Friday News Digest


I know there is something intimate about the Friday News Digest. When I don’t finish one – like happened with my crazy schedule last week – I hear from many people who miss it. Part of it is that the structure is loose and my writing is more off-the-cuff. It is kind of fun, sometimes cheeky, and I think you get a little more of the “Friday” approach; less disciplined and structured. I’m not sure I can pin down the rest of the appeal, but know that I enjoy writing it a lot. We’ve had discussions here about giving it to others to do, but I just can’t give it up.

Reaching a broader audience with the EconTalk podcast this week combined with the overall momentum of the Strong Towns movement, my inbox is full, my Facebook stream overwhelmed and my Tweetdeck flooded. I want you all to know that I try and read every one and, while I attempt to reply to them all, doing so would take up all my waking moments and so I just can’t. I’ve moved beyond guilt to acceptance on that account. Please know that I’m putting my efforts into content and some larger projects and trying to do more things like the member chat we had this week.

And speaking of that…now is a great time to become a member. I know a lot of you out there plan to. Just do it now. The quicker you get on board the quicker Strong Towns can take the next step. The more members we have, the more we can do to spread this message and support you in building strong cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Thanks everyone. Now on to the news!

  • Last week I spoke at the Public Health and the Built Environment Conference in San Antonio. The event was webcast. The last session of the day was a panel discussion and our Executive Director (and my boss), Jim Kumon, was watching live. After my answer to transit Jim texted me that it was the “clearest statement of the Strong Towns approach to transit to date” and that we needed to “print that off and put it on a poster.” Cool text to get while on stage. Anyway, the entire broadcast is now available and you can hear said transit statement at minute 45:45 of this video.

Watch live streaming video from nowcastsa at livestream.com
  • A special welcome this week to all our new readers who picked us up from EconTalk. We blog weekdays here and the topics range broadly, but you’ll find us talking finance and economics at the base of most of it. For those of you here not acquainted with EconTalk, you really should be. The weekly conversations there are fun and enlightening and, as I said earlier this week, it really helps to be able to turn on the economist thinking once in a while. Every week the Library of Economics and Liberty posts follow up questions to the discussion. I really like ours and have been waiting for more answers to trickle in before I provide the “answer key” (joking). Here’s my favorite of their questions.

4. Is Marohn's vision of the future of American cities as he sees it today really apocalyptic? Who is more optimistic about the potential for Strong Towns, Roberts or Marohn? Why?

  • I’ve spent so many hours with Joe Minicozzi over the past couple of years – all great times with one of my favorite people and now truly one of my best friends – and I didn’t know he had a TED talk. It took a silly article from UpWorthy to alert me. So, for all of you with more of an excuse than me, here he is, Super Joe.

  • Brookings has been doing a series this week focusing on infrastructure. There has been a lot of the standard stuff you get from inside the D.C. beltway, but some really interesting insights as well. This article in particular by Robert Puentes and Bruce Katz I thought was bold in its assessment of the federal role. As they said, financing of infrastructure is become more complex and that complexity means it needs to become more decentralized.

Regardless of the precise arrangement, infrastructure financing is getting more complex. The federal government can and should play a helpful role by relaxing restrictions on tolling, providing low cost loans, and setting policy for national issues like freight movement. But Washington cannot and will not do enough to adequately fund the infrastructure America needs.

  • On a related note, I had to laugh a little with this tweet. With the long-predicted insolvency of Medicare just around the corner, not sure that is the analogy I would be using. The people building these bridges fifty years ago would have told you that they would need to be replaced in five decades. How has this caught us so unprepared as to now be an emergency? (The answer is that (a) we are not really interested in maintaining but in building and expanding and so (b) the “emergency” portion is just sad propaganda. We’re not really going to fix all this because there isn’t the money, or the reason, to do so.)

  • Someone sent me this old Freakonomics episode on predictions called The Folly of Predictions. Absolutely loved it then and now. Q. What do you call a planner, engineer or economic development professional making a prediction? A. Wrong.

  • I thought it was interesting that Governing magazine – a magazine largely for elected and appointed officials – would focus on Richard Ravitch and his under-the-hood look at the sausage-making of state and local government. I know we are all a little cynical and like to joke about how decisions are made, but the reality is often worse than what you really think. What other corporation (and cities are generally just that – incorporated municipalities) charged with the stewardship of billions of dollars in assets operates on a year-to-year budget with no accounting of long term liabilities, no detailed tracking of assets, no long term projection of revenues and no balance sheet? It is beyond bizarre, especially when public officials – including so-called “administrators” – treat their financial blindness as normal and acceptable.

I learned that the banks were full of ideas about how to turn the state’s future revenues into current cash, with a hefty discount, of course. Some banks had redesigned sale-leaseback transactions, like the Attica transaction, that involved state office buildings, courthouses and bridges. Some presented protocols for securitizing lottery revenues; others explained how the states could permit privatization of managed-care plans and take a percentage of the profits. It was a long list, but the proposals had a common theme: solve today’s cash shortage by making future generations pay for things we are unwilling to pay for now.

  • When cities do try to get a handle on some of their long term liabilities, they always wind up where the public officials in Wichita now find themselves: staring into an abyss, in their case a $3 billion gap. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hard questions as to how Wichita finds itself in such a financial hole (one which nearly all U.S. cities are in, even if they are blissfully unaware). And even more tragically, there seems to be every willingness to double down on the failed approach (see the quote below) as opposed to make some real structural changes. Kudos for Wichita for getting the number – far more than most cities have done – but now let’s take that knowledge and use it to think differently about how to rationally respond to the challenge.

“The ‘I’ word, the one word you don’t say out loud: incentives,” he said. “Nobody likes to pay incentives.”

That’s what the $90 million fund would help cover: incentives, relocation money, land discounts, buildings and equipment. Schmitt said the jobs drive will focus on aviation while targeting diversified industries that can utilize the workforce already in place in Wichita.

There have already been good opportunities to land new business – “the grand slams of economic development,” Schmitt said. But Wichita has lacked a dedicated megasite for those companies that want to move quickly and has been outbid by competing cities and states.

  • Don’t worry, Wichita. I’m sure the state of Kansas – a fiscally conservative state if there ever was one – will be able to come to your rescue with that huge funding gap. Hang on….this just in….Kansas was just downgraded by Moody’s. Apparently even a ratings agency that has repeatedly proven to be grossly and incompetently optimistic with their ratings can’t ignore a state that cuts taxes and increases spending while having declining revenue and a vastly underfunded pension fund. Oh, Kansas…you’re just so silly.

Analysts said the Kansas tax cuts aren’t the only factor adding to state budget problems.

Moody’s also pointed to $129 million in new spending on schools in response to a state Supreme Court ruling plus $16.7 billion in unfunded pension liability. A cut in the state sales tax hasn’t helped either, it said.

“You put all of those things together, and there’s quite a bit of stress on the budget,” said Moody’s analyst Lisa Heller.

The Moody’s report came a day after new figures revealed that state revenue fell $92.8 million short of projections for April.

  • Speaking of gross incompetence…..Farmers Insurance Group now seems to be realizing that they should have some sense of a city’s flood preparation before writing an insurance policy for properties within a flood zone. Oh guess what, Farmers? They weren’t ready for the flood. Actually, that is why they bought insurance, especially since you priced it so cheaply that it seemed like a smarter way to spend their money than performing a bunch of expensive flood control measures they might never need. I hope the 24 year old college grad that sold the policy got his bonus and moved on because you know the executives all got theirs. Farmers Insurance Group is owned by Zurich Insurance Group, by the way, ticker symbol ZURVY if you are looking for a stock short to research.

The suits argue that public agencies should have taken more emergency measures, such as emptying their reservoirs before the rains hit and employing more sandbags and inflatable flood barriers. That, the suits assert, could have prevented problems such as sanitary sewers backing up into homes so forcefully that "geysers of sewer water shot out from the floor drains."

"The common, central and fundamental issue in this action is whether the defendants have failed to safely operate retention basins, detention basins, tributary enclosed sewers and tributary open sewers/drains for the purpose of safely conveying stormwater," the lawsuit states.

  • If your city is not allowing – by right – accessory dwelling units, sometimes called “granny flats”, on all single family lots than you are missing out on a critical strategy for growing into a strong town. For subdivisions of single family lots, the ADU is the next incremental step of development. We ALWAYS need to allow the next incremental step of development by right if we want our cities to prosper. Get out there and make it happen.

Eric Engstrom, a principal city planner, has seen these small structures become increasingly popular during his 16 years working for the city. And as he put it, “Given the low vacancy rate, when they’re done, you can rent them out in about an hour.” Which means that adding an accessory dwelling unit, or A.D.U., increases the value of a piece of property.

  • One of the books I’m currently reading is James Rickards’ The Death of Money. Highly recommended so far. The third chapter, which I just finished, is a sobering look at China and how their centralized economy, controlled by large state-owned enterprises (corporations) and large banks, is driving their economy to ruin for their own short-term gain. On page 101 Rickards writes, “The rise of a parasitic elite is closely linked to the prevalence of malinvestment.” Essentially, the elite use their accumulated money and power to keep the system from structurally changing because the change is not in their interests. It seems like tragic affirmation of this insight here in the U.S. when I read that businesses are being destroyed faster than they are being created, a reflection of the rising cost of entry and the mounting challenges of keeping the doors open. (See my thoughts on Dunkin Donuts from earlier this year.)

  • Some critics of my writing label me a libertarian. While I certainly have strong libertarian tendencies at the federal level, at the local level I believe in active communities of neighbors working closely to solve problems. And not only do I support these efforts in theory, I think it is a moral obligation we have to each other to be part of them. If you want an inspirational story of people taking control of the future of their place, check out this one from Amarillo. Give us a chance so we can discover the most valuable ways to serve one another (shout out to EconTalk).

In the aftermath of the 2011 wildfires, with all of $800 in the bank, Conner and his volunteers were able to complete what seemed impossible. They built three new homes from nothing and helped finish a fourth for some who lost everything.

Now it’s an attempt to rebuild some lives with the Acts Community Resource Center. Inside: a food pantry where 35 to 50 pounds of healthy food is available five times yearly; a hygiene closet for toiletries, a baby room for diapers, baby food and baby clothes; and a room with eight computers that is focused solely on writing resumes and finding jobs.

There’s also a clothes closet for interview-appropriate dress wear, a salon, a small laundromat and a large open area with a big screen for classes like parenting, budgeting and nutrition. Eventually, the big screen will be used for some neighborhood bonding that will include a movie night, since few can afford to go to a theater, and a men’s night for Monday night football and cookouts.

  • Unfortunately, serving one another is not the role of citizens but government in Tacoma. And when government doesn’t live up to their promises and citizens take it upon themselves to fill the gap, what happens? They get threatened with arrest. And even more ridiculous, the city can’t find the time or money to install a crosswalk ($1,000) but seem to be able to spend the same amount of money to remove the “rogue” crosswalks installed by citizens. Keep going, Citizens for a Safer Tacoma.

  • Hey Tacoma….if you want to see what a city that embraces citizen initiative looks like, check out Memphis. The blog Memphis Que documents the efforts of a handful of citizens to activate an historic building that was scheduled for demolition. Efforts like this would never be possible unless the city provided room for, and in many ways nurtured, the creative energy and community spirit of its residents. That sometimes means embracing a little chaos, but at the end of the day you might get a nice brewery in an historic building like Memphis. At the very least, you’re going to get some free crosswalks, which is better than the nothing you have right now.

The Untapped pop-up event features a creative redecoration of the space using found materials along with vendors selling craft beers, food trucks and portable toilets for restrooms. After enjoying a few beers at the brewery building along with some tacos at one of the food trucks present we moved on to Overton Square, where I ran into my old friend, chef David Scott Walker, who is in the process of opening a pork and beer-centered German restaurant called Schweinehaus on the Square in the old Paulette's building.

  • After writing Living in Communion about the installation of bike lanes in front of my church, I received a lot of feedback from religious communities around the country. I don’t suggest this is for everyone, but for many people in our cities, religious organizations can be – and really need to be – advocates for community and place. One group sent me the book The Art of Neighboring that asks a pretty provocative question: When Jesus said to, “love your neighbors as yourself” what if he meant your actual neighbors? Like, the people who live next door to you? I’m a Christian and so this speaks to me, but I’d love to see/hear/share the equivalent of this conversation in other faith communities. And actually, the core message here is pretty secular at the end of the day. Be a good neighbor.

  • I couldn’t write this week’s digest without sharing this recommendation from a psychologist on ten ways to fight congestion. While it received a lot of ridicule here among transportation advocates, I found it fascinating because this is how we sound to those not within our professional silo (or as we call them, cylinders of excellence). For the psychologist, it is all about changing people. For the engineer, it is all about adding capacity. It just reinforces the notion to me that this country is in desperate need of more generalists in key management positions, people who see beyond their own cylinder of excellence.

1) New drivers should receive specific training in freeway driving and be required to prove their competence on busy highways before becoming licensed.

2) We should educate existing drivers on exactly how they are required to drive if they’re going to use public freeways.

  • Another item of local interest is the renovations of Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Living two and a half hours north of Minneapolis, I’m only an occasional visitor to this outdoor pedestrian mall, but if I were asked to describe what I’m looking for in this most urban of urban places, a “woodsy” feel would not be on the short list. I’m a little nervous here.

For Nicollet Mall — renamed “Nicollet Mile” — [landscape architect and urban designer James] Corner envisions a “woodsy” promenade where Minneapolitans will live, work, shop and play. The project calls for roughly half the funding coming from the state’s bonding bill, with $21.5 million tentatively set aside so far. A final decision on that amount is expected to be resolved in the waning days of the legislative session.

  • Finally, two videos I wanted to share. One serious and the other less so. First the serious. We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. The deeper context is that the injured Jew lying in the ditch was passed over by fellow Jews until finally being assisted by the Samaritan, the arch-enemy of the day for Jews in the first century. Today a Good Samaritan is someone who helps out someone in need, but that’s easy when the person needing help is one of us. The parable actually challenges listeners to help out those in need that are not like us. Maybe even an enemy. Watching this video, I can see myself walking by the first person who needs help but stopping for the second. That self-evaluation didn’t sit well with me and I added it to the digest stream so I wouldn’t forget to come back to it again.

  • The second video….just check out the bike in the background. I’m going to write about cycling on Monday. Having gotten to know a lot more cyclists the past few years, this one just made me laugh. Hope it does that for you as well.

 

I hope this makes up for missing out on last week. Everyone have a safe and happy weekend and we’ll see you back here Monday. And just a reminder….if you made it all the way to here and you are NOT a member of Strong Towns, what do we need to do? Go sign up now and you’ll enjoy your weekend all the more.