheet says about 40% or more in Manteca don't seem to have valid "papers." I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, isn't it a little unfair to send violations to the legal people with valid license and registration and let the illegal drivers off the hook? That's what, in effect, the red light camera program would do.

  • This type of program is open to abuse. The pictures taken by the cameras are collected and sorted by this private company. The company sends the ones they like to the police department for further review. All this is done in secret, there's no independent record or audit of what pictures have been taken. So, we must trust that if the mayor's son is snapped going through the light that it will be treated just the same as a picture of one of the politically unpopular people. Bear in mind, the pictures are viewed, the license plates are run, the owner or driver is identified -- all this before anyone outside the police dept or the company knows about the existence of the photograph.

  • Manteca people will now be vulnerable to more fraud schemes. Already, there are scam artists sending out fake "violation" letters to people who live in cities with these cameras. The letters look official, they demand payment, except that the payments go to a post office box in some mail drop. People in Manteca and in the San Joaquin County are already getting deluged with fraud attempts -- this has been noted in several of the local newspapers. (examples: Bank fraud schemes and money from Nigerian diplomats and fake checks with instructions to wire funds and "keep" some of the money, etc.) The presence of the red light cameras will open up a new opportunity for fraud that affects the poor and old most. You can read about one such case here. Notice how authentic this fraud looked, and how many people people were defrauded even though the letter was "sloppy." It's only a matter of time before these letters get better. If fact, the extent of this red light camera fraud may not be known. This is hinted at in the article in the The San Bernardino Press-Enterprise. Notice the police didn't want to identify the suspect. This suggest this case was just part of a larger network of fraud or that there are others doing the same thing (the police didn't want to tip off the fraudsters.)

On the plus side, the council did ask some tough questions during the meeting. They didn't sound 100% convinced. Councilman Hernandez is commended for voting against the step toward the red light cameras. Also, contrary to the press reports, it's not a forgone conclusion. There is still another public hearing on the issue and I think some other council actions needed to actually implement the red light camera scheme. I'm hoping that maybe after thinking about it some more, the council will decide against this questionable program that promises so much, costs so much, and gives so little benefit.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

We have to pay businesses to open stores here?

A few months ago, we were told the "Lifestyle Mall" was going to be paying us. (Lifestyle mall paying special tax, October 16, 2006). Now, just a few months later, and after the election that asked for the taxes to be raised, we find out (funny thing) actually we will be paying them. Evidently, the Bass Pro Shop didn't like the idea that the sales tax in Manteca is the highest in San Joaquin County.

It's it curious the way the headlines before the election told us how we don't have a penny to spare, there's not enough money for the police and fire departments, and developers have to pay special extra taxes.

Now we find out the city was planning to pay the mall project developers about $1.7 million a year in the form of a "rebate" of the sales tax! Surprise!

By the way, this was pushed through the city council so fast that if you went on vacation on Friday two weeks ago, and came back last Monday, you would have missed it. That's right, it was announced three days before the Monday night regular meeting (the minimum time required by law) and then passed with the second reading the next Monday at 9am, again the minimum time required. (Actually, five days is the minimum but that would have been on the weekend.)

Imagine spending as much money as was spent on the "Big League Dreams" ballpark and introducing the idea and passing it all within a week! The public debate over the Big League Dreams project took years. (Maybe that's what they were trying to avoid?)

I asked the mayor and council about this and how long they knew about the plan to pay the mall developer $61.7 million. The mayor said they'd been working on it in secret closed session, for "what, like two and a half years?"

In other words, they knew they were planning to give this huge gift to the mall developer before the election. While they were telling us how poor the city was, and begging people to please vote for the new sales tax and how critical it was to your children's safety, etc. -- they were secretly planning to give nearly half of the money collected by the new tax to this wealthy developer!

There's no way that anyone would have voted for the new tax if they knew half of it was going to be given away to "entice" a Bass Pro Shop to move here.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

It's not that I have anything against local businesses...

In answer to the question why don't I feel an obligation to buy things in Manteca (now that the sales tax has gone up) -- what I actually told the reporter was that I didn't feel an obligation to buy things in Manteca because the business people in Manteca are smart, educated people and they, of all people, should have opposed the new sales tax. But they didn't. Maybe they were frightened, bamboozled, or intimidated, who knows why. (This is was partly quoted in the Tri-Valley Herald, but they left off the last part about the reason why.)

Council Comment links

You might be wondering what were those two articles I mentioned at the city council meeting.

The first was an article in Reason that talked about how the Bass Pro Shop is one of the big abusers of public money. They threaten cities with not moving there and they play one city off the other, demanding tax money (your money) just to open a store in your community. That story is here.

The other reference was to the wonderful essay on (don't laugh) economics. No, economics is not just boring numbers -- it's the fascinating story of human beings and why they do what they do. The story here is told from the perspective of a simple pencil, called I...Pencil. The entire essay by Leonard Read, with a forward by Milton Friedman can be found at the Foundation for Economic Education, the link is here.