A Victory for California Taxpayers

This past week a direct attack on Proposition 13 was resoundingly voted down by the California State Assembly. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 would have changed a key element of Prop. 13 by lowering the current two-thirds vote needed to pass local bonds and special taxes — including parcel taxes — to just 55 percent.

Bond debt and parcel taxes are paid by adding extra charges to property tax bills, sometimes for decades, which are not subject to Proposition 13’s one-percent cap. The two-thirds vote requirement is a crucial taxpayer protection because while everyone gets to vote on these local measures, only property owners pay for them.

If ACA 1 had been approved by two-thirds of each house of the state Legislature, it would have gone on the ballot, where it would have needed only a simple majority to pass. That would have changed Proposition 13 to allow tax increases for anything defined as “infrastructure” to pass with the approval of only 55 percent of the electorate in any (or every) subsequent election.

Taxpayers face a treacherous landscape in California. Legislative Democrats have more than super-majority control over the Assembly, meaning seven Democrats could oppose ACA 1 and it still would have passed. Taxpayer advocates, led by Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, were outnumbered by about 15 to 1 in the halls of the Capitol as lobbyists for local government entities including cities, counties, special districts and firefighters raced from office to office looking for last-minute support.

To read the entire column, please click here.

2020’s Big Tax Increases Might Not Be a Sure Bet

Earlier this year, I wrote about the #Build2020 plan put forward by Assembly Democrats to make it easier to raise taxes at the local level for special taxes and general obligation bonds to pay for things like libraries, hospitals, parks, and other politically-appealing infrastructure projects.

This week, the measure was taken up for a vote on the Assembly floor.  Surely, with 61 Democrats out of 80 in the Assembly, ACA 1 should have had no problem securing the two-thirds vote needed to move it out of the lower house.  Think again.

In fact, ACA 1 received just 44 votes in Monday’s vote – 10 shy of the 54 votes required for passage.  Indeed, virtually every Democrat facing a potentially tough re-election campaign in 2020 failed to support ACA 1.  Several “moderate” Democrats joined them to sink the proposal.

What explains the unexpected negative vote for ACA 1?  Perhaps some Democrats are rethinking their push for higher taxes amidst growing talk of a recession and the push for billions collectively in new taxes on the 2020 ballot.

Some at the Capitol and outside interests have been pushing ACA 1 and a host of other tax increase measures thinking that the prospect of higher-liberal voter turnout in the March presidential primary and November general election will propel these tax measures long sought by liberals to victory.

How else does one explain backers of a proposal to gut Proposition 13 and impose a split-roll property tax system, which has already qualified for the ballot, announcing plans to abandon their original proposal in favor of an amended measure.

Why are they going to the trouble of collecting more than 1 million signatures a second time for another ballot measure?  Unsure of the passage of the original measure, they amended it to remove politically problematic provisions or add new “sweeteners” to try and gain more electoral support or neutralize opposition.

Even ACA 1’s author, Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, took pains to frame the debate as not being a tax increase.  During the floor debate, she said, “to be clear, nothing in this bill increases anyone’s taxes.  Nothing in this bill requires a local government to propose a funding measure to its voters.”

Surprisingly, Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, chair of the powerful Assembly Rules Committee, openly spoke out against ACA 1 during the debate.  Recounting his experiences as a young legislative staffer in the 1970’s when Prop. 13 was first enacted, he said that, “I remember the fear of people of the cost of taxation going through the roof and impeding my ability to buy a home.”

Speaking of today’s housing crisis, he noted that, “in the current time, I know young couples, outstanding couples, self-employed couples with good jobs, worried about buying a home in California.”

Cooley and other moderates know that lack of significant action to increase home building and lower housing costs, coupled with crushing property tax increases that could put homebuying out of reach for many working class Californians, might not be a recipe for electoral success – even in liberal California.

Of course, no bill is “dead” at the State Capitol until session adjourns for the year on September 13.  It’s likely that ACA 1 will come back for another vote sometime soon.  But Monday’s vote is the first sign that 2020’s big tax push may not be the slam dunk that some in Sacramento thought it would be.

Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s communications director.

This article was originally published by the Pacific Research Institute

San Francisco’s Political Leadership Has Squandered a Fortune

In 2009, San Francisco’s municipal budget totaled $6.5 billion — $8.6 billion in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation and population. San Francisco’s budget for 2019 is an eye-popping $12.2 billion, a 10 percent increase just since 2018. The city has failed to match this staggering budget growth with a similar increase in capital investment or services, however, providing an object lesson in the limits of what money can do.

Companies like Google, Salesforce, and Uber, headquartered in and around the city, pour sky-high salaries and stock-option windfalls into the local economy, which has seen real estate values — and the cost of everything else — soar. City coffers overflow with tax revenue. Though the effect has been most pronounced for the past decade, it extends as far back as the first dot-com boom, 20 years ago—in 1999, the city budget was $4.2 billion, equivalent to $7.7 billion today. The excess budget above inflation and population growth over those 20 years totals an astonishing $23 billion.

What has San Francisco done with this wealth? Not much. The Municipal Transportation Agency (“Muni”), which runs the busses and metro, has struggled with failure after failure this year. The housing shortage in the city is so bad that it is driving people to live in cars and even boats. Homelessness is up 14 percent in the past 6 years. Dirty streets, with needles and worse on the sidewalks, were an issue in last year’s mayoral race. A city seemingly rich enough to pave its roads with gold finds them covered in trash.

San Francisco has squandered its fortune. Proclaiming itself a “Transit First” city, density and geography make it one of the U.S. cities best suited for public transport. The city could have used its $23 billion excess to build dozens of miles of subway. Instead, it dug just 1.6 miles of the Central Subway, still not open. San Francisco did build a downtown train station, the Salesforce Transit Center, billed as the “Grand Central of the West”—except that it didn’t fund a tunnel to the station, so no trains go there yet, only busses.

San Francisco politicians also claim to care about affordable housing. Even at the inflated rate to build such housing in the Bay Area — up to $700,000 per unit — $23 billion could have built 33,000 units in the past 20 years. The total number of subsidized units in the city was only about 33,000 in 2018, and just 3,741 of them came from city programs like public housing or the mayor’s office. The rest came from federal, state, or private investment.

San Francisco also claims to care greatly about green energy and rising sea levels. With $23 billion, it could have installed solar panels on every building in the city at no cost to the owner, with almost $16 billion to spare for coastal defenses. Instead, San Francisco offers an anemic $1,500 credit for a typical solar installation, and seawalls have gotten no further than an “action plan” and a “vulnerability and consequences assessment.”

It wasn’t always this way. In the 20 years from 1917 to 1937, San Francisco dug the Twin Peaks and Sunset tunnels that remain central to its metro system; completed the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which provides some of America’s cleanest water; and built both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, which connect it to the region and sustain its jobs. All these projects are still used daily.

There have been some success stories. The city’s OneSF capital plan has been making long overdue improvements to streets and sewers. The Public Utilities Commission has completed several major seismic upgrades to the Hetch Hetchy water system, helping prepare for the eventual major earthquake. Two parks bonds, in 2008 and 2012, led to spectacular renovations of city parks and playgrounds. But these largely represent good governance and incremental improvements, not the fruits of billions of dollars of spending. With no grand projects to point to, it’s reasonable to wonder where all the money has gone.

Municipal employment has eaten up a large share. Salaries and benefits account for almost 45 percent of the budget, averaging $175,004 per employee, in a city where median household income is $96,265. The city employs 31,830 people, one for every 28 residents and six employees for every city block. The $873 million spent on grants—payments to nonprofits or other groups for various social services—almost equals the total spent on capital projects and facilities maintenance combined.

The larger issues, however, are political indifference and bureaucratic mismanagement. San Francisco carries principal debt of $3.63 billion, which could have been paid down since 2015 with millions to spare. Instead of making this long investment in the city’s financial future, San Francisco’s leaders have grown used to revenue that grow without effort and issued more than $1 billion of additional debt. The current budget is now burdened with $1.6 billion of debt service.

The paltry results from exceptional budget growth are also a story of mismanagement. The Central Subway, though one of the most expensivesubway projects in the world, has almost run out of money; its opening was recently delayed another 18 months. Last year, Muni made critical upgrades to the century old Twin Peaks tunnel, requiring additional busses to substitute for trains during the work. Muni didn’t plan for the extra drivers and took them from other routes, leaving the city short on service and causing a system-wide “meltdown.” The “Grand Central of the West,” despite having no tunnel or tracks, still cost $2.2 billion; it closed only six weeks after opening, due to structural cracks. The city spent $2 million to build a public bathroom at $4,700 per square foot, a construction cost similar to high-rise luxury condos. As successful as the OneSF capital plan has been, searching for a list of projects on its website returns the message, “the requested page could not be found.” San Francisco demonstrates that throwing in more money will compound mismanagement, not solve it.

The story of San Francisco’s budget over the past two decades shows that the city’s leadership doesn’t really value many of the issues—transit, affordable housing, clean energy—that it says it does. Given how little the city has done with its incredible windfall, year after year, it’s not clear what it values at all.

Phillip Sprincin is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This article was originally published by City Journal Online

California’s Troubled Recycling System Takes Another Hit

California’s already-troubled recycling system took another blow this month with the closure of Ontario-based rePlanet, which operated 284 recycling centers, the most of any recycling company in the state.

But despite complaints from environmentalists about 2 million recyclable containers a day being thrown away in the Golden State and from consumer advocates upset that state residents are losing $25 million in deposits a month, no fix is on the horizon. That’s even though there is general agreement on what would revive recycling: increasing the reimbursement rates that the California Department of Resources Recycling (CalRecycle) pays recycling centers that take in single-use glass, plastic and metal bottles. Legislation to increase rates appears stalled in Sacramento.

Another proposed solution is to increase the 5-cent deposit per small plastic or glass bottle to 10 cents, as Oregon and Michigan have done. Those states have 90 percent recycling rates, far better than the 75 percent rate reported in California before rePlanet shut down operations.

Fallout from China’s decision to stop buying recyclables

About 1,000 centers have closed since the state lowered reimbursement rates in 2016. Recycling in California and across America took a giant hit in late 2017 when China – by far the world’s biggest market for recyclables – stopped its program, concluding that processing other nations’ waste was not a good use of resources.

Given California’s history as a pioneering environmental state, green groups like Californians Against Waste are incredulous that state leaders like Gov. Gavin Newsom and predecessor Jerry Brown see fixing recycling as a low priority.

But China is far from the only player in the recycling debate which is rethinking recycling. Brown opposed increasing reimbursements on the grounds that it was time for the state to develop a “modern” version of recycling. 

In a policy debate with echoes of the present flap over whether dockless electric scooters actually help the environment, a growing number of economists are skeptical about whether recycling makes sense. They say the resources needed to process separate streams of waste use up considerable energy, especially because the industry has never been able to address the problem that most non-deposit plastic products placed in recycling bins aren’t recyclable. And with improvements in landfill liners and design, previous views of dumps as toxic sites have lost ground.

Another claim heard in the late 1980s when California and many other states launched recycling programs – that landfills were running out of room – no longer has many believers. 

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that since 2010, one landfill had been built and 36 landfills had been expanded in the state.

New York Times economics columnist John Tierney wrote in 2015 that “all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing.” 

Environmentalists see single-use plastic as huge problem

But this view of recycling as inefficient, expensive and not particularly helpful to the environment is rejected by greens and by many Democrats who have taken on a new goal of ending all single-use plastics. They see plastic – which can last hundreds of years – as a huge pollution problem. That plastics are made from fossil fuels is also considered a major shortcoming. This view drives environmentalists’ goal of ending all single-use plastics – not just straws and utensils but consumer packaging. 

Senate Bill 54 – the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act – would commit California to a 75 percent reduction in single-use plastics by 2030. With 12 co-authors, the bill passed the Senate in May and won initial support from the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on generally party-line votes.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to go even farther. He has promised to eliminate the “ludicrous” and “outdated” practice of sending garbage to landfills.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Housing California Doesn’t Have to be So Hard

When the first new home in the Centennial housing development goes on sale in 2021 it will have been 27 years since the project was submitted for local approval.  That’s over a quarter century, well more than two decades. It’s a full generation, or six college graduations. And, for many, it’s nearly half a lifetime.

With this in mind, it’s not a wonder why housing enthusiasts scoff at Governor Newsom’s expectation of constructing 3.5 million new units by 2025.  Instead, this report may help explain why housing starts are severely lagging this year.

It certainly isn’t good for a supply-starved California. 

We are all too familiar with the expense and difficulty of building higher-density housing in the state’s job centers.  So, to meet the need of working Californians – and to do it affordably – developers are forced to prospect previously undeveloped areas.  That’s where the trouble starts.  

It was 25 years ago when housing sponsors proposed to build on a portion of the sprawling Tejon Ranch, in northern Los Angeles County.  It was a massive, nearly 20,000-unit development to be built over 25 to 30 years. It was designed to principally serve sizeable job-growth in three counties – Los Angeles to the south, Kern to the north and Ventura to the west.  Ambitious? Yes. Needed? Sorely.

The project was self-sustaining, costing existing taxpayers nothing.  It proposed to provide its own water, sewage, energy and transportation infrastructure while featuring nearly 6,000 acres of open space – almost one-half the development.  And, it was far away from nosy neighbors.

Given the challenges of building in existing neighborhoods one would think that Californians would prefer to build new housing on previously undeveloped land.  Wrong. The proposal was met by early and fierce opposition from omnipresent environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California Audubon Society and the Planning and Conversation League which tied up project approval for years.  

Lawsuit after lawsuit was filed – the latest over the purported fire hazards of Centennial.  These occurred despite the substantial environmental and other benefits provided by the project.  Almost all of these onerous complaints utilized the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a dangerous law that’s become the centerpiece of all land-use approvals in California – large and small, urban and rural.   Sadly, endless litigation against the Tejon-based project showed it is perhaps even more difficult to create new communities in the state.

This can’t go on if California is to do something to relieve the existing pressures on markets and new household formation – like the inexcusable delays to projects like Centennial – that contribute so immensely to its housing shortage.  

It can start by reforming the myriad and costly procedures developers must follow to get a housing proposal approved.  First, state and local governments can reduce or even remove onerous design and code requirements. That means elected officials need to quit looking to new housing to solve each and every (mostly contrived) environmental concern or matter of health and safety.

Second, locally elected officials need to zone to higher densities then stick to those densities, in the name of housing supply.  The state doesn’t need to intervene in the exercise of this authority either. If the state wants to compensate locals who do more, it should do so.

Third, restore a full-blown redevelopment program and skew it toward housing production.  Simultaneously, prohibit local policies like rent control and affordable-housing mandates like inclusionary zoning.  These programs are confiscatory, expensive and discourage development.

Fourth, eliminate the fat and excess in local development fees.  Surely, locals can get by for substantially less than $100,000 per house.  Yet, some localities are charging more than $150,000 in impact fees for each and every new home.  Locals who charge that much are due for an audit.  

Finally, repeal (and possibly replace) CEQA.  Or, simply prohibit CEQA lawsuits. Let the locals do one environmental review as part of the project-approval process, then that’s it.  No lawsuits. Environmental extremism and no-growth politics, reflected by this frivolous litigation, don’t belong in our neighborhoods or in our courtrooms.

In the absence of reforms like these, California will continue to fall short of meeting its housing production goals.

Timothy L. Coyle is a Consultant specializing in housing issues.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily.

California’s Density Delusion

The ability for American workers to enjoy middle class lifestyles has been eroding for decades. Conventional explanations abound. American industry in the immediate aftermath of World War II was uniquely unscathed, and with a near monopoly on global manufacturing, was able to pass much of their ample profits on to workers. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that American manufacturers confronted serious foreign competition, and ever since, the competition has just gotten more intense.

By the 1990’s the electronic movement of capital along with trade agreements such as NAFTA turned national labor forces into commodities. And at the same time as American industry was going international, America’s laws were changed to favor mass immigration of unskilled workers who competed for jobs with native workers, driving down wages. These immigrants were also far more dependent on government services compared to previous generations of immigrants, putting stress on government budgets.

Export jobs. Import welfare recipients. No wonder America’s middle class is withering away. But this conventional explanation, however accurate, is only half the story. Yes, for whatever reason, average Americans work harder and earn less today than their predecessors. And the process has been relentless. Every decade since the 1950’s has seen an American workforce making less than they made during the preceding decade. But they are not just making less – things are costing more.

At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. Not everything costs more. Using the consumer price index (CPI) as a yardstick, and adjusting for performance – a modern flat screen television offers far more viewing amenities than a state-of-the-art black and white television circa 1955, yet it costs less in constant dollars. For almost every consumer good, from home appliances to MacDonald’s Happy Meals, that’s true. But it isn’t the cost of appliances and fast food that is breaking family finances today in America, it’s the cost of housing and healthcare. And in these two critical areas, neither of which is adequately reflected in the CPI, the cost-of-living in America has never been higher.

The causes of rising healthcare costs are complex and defy obvious solutions. But the national conversation Americans are having to address the challenge of healthcare is ongoing. This conversation about American healthcare solutions includes expert participants offering all perspectives and reflects diverse ideological roots. While it is impossible to predict whether or not America’s national search for optimal healthcare policies will end well, the dialog is transparent, none of the fundamental issues are being ignored, and nothing is beyond debate.

On the issue of unaffordable housing, however, the opposite is true. Unlike the healthy debate being waged across America on the topic of healthcare, the debate over housing solutions – if one even wants to call it a debate – is decidedly unhealthy. Basic premises go unchallenged. Basic assumptions and options are off the table, considered beyond debate. If the debate over housing policy remains a stunted facsimile of a genuine debate, Americans will not only be condemned to purchase barely affordable housing, but their new housing options will be almost exclusively limited to homes on ever smaller lots – or apartments – in increasingly crowded cities.

The unchallenged premise that lies at the heart of unaffordable housing in America is that there is no room for more suburbs. That single family dwellings on spacious lots are an unsustainable extravagance that must be stopped. That detached homes in new suburbs are unhealthy for people and the planet, and that the only responsible way to build ncerew homes is via “infill” of multi-family dwellings within the footprint of existing urban areas.

This unchallenged premise might be termed “The Density Delusion.” If it hasn’t arrived yet in your state, beware. It’s on its way and no political party – including Republicans – has organized to oppose this agenda. The density delusion now informs public housing policy in nearly every blue state, certainly including the entire Left Coast states of California, Oregon, Washington. As will be discussed, there are other reasons housing is so expensive in these states, but even if all of the other misplaced policies that drive up home prices were reformed overnight, the density delusion, unchecked, would be enough all by itself to render housing unaffordable. It is impossible to restore a reasonable, affordable price equilibrium to housing if all housing development is confined to the footprint of existing cities.

The Density Delusion Relies on the Myth of Vanishing Open Space

A fascinating article published last year by Bloomberg entitled “Here’s How America Uses Its Land” offers several graphics of America’s Lower 48, including the map depicted below. As can be seen, “Cow pasture/range” is by far the most extensive category of land use in the United States.

If you review the source data from the US Dept. of Agriculture as expressed in the pie chart below, it turns out that only 3.7 percent of the Lower 48 states are urbanized. The largest category of land is grassland, at 35 percent, followed by forests at 29 percent. Farmland only consumes 21 percent of land in the Lower 48.

The unasked question that challenges the density delusion should be obvious from these land use facts: Why are Americans unwilling to expand suburbs if grasslands, typically used for cattle ranching, occupy ten times as much space as all of America’s existing cities, suburbs, and industrial areas?

Notwithstanding the fact that there are plenty of private land owners who would voluntarily convert their cattle ranches to housing subdivisions for the right price, overall trends in production and consumption of beef in the United States suggest less land may be required in the future.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the beef cow inventory in the U.S. peaked in 1978 at just over 45 million head, and as of 2018 barely exceeded 30 million, a one-third decline despite the American population increasing nearly 60 percent, from 207 million to 327 million. Corroborating this is another USDA report showing per capita red meat consumption peaking at 150 pounds in 1971, dropping to an estimated 110 pounds in 2019. It is likely that cultural trends favoring healthier food will lead to further reductions in per capita demand for beef in America. Why not build homes on some of that land?

The Epicenter of the Density Delusion, California, Has Abundant Land

If America’s Lower 48 is only 3.7 percent urbanized, which suggests that doubling the national urban footprint would still leave 93.6 percent of the nation unsullied with subdivisions, what about California? How would doubling California’s urban footprint affect the big picture in that state with respect to land use?

A quick look at a map depicting California’s agricultural land shows the vast expanse of irrigated farmland in California’s Central Valley. But surrounding this vital resource is an even larger expanse of “dryland farming and grazing land.” This area, over 40,000 square miles, is not vital to California’s agricultural industry. Also clearly evident on this map is the relatively minute percentage of California’s total land area that is urbanized.

What is clear from viewing the map of California’s farmland is made explicit on the pie chart below. Using data drawn from 2017 USDA data, only 5.3 percent of California’s whopping 164,000 square mile area is given over to residential, commercial, and industrial use. The contrasts are striking. The area consumed by California’s military bases, 6,148 square miles, is comparable to the area of California’s urbanized land, 8,280 square miles. California has 19.7 percent of its land set aside as protected wilderness, 30,661 square miles, nearly four times as much as its entire urban footprint. As for the 25,420 square miles classified as “unprotected wilderness,” this consists primarily of desert and “bare rock,” i.e., the inherently undevelopable granite peaks of the High Sierra. Meanwhile, 42,498 square miles of California is considered “grassland,” with more than half of that given over to cattle ranching and dryland farming. To develop a mere 20 percent of this grassland would allow California’s urban footprint to double.

What About the Rest of the World?

If America remains a vast, relatively underpopulated continent, with sizable percentage of arable land, what about other places? What about India, China, Africa? The table below, drawn from UN data and various academic studies, calculates farm resources based on 2050 population estimates for these key regions of the world. As can be seen in the far right column on the first row of data “World,” “pop per m2 farm,” (population per square mile of arable land) it is estimated that in 2050 there will be 10 billion people living on earth, and that for every square mile of farmland worldwide, there will be 833 people. This is an encouraging finding.

Based on population trends already well established in nearly every region on earth (sub Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East are the only exceptions), global population is already stabilizing. Most experts estimate that by 2050 the global population will have peaked, and 10 billion represents the midrange scenario. While the UN continues to predict an eventual peak of 11 billion by 2100, an increasing number of demographers predict a peak of around 9 billion, with a slow decline beginning as early as 2040. 

The productive capacity of conventional modern agriculture is to feed roughly one person per acre. While a square mile is only 640 acres, not 833, there are several mitigating factors that clearly predict a future of universal food security. Modern agricultural techniques continue to advance and the commercialized upper end of crop productivity is far higher. In China, for example, year-round polycultures of trees, crops, and aquacultures result in productivity ranging between feeding four people per acre to as high as 20 people per acre.

Worldwide, intensive land based agriculture using modern and traditional techniques offer proven methods to easily feed 10 billion humans on 12 million square miles of farmland, but the future of agriculture may be indoors instead of outdoors. Developments in modern indoor farming promise to not only merely supplement land-based agricultural production, but to displace it altogether by offering food that is cheaper and healthier.

It is possible that using hydroponicsaeroponics, and aquaponics, industrial agriculture operations sited within urban areas can produce enough food to feed the inhabitants, making it unnecessary to import food from farming regions. The high-tech future of agriculture, combined with the stabilization of human population, means there is never going to be a shortage of farmland worldwide, nor will there ever be insufficient space for humans who wish to live in detached homes on spacious private lots.

This point, that there will always be room for suburbs filled with single family dwellings, is underscored by the calculations in column four of the above table, “urban area m2 (000)” (total square miles of urbanized areas). The total urban area worldwide as depicted on this table, 1.9 million square miles (3.8 percent of all land excluding Antarctica), is a hypothetical number. It is based on 10 billion people living in four person households that are each on quarter-acre lots, with an equivalent amount of space allotted for commercial and industrial use. This equates to a population density of 5,210 people per square mile. Actual estimates of worldwide urbanization as of 2018 are only 2.7 percent of global land area excluding Antarctica, and some analysts believe this estimate is grossly overstated.

In reality, major urban centers have far higher population densities. For example, the population density of New York City is 27,000 per square mile. On the opposite coast, San Francisco has a population density of over 18,000 per square mile. On every continent, the population in these urban cores will continue to grow to absorb hundreds of millions of new residents. For most, the decision to live in these dense urban environments will be voluntary, as the amenities of big city life are a compelling allure. But for those who prefer the tranquility of a suburb or a rural environment, that choice should not be rendered unaffordable because of misguided policies. Even worldwide, there is plenty of land.

Debunking the Climate Change Argument Against Suburbs

The most powerful argument fueling the density delusion is the existential boogeyman of climate change. But even if one accepts the fundamental premise of the climate change activists, that human produced “greenhouse gas” constitutes an imminent threat to human civilization and the planet, that does not justify the current policy assault on low density suburbs.

Even the “scientific studies” (of which there are surprisingly few) that are used to attack suburban “sprawl” are themselves riddled with ambiguities. An influential 2014 study coming out of UC Berkeley provides examples. An article produced by UC Berkeley’s media relations department, summarizing the work, writes “A key finding of the UC Berkeley study is that suburbs account for half of all household greenhouse gas emissions, even though they account for less than half the U.S. population.” But data from a 2018 study cited by CityLab claims that 52 percent of Americans live in suburbs. While the measurement criteria used by the UC Berkeley scholars to define who lives in suburbs was obviously different than CityLab’s, it is likely that the “less than half” was only slightly less than half, rendering this “key finding” statistically unimpressive.

The Berkeley study also found that “the primary drivers of carbon footprints are household income, vehicle ownership and home size, all of which are considerably higher in suburbs. Other important factors include population density, the carbon intensity of electricity production, energy prices and weather.” The climate activist take-away form this quote, “all of which are considerably higher in suburbs,” ignores the variability of the other factors cited as causes. Higher income people have bigger homes. That’s true whether this home is an 8,000 square foot penthouse in downtown Los Angeles, or an 8,000 square foot McMansion on a half-acre lot in Palos Verdes. And what about the “carbon intensity of electricity production”?

This points to the biggest fallacy in all studies linking suburbs to excessive belching of “greenhouse gas,” which is this: what if bigger homes and more driving was not linked to higher greenhouse gas emissions? What happens when all cars are gas/electric hybrids that only rely on gasoline for long-range excursions, but handle even lengthy daily commutes relying only on battery power? What happens when electric power is not carbon intensive, thanks to renewables, or nuclear power, or fusion power, or satellite solar power stations, or direct synthesis of transportation fuels from CO2 removed from the atmosphere, or other innovations we can’t yet foresee? Would there still be a concern about suburbanites logging excessive transportation mileage, if vehicles and the fuel they use is harmless even by their standards?

The UC Berkeley study, despite its headline, is filled with these ambiguities. They write: “Surprisingly, population dense suburbs have significantly higher carbon footprints than less dense suburbs, due largely to higher incomes and resulting consumption,” but don’t go on to explain why less dense suburbs aren’t therefore more desirable than suburbs that are densified with infill. Instead, they go on to write “Population dense suburbs also tend to create their own suburbs, which is bad news for the climate.” But why, if the dense suburbs have higher carbon footprints, wouldn’t it be desirable for them to spawn less dense suburbs that have lower carbon footprints?

In the concluding paragraphs of the media summary of the UC Berkeley study, they write “Suburbs are excellent candidates for a combination of solar photovoltaic systems, electric vehicles and energy-efficient technologies.” Ok. So why in the name of climate change mitigation are we expected to ban development of new suburbs, and destroy existing suburbs via densification?

Another authoritative study supposedly linking sprawl to higher greenhouse gas emissions was published in 2008 by a research team at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman School for State and Local Government. Entitled “The Greenness of Cities: Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Urban Development,” according to Google, this study has been cited in 766 “scholarly articles.” In the abstract, the money line goes like this: “Cities generally have significantly lower emissions than suburban areas, and the city-suburb gap is particularly large in older areas, like New York.” The “city-suburb gap.”

For most climate activists, advocates for densification, and activist journalists, that’s as far as they’ll need to read, and they’ll have their source, and they’ll have their link. But if you wade through this 45 page paper, you find what seems to define most scholarly studies on the “city-suburb gap,” namely, an unmanageable degree of complexity that is coped with by adopting an unacceptable degree of subjective assumptions and over-simplifications, which are then crammed into impenetrable equations.

While the authors of this study are clearly making a diligent attempt to determine what variables define the per capita “carbon footprint” of low density suburbs vs high density cities, their very transparency in explaining their methodology calls their methodology into question. Example: “For a standardized household, we predict this household’s residential emissions and emissions from transportation use. We look at emissions associated with gasoline consumption, public transportation, home heating (fuel oil and natural gas) and electricity usage. We use data from the 2001 National Household Travel Survey to measure gasoline consumption. We use year 2000 household level data from the Census of Population and Housing to measure household electricity, natural gas and fuel oil consumption. To aggregate gasoline, fuel oil and natural gas into a single carbon dioxide emissions index, we use conversion factors. To determine the carbon dioxide impact of electricity consumption in different major cities, we use regional average power plant emissions factors, which reflect the fact that some regions’ power is generated by dirtier fuels such as coal while other regions rely more on renewable energy sources. We distinguish between the emissions of an area’s average house and the emissions of a marginal house by looking particularly at homes built in the last twenty years.”

Good luck with that.

For the skeptic, an unanticipated value of the Harvard study is the insight it provides into what is a burgeoning new field of bureaucratic skimming, namely, carbon accounting. For those readers with a background in accounting, maybe even tax accounting or government accounting, try this on for size, from page 8, “Unlike the place-specific energy tax, the zoning tax does not impact energy use directly, but it does reduce the number of people in location one. Specifically: “aN1/aZ1 = -1/[1/Qb1 x k” (N1/Qb1) + 1/Qb2 x k” (N2/Qb2) – 1/Qf1 x f” (N1/Qf1) – 1/Qf2 f” (N2/Qf2)] > 0,” and then, “The overall impact of zoning on social welfare is (E2 – E1)(NC'(NE) – t) +Z1)aN/oz, which is positive as long as (E1 – E2)(NC'(NE)-t) > Z1.

Got that? Of course not. And now you know why consulting firms are billing government agencies countless millions of dollars to come up with “science based” policies for carbon mitigation. Full employment for PhDs.

It is interesting to highlight just how dispassionate the Harvard researchers are when it comes to the impact their theories may have on real people. Consider this excerpt: “One natural concern with our approach is that households in areas that spend more on energy have less income to spend on other things that also involve greenhouse gas emissions. If people in Texas are spending a lot on air conditioning and gas at the pump, then perhaps they are spending less on other things that are equally environmentally harmful. We cannot fully address this concern, since it would require a complete energy accounting for every form of consumption, but we do not believe our omissions fatally compromise our empirical exercise.”

Note how in the preceding excerpt the researchers acknowledged that “households in areas that spend more on energy have less income to spend on other things,” but rather than admit that perhaps that could mean that carbon taxes, i.e., punitively priced energy, are regressive and harm low and middle income families, the researchers sped quickly onward to observe that “then perhaps they are spending less on other things that are equally environmentally harmful.” The risk here? Not that artificially high energy costs might cause hardship. Only that the money these hypothetical consumers wasted on overpriced gasoline might have been paying for other equally “carbon intensive” activities. Such analytical uncertainty! The paragraph concludes by suggesting that only a “complete energy accounting for every form of consumption” would enable a proper analysis of this risk. Bring on the funding. Hire more consultants.

In the light of day, the analytical tools that are used to justify urban densification may be similar in some ways to the computer models developed to perform global climate simulations. They are attempting to reduce extreme complexity to a set of equations and variables that guarantee a desired conclusion. And with respect to the studies that are used to justify densification, there are common sense rebuttals to the conclusion that densification results in lower greenhouse gas emissions:

  • Cars of the future will not emit greenhouse gas.
  • Energy sources in the future will not emit greenhouse gas.
  • Upgraded freeways and smart cars will eliminate or greatly reduce traffic congestion.
  • Smart cars, share cars, and drones will reduce the percentage of impermeable heat conducting surfaces (roads and parking lots).
  • Single family dwellings use far less per unit energy in construction than high rise apartments.
  • Low density suburbs have more (and larger) trees and other greenery per capita.
  • Employers and jobs will migrate, creating new jobs close to new homes.
  • Low density suburbs have a lower per capita “heat island” effect.
  • Increasing percentages of wage earners will telecommute.

If and when a reputable, unbiased study is released that takes these variables into account, the conclusion will likely refute the conventional wisdom. Low density suburbs do not increase greenhouse gas. Nor, for that matter, do they consume an unsustainable amount of open land.

An article published last year in Planetizen reviews the book “The Urban Fix: Resilient Cities in the War against Climate Change, Heat Islands and Overpopulation,” by Doug Kelbaugh. The title of this book review – and how many people only read the titles? – is “The Problems With Suburbs Are Numerous. Is a Change of Course Possible?” But consider this excerpt from Kelbaugh’s book that was generously included in the review:

“Drone deliveries, ride-sharing, car-sharing, AVs that park themselves and connect to house lights and thermostats will be commonplace, as will up to a 50 percent reduction in paved area. Less hardscape won’t be difficult, given the absurdly wide streets in contemporary subdivisions.” Kelbaugh is not making a case here to abandon low density. If streets and parking lots are too expansive and too hot, then allow the revolution in smart cars, share cars, and drones to facilitate narrower streets and smaller parking lots. If homes in the suburbs are “soulless,” as Kelbaugh alleges, then build homes with soul.

The Hidden Agenda That Fuels the Density Delusion

If the only political force pushing the density delusion were misanthropic or misguided environmentalist nonprofits and their army of plaintiff attorneys, the consequent Left Coast policies of “infill,” “smart growth,” and “urban containment” would roll east against the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges and fall back onto the Pacific Coast. But the environmentalist lobby, while formidable, is not formidable enough on its own to cram Americans into overpriced apartments and unaffordable homes on nonexistent lots. The density delusion is promoted by a powerful assortment of special interests.

It doesn’t require a degree in economics to understand the hidden agenda behind the density delusion, one merely needs to understand the law of supply and demand. When the supply of housing is artificially constrained by putting a wall around every existing urban area, and prohibiting or severely restricting any construction outside the wall, the price of homes inside the wall go up. This is especially true if the population in these regions is increasing, which increases the demand for homes.

Between 1980, when the pioneering concept of enforcing “greenbelts” began to find expression in actual zoning policies, and 2018, the population of California went from 23.7 million to an estimated 40 million. Oregon, from 2.6 million to 4.2 million. Washington, from 4.1 million to 7.7 million. To be sure, urban containment wasn’t well established in these states until recent years, but today the density delusion informs policy in every state capital and every major city on the Left Coast. Demand increases constantly, supply is restricted and cannot keep up.

California has passed dozens of laws discouraging development. Notable among them are Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, passed in 2008, which has made it nearly impossible to build housing outside the “urban service boundary.” Two other significant environmentalist laws are the landmark 1970 California Environmental Quality Act, and the precedent setting Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, along with numerous others at the state and local level. These laws make it nearly impossible for Californians to build affordable homes, develop energy, or construct reservoirs, aqueducts, desalination plants, nuclear power plants, pipelines, freeways, or any other essential enabling infrastructure.

Oregon and Washington are not far behind California. According to a 2015 report in the City Lab, Seattle has been fighting “sprawl” for over 20 years. The goal, to channel growth into “urban villages.” These are high density, mixed use developments (known as “transit villages” in California) sited along light rail or bus routes. The impact of Seattle’s experiment in densification and urban containment on real estate prices is unambiguous. The median home price in the entire Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Metro region is $490,300, compared to the U.S. median of $226,000.

Oregon’s state legislature, late to the party but determined to outdo the competition, just passed House Bill 2001, which would “eliminate single-family zoning around the state. In cities with more than 25,000 residents, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and ‘cottage clusters’ would be allowed on parcels that are currently reserved for single-family houses; in cities of least 10,000, duplexes would be allowed in single-family zones.” Democratic Governor Kate Brown is expected to sign this legislation. The median price of a home in Portland is already $419,700. It shall be interesting to see how this new law will affect the price of a single family home.

What California, Oregon, and Washington policymakers are doing is driving up the cost of single family detached homes by discouraging, if not outright prohibiting, construction of homes outside the existing urban boundaries. The median price of a home in Los Angeles is $686,700; in San Jose, an astronomical $1,022,300. In Oregon’s case, the supply of detached homes may actually decrease, as existing homes are demolished to make way for apartments. But what happens when more people are forced to live within the boundaries of existing cities, and, unless they want to migrate to a red state, forced to pay prices far beyond what would apply in a normal market? Who benefits?

When politically contrived artificial scarcity is imposed on a market, an asset bubble is formed. As long as the scarcity can be maintained, the bubble will expand. The beneficiaries of a real estate bubble are public entities, which not only collect property taxes from more assessed properties, thanks to densification, but also collect based on higher assessments, thanks to the inflated values. Public sector pension funds also benefit, because their real estate portfolios benefit from the asset appreciation. But the imposition of artificial scarcity is not confined to housing. And to understand the strategic value of artificial scarcity to the American oligarchy, it is necessary to explain what made this squeeze on ordinary Americans not only incredibly profitable, but necessary.

The Financialization of the American Economy

The ongoing destruction of America’s middle class began with the financialization of the American economy, a process that began in the 1970s. Greta Krippner, an economic sociologist at the University of Michigan, defines financialization as “a pattern of accumulation in which profit making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production.”

Financialization is a threat that has no ideology. The left tends to blame economic challenges on the excessive power, influence, and greed of oligarchs. The libertarian right tends to blame economic challenges on excessive regulations emanating from oversized government. But they’re both right. Financialization has further empowered the oligarchs who have turned the American worker into a commodity. And financialization is the toxic remedy that has, for a time, enabled oversized government.

An excellent in-depth article in Time Magazine published in 2016, entitled “American Capitalism’s Great Crisis,” quotes Krippner’s deeper explanation of how financialization began:

“The changes were driven by the fact that in the 1970s, the growth that America had enjoyed following World War II began to slow. Rather than make tough decisions about how to bolster it, politicians decided to pass that responsibility to the financial markets. The Carter-era deregulation of interest rates—something that was, in an echo of today’s overlapping left-and right-wing populism, supported by an assortment of odd political bedfellows from Ralph Nader to Walter Wriston, then head of Citibank—opened the door to a spate of financial “innovations” and a shift in bank function from lending to trading. Reaganomics famously led to a number of other economic policies that favored Wall Street. Clinton-era deregulation, which seemed a path out of the economic doldrums of the late 1980s, continued the trend. Loose monetary policy from the Alan Greenspan era onward created an environment in which easy money papered over underlying problems in the economy, so much so that it is now chronically dependent on near-zero interest rates to keep from falling back into recession.”

Carter. Reagan. Clinton. It’s important to document the bipartisan emergence of financialization. It can’t be unwound, or even discussed accurately, simply by referring to conventional ideological schisms. The impact of financialization in America has been to enable private households and government agencies to spend more than they take in, and to make up the difference by borrowing more than they can ever hope to pay back. And through it all, for the past 40+ years, the financial sector has extended the credit, accumulating more power and profit every step of the way. Ideology and partisanship provided the justifications and the means, but they came from the right and the left.

Estimates vary as to how much corporate profit now accrues to the financial sector in the U.S., but range between 25% and 40%. By comparison, in Germany the financial sector earns about 6% of corporate profits. America’s overbuilt financial sector attracts the brightest college graduates. Math majors who might have gone into applied physics, engineering, chemistry, now migrate to Manhattan and work for the hedge funds.

Closer to home, here’s how financialization has harmed ordinary Americans:

  • Created an incentive through low interest rates and tax law for people to borrow instead of save,
  • Rendered housing and college tuition unaffordable, thanks to low interest rates inducing borrowers to bid up prices,
  • Destroyed the ability of thrifty households to save, because only risky investments offer adequate returns,
  • The emphasis on shareholder value above all else has depressed wages and driven jobs overseas,
  • Attracted brilliant innovators to work for financial firms (which produce nothing) instead of actual industries that create jobs and national wealth.

There’s more – and this is the least discussed but perhaps the most significant consequence of financialization. It expands the public sector, and it helps public sector unions. Here’s how:

  • Governments can expand beyond the capacity of their tax revenues by borrowing at low interest rates,
  • Government unions can negotiate over-market pay and benefits, relying on borrowing to cover deficits,
  • Government pension funds can make risky investments with the taxpayers backing them up,
  • As financialization drives middle class citizens into poverty, the government expands its aid programs.

The connection between government unions and the financial oligarchs who currently run both political party establishments may be abstruse, but it isn’t trivial. They have a common interest in a financialized economy; a common interest in seeing what is now the biggest credit bubble – as a percent of GDP – in American history get even bigger. This is explicitly contrary to the interests of ordinary Americans. The awakening grassroots resistance to the financialization of America explains the sharp rise of populism starting in 2016, and it’s just begun.

The Scarcity Profiteers

Where there is credit, there is collateral. When consumers borrow, home equity is the collateral. And if America’s 30+ year borrowing binge is to continue uninterrupted, collateral values need to climb. Restricting new housing construction to infill causes the value of all real estate within the approved zones to soar. Investors get rich. Speculators get rich. Meanwhile, ordinary homeowners, caught in a spiral of debt accumulation because they spend more than they make, sink further into financial servitude. But as their property values climb, they borrow more, they spend more, and America’s financialized economy keeps spinning. If and when this unsustainable debt binge hits the wall, America’s oligarchs will have taken all the money off the table. They are a macroscopic version of the Romneyesque private equity sharks – raid a company and acquire a controlling interest, load it up with debt, collect bonuses, declare bankruptcy, sell the assets, walk away.

A similar profiteering opportunism underscores the renewables mania. Not only do high tech companies capitalize on fantastic opportunities to sell gadgets to create a panopticon of energy surveillance ala the “internet of things,” where every home appliance is wired and monitored by the utilities. At the same time the highly regulated public utilities are offered spectacular new avenues for higher profits, because while their profit percentages are fixed, and the units of energy they can generate are fixed, when they sell expensive renewable energy to the consumer instead of inexpensive natural gas or nuclear power, they can still double their revenues and profits.

The scarcity profiteers operate not in collusion or conspiracy, but merely as a collection of special interests whose special interests all converge on the same goal: make water, energy, transportation and housing as expensive as possible. Increase regulations and unleash an avalanche of lawsuits so only the biggest, most resilient corporations survive, and emerging competitors are crushed.

In California’s, and increasingly in other states, a punitively high cost of living is the result of conscious political choices, and the primary force behind these choices is not desire to protect the environment, it is greed. The people who profit by artificial, contrived scarcity, don’t want anything to change. They are the utility companies, the trial lawyers, the Silicon Valley “green” entrepreneurs, and billionaires who already own the artificially limited supplies of land and housing.

If “carbon emissions auctions” trading ever takes hold nationally, it will launch the biggest skim operation in the history of the world. Every molecule of carbon embodied in every joule of energy will be accounted for, using a preposterous, byzantine, corruptible if not fraudulent financial alchemy. These carbon units will be tracked, so that rights to emit them can be traded on an exchange, where the bookies of Wall Street will get a cut. All of this will be implemented and operated at stupefying expense. Trillions of dollars in annual transactions will have to pass through this gauntlett.

Ending the Density Delusion – Restoring Sanity to Housing Markets

Well intentioned but misguided policies to make housing affordable include rent control, which would just take away the incentives to maintain properties or invest in new income property. Another misguided solution is to offer government subsidies, which leads to accepting overpriced construction bids from the favored contractors without solving the underlying problems of punitive fees and unacceptable delays in permitting. But the most misguided policy of all is mandating densification instead of making it easier to build entire new cities on open land.

The density delusion exemplifies the power of a good value, environmentalism, taken too far and causing more harm than good. Defenders of densification dismiss the concerns of community groups that don’t want to see their neighborhoods destroyed. But it isn’t the wealthiest neighborhoods where densification policies will result in rent subsidized fourplexes dropped onto a lot on a street otherwise filled with single family dwellings. Residents of wealthy neighborhoods will hire attorneys and stop projects like that, driving the investors and developers into the middle class and lower middle class neighborhoods, where hiring an attorney to fight city hall is not an option.

Which brings up the ultimate issue surrounding densification, artificial scarcity, and a politically contrived high cost of living. It is not protecting the environment to engage in these policies. It is class warfare prosecuted by the rich against the poor. It is the unifying populist issue of our time, currently overshadowed by identity politics as a useful and very divisive distraction. But the fixation of America’s electorate on identity politics is precariously maintained. The reality in American politics is this: identity politics is a distraction from, and extreme environmentalism is a false justification for, a massive transfer of wealth from the have nots to the haves.

America’s elites, to the extent they wish to invite hundreds of millions of unskilled immigrants from all over the world to move to this nation at the same time as they insist that everyone – native born and new arrivals alike – stack themselves into existing urban areas, are betraying their fellow citizens. They are creating scarcity ostensibly to save the planet, but in reality this scarcity creates asset bubbles that collateralize an economy running on debt accumulation.

Restoring sanity to housing markets will require wrenching economic policy adjustments. Public sector reform, pension reform in particular, combined with sweeping reform of overreaching environmentalist regulations, will allow public money to be redirected into enabling infrastructure: energy, water, transportation. Eliminating or rolling back additional excessive environmental regulations, along with streamlining the permitting process and slashing building fees, will enable private developers to construct entire new cities on open land served by new infrastructure, dramatically lowering the price of housing everywhere.

One huge upside to these dramatic reforms is restoring the potential for leapfrog technologies to be funded, researched, and brought to market. With these changes, Americans will have a future where affordable abundance is the result of competitive development of housing and infrastructure, and financial surpluses are used to build hyperlanes instead of pay pension funds, to build next generation nuclear power plants instead of purchase carbon emission credits, and for homeowners, to be able to afford to take a vacation on the moon, because their mortgage payment was manageable.

This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.

Don’t Blame Proposition 13 For High Building Fees

Another week, another lie about Proposition 13. Recall that last week this column burst the bubble on the myth that schools are “starved” for revenue. This week’s narrative from the Prop. 13 opponents is that California’s high fees for building homes and commercial property is due to Proposition 13 denying local governments the ability to raise revenue.

A study just released by the University of California Center for Housing Innovation concluded that the “impact fees” that local governments charge developers are a big reason why it’s so expensive to build a home in California. The fees are not only costly, they’re also unpredictable, lack transparency and can kill a project’s viability, according to the study.

On these points, the study is absolutely correct. The size and scope of developer fees in California is more extensive than in any other state. Originally intended to ensure that the cost of infrastructure for development (like sidewalks and utilities) is covered, developer fees have morphed into a free-for-all that now includes fees for such things as parking lots, parks, affordable housing, transportation and public art. In the Bay Area, developer fees to construct a single-family home can exceed $150,000.

But instead of blaming the housing shortfall on these excessive costs passed to through to home buyers, the study places the blame expressly on Proposition 13.

To read the entire column, please click here.

The many flaws of California’s motor voter program

On Aug. 9, the California Department of Finance finally released the long-awaited audit report on the Department of Motor Vehicles’ implementation of the California New Motor Voter Program.

Some lawmakers had called for the audit to be conducted by the state auditor, but that office is independent and does a very thorough job of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, so the DMV audit was assigned to the Department of Finance.

The DOF issued a $417,000 contract to Ernst & Young to conduct an independent assessment. But the levers of political control are evident in sentences like these: “The scope of the fifth deliverable, the Validation Report, was limited to providing the results of data comparisons only and did not include an evaluation of the results. The scope did not include an explanation of these results or whether they were significant.”

Those of us who are not bound by the limitations of the contract’s scope can turn to Appendix D of the Business Process Assessment report, titled “Voter Registration Criteria.”

“Below is a table describing the current validation of registration data obtained via the California New Motor Voter program against the California Voter Registration Eligibility Requirements,” the auditors wrote. …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

Can California put cars in the rear-view mirror?

The story goes that Californians love their cars. But much of the time that relationship is dysfunctional, launching drivers into the teeth of traffic jams, fouling the air and spewing gases that undermine state policies to combat climate change. Most personal cars sit quietly at the curb or in a garage for 95% of the day, so why even have one?

With transportation — mostly passenger vehicles — responsible for about 40% of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions, policymakers are ramping up efforts to uncouple Californians from their cars. As they nudge people into ride-sharing, public transit and housing built to enable both, officials are playing a long game. And they’re navigating a political and social minefield dotted with oil interests and drivers loath to give up cars without easy and affordable alternatives.

There’s also our clichéd romance with the automobile, long abetted by the state’s film, television and music industries with such tropes as the Beach Boys’ surfboard-toting station wagon and TV commercials showing drivers gliding up Pacific Coast Highway, convertible top down, gleaming hair whipping in the breeze, not another soul in sight.

One of the things those commercials don’t say: Cars cost nearly $10,000 a year to operate in California, more if you have an older one. And unless something drastic happens to get motorists into cleaner cars and to drive less overall, “we are never going to meet our greenhouse-gas goals,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat who has sponsored a handful of bills to reduce transportation emissions.

Those emissions are actually rising, and numerous studies have warned that unless they are significantly reduced, the state won’t achieve its goal of lowering greenhouse-gas output to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Coupled with existing state measures to encourage adoption of electric cars and reduce the carbon content of fuels, officials are aiming to decrease the overall miles that vehicles travel in California — a simple concept that’s devilishly difficult to implement and will require multiple approaches. …

Click here to read the full article from CallMatters.org

Will Californians Go Through Withdrawal If They Can’t Recycle Plastic Bottles?

California, which would like to think of itself as the recycling capital of the universe, has lost its largest bottle and can recycling chain, rePlanet. The company shut down all 284 sites across the state on Aug. 5 and terminated its workforce of as many as 750 employees. It’s been a slow motion collapse. In 2016, it closed nearly 200 locations, the Press-Telegram reports, and had to let almost 300 employees walk.

There are multiple reasons behind the decision, all of them caused by poor public policy.

RePlanet’s statement blames the shutdown on “the rise in operating costs resulting from minimum wage increases and required health and workers compensation insurance.” Consequently, the company “has concluded that operation of these recycling centers and supporting operations is no longer sustainable.”

Those are hurdles that all California companies have to overcome to remain in business in the state. Some simply can’t.

California has the second-highest minimum wage in the country at $12 an hour — on its way to $15. Only the District of Columbia, $14 an hour, has a higher wage floor. Analysts predicted the minimum-wage hike would forces businesses to leave or simply shut down because they couldn’t afford the added costs, but lawmakers passed the increase anyway and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed it.

As for workers compensation insurance premium rates, California is second again, according to a report issued last fall. New York has the highest rate, $3.08 per $100 of payroll. The Golden State is right behind at $2.87, far higher than the national average of $1.70.

Another estimate says California’s average workers’ compensation costs are $3.24 per $100 of payroll, highest in the nation.

As rePlanet has learned in a most miserable way, the financial burden of employment in California is high. The costs are so high that some companies can start a business and remain profitable only when they operate with contract workers rather than hired employees.

Other causes behind rePlanet’s shutdown, says the company, include “the continued reduction in state fees, the depressed pricing of recycled aluminum and PET plastic.” This brings up a couple of other thoughts, one being: If not for public subsidies, as well as various recycling mandates, would the plastic and glass recycling business return profits over the long term, even in reuse-reduce-recycle-happy California? As rePlanet itself noted, it needed more help from the state with its finances. Had Sacramento not used public funds from the Beverage Container Recycling Program, which requires “consumers to pay a deposit … for each eligible container,” to incentivize recycling, would rePlanet have lasted as long as it did?

The other thought is about America’s obsession with recycling: What have we wrought? We need to acknowledge that sending our scrap to China, at one time taking tens of millions of tons a year — and about 70% of plastics being collected in the U.S. for recycling — might have been worse than throwing it in landfills. The country eventually became saturated with our dirty refuse, a great deal of it spilling into the waterways from where it flowed into the ocean.

“Even before China’s ban” on the import of some plastics and other types of solid waste called National Sword, “only 9% of discarded plastic was being recycled, while 12% was burned. The rest was buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans,” says Wired.

As we’ve noted before, roughly 90 percent of ocean plastic enters the ocean through 10 rivers, eight of which are in Asia, two in Africa.

Unloading plastic into landfills might have been the better option, and still likely is, even as plastic production continues to grow worldwide. There is no shortage of space — the next 1,000 years of all the trash generated across the world could fit into a 15-square-mile landfill — and modern landfills are safe, their contents contained by lining. They are environmentally friendly enough to be turned into parks and other public spaces once they have reached their capacity.

The greenest of Californians wouldn’t be happy with this alternative, but with China offline, what else are we going to do with our plastic containers? Outlaw them? Don’t bet against the possibility, because that campaign has actually already started.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.