Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Why casinos?

Is a casino what this block needs?
The required cooling-off period has passed since Cedar Rapids's casino proposal was denied by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission in April 2014, and three proposals have emerged to try it again (Morelli). The Cedar Crossing group led by Steve Gray, who created the 2013-14 proposal for a casino that would have straddled 1st Avenue West near the Cedar River, has resubmitted that version along with a smaller casino concept on 1st Avenue where it currently intersects with 4th Street NE, the railroad tracks and the Cedar River Trail. Wild Rose, which operates large-scale casinos in Clinton and Dubuque, has proposed a small casino on the second floor of a four-story building proposed in the 400 block of 1st Avenue SE.

Of the three I prefer the look of Wild Rose's proposal. It's an unpretentious building that works well with the rest of the block and doesn't impede walkability. My main beefs against the original Cedar Crossing proposal were that it was a gaudy building that wouldn't work with the street; that it was a self-contained pod of attractions that not only would provide no spillover benefits to nearby businesses but would actively compete against them; and that, compared to a contemporaneous proposal by MGM to Springfield, Massachusetts, the City of Cedar Rapids seemed to be getting very little out of the deal. I haven't seen the financial details of the current proposals, so can't compare them or assess their sufficiency.

I remain curious as to why a casino plays such a central role in our city's discussions of economic development. Some people enjoy them, some don't; I get that. And whether big- or modestly-sized, a new casino will make a noticeable splash when it opens. But as economic drivers casinos seem less effective than incremental urbanism. This admittedly is a pretty slap-dash way of demonstrating this, but let's look at the 400 block of 1st Avenue SE, where the Wild Rose hopes to build. The venerable Bever building, built in 1923, is pretty, but this is far from the hoppin'-est block in town. Using the Strong Towns model of property tax comparison...

Albert Auto 421 1st Av SE Cedar Rapids Linn 154,600 155,800 310,400 0.296 1,048,649 11,443
417 1st Av SE Cedar Rapids Linn 80,600 549,400 630,000 0.154 4,090,909 23,226
411 1st Av SE Cedar Rapids Linn 168,000 860,000 1,028,000 0.321 3,202,492 37,899
Vacant Land Cedar Rapids Linn 100,800 6,700 107,500 0.193 556,994 3,963

504,000 1,571,900 2,075,900 0.964 2,153,423 76,531

Wild Rose Casino 777 Wild Rose Dr Clinton Clinton 2,935,000 21,065,000 24,000,000 28.6 839,161 893,468
Riverside Casino & Golf Resort 3184 Hwy 22 Riverside Wash
5,343,500 65,930,100 71,273,600 381.23 186,957 2,069,682

...we find that the taxable value per acre on this block vastly exceeds either of the region's most successful casinos. The taxable value per acre of the vacant lot where Wild Rose hopes to build is more than three times that of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort!

However, as dubious a use of valuable real estate as I believe a downtown casino to be, I am done with the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. I would rather have the city make its own decisions, even if I disagree with them, about its future. The State of Iowa has shown an unbridled willingness to intervene in and overrule local decisions--from casino location to minimum wage to labor agreements to plastic bags to rental regulations, and now taking down the Des Moines Water Works--without any notable talent for doing it. Unless someone's rights are being violated, the governor and legislature should butt out. We can handle this. Do something you're good at, like ensuring gun rights for robots.

B.A. Morelli, "3 Cedar Rapids Casino Choices Meet Application Deadline," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 February 2017
Strong Towns, "The Walmart Index: Results of Our Big Box Data Collection Are In," Strong Towns, 3 August 2016
"G.O.P. Statehouse Shows the Locals Who's Boss," New York Times, 21 February 2017, A22

Ben Seigel and Brooks Rainwater, "Preemption Prevents Innovation," US News and World Report, 
"Value Capture and the Property Tax," Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, n.d.

"No CR Casino... Now, What?" 17 April 2014
"Their Casino, Our Casino," 5 September 2013

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Busting unions or governing?

[I wrote the following as a "Facebook note" in 2011 when Wisconsin was making waves by busting public employee unions. Iowa is just getting to this endeavor in 2017. Our elected officials owe us more than magic promises and "take it down!" Alas, this six-year-old piece, with slight revisions, is still timely.]

I grew up in the 1960s, in a conservative house in a conservative town in a liberal era. When I was growing up, conservatism stood for small, efficient, clean, government, and a cautious approach to social change. Even so, there was room in the conservative idea for public goods. The civil rights, environmental, consumer protection and campaign finance legislation that passed during the late 1960s and early 1970s passed with conservative input and support.

In serving as a counterweight to the era's liberal zeitgeist, conservatism was at its best, and made distinctive contributions to American political and social life. It reflected skepticism about government activity and spending, reminding us constantly that we couldn't regulate or spend every problem out of existence. It stood for traditional American values, stating as the ur-conservative, Edmund Burke, did that societies contain accumulated wisdom that it is dangerous to overhaul with radical change, even or maybe especially when change is well-intentioned. It provided a voice for the private sector, for the businesses and industries that are the engines of the American economy. And, perhaps most important, it provided limits on the ability of liberalism to work its will. "Checks and balances, Jefferson," proclaimed John Adams long ago, in a letter arguing against religious establishment on the grounds that any group of people would oppress others given the opportunity, and concluding, "Human nature, know thyself!" Conservatism provided the necessary checks to balance liberalism.

Some time in the 1980s, conservatism moved from being the counterculture to being the zeitgeist itself. Perhaps, as Alan Wolfe has suggested, that led to a concern for power over ideas. I think it's just difficult to adjust to having responsibility for government and for formulating policy programs.

Whatever the reason, conservatism has lost the moral and intellectual mooring it had in previous generations. Far too much of what passes for conservatism these days is political appeals based on fear and loathing of others, and a smug rejection of any information that challenges their rigid doctrine.  Examples abound: the "Hell no!" strategy of congressional Republicans in 2009-10; the variety of bizarre rumors surrounding President Obama; and the anti-intellectual approach to accumulated data and experience on topics from climate change to the recession to economic inequality to government in general. Some programs surely waste money, but some programs produce social benefits far beyond their costs, and surely even rock-ribbed conservatives know this, but it's easier and flashier to say "Investment is just a Democrat (sic) word for spending."

State budgets are in a mess, to be sure. There's plenty of blame to go around. The budget-cutting strategy of our Iowa Republicans, however, seems more oriented to sticking it to groups they don't like rather than actually saving money. Besides going after teachers' unions and public employees' unions under the guise of budget savings, the state [Wisconsin then, Iowa now] targets family planning programs, public broadcasting, anti-smoking programs, railroads, preschools and even sabbatical leaves for professors at state universities. The savings from the last one are microscopic, but it sounds good, at least to those who think sabbaticals are paid vacations.

Conservative appeals today are based on fear and or loathing of unpopular groups. Around the country, there are bills to bust public employee unions, repeal gay marriage laws, and target immigrants, as well as congressional hearings this week on the menace lurking in Muslim mosques from undercover terrorists. This bilious pattern is based on no principle, but inflames suspicions, fans prejudices, and makes us less of one nation.

To, finally, the Wisconsin bill. This is not a positive example of functional government. It is an ugly, divisive political power play. Union-busting, in Wisconsin and the states like Iowa that hope to emulate it, achieves no public purpose. (The education budget savings in Wisconsin had already been agreed to, and were passed in a separate bill.) It targets a group, blaming them unfairly for state budget woes that were brought on by a collapsing economy and exacerbated by reckless tax cuts. Perhaps non-union members can be inspired to support this cause. (Perhaps not, from early public opinion polls.) More disturbingly,breaking a well-resourced Democratic-leaning interest group fits a pattern of extraordinary Republican efforts in the past decade to rig the system in their favor: denying black votes in Florida in 2000, recalling the governor of California in 2003, Texas's mid-decade redistricting, the Citizens United decision, and now this.

To participate constructively in the American political process, as they have for decades past, conservatives need to develop a vision for America, one based on achievement of ideals, not on narrow self-interest and sticking it to groups they don't like. Ronald Reagan had a vision in the 1980s, albeit a nostalgic one based on a misremembered past. Today's conservatives can't even claim that much.

They need to do another thing, too, which is to recognize that unchecked conservatism can't achieve everything society needs. It can make us more private. It can make us more armed. But it can't make the world more beautiful, unify the American people, provide public spaces and public goods, empower those who need opportunity, or secure the public from the occasional abuse of private power. For a lot of that government can help. And unions too.

Allison Carr, "Framing the Labor Debate," Upside Down, 13 February 2017
Molly Duffy, "Iowa Teachers Rally Against Legislature's Collective Bargaining Bill," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 12 February 2017
Kathie O'Bradovich, "Collective Bargaining Smackdown Leaves Democrats Spoiling for Rematch," Des Moines Register, 17 February 2017

EARLIER POST: "Post #50: Who's a Liberal?" 11 August 2013

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Urbanism updates: Northwest side and 8th Av SW

The Flamingo Restaurant on Ellis Boulevard: Better days ahead?
City development staff have held two public presentations this month, on the Northwest Neighborhood plan and the 8th Avenue SW project.

The Northwest Neighborhood, though dealing with economic change and the 2008 flood, remains a vibrant community of small homes dating from its heyday as a home for working class families. Homes remain west of Ellis Boulevard (yellow on the map above); the area between Ellis and the river (green on the map) was particularly hard-hit by the flood...

The city bought and demolished the vast proportion of the houses there, and plans a series of riverfront attractions as well as flood protection.

Once flood protection is in place, the city hopes to attract infill housing of various types along and south of Ellis. With enough population around, Ellis itself can again become a thriving commercial area. Some of the residents who were present at the meeting at St. James United Methodist Church recalled walking to the A&W (now closed), the Flamingo Restaurant (now open one night a week as an events center) and other attractions.

Bicycle routes and bus lines will link the neighborhood to the rest of the city, and the rest of the city to the greenway.

8th Avenue SW is due for resurfacing and sewer replacement, which is mostly routine (albeit not if your house is near where they'll be working). City officials announced a couple of new features of general interest. The first is a sidewalk along the north side of the street, which serves Veterans Memorial Stadium, tennis courts, Trinity Lutheran School and Cleveland Park, as well as many residences.

The sidewalk is an important addition. Although it's across the street from the ball park, people walking to the stadium are now "hung out to dry" while they wait to cross 8th. The new sidewalk will give the a place to stand, and the bumpouts will give them a clearer shot across the street. The representative from Trinity Lutheran School suggested that parents parking on the street for school events will have an easier time getting to the school along the sidewalk. There was no resident opposition, in large part because the city plans to stop dunning homeowners for the cost of installing new sidewalks. This is a very favorable development. Sidewalks, like streets--maybe moreso?--benefit the entire city, and should be funded accordingly.

The city also plans a stormwater detention facility at the intersection of 8th and Rockford Road.
At present eastbound through traffic on 8th curves to the right as they approach Rockford, but an offshoot is used by people turning left onto Rockford. This creates a triangle which is currently just grass. The city plans to close part of the offshoot, and to design catch basins in the green space.

Next to me at the meeting were an adorable woman and her even-more-adorable mother, who live next door to each other in the 1500 block of 8th and who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. The woman asked the guy from the city if it wouldn't be nice to have a rain garden in the space. He asked, with some irony, if she wanted to maintain it. She said, with utterly no irony, that she and her mother did indeed want to maintain it. So they took her name and number, and this may well happen. Every now and again, the human race makes your day!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Globalization and global poverty

Source: Milanovic 2016
"The poor you shall always have with you," Jesus is supposed to have said, and either way it's probably true, but the forces of globalization have altered the picture of global poverty in dramatic ways.

The chart above is the "elephant curve," as presented by economist Branko Milanovic (cited below). The two decades after 1988 saw real income growth in much of the world, distributed in non-random ways. Many individuals in the middle of the global income spectrum saw their incomes increase, often sharply. Areas of the developing world that were "dirt-poor" at the beginning of this time period, particularly in India and China, developed a middle-class. The other winners, of course, were the already super-rich, who became known in the last U.S. presidential campaign as "the 1 percent." If anything the chart under-expresses the historically unprecedented growth in their incomes: A 60 percent increase in the income of someone in the 25th global percentile is going to be life-changing but quite modest in absolute terms compared to a 60 percent increase at the 99th percentile.

The losers in this process are the extremely poor, whose situations appear impervious to global economic changes, and the lower-to-middle-income people in developed countries. Thus, while worldwide income inequality has declined--particularly if you ignore the amount going to the top--inequality within countries has increased. This has, of course, driven the surly politics throughout much of the West, personified but not limited to U.S. President Donald J. Trump. At the same time, the wealthy countries are still wealthier, so remain magnets to immigration from poorer countries. The world isn't quite flat, and so immigration also is a prickly subject.

Global development was the target of a United Nations effort begun in 2000 called the Millennium Development Goals. A Brookings working paper assembles what data can be gathered to assess the effort, with mixed results (McArthur and Rasmussen). (I thought of writing "predictably mixed results," but mixed is a lot better than the despair we've become accustomed to hearing on this subject.) Even leaving out China and India, who are large enough and recently grown enough to skew the results, the authors identify

  • substantial progress in the developed world on child mortality, maternal mortality, AIDS treatment, primary school completion and gender parity
  • some progress on undernourishment
  • little or no progress on access to water, sanitation, biodiversity, forest cover and protected land area
  • insufficient data on extreme income poverty, but particular improvements notable in India
They estimate implementation of the Millennium Development Goals saved 21.0-29.7 million lives, but are agnostic about causes. Economic growth? Improved commodity prices? Development assistance? All happened, but don't account for the pattern of progress. A new round of goals, the Sustainable Development Goals, are set for the next 15 years.

So with mixed and uneven improvement in the last quarter-century, what trends in global poverty can we anticipate for the next quarter-century? You should probably ask an economist, an anthropologist, or a political scientist who can give you a definitive answer. In part it depends on how much globalization changes the composition of the world's poor (fewer Asians? more North Americans?). In general poor people in general are more vulnerable to systemic shocks than the non-poor, because they have fewer reserves to get them through the tough times. So more severe droughts, exacerbated by climate change and/or population growth, are likely to roll back what progress we have made, and to increase conflicts and refugee flows. A search for quick answers to economic stagnation in the West might trip off a cycle of protectionism, which would hit the most vulnerable the hardest, without necessarily helping national constituencies if it causes global productivity to contract. Energy shortages would be interesting, since the West uses much more energy per capita than does the developing world.

My hunch about communities in America is that they'd all be better off by promoting local businesses and sustainable living, with less dependence on big box franchises and federal grants. So it's what I'd like to see happen in Pakistan and Nigeria as well. Is that possible, or is globalization too far along?


Miles Corak, “Worlds of Inequality,” American Prospect, 18 May 2016 [review of Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization by Branko Milanovic (Belknap/Harvard, 2016)]

Nicholas Kristof, “As Donald Trump Denies Climate Change, These Kids Die of It,” New York Times, 6 January 2017 [includes link to BAMS article attributing reduced rainfalls in southern and eastern Africa to human activity and resulting in “substantial food crises]

John McArthur and Krista Rasmussen, “Change of Pace: Accelerations and Advances during the Millennium Development Goal Era,” Brookings Working Papers, 11 January 2017

Miroslav Nincic and Matthew Weiss, "The Future of Transboundary Water Conflicts," Political Science Quarterly 131:4 (Winter 2016-17), 717-748 

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...