Inception is an amazing movie. I've actually always been a Leonardo DiCaprio fan - not sure what that says about me, but he is an excellent actor. This movie goes way beyond him, though, in the same way that the Matrix went way beyond Keanu Reeves. I'm sure there will be a lot of comparisons between those movies because they are both massive mind-benders. Thank you to Justin for convincing me it would be better than Predators. Of that there is no doubt. If you get a chance, I would say Inception is a must see.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • Opinion writer Matt Miller of the Washington Post is someone I routinely read. This powerful but easy-to-read piece is one reason. Miller describes, correctly in my opinion, how America is in the grips of a longer decline that this "Great Recession" is simply a part of. For those of us not ready to surrender to a mind-numbing lifestyle of bad TV interspersed with bouts of irrational consumerism, Miller describes the social atrophy we fear most.

The bursting bubbles, and the associated market panic and credit freeze, was a heart attack, to which the authorities responded with emergency measures.

But "the fate of the middle class" in a global era is different. It's more like cancer -- a slower yet more profound threat, requiring a fundamental renewal of American competitiveness. And without a galvanizing "emergency."

  • PBS had the right take on the coming purge from commercial real estate defaults. You think housing is ugly....wait until commercial loans roll over. This is where the small and mid-sized banks are going to be in deep, when ugly adjustments to balance sheets are going to force reality on a lot of institutions that have avoided it up to this point.

The value of nearly half of the commercial real estate loans across the country are worth less than the amount owed on their mortgages. And as these loans are set to come due between now and 2014, many of these properties are expected to end up in default or foreclosure. What will the American landscape look like when half of it is boarded up and abandoned?

  • The Wall Street Journal had an article this week that was forwarded to me by about a dozen different people (thank you, everyone - good fit for our blog). It was called Roads to Ruin: Towns rip up the pavement and it detailed how some communities are ripping up the bituminous and putting the roadway back to gravel. The central example they give in the story is really an obvious one - that road should have been ripped up long ago - but to me it is a sign that at least some places are starting to accept that there is a reality to our land use pattern. It would be interesting to know how leveraged they are. Most communities we see in this position still try and borrow the money to keep the pavement, a double-loser of an approach (no increased ROI plus now added debt costs and loss of fiscal flexibility).

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

...

"Our expenses outweigh the income," says Mr. Zimmerman, who has been with the county highway department for nearly 30 years. He says the county will pay about $2,600 per mile annually for the newly ground-up road, as against about $75,000 per mile to reconstruct it.

  • Our friend Kaid Benfield had an inside perspective this week on need for maintenance on the Washington D.C. Metro system. When considering the trillions we have committed to ongoing highway maintenance, it is amazing to think that we can't find the measly amount of money (by comparison) necessary to properly maintain transit systems, $78 billion. 
  • Tragically, while there would certainly be some public outrage over diverting transportation dollars to transit, there are no such concerns over more money for bridges. The House Transportation Subcommittee is stating that 25% of our bridges are deficient. I could write a whole entry on this because much of the rating is bureaucratic, engineering crap due to institutionalized overdesign of low-volume bridges and routes that are truly local in nature and should not be counted (like the one up the road from me where eight property owners have a federally-subsidized bridge to access their private island). I'll refrain, but I'll just point out that never do we question whether or not we have simply built more stuff than our resulting prosperity allows us to maintain. Instead we always default to believing we have a revenue problem. In other words; "Me have hammer. Me pound nail."

Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the committee, said states are not dedicating enough money to addressing bridge problems. 

"The current law gives states the authority to transfer up to 50 percent of their bridge funds to other purposes," Oberstar said. "And they've done it. And then they turn around and complain they don't have enough money for bridge replacement."

  • Finally, my friends at KAXE, where I have been a commentator on Minnesota Politics for about a decade now, organized a Paul Bunyan themed flash mob in the city of Bemidji last weekend. Good clean fun to promote their new satellite station. I pass along the video, which those not from Minnesota may find particularly comical.

 

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