Monday, December 19, 2016

Harder Living with Technology

If you want to see how badly America has misused technology, compare these two videos, one showing parents causing a massive traffic jam when they drop off their children at school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the other showing children arriving at school in the Netherlands.

Notice that the parents in Charlotte start dropping off children before 7 AM. There are school buses, but most parents think they arrive too early, so they drop off their children on the way to work. Presumably, these children are on an early schedule, so most get home long before their parents get back from work and spend the afternoon alone.

The parents obviously have long work days, since they begin their commutes before 7 AM. So many parents line up to drop off children that they spill out of the school grounds and onto the highway, slowing down everyone's commute.


In the Dutch school, by contrast, the students arrive by bicycle, so they don't create traffic jams and don't have to wait in backed-up traffic. Parents don't have to do the extra work of chauffering children, because the children can get around on their own.


To the inconvenience shown in the Charlotte video, add the fact that American work hours are 25% longer than Dutch work hours, on the average. Dutch employees have the right to choose their own work hours, and about half of them choose to work part-time. They can afford to choose shorter hours partly because they bicycle and don't waste money on auto-dependency.

Americans don't have these choices. Most Americans do not have the option of walking and bicycling. Most Americans can't get a decent job unless they are willing to work full-time. And most Americans need to work full time to support a way of life of high consumption and low satisfaction. It is as if we were deliberately trying to make life harder and not giving people the choice of making it easier.

In the video of Charlotte, you can see that there are no sidewalks, no bike paths, and no neighborhood streets near the school where it is safe to walk. Whether you like it or not, the only way to get around is to drive.

Thanks to Angie Schmitt of streetsblog.org for posting the video of Charlotte.  

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Trump Wins. The World Loses.

Our country is about to become a rogue state - the only major nation in the world that is not cooperating to avoid catastrophic global warming. 

Trump has promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement to limit global warming.  Though he cannot withdraw legally, he will undoubtedly reverse the policies of Obama's EPA that were aimed at controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris agreement was the world's last chance to avoid the most destructive effects of global warming by limiting warming to 2 degrees. It would have to be strengthened to accomplish this, but it includes regular reviews that were likely to strengthen it.

Trump cannot stop the world's shift to clean energy, but he can slow it down - probably by five or ten years.  The most likely outcome is that global warming will be extreme enough to create hundreds of millions of climate refugees, fleeing from drought and flooding in their own countries - an ironic result coming from a president who is against immigration.

It is frightening that the majority of Americans could not see through Trump.

He is so thin-skinned that he lashes out at anyone who criticizes him. He wakes up at 4 AM, so angry that he goes straight to Twitter to abuse people who have gotten in his way, even when his advisors say it will hurt his campaign.  In fact, his advisors stopped him from using Twitter during the last few days of the campaign, so he wouldn't shoot himself in the foot with one of his angry outbursts.  This is not the temperament we want in a president, who is constantly criticized, who can lash out with the Dept. of Justice or with the armed forces rather than just with Twitter, and who has his finger on the nuclear trigger.

His campaign was based on bragging and personal attacks. His policies are the sort of thing you would expect of someone who is such a braggart that he is delusional.  He promises to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it - but he doesn't say how he will make Mexico pay.  He promises to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better - but he doesn't say what he will replace it with.  Early in his campaign, he claimed he would make everyone rich - luring the suckers to back his campaign in the same way he lured the suckers into his gambling casinos.

He knows nothing about policy.  When a reporter asked him what he thought was the most important element of the nuclear triad, his response showed that he didn't know what the nuclear triad is. He wants to weaken our commitment to NATO, which would make the world less secure. His economic proposals focus on tax cuts for the rich, which will make the national debt balloon by trillions of dollars.

His core backers are working-class whites with little education, who are falling behind in the global economy and who apparently cannot see how implausible his policies are. They are trying to deal with their economic failures by scape-goating immigrants, so they love Trump's xenophobia. They don't realize that Trump's promised tax cuts will increase inequality and leave them even further behind.

The only comfort is that someone so ignorant and so emotionally unstable is bound to do something - or many things - during his first term that disgrace him and his party and turn the country against him. But he will do immense damage along the way. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Do Bicyclists Pay Their Own Way?

People who are anti-bicycle sometimes say that bicyclists use the roads but do not pay the gasoline taxes that help maintain the roads.

This idea is absurd on its face, because the local streets and roads that bicycles use are paid for primarily by cities' general funds, using property taxes, sales taxes, and other taxes that everyone pays. Gasoline taxes are used to pay part of the cost of freeways, which bicyclist cannot use and which are also subsidized by taxes that everyone pays.

For the first time, I have seen an analysis of how much cost bicyclists and cars impose, which provides another argument against the claim that bicyclists should pay their own way. It looks at the base cost of paving streets and providing signage plus the cost of the damage that different vehicles cause to pavement, and it looks at the three factors that determine the cost for a given mode of transportation: weight, size, and speed. It concludes that:
  • A car that weighs 3,000 pounds, is 15 feet long, and travels at 30 mph imposes a cost of $1.20 on a trip that is 10 miles long.
  • A bicycle imposes a cost of $0.05 on a trip that is 10 miles long.
  • A pedestrian imposes a cost of $0.02 on a trip that is 10 miles long. 
The costs for pedestrians and bicycles are so small that it would not make sense to tax them. If a bicyclist rides 1,000 miles per year, the total tax would be $2, so the revenue would not cover the cost of administering the tax.

Combine the lower cost that bicyclists impose with the fact that local streets are paid for by taxes that everyone pays, and it is clear that bicyclists already pay more than their fair share of street maintenance. The property taxes that bicyclists pay subsidize the costs that motor vehicles create.

See the calculations and more details here.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Adam Gopnik Is Wrong About Jane Jacobs - And About Our Cities

There is a lengthy article about Jane Jacobs in the current New Yorker, written by their regular contributor Adam Gopnik, which distorts what Jacobs said and which shows real ignorance about what we need to do to improve our cities.

Gopnik’s main point is that Jacobs relied on the market to produce diverse, intricate neighborhoods and she looked down on planners such as Ed Logue, who built large-scale urban developments such as New York’s Roosevelt Island. But, Gopnik says, now we can see that the market brings gentrification that destroys diversity, that Logue was egalitarian and idealistic, and that the only way to get the affordable housing we need is with big and ugly projects like Logue’s. Gopnik summarizes this point when he says:
“A cable-car visit to Roosevelt Island is sobering for those briefly inclined to abandon Jacobs for Logue. This is surely not anyone’s idea of successful urbanism. Who would not rather live in the West Village than on Roosevelt Island? If they could afford to. But almost no one can—and the reality is that good housing that will alleviate the San Francisco problem [of gentrification] will probably look more like Roosevelt Island than like the West Village, simply because more Roosevelt Islands can be built for many, and the West Village can be preserved for only a few.”
In reality, Jacobs did not have unlimited faith in the market. She knew that it could lead to what she called “the self-destruction of diversity,” which we now call gentrification. And, though Gopnik does not know it, we do have tools today that were not available when Jacobs wrote and that could let us create more affordable housing by building neighborhoods Jacobs would approve of, rather than settling for the ugliness of Roosevelt Island.
The New Urbanists have shown that we can use form-based codes rather than conventional zoning to create neighborhoods with the sort of “fine-grained diversity” that Jacobs admired. They are best known for suburbs, but they have also designed urban neighborhoods that are reminiscent of old neighborhoods in the style of Greenwich Village, such as Liberty Harbor in New Jersey (shown above).
Today, these New Urbanist neighborhoods are expensive, because zoning laws make it difficult to build them, but we could produce many more of them. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States produced a huge amount of housing by building freeways to make the suburbs more accessible, by providing financial incentives such as FHA mortgages, and by adopting local zoning laws that made it easy to build suburban housing. Today, we need an effort that is just as massive but that does the inverse: build public transportation to make in-city locations more accessible, and provide financial incentives and adopt form-based codes that encourage developers to build walkable neighborhoods around the stations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was easy to find affordable housing. The new suburbs were aimed at the middle class, but the overall housing supply increased so dramatically that older housing became cheap - so cheap that entire neighborhoods, such as the South Bronx, were abandoned because the rents were not even high enough to support their maintenance costs and taxes. Likewise, we could harness the market today with government programs that get so much new housing built that prices of housing overall go down. And this new housing could be in neighborhoods that look more like Greenwich Village than like Roosevelt Island.
I think this new housing should be required to include affordable units, but there is a limit to how much affordable housing we can produce. A recent study in San Francisco found that the city could require new rentals to include 18% affordable housing but that a higher requirement would slow housing development.
Building units designated as affordable is a part of the solution to affordability, but a bigger part is encouraging developers to build so much market rate housing that the market price of existing housing goes down, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was cheap to live in New York's east Greenwich Village or in San Francisco's North Beach.
In addition, a big part of the solution to affordability is to spread prosperity more widely. In the 1950s and 1960s, incomes grew fairly equally all across the economic spectrum, which is why the middle class could afford those new suburban houses. But since the 1970s, most of the gains have gone to the very rich. We can use the income tax system to redistribute income: if we raise taxes on the very rich, lower taxes on the middle class, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for low and moderate incomes, we can spread the prosperity widely again.
Gopnik’s problem is that he is an “essayist” (as Wikipedia describes him) who writes about many different subjects – which means he is a jack of all trades but master of none. He apparently does not know that we are not stuck with neighborhoods like Roosevelt Island, because form-based codes can create new neighborhoods that are more like Greenwich Village. He does not talk about reducing economic inequality. He does not even seem to know that housing is not currently affordable because of overly stringent zoning laws that restrict the amount that can be built. As Paul Krugman has written:
"Upper-income Americans are moving into high-density areas, where they can benefit from city amenities; lower-income families are moving out of such areas, presumably because they can’t afford the real estate. … the shortage of urban dwellings is mainly artificial. Our big cities, even New York, could comfortably hold quite a few more families than they do. The reason they don’t is that rules and regulations block construction. ... Now, I’m not calling for an end to urban zoning. Cities are rife with spillovers, positive and negative. My tall building may cut off your sunlight; on the other hand, it may help sustain the density needed to support local stores, or for that matter a whole city’s economic base. There’s no reason to believe that completely unregulated building would get the balance right. But building policies in our major cities, especially on the coasts, are almost surely too restrictive."
Gopnik makes a simple contrast between the market and planning, but the world is more complex than that. It is often best for government to harness the market rather than to override it with planning.
The market is good at creating wealth but not necessarily good at distributing wealth. We can harness the market by using the tax system to redistribute income more fairly.
The market is good at building housing but not necessarily good at designing attractive cities. In the early nineteenth century, it built Greenwich Village, but today it is more likely to build Houston-style sprawl. We can harness the market by allowing development near transit, by using form-based codes to create attractive neighborhoods, by requiring developers to include affordable housing, and by providing low-interest financing or other incentives to get enough housing built to bring prices down.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Limits to Electric Cars

Bill McKibben has a great article in the current New Republic comparing the fight against global warming to World War II, and one point in this article got me thinking not just about global warming but about more general limits to growth. 

Showing that we can mobilize to control global warming, he writes:
Electric cars take lithium for batteries—but there’s enough lithium just in the known resources for three billion cars, and at the moment we only have 800 million
I did a projection and found that, if world wide car ownership keeps growing at the rate that it grew between 1980 and 2010, we will reach three billion cars in 2062.  At that point, the world's rate of automobile ownership will still be less than half of the current American rate of automobile ownership.

Of course, we will continue to find new lithium resources, and we will undoubtedly invent new types of batteries by 2060, but the projection is useful to show that global warming is part of a larger crisis of growth. As overall consumption continues to grow, it will reach the limits of the earth's ability to provide resources and absorb pollution. We have already passed the limits of the earth's ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and and we are bound to run into more limits if recent rates of growth continue.

I strongly recommend Bill McKibben's article.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Ethics of Eating Animals

Vegans refuse to eat animal products because of the suffering that we cause to farm animals. They are obviously right to condemn factory farming, which keeps animals in abominable conditions and causes vast unnecessary suffering, but are they also right to refuse to eat products from animals that are raised and slaughtered humanely?
A thought experiment can help make sense of this issue.  Imagine that you had the choice of living happily until the age of (say) thirty and then being slaughtered humanely, or of not existing at all. Imagine that, like farm animals, that you would not know that you are being raised in order to be slaughtered: you would just live happily day to day, and then one day you would suddenly be led to the slaughter and would be killed without understanding why. I think most people would choose thirty years of happy existence over no existence at all.
This is the sort of choice that we face with farm animals.  If we did not use animal products at all, they would not exist.  We might keep a few in zoos for show, but we would be choosing non-existence for countless millions of animals. 
Now, let’s try a similar thought experiment from the point of view of someone observing the animals rather than of the animals themselves.  Imagine a farm where animals are raised humanely.  It has chickens pecking in the yard, pigs running up in to make friends with people who pass by, sheep grazing in the meadow, geese becoming angry and territorial when strangers passes by - and all of these animals will ultimately be humanely slaughtered for food. Would the world be a better place if this sort of farm and all its different species of animals were eliminated (except for a few specimens in zoos) and replaced by farms growing soybeans to use for protein? 
Again, I think most people would say no.  The world is a better place with this diversity of animal life than without it, even if the animals will all ultimately be slaughtered and eaten. 
This is true only because the animals are allowed to live according to their natures. If we did similar thought experiments imagining factory farms where chickens were confined in crates so small they could not turn around and all the other animals raised in similar conditions, I think most people would say that the world would be a better place without animal agriculture. 
It is interesting to try a thought experiment about natural ecosystems that is similar to the thought experiment about farm animals living according to their natures.  Imagine a natural habitat where, among other animal and plant species, there are deer grazing on plants, wildcats preying on the deer, and wolves preying on both the deer and the wildcats.  Many of the deer will die in a way that causes them great suffering: imagine what it would be like running from wolves in a panic for hours, finally becoming so tired that the pack gets closer and closer, still running in a panic though you know you can’t get away, having a wolf nip your leg and hobble you, slowing you down so much that the entire pack jumps on you, feeling your flesh being torn by the wolves’ teeth before death ends your pain. And imagine what it is like being a wolf or a wildcat in years when the deer population fluctuates downward, when many predators die slowly and painfully of starvation. 
Would the world be a better place if we eliminated the animal species and had ecosystems made only of plants? We cannot eliminate just the predators, because the deer population would outstrip the available food supply, denude the vegetation, and ultimately die back because of starvation. 
I think most people would say that it is better to have this diversity of life, even with the suffering it involves, than it is to eliminate the animal life from the world in order to eliminate the suffering. If this is true, than doesn’t the same reasoning imply that it is better to have a diversity of farm animals who are ultimately slaughtered than to eliminate this animal life in order to eliminate the suffering of being slaughtered - which is obviously much less than the suffering in nature.
These thought experiments raise a fundamental question in philosophical ethics.
If you are a philosophical hedonist whose goal is to increase pleasure and reduce pain as much as possible, you might conclude that the pleasure that these animals feel in their lives outweighs the pain, so the world would be a better place without any animals. 
Most of us would want to keep the animals despite the suffering involved. Without knowing it, we accept the classical ethics of the Aristotelians who believed that the key goal of ethics is the full development of human nature - and, by extension, of animals’ natures. We find that the flourishing of diverse natures in the farm and natural ecosystem of our thought experiments is appealing, because we accept (most of us without thinking about it) natural flourishing of life as the goal of ethics.  And factory farms are repugnant because they do not allow animals to live and to flourish according to their natures. 
Nature is cruel and filled with suffering. Predator and prey species have evolved the ability to run quickly because of natural selection: the predators who could not run quickly enough died of starvation and the prey who could not run quickly enough died by being torn and eaten alive. If you didn't have the genes to run quickly, you died in a painful way and were eliminated from the gene pool.
Vegans say that we should eliminate the suffering, even if it means eliminating the farm animals.  Most of them seem to be motivated by emotional sympathy for the animals rather than by a reasoned view of the subject, and they do not realize that if they carried their reasoning to its logical conclusion, they would also want to eliminate animal life in nature too. We would not have chickens, pigs, goats, geese, wolves, wildcats, or deer, except for a small number kept in zoos rather than living according to their natures - with the wolves fed on artificial meat made from soybeans.
All sentient life involves some suffering.  We should do all we can to reduce suffering, but we can never eliminate suffering entirely - except by eliminating sentient life. The vegans’ philosophy, carried to its logical conclusion, is anti-life.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Two Holocaust Memorials: Two Views of Civic Art

I saw two holocaust memorials in Vienna, based on very different views of what civic art should be.

One is the Kindertransport Memorial, honoring the British for saving almost 10,000 children by transporting them from Nazi controlled areas to foster homes in Britain. The memorial, Für Das Kind by Flor Kent (2008), is at Vienna's Westbahnhof, where most of the children transported from Vienna began their trip. It shows a Jewish child sitting on a valise, as he might have sat there waiting for his train before World War II broke out.


It is a very moving and human sculpture. You can see that the child is trying to be brave but is deeply lonesome and sad at being taken away from his family. Looking at it is heart-breaking, just as it would have been heartbreaking to look at the actual children in that station fleeing from the Nazis.

The second is the Holocaust Memorial commemorating the 65,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis, in Judenplatz, which used to be the center of Vienna's Jewish neighborhood. The memorial by Rachel Whiteread (2000) is meant to represent a structure made of books, with the spines turned inward so you cannot see the titles on the spines, supposedly symbolizing the fact that every life is a story and we will never know what stories these lost lives contain.


It is an attempt to be clever, a sort of visual pun. There is some visual impact because the building is cold and forbidding, but the main impact is purely cerebral, not visual or emotional. It is conceptual art, but the concept is not clear to the viewer. No one knows that it is supposed to be books or what the books are supposed to symbolize until they read it in their guide book. There is no humanity to it, just an abstract idea.

This approach is common. For example, Daniel Libeskind designed the Freedom Tower in New York to be 1776 feet high, supposedly symbolizing American independence, but  the symbolism is purely cerebral, not visual or emotional.  No one knows from looking it exactly how high it is.

The two memorials in Vienna represent two approaches to civic art: the holocaust memorial is conceptual and abstract, while the kindertransport memorial is emotional and humanistic.

The holocaust memorial was chosen by a prestigious panel of architects, and it represents the establishment's view of what civic art should be - which is why art no longer has the cultural resonance that it sometimes had before the twentith century.

The kindertransport memorial could be a model for renewing civic art in the twenty-first century. It is very different from the most conventional civic art of the nineteenth century - nothing like a general on horseback. It draws on the humanistic tradition of representational art to make a moving visual statement about what happened on its site.