Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Citieees gone wild

Thinking about how a lot of seemingly unrelated political issues have a common origin began when Jane and I were driving on 4th Avenue SE last weekend, and stopped for a red light behind three other cars at 10th Street. After waiting a long time, and with no cars on the cross street, car #1 finally ran the light. A few cars came down 10th Street; then, after a significant pause, car #2 ran the light. A few more cars came down 10th Street, then another pause; finally, car #3 ran the light. Finally, as we came to our moment to decide, the light turned green. We'd been at the intersection at least two minutes. I don't know how long the earlier cars had been waiting. I said to Jane, "At least there wasn't one of those traffic cameras at the light." Jane pointed out that there was, in fact, a camera above the intersection:

I had the awful vision of drivers #1, 2 and 3 getting unpleasant surprises in their mailboxes soon. Thanks to informed citizen Phillip Platz, however, I know that the purpose of this particular camera is to monitor the intersection so that traffic lights changed in a timely fashion. Which, of course, they weren't doing on this particular afternoon.
What real traffic cameras look like; from
Meanwhile, though, it got me thinking...

My town of Cedar Rapids is engaged in a court battle with the Iowa Department of Transportation over placement of traffic cameras on Interstate 380 near downtown. IDOT wants them down because they're too close to a change in speed limit, thus amounting to a speed trap; Cedar Rapids claims their presence has reduced the number of accidents on a dangerous curve. But the city also notes that they stand to lose more than $2 million in revenue if the cameras go away (Smith "Traffic Cameras," cited below).

I'm a big believer in safe driving, and applaud almost anything that will slow cars through town. But even so I have a tough time swallowing that the cameras' primary purpose is anything other than to fulfill a desperate need for revenue.

How did we come to such a desperate revenue pass? There are multiple factors, of course, some of which are out of our control, but it is undeniable that governments at every level in the U.S. are over-extended. (For an illustration with unusually clear numbers, see Charles Marohn's charts from Hays, Kansas.) We believed for a long time that we could expand our way to ever-greater prosperity, with happy lives in large-lot subdivisions for all, and that informed 70 years of development after World War II. Now citizens, particularly lower-income citizens, face limits on their economic opportunity based on increased distance from where the jobs are (Holmes and Berube); governments face the long-term obligations incurred by expansion that are coming due; and it's increasingly apparent we had bought into what Strong Towns calls a "Ponzi scheme," with up-front benefits of development eventually outweighed by debt payments and the deferred costs of keeping it going:
The issue we face with our current pattern of development is that it fosters short-term thinking and an illusion of wealth. The math simply does not work in its favor in the long run. When you lose money on every transaction, you don’t make it up in volume. ("Follow the Curbside Chat")
It's no wonder cities are in difficult situations, with few ways out. One approach is to reduce expenditures, which involves cutting services and deferring maintenance (see D. Weissman on Chicago). Schools suffer, veterans suffer, buildings go uninspected, potholes get bigger, and so forth. Governments lose support as they become less able to respond to citizen expectations. Political rhetoric ratchets up, and fingers get pointed, often at the wrong targets: the poor for budget deficits, teachers for educational outcomes, bicyclists for potholes (see Dutzick, Weissman and Baxandall on that last one), or the ever-mysterious-but-convenient catch-all category of "waste."

Or you could try budget gimmicks, which is really creating the illusion of fiscal health and kicking the problem down the road (Gregg, Haddon).

Another approach is to go for infusions of revenue--essentially, to keep the Ponzi approach going a little longer. This would explain why the City of Cedar Rapids keeps hoping to revive the casino project (Smith, "Casino Consolidation")--and why casinos in other cities killed it at the state level--and why cities like ours keep heeding the blandishments of developers who promise their projects will create jobs and enrich the whole town and not just themselves. It explains state lotteries, speed traps, the fascination with traffic cameras, and states putting crippling fees on people in the criminal justice system (Liptak)--each of which winds up alienating the citizens the government is supposed to be serving. And, perversely, it explains the ongoing lure of supply-side economics, which promises tax cuts will produce economic growth resulting in increased revenues--such as Kansas and Wisconsin are currently not experiencing. Experience can be a good teacher, but only when desperation isn't preventing us from heeding her lessons.

There is another option. Governments at local and higher levels could re-orient themselves, returning to time-tested fundamentals to build a fiscally-sound place that is resilient to economic shocks. It's a slow process, which won't make our current debts instantly disappear, and there aren't the photo opportunities that come with a ribbon cutting or the applause that comes with a tax cut. But it requires neither swinging wildly for the fiscal fences, nor creating bad feeling between government and citizens.


Tony Dutzick, Gideon Weissman and Phineas Baxendall, Who Pays for Roads?: How the "Users Pay" Myth Gets in the Way of Solving America's Transportation Problems (Frontier Group, 2015),

"Follow the Curbside Chat," Strong Towns,

Katherine Gregg, "House GOP Outlines Fix for Bridges," Providence Journal, 16 June 2015, A1

Heather Haddon, "Panel Singles Out New Jersey For Budget Maneuvers," Wall Street Journal, 8 June 2015,

Natalie Holmes and Alan Berube, "Close to Home: Social Mobility and the Growing Distance between People and Jobs," Social Mobility Memos, Brookings Institution, 9 June 2015,

Adam Liptak, "Debt to Society is Least of Costs for Ex-Convicts," New York Times, 23 February 2006,

Rick Smith, "Traffic Cameras Still On; Cedar Rapids Will Decide Quickly on Next Step," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 May 2015,

Rick Smith, "Casino Consolidation Raises Cedar Rapids' Hopes," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4 June 2015,

Dan Weissman, "How Bad Are Chicago's Debt Problems, Really?" Marketplace, 9 June 2015,

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