Saturday, December 4, 2010

Bus Stop Gimmicks

With all the billing and cooing about the new capability to see on your cell phone when the bus will arrive, nobody seems to have noted the situation in which this new-found power would actually help people and attract riders.

We've all been there. You want to wait in the building lobby, or at least under the overhang, until one minute before the bus arrives, and then step out to the bus stop. It's dicey.

So put the "Next Bus Will Arrive In X Minutes" sign in the lobby. Have the transit agency lease a room where riders can stay warm and dry while they wait. Or give a large sign to the owner of a coffee shop or sandwich shop to display.

Put the signs where we can stay warm and dry while we wait- not out at the bus stop.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Wikipedia Blowback Machine

Over the past half century the government has increasingly marked documents as 'secret', essentially shielding them from critical reading or challenge, and ever-increasing amounts of dubious documents were labeled as such for exactly those reasons. 300-page 'reports' emerged from one door, blinked in the sun hardly long enough for anyone to read the titles, and then disappeared into another door, effectively, forever.

And then, one day, this dustbin of history exploded, scattering the 'secret' collection of secrets, rumors, information, and disinformation across the landscape- the real-life analogue of the moment that Jack Nicholson's wife, in The Shining discovers that the novel he is writing consists of the single sentence "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" written over and over and over.

A few people will be momentarily embarrassed by the releases, but all will take consolation from the fact that it can't possibly all be true. The only real secret they were hoping to protect is the fact that the US government has SFB, but the cat's out of the bag now.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cities Will Be Huge

Cities will be big players in curbing AGW. They can look for big gains if they play their cards right, and big losses if we fail. Conservation, by clustering people in high-density communities of new buildings using less energy, can replace many current forms of power generation and meet our needs.

It's a challenge, but the modern city has resources no previous cities had, and cities have done pretty well in the past. What aspect of modern life, always excepting the climate itself, is not ten times as fast or strong as what went before? And the 20th century offers plenteous example of the patchwork reconstruction of civilized life by private and government agencies performing iterations of social organizing to provide social welfare for the community and the individual.

Most cities know they won't get much help from their central governments, but they must prepare for the deluge of former suburbanites who will want to move into town, when the full cost of carbon emissions are understood and levied against the users.

Most of the former suburbanites will have suffered ruinous financial losses before giving up and moving into town, and this will be one problem among many in dealing with huge increases in population. Still, for a city, that's a good problem to have. It is, in a sense, the problem they've always solved so well.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Middle Ages- Not So Dark

The Roman era in Britain may be characterized by the country houses, with central heating and hot baths, of the wealthy landowners, protected more by the Roman culture of law than by the soldiers who could be summoned in times of emergency. This lifestyle is what Britain, and other areas governed by Rome, had to lose when the Roman Empire fell. And Britain did lose this when Rome failed, c. 400-550 AD.

But most of Europe didn't. Growth plateaued but did not become decline until an economic crisis, c. 800 AD, led to both famine and reforestation of abandoned farmlands, this event being well decoupled from the 'fall' of Rome. Arguably, the darkest thing about the Dark Ages is the zeal with which the monks and clerics destroyed any written document that did not affirm the latest rulings from Rome- the Rome of the Pope, busily engaged in 'catholicizing' the writings and laws of the church.

Even impoverished Britain, in those chilly days, could afford a few ermine furs, but Normandy, from the late 9th century on, was engaged in building cathedrals, universities, and the cadres of educated men to staff them. They were constrained by their technology, but they were not poor people. Northern Italy was prosperous, with walled cities fed by well-ruled hinterlands, financing and carrying on trade with Constantinople and the Levant. The Hanse had emerged as a loose coalition of prosperous and vigorous cities reaching out to expand their markets and trade. In general, prosperity, here defined as adding 1-2% each year to the economy instead of losing that amount, reigned.

At that point in European history, the nation-state lay in the past- they had tried that, and it failed. They had replaced it with feudalism, a complex system in which each person owed allegiance to, and was governed by, many different jurisdictions and levels, many of which could, and did, conflict with each other. Maybe we can see some of the force of feudalism when we contrast how the nation-states of the past had been gobbled like popcorn by an expansionist Rome, while feudalism knit the entire continent of Europe into a semi-cohesive whole.

The city-state, on the other hand, prospered. It proved unnecessary for the city to legally rule the hinterlands- the city did that naturally by controlling the markets- and cities became compact and powerful centers of productivity, petitioning for charters and special privileges. Ruling themselves feudally, as did their society, they also became the first pillars of self-government.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

In 1969 a blizzard hit NYC on Sunday morning. We rode the subway to where it came out of the ground and there it stopped. By noon the snow was 18 inches deep and the city unexpectedly silent. Nothing moved.

The next morning I put on a suit (I didn't own an overcoat) and hoofed it briskly to the subway to work. Everything on the surface was snowed under, but millions of us showed up on time.

So many, in fact, that the Bagel Crisis emerged, as we rapidly ate our way through the 179 million bagels that were on hand and looked longingly towards the bakeries of Queens and Brooklyn for resupply. Fortunately, civic leaders understood the importance of this matter and quickly opened transport lines to the bakeries. Don't mess with a New Yawkers bagel or his 'coffee'.

In Seattle in 2010 a mini-blizzard dumped 3-6 inches of snow on Seattle. Surface transportation was paralyzed and workers were advised not to come to work if they could avoid it. The only thing that ran on time was the light rail line out to the airport. There's a lesson in there somewhere, if we choose to see it.

Cheney Spins Bush

A brief excerpt from George Bush's book provides a view into the 5-year-old minds of the Bush White House. As it opens, Dick Cheney is treating Bush as though he's one of the manly men -

"Dick asked me directly, ‘Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?" Bush "appreciated Dick’s blunt advice" but "told him I wasn’t ready to move yet." Suddenly, Cheney realizes that Bush is not the manly man he appeared to be, but is, instead, a stuffed shirt, a boss, someone from headquarters.

"Okay, Mr. President, it’s your call,’ he said.”

So, now it's not 'George', it's 'Mr. President', and it's going to stay that way until George can prove to Dick and Don that George can be a member of the gang too. It's the white guy equivalent of a 'beating in', just like you remember from grade school.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How About NOW For That BRT?

We've heard a lot about 'Bus Rapid Transit', the perennial gimmick of the transit-impoverished. Could there be a better time to make the central principles work than in a civic snowstorm emergency? Give the buses space to work in. Clear the streets of other traffic.

Reports from Monday's commute in Seattle show 3-4 hours commutes on the bus. This is wrong. Some thoroughfares should be kept open for buses only- doubling their speed, which in this case would be the very achievable increase from 3 MPH to 6 MPH, effectively doubles the number of buses available to passengers. Every rider is one potential stalled car that's not on the road.

This would send the strongest possible signal to improve productivity, because people could come to work in a snow emergency. As matters stand now, workers are being advised to stay at home. Nobody wants to do that, it just happens because we do not have an all-weather transportation system.

When it snows, convert some streets to handle fleets of buses, traveling faster than a man can walk, carrying people to and from the business of the city. It just might work.

The Autonomy of Cities- Part Two

From Tim Shorrock at Common Dreams:

"In 1980 a terrible event occured in Kwangju, a city in southwestern Korea that was the birthplace of Kim Dae Jung, South Korea's former president and its most famous dissident. On May 18, 1980, hundreds of students and democratic activists were shot down and bayonetted to death in the wake of a violent military coup...In response to the savagery of the Korean Special Forces who were responsible for the bloodshed that day, the citizens of Kwangju, who were well organized after years of oppression, took up guns and chased the military out of town. For seven days a citizens' committee held the city, negotiating with the military to seek a peaceful end to the crisis. It was the first uprising against military rule in South Korea since the Korean War and is widely seen there as a turning point in Korea's democratic movement."

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Ur-Myth of the Americans

The American conceit is perhaps the least charming of all nations. We're told that "free enterprise" outperformed all other economic systems, accounting for our wealth, and presaging the future.

In reality, we took a continent from the natives, and, protected by two oceans, developed an immense interior market jumpstarted by the discovery of oil. It's not liberal economics that brought prosperity to America, but America that brought prosperity to liberal economics.

Liberal economics were the economics of the surging European mercantile classes in the early 19th century, the justification for freeing economics from feudalism- and a timely development they were, as the thermal power of coal and oil transformed the underlying structure of the economy.

The United States, having extinguished feudal tenure by killing the original owners, did not need liberal economics. In the US liberal economics have grown, in reaction to the demands of the industrial state for predictable inputs and markets, into a lunatic fantasy of what never was and what will never be- a sort of Disney CGI animation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

What actually happened, should we choose to wander those deserted bylanes, is not only illuminating, but often, in addition, charming. We're starting another great change in the structure of the economy and we can use all the clues we can get.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Funded National Debt

The 18th century is often regarded as the pre-industrial run-up, when the necessary organizations and products were developed to industrialize with. In reality, the markets, trade routes, sources, and products had been through successive iterations over centuries. Central to the nation-state was the funded national debt, and, allied, the development of pension funds.

With no attempt at total accuracy, the French and the British had both, by the year 1800, developed systems by which a person could buy a share, which would then pay a small income. In this way the lower and middle classes of the bourgeoisie could buy a share in the stability of the state. The state became more adept at issuing notes and bonds, freeing the state from the financial markets.

Initially regarded with considerable misgivings, and muttering about how any squire doing their accounts at the kitchen table could tell you it wouldn't work. Wielded with skill, these tools worked well- the British funded the whole of the Napoleanic Wars on their national debt and the promise to pay later- and became fantastically wealthy by doing so.

By 1900, France, German, and Great Britain all had mature and functional pension systems providing some degree of financial assurance to citizens and a column of financial stability for the state. I believe the importance of pension systems, in maintaining a stable and predictable base of demand for the economy, is generally underrated.

In America in the same year of 1900 the only national pension system was the system of payments to veterans. Americans could put their money in banks, which frequently went broke, or invest in railroads, which always went broke and wiped out the smaller shareholders in bankruptcy proceedings. America did not begin the 20th century with any clear idea about social security, or the role that a national social security system might play in the national finances.

Since the beginning of Social Security the propaganda din against it has been almost deafening, but the real outlines of the system are easy enough to discern. This popular system collects almost a half of the federal revenues from taxation and is wholeheartedly supported in doing so by the general public. For 25 years the amounts collected have been greater than the amounts paid in pensions, and the Social Security system has supported the federal government financially by using the surplus to buy US treasury notes. This is the success we need to emulate in the matters of healthcare, and low-income housing linked with LEED development.

Running through all of this is the concept of a funded national debt- an important tool of good government.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Is A Market?

A market is a concretion of a fair. A fair, where people gather to buy and sell, is commerce stripped to the barest essentials. Fairs happen regularly; markets are generally open on a continuous basis. Structures- financial, social, and political as well as physical- are built to improve the function of the market.

Collecting and reusing the wealth from all this commerce is the primary task of the market, and the most direct way to do this is to charge admission, and, incidentally, provide some protection from the world outside to those admitted. The medieval city, with burghers who also don battle gear or stand watch, and nobility competing with the commercial classes in the market, provides a vibrant image of a market.

Even in the earliest times we can see the distinction between the market of the hinterland, which supplies the city, and the international market for goods that are bought and sold over vast distances. The interior market of the city can function somewhat independently of the international market and vice versa. With the development of the nation-state came the notion of interior markets for nations, and this notion is of particular import for Americans as for over a hundred years the US has had the largest interior economy of the world.

The US has the world's largest interior market and it's not hard to see why- we've built highways and airports, and we send our children to school where they become proficient and highly productive of modern goods and services. For over 200 years we've been investing heavily in productive capacity, and any sober review would award the government with credit for many of those improvements. In short, the people of the US have a legitimate claim to some say in how this market is run.

Of course, this is hardly the only original thought we'll encounter on our journey to self-government. To be honest, many of us have a depth of historical knowledge that would fit comfortably in a few Classic Comics books. On the plus side, it can be a lot more fun learning about this stuff when you're old enough to reach the top shelf. Recommended reading- The Disastrous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman .

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's Our Marketplace

The city was the basic building block of the modern democratic nation-state. The cities provided the mercantile intercourse without which any amount of innovation in the countryside would have been meaningless. Cities absorbed, distributed, and ultimately demanded improvements in agricultural output, eroding the feudal economy and fueling improved production within the city walls.

The city walls were not defenses for times of war, but for times of peace. To do business in the city, you had to enter the city and play by their rules. They went to a lot of expense to create the market, had every intention of being successful, and felt fully entitled to make their own rules.

How much expense? Enough to survive sieges, both of the military and economic variety. Enough to build cathedrals that reigned in height until the era of the skyscraper. Enough to transform the economy of surrounding regions and distant lands. Enough to defy the landowning nobility and make kings their debtors.

Because cities were corporations of commoners, and because the productive forces were pent in city walls, real forms of democracy emerged- enough, at least, to ensure that any prolonged starvation of the workers would be rewarded with destructive urban rioting. A crude tool, but, over time, sufficient.

This is important because cities harnessed the forces of 'market capitalism' by unashamedly regulating and taxing markets- markets that could not have existed in a 'state of nature'. The proposal is that the US of A is, in fact, a market that we have every right to control democratically- and that "To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

This is our market. We've spent trillions creating it, surrendering vast amounts of personal agency in the process, but, strange to say, usually at great benefit to ourselves and others. No imaginary "invisible hand" has ever come anywhere close to the ability of democratic government to create value. The history, first of the city-state, and then of the nation-state, illustrate this, but what will come next, in the context of global warming?

That is hard to tell, but putting our own house in order would be a good first step in preparing to deal with whatever it may be.

No Earmarks Here

In a recent article at Common Dreams, Nick Turse looks at American base building in the mid-east, and finds quite a bit of it. In fact, you would be astounded if these construction projects came to your town, and for a brief time there would be no recession there.

But this highlights the difference between the chronic cyclical cratering of the poorly regulated capitalist economy, and the chasm of the structural depression that is opening before us. There may be some value in these construction projects for those who take them over after we leave, but there is none for us. They are every bad thing you can imagine doing to an economy wrapped in one giant regret-now and pay-later down elevator to Hell.

Even worse, we don't even know how to change. Amazingly enough, most of us are still enjoying ourselves so much that we can't find the time to master tedious details about saving energy or preventing global warming. Amongst average university grads, the conversations on these topics typically are about as sophisticated as chimpanzees showing each other children's blocks, and agreeing that they like the 'train' block and don't like the 'car' block.

Will this be enough? In democracy, it's always hard to tell. But if we were a hockey team, there'd be no plans for the post-season. Because, in this game, if we're not good enough to make it into the post-season, there won't be any post-season. And right now, we're nowhere close.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Never Saw That Coming!

On the one hand, the solvent-for-thirty-years Social Security program has nothing to do with the deficit the deficit reduction commission was supposed to be dealing with.

On the other hand, every rich person in America agrees that Social Security, the one government program running in the black, must be changed. The very plumpness of Social Security assets quietly returning dividends is an affront to rich people who can never have too large a slice of the pie.

What goes on here? Let me connect the dots. They mean to keep the tax, but take the revenues for themselves. Even better, every dumb company in America will be paying the tax, as the employers part, but the money collected, after being suitably laundered in Washington DC, will be given to no-bid contractors and other slimy Cheneyite creatures of the sort we became so familiar with under George Bush. Ba-da-BING! The oligarchy scores again!

The demands of the oligarchal warfare state have simply outstripped the ability of the nation to pay. If the oligarchs don't find something new to steal, and soon, they're finished. You can't cut the subsidies and military spending on the industries of the oligarchy, leaving only SS as a large asset to be looted. Whatever the question, the answer will be plain- end Social Security!

Monday, November 8, 2010

No Streetcar Suburbs Here

Seattle's young transit lovers cherish certain holy relics, occasionally removing them form their velvet wrappings to flash their glory upon us, and among these are "streetcar suburb", a reference to suburban development originally reached by streetcar. Seattle supposedly shows traces of this development, but it ain't necessarily so.

The early transportation in Puget Sound was by water. In other regions, railroads drove development, or rather, overdevelopment, that built a fine mesh of lines around every major city. In Seattle, and especially after the coming of the cable cars to Lake Washington and West Seattle, suburban commuting usually involved a boat. As a region, Puget Sound went directly from the ship to the automobile without a streetcar interregnum.

The areas which we perceive today to have been "streetcar suburbs" were actually infill, the original wave of suburbanization having passed early to the shores of Lake Washington. The Wallingford area is more convincingly of the "streetcar and land" developer mold, but no argument is made that development there would not have occurred if the streetcar had not been built.

They say "you can't miss what you ain't never had", but you could plainly see, driving around in Seattle 25 years ago, that Seattle was vitamin deficient, or even severely anemic, in the quality of buildings that weren't built on streetcar lines. The buildings built on the lines had that extra quality that person puts in the building when it is expected to last. They were the kind of building you want to see in your city.

On another level, planners today are still flying on instruments. Because water transport is so diffuse, and requires so little investment on the land side of the business, the change from the ship to the automobile left most of the region as small and very poorly connected communities. What to make of all this? Planners survey needs, whether perceived or projected, and then attempt to design routes that meet those needs.

In the case of the eastward extension of Link, the planners are trying to justify the route with references to daily boardings, and the easiest way to do that is to run the rails past the park'n'rides, and assume you collect all the riders from those buses. The rails become a tool, not for making communities work, but for making the park'n'ride system work.

But the park'n'rides are inherently sprawl inducing. They were built in low-density locations (to cut costs) and exist to serve people who use cars for the first part of their commute. In allowing the location of park'n'rides to determine the route, we lose a major opportunity to shape our community.

This loss, indeed, is not noticed, because the same thing happened the last time we changed transportation systems. For fifty years we've been building highways on the projections that people will come, and indeed they have come, but does anyone seriously believe they would have come if the roads had not been built? Leaving the pattern of this development to the random mutation of financial DNA among real estate developers had been a total disaster.

It may be too late to create an inspiring past, but there's still time left to create an inspiring future.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Perfect Storm In Pakistan

Recent heavy flooding in Pakistan was intensified, or even created, by upstream timber poaching that denuded slopes. The sediment will raise the river bottoms, leading to more flooding. The money from the timber poaching will be used to buy government officials, quite literally buying bad government.

Our ability to assist the Pakistanis in this matter will be limited, not least by the resemblance of their system to ours. We have a few more bells and whistles, but basically business goes on as usual, with drearily predictable flooding and sedimentation following each rain event. Aid agencies that do not understand the basics of conservancy will be unable to demand the changes or improvements that are needed.

*Fortunately*, the increasing tempo of world development will reveal the needs in short order, as recently happened in Pakistan. Unfortunately, we have a lot less time than we thought.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Beginning of End for George Benson Streetcar

As 'twas to be expected, the George Benson Streetcar tracks are being raised, a short section here, and then maybe a short section there, but in reality, of course, those rails are toast, having been fitted into exactly none of the plans for what comes next.

Arguably the best place for a trolley, the historical streetcar may not be the best trolley for the place. Being historical, the cars are old-fashioned, and if any great volume of traffic is to be carried, modern street-level boarding may be preferred. There are other places to put a historical streetcar in Seattle.

Some of us are streetcar people, some of us are historical people- how many of us are either remains to be seen. Working with Nickels and Paul Allen, Seattle DOT did a very credible job of working up a route and overseeing the installation of the South Lake Union line. Hopefully a little institutional memory will remain of the Nickels years when the DOT was instructed to sketch some trolley lines- and did so.

Quite possible we'll have to wait until the end of the McGinnteregnum to see any more progress with streetcars. Simply getting a new streetcar line shown in the plans and drawings for the new waterfront would be important, because the old one will be lifted for construction, to be sure. Like the phoenix, the streetcar must rise renewed from its own destruction.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Third Republic Stuff

How the Third Republic fell is a different matter from why the Third Republic fell. The majority of the French supported the Popular Front, but the Front was fissiparous. The reactionary opposition, was uncompromising and willing to unleash stormtrooper mobs in the streets, and the battles in the streets deligitimized the government, as unable to maintain order. Cabinets in crisis formed and dissolved frequently, preventing any single policy from maturing.

That is the 'how' of the matter, but the 'why' of the matter is that high unemployment created a crisis and unemployment furnished the men for the mobs. Waiting far too long, France's adherence to the gold standard bankrupted her before she finally climbed down. In this state of bankruptcy, the government could do little to alleviate the misery of the unemployed.

In Germany, Hitler simply conscripted the unemployed and set them to work. In Britain, the English went off the gold standard early and mastered their finances well enough to maintain trade and provide a dole. In America millions were put to work building schools, hospitals, roads- all of the basic infrastructure that would pay off in spades after WW II.

But today, our memories have faded, and very few liberals can explain in clear and moving terms why we should pay taxes, and what we should be paying for. We find ourselves, like the Third Republic, unable to believe that we can provide social welfare, or relieve unemployment, and have, in short, bankrupted ourselves mentally while our finances, in real terms, are not that bad.

This confusion only gets worse when it is proposed to fight unemployment by building a freeway. With the greatest change in the history of humanity hanging over us, our responses need to be coherent. Above all, they must be funded, but there are many ways to do that- if the investment is a sound one.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Melmoth and Ahab Meet Uncle Sam In A Bar...

The U.S. resembles some overladen, aging, polar explorer of the 20th century, pulling a sleigh grotesquely overloaded with baubles, doomed to collapse and die on a desperate journey to reach 'the Pole'- and all for naught, as we already know where the Pole is, we know it is of no strategic value, and we know that a picture or account of the Pole will reveal a desolate wasteland of ice and snow, indistinguishable from a thousand such views in the general vicinity.

So we continue to plan for a bleak 'recovery' of yet more misery, continued unemployment, and poor health as we continue to drag our sleigh, laden with our much-ballyhooed 'lifestyle' of cars and large houses, in the wrong direction, away from the principles of justice, charity, and reverence, towards the great delusions of power, glory, and omnipotence. As with Hitler, seeing America assume its rightful place in the hierarchy of nations (a place much smaller than we had imagined it to be) has driven us mad, and we rage about our superweapons which will allow us to keep ruling them.

And we applaud an increase in home building and build more roads with 'stimulus funding'- the very activities that got us into these problems. We're going the wrong way and the companies that profit from us are spending hundreds of millions to ensure we don't change direction. If you were to put baboons in charge of flying a 747, in mid-air, the baboons would not be afraid, and our rightwing mobs are no more afraid than those baboons.

In a word, this sucker is going down. If you close your eyes and scream, you'll miss the majesty of the moment.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

It's Really That Simple

The Constitution derives its power from....the Constitution. The power is organic, derived from the consent of the governed as expressed in regular republican and democratic manner.

Our inalienable rights are not a gift from God- small need of a government if that were the case!- but are created by our having formed a government to define and protect them. This is not only the theory but also the fact of the matter.

None of this is particularly opaque- if you've actually read the document. If not, make some time and do so- it is probably the single most important document in all of history.

Those Whom The Gods Would Destroy...

.....they first make mad. And, herewith, the simple story of a jury clerk who, after ten years in her position, simply began removing from the jury rolls eligible jurors over the age of 80.

She had, it seems, become so comfortable and so familiar with her job that she simply 'streamlined' the process without even asking her boss whether it would be a good idea. She simply lost all sense of proportion and could no longer see the jury system as a cornerstone of law as we know it. She awoke as though from a trance when her activities were discovered, and now views with regret and dismay what she did.

It could happen to you or me. In fact, in some form or another, it probably already has.

The Coming Drought

Our economy depends so greatly on the grain industry that we do whatever it takes to keep the grain flowing- even when we know we shouldn't. We make fertilizer from oil, to eventually leech into our streams and drinking water, because our topsoil, which should nourish the grain, continues to wash into the Gulf of Mexico. Most importantly, we have drawn down the vast natural aquifers which formerly lay under the broad center of America. If drought comes- when drought comes- for it is already here in places- the grain crop fails.

And it is becoming more certain that drought is coming on a worldwide scale heretofore unknown by humanity. It is coming with almost incomprehensible speed, grave by 2030, possibly fatal by 2060. In relation to our society and economy, drought is the bowling ball and we are the pins.

It's easy to say there's no need to panic, and easy to see that maybe there is. This is Kuenstler's 'Long Emergency' in practice, a too-big-to-fail part of our industry that we simply can't write a check to revive.

The Mormons have a program of storing a years worth of grain for their families, and this, while not perfect, should at least get you to a time of army-controlled rationing and food distribution. Don't forget salt in your emergency supplies!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

How Will Elders Get Around?

How will elders get around? They'll move!

A somewhat vacuous discussion at the NYT, which you may access here, suggests that elders want to stay in their homes and assumes they will always need cars to get places. In reality, many elders are willing to move- they are, after all, no longer anchored by a job or a child's school enrollment- they just don't want to move to a place that's worse than where they are now. When elders say they want to remain in their home, they mean their home, and not a nursing home or a rental in a government "project".

The NYT "discussion" was, in fact, doubly vacuous by 'assuming' that the full panoply of support that created and maintained suburbia will remain in place long enough to make it necessary to invent automatic cars. Get a clue, people! The age of the automobile is ending, and the only real remaining question is how it ends.

Wasting tens of billions on efforts to build automatic cars is a good way to ensure that it ends badly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bad Prohibitionist Math

Recently, Prohibitionists attacked Prop 19 supporters in California, claiming that a Rand study showed legalizing would only cut 40% of the Mexican drug cartels profits instead of 80%.

Instead of cutting 40% of the profits of Murder Inc, Prohibitionists say, it's better to keep in place policies that might protect the 1-2% of pot smokers who have a 'bad reaction'. Or, at least, these polices might protect them if the policies worked and people didn't smoke pot. Because, basically, American 'experts' in drug policy don't care that much how many foreigners are killed by our policies.

It's not the pot smokers who are reality-challenged here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blend The Narrative

We don't need a climate crisis to tell us we can- and must- do things more cheaply, wisely, and better. As a society we can provide ourselves with prosperity, but only if we take advantage of the economies of scale we can achieve as a society.

These are the economies that, combined with the outright theft of a continent, made us prosperous- a large internal market coupled with large internal resources. Imagine how much of this would have been wasted if those several American states had spent their entire histories making war on each other in European fashion. Now the benefits of size can be turned to big projects, a lucky thing for us, as we have quite a bit to do.

And it's a fortunate thing we don't need climate change tell us what to do, because you can't see it. The "climate" is a statistical construct of events, each of which may with equal justice be totally random. We can see the results, but not the "climate".

So take your best shot. If you think we could save energy by walking to work, flesh out that vision with some good examples or ideas and then tell us. None of us will get exactly what we want, but we can make some real improvements. Don't just sit around and wait for the same people who got us into this mess to come up with a plan for getting us out.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Transit Forecast- More Of The Same

In 25 years, using transit in Seattle will feel much the same as it does today. It can't really feel much slower, and crowding will be greater, but there'll be no revolution in quantity or quality to disturb your sedate preminiscences of the future.

Some students will find this of interest. With the main routes of our 'metro', or high-capacity main lines, being the current SoundTransit proposals, predicting neighborhood densities can be fun for the amateur and profitable for the investor. This, after all, is the real basis for building the system- that it will 'pencil out' and prove prosperous for all.

Part of the fun here will be that some time before our 25 years are up, we'll see a huge rise in oil prices. People will abandon cars for a transit system largely served by diesel buses, and a metro system largely designed around bus stops and garages for park'n'ride services. The labor costs of the buses will rise in tandem with the rise in fuel prices, essentially bankrupting the system we see today, which is already talking about using capital reserves to pay current operating costs. The best we can hope for with this one is that they will level this baby out somewhere below the 10,000-ft level, where atmospheric oxygen may restore their brain cells.

Sadly, all of the brain power n Seattle will be more of a hindrance than a help. Any full-court press to solve the problem will result in a dozen experts proclaiming that 'there's gotta be a better way'. All will hope that Seattle doesn't endure the ultimate shame and ignominy of simply adopting an existing solution that's been proven to work in some other city. Ironically, the Boeing move from Seattle may be a wonderful gift, freeing us from the burden of supporting Boeing's history of failure in building transit.

In short, an interregnum in this crisis of about five years is to be expected, from which a similar, but chastened and pruned transit system will emerge. The expenses will have been so great that no real expansion of metro service can be afforded, after the capital costs of converting many diesel runs to full electric have been accommodated.

Another interregnum will be the McGinn mayoralty in Seattle. He will anger many, and accomplish little, doing more harm than good to existing efforts to extend tertiary trolley services.

Fortunately, the longer Seattle waits, the cheaper the equipment becomes, as other cities around the world drive prices down by mass buying. The streetcar is a wonderful tool for cities that need to reinvent their civic economies. You may well live to see your dream streetcar line built.

And that's a fine speculation with which to end a fine afternoon.

Globaloney

Ok, let's all get global- it's the latest craze that's sweeping the world. Everybody's doing it!

You've all heard some variation of this, probably within the past 15 minutes. But there's nothing new about globalization. Just look at the history of Portland, or the Northern Pacific RR, built with foreign money to serve ranches and farms (latifundia, actually, thousands of acres in extent, not homestead farming) owned by Europeans. It wasn't until 1910 that Americans owned more of America than the Europeans did.

New York's perpetual ranking as #1 among American cities? Look at a sturdy leg-up from the time the New Yorkers stayed loyal to the Crown during our Revolution. At that time, Tokyo had a population of over a million, many employed making fine and artistic products for export.

And those earlier days of globalization were multi-polar. Europeans were dazzled by products like porcelain, calicos, and hot peppers. Japanese art went directly into important collections. The moment in which we exported finished goods and they exported raw materials has turned out to be a brief one.

And thank heavens for that. Americans thought that because we built shiny motor cars, we were not only qualified, but in a sense obligated, to rule the world and help other people be like us. It hasn't been a happy experience.

So, the next time you're being lectured about 'globalization', just ask yourself inwardly "Does this make any sense at all?" You may, perhaps, at least salvage a little intellectual interest form the otherwise all-too-predictable banging of the drum.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

So Whose Fault Is That?

Super-strong pot is the latest argument against legalizing marijuana. It's not true, but even if it were, whose fault would that be?

Those were good times, when the Mexican would shove the weed into a garbage compacter, and we would pick apart the resulting 'brick' and smoke it as we smoked tobacco. But the increasing legal penalties for weight, and the desire to shrink the size of the package, emphasized the virtue of stronger, lighter, and smaller pot. We learned not to smoke the leaves, and then we learned how to maximize the stoniness of a grow cycle.

Most people didn't get any more stoned- they just smoked less. And that's good too, to take two or three small puffs and be elevated in a fraction of the time. The cost per high stayed about the same, but that's always been moderate.

And that's the power of your federal government in action, making the product more powerful and compact. Good times, good times.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Inside-Out Imperialism

Today Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert take note of America's current inability to do anything. It seems preposterous now to think we are simply inferior to some other nations, but it should have seemed preposterous years ago. The problem we have is not bad workers but bad leaders.

The main reason goods are cheaper when made overseas would be the virtual slave labor employed in making them. This is the fruit of 60 years of the CIA and other agencies working abroad to kill labor leaders and beat working class parties at the polls. American goods are still competitive in America when they compete with products of organized labor overseas, and would be more so if we provided workers with some of the subsidies that help keep wage demands down in Europe.

American industry, in short, has been trashed by businesses that want to use us as a large market, but have no other interest in America. It is, in short, a sort of inside-out imperialism, in which the powerful central country exports money, and weaponry to suppress unions abroad, but nothing else, importing the manufactured goods formerly imagined to be the exports of the central economy. As far as these people are concerned, things will be fine as long as we keep forking out the cash- regardless of whether we fall to number 27 or 41 on the list of world living standards.

And, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, these businesses are now free to buy as much, or as little, of our government as they require. Things could get quite a bit worse before they get better.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This Just In- Pot Calls Kettle Black

With a personna vastly eclipsing irony, Glen Beck sees Hitler in many places- except himself. In reality, Beck and Fox News are the closest thing to the Nazi movement we can see in the modern landscape.

The common story of the interwar period in Germany describes unhappy Germans rioting in the streets, turning in greater and greater numbers to the Nazi Party, and elevating Hitler to power, transforming him from a civilian failure to a masterful national leader. Murkier are the means by which Hitler gained power, with some photos of party rallies generally standing in for details.

Actually, Hitler did it the old-fashioned way- he used money. He used a party newspaper to raise money, and he spent the money on organizers, and printing more newspapers. More organizers enlisted more members, who paid more dues. In addition, Hitler got money from millionaires, and at times this was critical, but probably the basic money-machine structure provided the needful most of the time.

Hitler didn't just hire organizers, he also hired thugs and bought officials. If the success of a rally or demonstration seemed doubtful, brownshirts and stormtroopers would be moved to the spot, and, being mercenaries, naturally impressed onlookers with their assurance and discipline. (Everyone knew that brownshirt rioting and destruction was not indiscipline, but , instead, was exactly what they were paid to do.)

Hitler was, in short, a brilliant organizer and gangster, paying thugs who could be trusted, not only to extort money from storekeepers, Jews, and industrialists, but also to keep paying dues. In the 20s this nexus of the press, public fear, and gangsterism made Hitler a rich man, and in the 30s it made him and many others fabulously wealthy- except, of course, for the working class, whose living standards gradually fell for the entire decade.

And yet, for most of that decade, Germans felt good about themselves- such is the power of advertising. Like Fox News, the Nazi papers served up a distorted view of the world, and every year there were fewer other papers to offer alternate views. The linotype press, the radio, the movies- these tools of the 20th century achieved new heights of expression in German hands, from the monster rallies to the Berlin Olympics.

By 1939 the grinding poverty of Hitler's Germany (hardly anyone in Berlin could afford to buy an orange) had worn thin with the German people, and Bill Shirer reports an essentially sullen and distrustful populace viewing the beginning of war with no enthusiasm at all. Ironically, the greatest gangster of the 20th century had no talent for governing.

There are many examples in the world of people acting badly, and in South America it is common for the press to believe they can overthrow democratically elected governments. But nowhere, as far as I know, is the urge to overthrow democracy so seamlessly blended with a national press and the ability to mulct the followers, as at Fox News, with Glen Beck. He is, indeed, a key to understanding Hitler.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Business At The Same Old Stand

In The Growth of the American Republic Morrison and Commager argue that the Republican Party, in the later 19th century, consistently increased pensions for veterans in order to spend off the funds collected by tariffs. They were afraid people would want to end the protective tariffs if the government became too prosperous to need them for revenue.

And here, as reported in The American Prospect are three conservatives running the same game in the pages of the Wall Street Journal:

"Even with the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, this year the Department of Defense will spend some $720 billion -- about 4.9% of our gross domestic product, significantly below the average of 6.5% since World War II...

We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget. But anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform."

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Friday, October 1, 2010

I Was Wrong- Bicycle Edition

Since panning McGinn's pander, I've been catching up on my reading with this article from Yes! magazine, and, yes, you do need to make a substantial investment to harvest that bicycle-riding fruit. Like the tracks of a streetcar, investing in special bicycle routes and facilities shows citizens the plan is firm and they can rely more on their bicycles and less on their cars. Go, read it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

McGinn's Pander

It was somehow fitting that Mike McGinn wouldn't see much value in a historical museum. After all, if people studied history, would he be mayor?

Less fitting was his assertion, last week, that money should be spent on the poor first, and his decision this week to spend $13 million on bicycling, walking, and a Transit Study. I mean, really, can you imagine anything that requires less government assistance than your decision to take a walk or ride your bicycle?

The Seattle bicycling community should proudly refuse this 'help' and set about increasing ridership by a variety of private and club ventures- but they won't. The offer of money and jobs will attract some, who will then accuse any dissidents of "hating bicycles", etc etc etc in the style we've come to know so well of McGinn supporters.

What kind of private programs could increase ridership? "Each one teach one" training about bicycle repair and maintenance, training rides so the young can become accustomed to riding 5-10 miles as a normal ride, group rides with extra monitors to help deal with traffic, a buddy-system registry for riders who want one, or just a few, partners for riding, programs to give your old but still good bicycle to people who can't afford them, help for employees who want to negotiate bicycle parking and locker facilities with their employers, 'adopting' parks and keeping them clean, as destinations for popular city rides.

These are just a few ideas to increase ridership, and increasing ridership is the best way to change things. Ok, maybe the second best way to change things, but we already put the police on bicycles, so we can't play that card again.

Where increased ridership and vocal pedestrians have already forced the city to plan, as, for example, with sidewalks, spend the money and build it. But don't take something we can do, like bicycling, and turn it into something we can't do without spending a lot of money on studies. We've done enough of that already.

The Automobile- The Real Ponzi Scheme

We all know what a Ponzi scheme is, because rightwingers use that phrase to describe Social Security, which is fully funded by our taxes for the next 35 years, as a swindle.

Well, move over, SS, we have your real Ponzi scheme right here- the automobile. For a century we've been promised prosperity, and, true to form, early investors have been paid handsomely from those who come later- until now, when the average American is left holding the bag.

The automobile was going to build mighty cities, but instead served to empty them and leave them gutted. It was then going to build mighty suburbs, but we have learned that suburbs, by definition, cannot be mighty, and in fact often cannot even afford basic services over large areas.

The auto companies were going to provide good jobs with healthcare and retirement benefits to a vast workforce, who would in turn support a large domestic economy, but chose instead to move abroad and now are on the verge of defaulting on their pension obligations, and Detroit lies in ruins.

The car buyers were promised better mobility, to get to better jobs, and to enjoy their time off more. Instead, America became a land where most people work more than 40 hours a week, and households have two workers instead of one to maintain their former standard of living- and many suburban families find themselves driving constantly for activities we walked to in my youth.

The federal and state governments said the roads would be paid for by taxes on fuel, and now we have a $2 trillion backlog of necessary repairs to our overbuilt road system.

And now it's over. Americans, the 5% of the world's population that use 20% of the world's resources, are having a hard time understanding the "sustainability" thing. Not to worry- practical examples will be provided. We'll figure it out- eventually.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our Week In McGinn

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn furnished a shining example of his demagogic dexterity when he refused to sign, at the last hour, a supplemental draft environmental statement that had been available for study for months.

Had the City Council known of his intent, they would have passed an ordnance directing him to sign- hence, the need for trickery on the part of McGinn. Had McGinn been successful, the city would have lost 'co-lead' status in the replacement of Highway 99, and also lost other coordination in the process that is intended to reduce the delay, and thus the cost, of the project. If McGinn had managed to lose Seattle's 'co-lead status', he then would have complained loudly and bitterly about how Seattle was being 'excluded' from the project

The clever part is that the successful deception of the City Council gave McGinn a win-win situation. If the Council was unable to save the agreement, the costs and delays of the tunnel would increase- all grist for McGinn's unceasing mill of complaints about the costs and delays of the project, and how Seattle is being ignored by the process. When the Council moved to save the agreement, the barking dogs howled, and the myth of McGinn courageously refusing a last-minute ultimatum was born- with the Council castigated as a cabal usurping power.

The howling, to McGinn, is as important, or more so, than any one move in his program of delay. Two weeks ago, it was the turn of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry to be the elitest cabal (according to McGinniacs) intent on starving the babies of poor immigrant women.

But what does McGinn know about budgeting for a major city? Every governing body in the US is facing a disastrous budget shortfall because of the recession. Sales are off, tax revenues are down, and this on such a massive pandemic scale that nobody could fail to see it. Except McGinn, who offers this viewpoint- "We give away millions of taxpayer dollars to an organization and then they loan it back to us and we call it a good deal. It's no wonder our budget situation is so bad," McGinn said.

It's not true, but McGinn saw another chance to crank up the decibel level and took it. It's what he does. It's what a demagogue does. The game plan is to render our representative government helpless, by a series of tricks such as we have seen from McGinn, and substitute government by a series of plebiscites proposed by- naturally- the demagogue. I doubt McGinn will have much of a run as demagogue, but we'll see more like him as public fear and confusion rises along with global warming. Those nasty things the rightwing said about environmentalists weren't true- until McGinn came along.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Homeless

It would be better for all of us if the homeless had someplace to live. If we had the moral upbringing and the political will to solve this, here would be two beginnings:

First, travel trailers parked temporarily. There's almost an infinite supply of these, they are moderately fire resistant, and would be a real upgrade from tents. They should be provided with the clear understanding that the encampment is temporary, that they will be moved, and that residents who want to stay in them will be moved with them when the time comes.

Secondly, travel trailers parked permanently, very close together (6-8 on an average city lot), plumbed and wired, as a sub-300 square foot style of living. A good way to do this would be to buy several hundred Airstream 28-footers, but without any of the gear necessary for actually traveling or living on the road. As this is single story, and thus low-density, some planning would be required to choose the locations, but a great deal of flexibility would be had by not treating them as single-family homes. For some low-income people, and some homeless people, this would be all they ever want in the way of housing.

It would, in any case, be a lot more than they are getting now.

Not Complex

The Republican plan is simple, breath-takingly so- they want to steal the Social Security Trust Fund.

Their plan is to hand out $4 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, using the money from SS to keep the government subsidies they rely on flowing- and when those funds are gone, to declare bankruptcy. They also intend to sit at the head of the table when the ensuing reorganization plan rewards some of the creditors and requires further payments by some of the debtors, so they can make sure that the lucky creditors who get paid are themselves, and the unlucky debtors who must continue paying are the not-rich taxpayers.

This is our money, which Boomers paid so our large cohort would not burden the next generation (we've funded SS through 2043), but Republicans see no reason they shouldn't take it, considering that destroying our democracy is a goal they have shouted from the rooftops- so why not just take the money and bankrupt us?

It's a business model Republicans have used for years- acquire a healthy corporation, extract every liquid and semi-liquid asset, and dump the carcass, leaving the less alert shareholders holding the bag. Now they think they're poised to commit the largest theft in all of human history. And it's not as though, on a smaller scale, this kind of thing hasn't worked before.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Look! Over there! Shiny!

Behind the glitter of a new park on the central waterfront is a nasty reality- the park is intended to contain green intentions as much as it is to showcase them. The people who want to make the waterfront great have been awarded their 9 acres, to do with as they will.

The rest of the area belongs to the Seattle Department of Transportation, or the Washington State Department of Transportation, or the railroad, or private owners of the current parking lots. Most of these people have their own plans involving more cars on the waterfront, most of it traffic that has no reason to be on the waterfront at all.

The best, and really, the only, way to change the waterfront is to use a streetcar as a spine and hang everything on that. There should be no through-traffic and no parking. Tour buses should debark passengers directly to the trolley with passes provided by the tour bus company.

There is no better place in Seattle for a transformative streetcar than here. The shoreline from the cruise ship terminal to Washington Street is essentially linear, just like a trolley line. There are 2.5 miles of real estate a short walk from such a line, totally awaiting redevelopment as residential, professional and light commercial, or restaurant, a lovely destination for an evening in the town, garnished by a string of parks in which to linger and enjoy the evening while coming or going.

Land is too scarce for parking, and here is where the Jane Jacobeans should focus their ire- on taking the city streets there, and using them for low-rise residential and commercial instead of street. This would be one of the toniest neighborhoods in Seattle, and new residents should reasonably pay a “tax” of not being allowed to park automobiles there.

It’s not impossible. The feds would love it, and it’s just the right size for the packets of money they want to hand out. All the state wants is the tunnel. The city could spend a lot less on surface streets there, and by “a lot less” I mean maybe $50 million that would not be needed to build a new ‘urban arterial’ there. A considerable amount of surface land would then actually be available for the person-sized development the Jacobseans gush over. It could be done, and would be a success.

Sadly, almost nobody in Seattle is seizing this teachable moment to push for a streetcar and a rebuild that reduces substantially the number of automobiles in the neighborhood. The so-called ‘environmentalists’, who want to save the world by stopping the tunnel, are even less help- a new highway on the surface is part of the ’surface options’ they champion. Seattleites in general like streetcars, like the Waterfront streetcar, and would like to see more streetcars, but that’s in general, not strong opinions arrived at by study which they are willing to fight for.

It’s a darn shame there aren’t more transit advocates in Seattle who could help the average people in understanding how to demand more streetcars.

(Crossposted from the Waterfront Streetcar Blog)



Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Brief Word on Recovery

If noise is sound that bothers us, it might equally be said that an addiction is a repetitive behavior that bothers us. If a man goes to the same job every day for 40 years, few will describe it as an addiction, but if that same man smokes a cigarette- just one- the tears, warnings, and recriminations will come.

But here we come to a real fork in the road. Some would say that a former addict, now fully employed and re-integrated into society, is still an addict if they're using medication regularly. Others use a functional yardstick- society may require members to meet certain standards of dress and deportment, but, once met, can ask no more.

The functional approach demands opening the Pandora's box of employment, housing, decent schooling, medical care, and general social measures that ease the life path of those who can afford them and torment those who can't. It is, in fact, a slippery slope- once you realize that an alcoholic may be drinking to ease pain they can't get medical care for, you may see that the chronic pain is related to unemployability resulting from economic changes, and the inability to get re-educated.

So, what do you want? A prosperous community with lots of recovered 'addicts' fully employed, or prisons that are really full of people who can't 'kick the habit'? The choice is ours.

Of 'Visions'- Good and Bad

As predicted, John Jensen and Martin Duke have flipped open their Jane Jacobs breviaries to inveigh against the dangers of too much park, and to offer instead their vision of...well, what their vision is is not too clear. But I'm guessing Jane Jacobs was for it!

But the shadowy outlines of their vision could make you shudder. Duke, for example, doesn't "see any problem with hotels and condos. Having people live on the waterfront is better than alternative places for them to live, and guarantees that people are there year-round. Hotels, of course, generate jobs and tax revenue. And of course, the City profits from the sale of land in the first place."

Well, Helloooo Donald Trump! Memo to Martin- the only people who could afford to live in waterfront hotels and condos would be millionaires who certainly wouldn't live there year-round. In fact, Martin has sketched there the scenario that people who love and respect Seattle have tried to avoid- the selling of the city's best land to developers for a short-term financial gain, to be followed by the eternal regret of having created another Chinese Wall of condos.

Jensen, in turn, continues to wonder "how an unactivated section of town is going to be activated by just a park." Yes, somehow it has escaped his notice that a) this "section of town" is actually surrounded by the largest and most prosperous downtown in the state of Washington, and b) the problem has not been promoting development, but delaying it until we could be sure the public interest was protected.

The problem they're having is that they're living in the past and treating the waterfront like a depressed area that needs urban renewal to become prosperous. And that is about the exact opposite of the actual problem Seattle is trying to solve. The waterfront is inherently so prosperous that the city could never afford to buy land there for a park, and without a park, ordinary people could never afford to visit a waterfront full of million-dollar condos, high-priced restaurants, and, uh, more condos and restaurants.

And Seattle wants more than that. We want a jewel of a park that fits the setting- and a setting fit for the jewel. Seattle has always put on airs about having higher values and more 'vision' than other cities in Puget Sound, and it's paid off big-time with the U of W being the second largest employer in the state, and the mainspring of the civic economy.

We can afford to build it right- and if we do, they will come.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Howling

The proposals were made and james corner field operations chosen to develop plans for a new park on the central waterfront of Seattle. In the fullness of time, and about four years of public participation, plans well be developed- and what plans these will be!

The central waterfront is, quite literally, the central waterfront. It's visible as such if you look down from a plane, arrive by ship, gaze from a skyscraper or hill, or look westwards from a downtown sidewalk. It is our early history of Puget Sound commerce in steamers, and our later history of purse seiners unloading and freighters loading at the wharves. It is our future history to the extent that it dignifies the future while reconnecting Seattleites to the watery world of the Sound, our pleasure in actively using our parks, and our window on the Olympics- in a place many downtown workers can reach in a short walk at lunchtime. To some extent, in some way or another, most Seattleites will want this park to be a success.

And at every step of the process howls will be heard from Seattle's radical urbanologists. The self-proclaimed high priests of Jane Jacobism will tell us what Jane Jacobs said about parks (or, at least, the parts they agree with) and will decry the inclusion of any greenery where it would be possible to build low-rise (but not low-income) housing and shops. This, they say, will be so darn much fun that people will realize what a mistake they made in moving to the suburbs and come flooding back into the city, thus ending sprawl and reducing our dependence on the automobile.

They're a little vague on how all this fun will fit into 9 acres. It's as though you went to the dentist to get a tooth replaced and he offered to give you the incisors of a lion and the molars of a hippo- as much fun as that might be, you couldn't help but wonder how it would all ft in your mouth.

Let's be plain here- for a variety of reasons, Seattle will be a more attractive city once this whole mess on the waterfront gets properly sorted. Weak people that we are, we delight in cleanliness and order, like to visit the Aquarium once in a while with our children, and want to get out of the office and eat lunch amid greenery on sunny days. A 'new' central waterfront would be exactly the kind of place the suburbs can never match, and might actually make people think about moving back into town.

Listening to 'the howling' is just part of the price we pay for getting it right.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rebuilding the World- One Bus at a Time

At first the task seems insuperable- rebuild the entire world in only 30 years to meet the challenges of global warming. Then you remember that most of this stuff will wear out and need to be replaced in 30 years anyway. Even the much-maligned "decay of our infrastructure" is in fact a wonderful asset- a long list of assets which are fully depreciated and paid for and can be abandoned with no financial penalty, or even some considerable gain.

Mid-20th century Americans did not build to last, because in their experience changing technology would render obsolete what they built. The enormous investments of railroads, in the early 1920s, in city stations and the coaling and other infrastructure that serviced the steam engines, were the last attempts to build infrastructure that would outlast the men and machines which built them. Less than 15 years later the automobile and diesel engine rendered all this investment by the railroads obsolete.

The problem, rendered in the "change on the fly " perspective, becomes two-fold. It's important to spend money on what we will need, and important not to spend money on what we won't need. We can see clearly that we will need stuff that runs on electricity, and we won't need stuff that runs on gas or oil.

If this were a dictatorship, things would be simple, and, quite probably, judging from other dictatorships, wrong. In our system, hundreds of thousands of decisions need to be made about where to spend. Fortunately, we have hundreds of thousands of governing bodies to consider these matters, breaking them into manageable sizes and then dealing with them, often by giving up something we want in order to get something we want more, and, often equally important, allowing funding for something we don't want in order to prevent something else we don't want even more.

This is where the tunnel-haters of Seattle get it so dreadfully wrong. Their policy is to take the approximately $1.5 billion the state would spend on the tunnel and spend it instead on suburban roads and highways, strengthening sprawl, while increasing the noise and pollution of the city by putting the traffic from 99 on the surface streets. Because they don't believe their own talking points, they don't believe that the tunnel will be a valuable rail ROW in the future. The same myopia informs their calls for bicycle paths- they simply can't envision a world in which significant amounts of the roadways are repurposed for other public uses.

That same amount of fury, expended in the cause of saving and extending Seattle's electric trolley buses, would be of real service to the future, spending money on infrastructure we'll need and taking money from "infrastructure repairs" we won't need that may actually harm us (South Park Bridge, I'm looking at you). The real lesson here, however, is probably that it won't pay to jump on a bandwagon that everybody says is going in the right direction.

Changing the world in 30 years won't be so hard if we do it one bus at a time. The devil is in the details.

Monday, September 20, 2010

He's Not THAT Rich

The web has been rocking lately with laughter about the "Not-really-rich" guy and his >$400,000 family income. But he's sincere- just read this article and find within it how they economize in every aspect of their lives- for example, sure, they have cable- but not those pricey movie channels!

Either that, or he doesn't want the nanny lying around watching Showtime when she should be scrubbing the toilet. Always hard to tell, with the rich.

Rebuilding Rail- Not That Expensive

I can't verify the figures given below, but for a very rough cost estimate of major rebuilding of our rail systems,,,,

Interstate II (http://www.texasrailadvocates.org/InterstateII.htm) involves double- or triple-tracking 20,000 to 30,000 miles of mainline freight railroads, establishing corridors for high-speed trains and eventually electrifying the trains to replace diesel engines. Carmichael estimates this could all be done in 20 years for two cents on the motor fuel tax.

From a rather larger article at Common Dreams.

Historical Streetcars for Lake Union?

(Cross-posted from Seattle's Waterfront Streetcar Blog)

Within every trolley fan lies the darkest question- would you give up the old trolley for the new streetcar? With the high-level boarding and limited technologies of the old cars, this is not an idle question for the Seattle waterfront.

The waterfront, as intimated in previous posts, could be an ideal streetcar line- for modern cars. A bustling service should be anticipated a few years after a line is up and running from the cruise ship terminal to Pioneer Square. What will be wanted is the ability to handle large crowds at times, smart and regular service at all times, and whatever ability to economize that can be found in some standardization with other streetcars in Seattle’s ’system’.

To be honest, I have my thumb on the scales, because I can think of a better place for Seattle’s vintage cars- running up Westlake from The Center for Wood Boats to the south end of the Fremont Bridge, and perhaps from there out to the SPU fieldhouse. All of this line is level, was quite recently working rail, and is now used as parking or a path. It s quite possibly the most shovel-ready piece of rail right-of-way in the US.

And there’s that heritage thing, with the line running from MOHAI and the Center for Wood Boats to just short of the Fremont district, where one may, with a short walk, find the old carbarns now serving to brew and dispense fine ale. This, I submit, is where we want to showcase our centerpiece cars, and knit the raveled skeins of time with restoration skills and memories. Did I mention the beer?

Who knows, maybe at such a juncture somebody would build a new replica of one of the seaplanes Bill Boeing built and flew off of Lake Union, possibly duplicating he Museum’s prized mail plane, just as the CWB has been responsible for so many new boats built in the old style. It’s part of how we remember who we are and what we can do.

Think ahead a little and I’m sure you’ll see the virtues of modern streetcars serving happy crowds on the Seattle waterfront, and old streetcars serving smaller but even happier crowds on Lake Union. It’s all a question of scale.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Get Kittens

If you have a choice, don't get a cat, get some kittens. Any number from 2 to 4 is a good choice.

Sometimes you want a mature cat, or just one cat or kitten, especially if you already have cats in the plural.

But over the lifespan, a litter of kittens is best. There's a special bond between cat siblings which, among other things, leads to a lot of perfectly adorable nuzzling and cooing amongst them. They're prettier as a matched set, a role they will happily perform in an infinite number of variations around the house for their entire lives. And believe me, you haven't really lived if you've never had four purring cats in your lap.

Maybe the most interesting thing, though, is being able to see the differences in their personalities so much more clearly with the side-by-side comparison of their siblings. In groups larger than three, cats don't rotate around their owners as strongly as one or two cats will, and tend more to their cat business, whatever that may be.

Get kittens. You'll thank me later.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Aristede

Johann Hari summarizes the Haitian situation wonderfully, although, sadly, the result is not wonderful. Here we see, full-on, the dedication of the Clinton Democrats to preventing democracy and building the policed dictatorship. This is all part and parcel of the dictatorship in Honduras, the death-squad government of Colombia, and the gang warfare of northern Mexico.

The linkage lies in the swirling whirlpools of money, drugs, guns, cheap labor, and even cheaper employers, prostitution, gambling, loansharking, civic corruption, and police becoming gangsters, that would be all too familiar to us, if we had studied our own history. Rory Carroll, in a recent article in the Guardian, has reported more details in describing the decline of civic virtue in the city of Torreon.

Integral to this smashing of civic virtue is prohibition. This basic policy unlocks the cash cow for police and gangsters alike. I'm not going into details here, but simply observe that for the Clintonian Democrats, drug prohibition and the denial of democracy are the bedrock of their faith- and to hell with what the people say.

That took, like, 20 seconds....

A few months in Washington DC and former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske is singing like a canary, cheerfully reprising the old myth about marijuana being a "gateway drug", as though that hadn't been repudiated so often, including a specific repudiation by a national commission.

As reported by Americans for Safe Access, Kerlikowske also denied marijuana was medicine. Way to go, Gil! Knuckle under completely so we can be sure we should never trust you again!

This is the wing of the Democratic Party that can shove its head in the toilet and flush repeatedly as far as I'm concerned. Just keep it up, guys, if you want a re-run of the Gore-Lieberman 2000 trainwreck.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Another 'Third Republic' Moment

The Bush tax cuts, which awarded the richest 5% of Americans with $4 trillion over their lifespan, are due to expire. Democrats want to renew the tax cuts for everyone making less than $250k a year. More than 60% of us agree that the tax cuts should not be extended for those making over $250k per year. This is both a necessary and popular move to repair the budget. Republicans unanimously demand further rewards for the very rich.

But, as in the end stages of the Third Republic, some Democrats want the Republicans to win. I wouldn't give any more than even odds that the Democrats can do the necessary and popular thing. If they don't, the government will get weaker and the party will get weaker.

Fortunately, we have no aggressor nation on the horizon, poised to strike and invade. Unfortunately, the much larger menaces of peak oil and global warming are looming over the horizon, demanding basic changes in the grandest scale of our society- changes that this government, poorly handled, may not survive.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why "Bus Rapid Transit" Is Wrong

Bus Rapid Transit starts with a simple idea- why not run buses instead of railcars, and save all that money for rails and signalling? Even better, buses have 'flexibility' that allows them to use city streets and go new places. Best of all, you get to sell the idea of 'rapid transit' but all you have to deliver is buses.

And this will actually work, as long as transit uses decreases and failure is the end goal. But if transit use rises, you're caught short, and have no way to respond to the conditions causing the increase in ridership.

And the BRT mistake can be compounded, as Sound Transit is doing in King County, by building special roads and parking garages for the BRT. Again, in theory, this stuff will be built so it could be used for LRT in the future. In actuality, the east extension of Sound Transit Link service will be a case of building the LRT to fit the BRT infrastructure, not vice versa.

Why is this stuff important? Because of global warming. Well within the lifespans of stuff built today, it will be necessary to build transit to take 40-60% of the market share, not the 5-6% seen today. No transit system in the nation will be able to meet this need with buses, and referring to Curitabo will simply reveal that they eventually built the rail system they needed all along.

The Sound Transit rail route to Bellevue is bent to reach every bus park 'n ride and gather the ridership. Somebody forgot to tell the management that it's not just buses that are 'flexible'- riders can be flexible too. They'll travel further to catch a train then they will to take a bus.

The REAL Next Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor, as previously noted, was not a big surprise to Americans who were keeping up with current events. It was a bg surprise to Americans who didn't, or who believed the Japanese could not build good warships and airplanes, or who believed Pearl Harbor was too shallow for torpedoes launched from airplanes.

What if the next world struggle was non-violent in nature? Would we even know when "war" had begun? Because it appears that the Chinese have already been successful in early campaigns to dethrone the US as ruler of the world.

What was their secret weapon? Not having an army- or, more precisely, having an army dedicated to the welfare of China, instead of a China dedicated to the welfare of the army. With a military budget running for decades at under $10 billion, it's easy to see how they could save money faster than us, with our current military budget of $653 billion.

And it's working well for them. They can confidently invest large sums in small countries, secure in the knowledge that the vast market that is China will not collapse because the Chinese army gets involved in a war in Peru.

The knowledge that so much change has already occurred can only come as a relief to those of us who have dreaded the apoplectic response of America to the impending collision with reality.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Back To The Future

Seattle Transit Blog added a new contributor recently, with Steve Thornton demanding more slums and fewer parks. It's tempting to dismiss this as just more of the park-bashing that defeated the Commons in the 90s, but, I think, important to look at what's actually being said.

The basic framework today is rote learning from Jane Jacobs, gone wrong. They remember that Jacobs championed a lively streetlife, but they never understood where or how this arises in the Jacobsean sphere, so they favor end results and tend to demand that somebody else make it happen.

Thornton, for example, goes on at great length about how the 9 acres proposed for a park on the waterfront should, instead, be used to make the kind of city he likes, with cotton candy sellers and clowns in each block, and great numbers of little 'shoppes', but not once does he say how this should be done, or why this should be done, considering the area is bounded on the north by the Pike Place Market and on the south by Pioneer Square. The Market and Pioneer Square are both just such lively streetlife areas as he claims to favor, and both are suffering from lack of trade. Apparently we have no shortage of actual area in which this could happen.

Thornton's argument fails wherever probed, but he, and the commenters, offer a self-portrait of the would-be artist as an angry young person. First, they claim to be acting on behalf of God to save the environment from development- as unlikely as their path may appear to be. Because they're acting for God, they don't need to worry about the details, but because they themselves are weak, they limit their attacks to public parks or other social amenities. This gives them a double bonus of publicity value as wacky contradictorians, willing to stand up against the suffocating blanket of good taste in order to honor their principles.

And their principles are made pretty plain by reading what they write and read. They like new restaurants and food carts, confuse small bookstores with literacy, think a thriving trade in jewelry and clothing is the beating commercial heart of Seattle, and think transit can be much improved by electronic systems that tell you when you have enough time to get another cup of coffee before your bus arrives. Oh, and they think the viaduct looks really cool.

So, a bunch of lovers of Stalinist architecture who think Seattle should close the parks, provide more slum housing, and encourage small businesses- where have I heard that before?

Oh, that's right, that was the Seattle of the 50s, the Seattle of the Public Library and Municipal Building that have subsequently been torn down because they were too ugly to live. That was the Seattle that zoned the Regrade to prevent high-rise development and keep space for manufacturing close to downtown. That was the Seattle that 'couldn't afford' parks because of the sweetheart deals with businesses that kept city revenues down. That Seattle let developers built the Edgewater and other buildings on stilts over the water.

And that was wrong. It turned out that if we valued and protected our parks, Seattle became a more attractive place to live. It turned out that when the Building Department was forced to obey the law, most notably in the Roanoke Reef case, business flourished and Seattle became more prosperous. It turned out that First Avenue became more prosperous, not less, when the myriad of tattoo shops and pawn shops finally closed their doors.

So, thanks, but no thanks. You can take your Stalinist yearnings for architecture and your confused muttering about environmentalism and peddle it elsewhere. I've heard a duck fart underwater before.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What is Right? (Tax Edition)

Sooner or later most of us encounter a financial adviser who tells us that the average household spends about 30% on housing and 20% on food, and, while our household may not be average, it's good to think in those terms occasionally as a yardstick.

So, what should we pay in taxes? In most of the world that looks like someplace we might want to be, people pay about 50% of their income in taxes, most of them without grumbling.

It's the price we pay for good government, and good government is the reason we're not still living in mud-daub huts. Good government is not something we can afford thanks to the productivity of modern trucks- modern trucks are something we can afford because we have good government.

There's all kinds of dimensions to this, but the bottom line is that if we wish to continue living as a first-world nation, we need to pay taxes at first-world rates. It's not a hard-and-fast figure, but a yardstick for use in understanding the general proportions of the problem, and of the solution.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Beware the Female of the Species

Hillary Clinton cites, as proof of terrorist conspiracies, the fact that “these drug cartels are now showing more and more indices of insurgency; all of a sudden, car bombs show up which weren’t there before.”

So, that would be totally different from that time in 1976 when the CIA helped a Chilean death squad to murder Orlando Letelier with a car bomb in Washington DC, right?

I'm pretty sure that there's a conspiracy to set off bombs and attack democratic government, and pretty sure Hillary is one of the ringleaders. All of a sudden, word bombs are being dropped by Hillary about more US war in Central and South America, word bombs that weren't there before.

Seattle- Not A Streetcar Suburb

It's fashionable now to describe Seattle as a city with 'streetcar suburbs', but maybe more interesting to see how this statement is wrong than how it is right. Seattle was suburban before the coming of the streetcars.

Seattle was first of all a city of ships and boats, spawning suburbanization around the shores of Puget Sound and the sloughs, rivers, and lakes. In this we find the explanation for many places that today are curiosities or question marks, reminders of the time when the Green River flowed backwards for half the year, and the produce of the Issaquah farms traveled down the Sammamish Slough, through Bothell, and to Seattle.

Then the cable cars virtually leveled the hills between Seattle and Lake Washington, making it a nickel ride to lake steamers at Leschi and Madison that spurred suburban development around the shores of the lake even before the streetcars had begun infilling the Central District or Queen Anne.

Then came the streetcars, and it will always be a matter of interest to me to grab an old streetcar map and drive the routes, to see how that infrastructure of buildings and development has survived, albeit often in fossil form. Along with the streetcars came the interurbans and linear development in the Rainier Valley and out north through Greenwood.

But the automobile was too perfectly suited to the topography for Seattle to resist it even for a moment, quite arguably virtually doubling the number of buildable sites in the city, a development still discernible on the north face of Queen Anne, a neighborhood close to the city core but denied by gradient to the streetcar.

It should not surprise us, then, if the next big change in transportation is discontinuous and creates development where none was expected. White Center or Burien- can't remember which- is now planning for 35-story skyscrapers, and it's hard not to hear this as a 'come hither' call to Sound Transit to build southwards. Extending light rail to Issaquah on the I-90 ROW would cost a fraction of what the Redmond route will cost and pass closer to Bellevue Community College. In the city, streetcars and light rail will not be built by real estate developers to serve single family dwellings, but by public agencies to serve many different needs.

It's ok to think out of the box now- you're in Seattle.

And now this word from our sponsors...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

9/11 and Pearl Harbor Iconography

Anyone watching world events in November of 1941 knew that an attack by Japan on the US was a matter of days or weeks, possibly a month at the most. Anyone familiar with the fleet exercises off Panama in the early 1930s and the British attack at Taranto could have predicted a spoiler attack by the Japanese at Pearl. None of this came as a big surprise to Roosevelt or our joint chiefs.

To the average American, the surprise was devastating. Japan, a land they knew as an exporter of tin toys and wooden dolls, and considered to be comically inferior to Americans, had not only attacked us, but won. Why, if the Japanese could attack us, why not the Cubans or Java Islanders? Suddenly, it appeared that any insignificant-appearing country could in actuality be a ravaging military dictatorship seeking to rule the world.

This fog of paranoia proved so useful to the military-industrial complex that billions have been spent in the years that followed to propagate the tale. Like a cargo cult waiting for the silver bird to return, America waited for the next Pearl Harbor- and it came!

Imagine the feelings of relief and joy at the sight of the two towers falling! For nearly a decade our feelings of fear had been eroded by the collapse of our only "real" enemy, but now we had new proof we should be afraid! America had once again been anointed in the blood of the innocent victim and marveled anew at how such events could so totally come out of nowhere. Now young people as well as old could tell their stories of where they were on that awful day when we were so viciously attacked.

Uh, well, maybe not to the point of raising taxes to pay for a war on our enemy. There are limits.

What's Wrong With Obama?

Bill McKibben reports that Obama has turned down an offer of a solar panel for the White House. This offer, of course, is symbolic, as is the actual solar panel, one of those Carter installed in the 70s.

Did you want to slap me in the face? Well, thank you very much, Mr. Corporate President, afraid that your billionaire buddies might not let you in the club if you hang around with environmentalists.

But maybe what Obama should learn from Carter is that life does not end when you leave the White House. Like Carter, Obama will probably have about 30 years in which to reconsider the wisdom of his acts. Judging from this performance, those will probably be painful years for him- and for us.

Friday, September 10, 2010

America and Pakistan

It's tempting to think that if the Pakistanis can't govern themselves, they are doomed to the evils of oligarchy and gangster rule. It's especially tempting because it lets us off the hook for our role in creating this disaster.

The Pakistanis might very well have that good government, if we hadn't stepped in along the way to support military dictatorships. The Pakistani-Indian rift might well be healed if we had not exploited those differences to challenge the Russians in the Indian Ocean.

It's not an accident that a large border area of Pakistan-Afghanistan serves as a terrorist base area- that was our plan. That was also "fighting the Russians".

And it's not an accident that timber cutting in Pakistan by timber poachers denuded hillsides and unleashed the floodwaters of a globally-superheated storm. Stealing the natural resources by dealing with local thieves is what "free trade" is all about.

Like the US-Mexico border, we've created a problem in Pakistan. Kinda makes you wonder- could there be even more of these problems coming in the years ahead?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

America, Seattle, and the Streetcar

The horse car, and then the street car, lifted Americans from the mud and horse manure that formed their roads, and sheltered them from the rain and snow. As a stable consumer of power, it subsidized the building of power plants and spread of electricity, and it usually maintained the streets, often paving them, that the streetcars ran on. It made it possible to build bigger factories with larger numbers of workers from further away.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, the streetcar era was over, and American bought automobiles instead. The streetcars of the day were hard-riding cramped single-truck cars for which nobody grieved. In America the day of the streetcar was done by the time the PCC car was unveiled- a car that became the favorite of the world, but was rejected by America.

Since that time, the streetcar, and our circumstances, have evolved. In the many lines of Europe we can see this flowering, but in America we're still wondering what the role of the streetcar should be in transit and urban planning.

We seem to know that, because of the low speed of streetcars, 3-5 miles seems to be a good length for a streetcar line. Development clusters readily on streetcar lines and property values increase. With this and other factors in mind, it becomes possible to imagine specific roles for the streetcar in the city of your choice.

Arguably, Seattleites should be doing a lot of such imagining. Seattle is essentially a small city, and the projected funding for high-capacity rail transit is claimed for many years into the future by Sound Transit and their Link lines and extensions. Creating viable in-city transit improvements should be high on the list for Seattleites.

I'm hoping to sketch some imaginary lines in the future, but for now, the point is that the factors that created our original lines will not be the factors that create the new lines we need, and the streetcars we build today are vastly different from the streetcars we rejected then.