Thursday, May 25, 2006


Only one law?

The city I live in just passed an ordinance requiring all pets be embedded with an identifying microchip. Yeah, that's going to happen. The people who keep their dogs on two-foot chains without water are going to be lining up to comply. Me, I'm just glad of the chance to torture my cat for no reason at all.
A less developed section of the city is mobilizing to keep Wal-Mart from building a big store near some expensive houses. One resident even alluded to his desire to keep out the "trashy people and vandals" the store might draw to the area. Meanwhile, out in a non-incorporated section of the county, neighborhood residents are testifying and picketing to keep a cement plant from being built across the street from a children's park.
I'll stipulate the following:
1. Many city parks are almost unusable because of all the dog feces on the ground. People do need to have more regard for the neighbors and for the animals themselves.
2. I live near a big shopping mall, and it does indeed attract a bad element from outside the neighborhood.
3. Residents say that the county passed up an opportunity to buy the land (now threatened with the cement plant) for open space.
I was trying to follow an exchange elsewhere about -- I think -- the emotional reactions inherent in certain philosophies.
I'm not strong on philosophy in general (for that you need my mother or my daughter) but one comment stuck in my mind. The speaker mentioned liberals as being the descendents of John Stuart Mill. I thought Mill was in favor of smaller government. I only read "On Liberty" and it was a long time ago, but the way I recall it is as a defense of personal responsibility as a way to secure individual rights. The sense of responsibility is what seems to be missing in the current local controversies.
I subscribe to the theory that we really have only one law: Don't be a jerk. Most of the attempts to micromanage other people's lives have been overly detailed efforts to define what it means to be a jerk. Here's a thought: Jerks aren't just the people who spray-paint their initials on buildings and play their radios too loud. Jerks can also sit in nice offices and make it against the law to act, dress or speak differently than they do.
Most of us know a jerk when we meet one. I'm not sure that sense can be taught.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Is this about oil prices, land use, or neighborhood aesthetics?

May 12, 2006
The following was from a comment thread originally responding to an editorial in The New Republic. (They advocated raising taxes on SUVs.)

The pro-smart growth people aren't calling for central planning (other than from cities, which can and should plan their development). When you talk about "forcing" people into smart growth development, you've got the idea backwards.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but if I own land inside the UGB, I am limited by the high-density zoning laws. I can't build a house on a one acre plot. And similarly , outside the UGB, I can't build a house at all, no matter what size the plot. That sounds like forcing people into hubs to me.

Contemporary development in suburbs and exurbs subsidizes irresponsible growth (developers don't pay for new infrastructure, for example, which is a subsidy for horizontal growth).

I alluded to that in another active thread, most areas are reluctant to zone because schools cost money. The same is also true for roads and sewage. But interestingly enough, you are not allowed to put a septic tank in your land by the same zoning laws! Nor are private companies allowed to get into the sewage and water business. The towns use these as their way to retain control over your property.

If we had stronger property rights that vastly curtailed the power of land use boards to dictate what you can build, then I suspect that the market would take care of things. For example, even in our current environment homeowners' associations are thriving. Developers would buy land, install the necessary roads and services, create the initial charter for the HOA, and then sell lots.

Instead, rent-seeking town magnets know that they can practically print money by getting zoning variances, and pay local politicians handsomely for the privilege.

I wanted to mention earlier, but didn't, my experience in New Mexico a couple of years ago. The state has, as jibaholic likes to put it, "property rights," meaning virtually no zoning laws outside of the cities. The result was people with scrap heaps all over their yards - a really terrible visual nuisance. Unless you want to live next to people who want to put waste dumps in their yards, you should be careful about how strenuously you advocate property rights.

The presence of the auto wrecker to the right of me means that the recent immigrants to the left of me can afford to live in a house with a yard and send their children to the same schools my children attend. The same schools as the children across the street whose ancestors lived here before Europeans arrived. Come to think of it, almost all the houses in this area (including the auto wreckers') have kids growing up in diversity you easterners can only daydream about. So as they grow up, my kids have the advantage of knowing people whose backgrounds are different from theirs. If they become politicians or lawyers or sociologists, they'll be able to see others as more than numbers on a chart.

None of which really has anything to do with gas prices, but neither did your comment.

It's funny that you assume I'm a protected easterner. Actually, I grew up in the Minneapolis area and just finished college in Des Moines, Iowa. I live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Des Moines, although it is beginning to become gentrified. I share a community garden with neighbors who use it to grow food because they need to save money on their groceries. I bet we have a lot more in common in terms of socioeconomic diversity than you think.

All I know is that when I went to New Mexico, I saw a lot of the most severe poverty I've ever seen in the United States. When I saw junk yards in peoples' yards, I'm not talking about auto wreckers. I'm sure you know more about New Mexico than I do, since it sounds like you live there, but I saw scrap heaps in almost every yard in a small town out by Chaco Canyon. That is the result of no zoning laws. I bet people like jibaholic don't exactly have that in mind when they advocate unlimited property rights.

Aaron Berger graduated from Drake University last week. Not surprisingly, he is on MySpace and has a personal blog as well. He really has a thoughtful side, so I don't mean to single him out for ridicule.
If I were to continue this exchange, I would have to point out that from a New Mexico perspective the east starts at around the Colorado-Nebraska border. This far west, front-yard scrap heaps are a socially acceptable expression of individual property rights. I don't know about "jibaholic," but a true western civil libertarian doesn't look to interfere with his or her neighbor's aesthetic decisions.
Yes, the appearance of the yards in the rural four corners area does indicate poverty. It also indicates a set of priorities that is bound to seem outlandish to an eastern or midwestern sensibility. To get back to the original context, the scrap heaps also mark the presence of cheap land. Sort of like in the upper midwest, where farmers used to put up a brand new barn or silo right next to the old decrepit structure they were replacing -- often without bothering to tear down the old one. The difference here is that they are more likely to patch and reuse the old building.
To me, and I differ from A.B. in generation as well as locale, the trashy yards in New Mexico are an issue more of social control (we practice less) than of land use.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Do they practice what they preach?

This is from today's Washington Post: "Basics, Not Luxuries, Blamed for High Debt."

Here is my highly selective quotation:

(A new study) was conducted by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that describes itself as progressive and is run by former Clinton White House chief of staff John D. Podesta. "Very little can be explained by frivolous consumer spending," says Christian E. Weller, author of the report and a senior economist at the center. His views were echoed in a news conference by Elizabeth Warren, a law professor at Harvard University who analyzed the sources of debt that emerge in bankruptcy filings and reviewed the results of Weller's study.

Many families, particularly middle-income households, aren't acknowledging that declining incomes mean they must radically adjust their standards of living, according to Weller and Warren. Warren suggested that families that can no longer realistically afford their single-family houses should move to condominiums, consider limiting their families to a single automobile, get second jobs to pay off debt, or move to less expensive school districts that may not have the highest test scores but where children perform acceptably well.

I basically agree with what the article says (here's the link if you want the whole thing)
but it still bothers me that a couple of high-priced academics feel entitled to tell ordinary Americans how to live. Do Christian Weller and Elizabeth Warren live in condominiums themselves? Do they own cars? Do they have children who go to less well-regarded public schools?

We know from their credentials that they live in large cities with well developed public transit systems. How many of the citizens they are scolding have the same options?

I appreciate studies like this that help explain how it is that a small elite can hold on to lifestyle benefits that many Americans can no longer afford. And I totally agree with their point about choosing a school district. As a matter of fact, I am coming to believe more and more that the struggling schools can provide a better education for most individual students than the richer, more complacent schools with the higher rankings.

Still and all, I resent the judgmental tone.

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