Tag Archives: Washington Post

The Real “Anti-Stimulus” – The Nation’s Growing Debts

The Washington Post reports how municipal governments in the U.S. are under great strain: state and local governments have doubled their debt loads in the past decade to $2.4 trillion. Factor in state (excluding local) unfunded pension liabilities for another $1 trillion (a figure that is likely closer to $3 trillion).

The future is debt-laden and the question is how will state and local governments respond. Trade-offs will have to be made between money for current services, bond payments, and pension benefits. Taxes will be raised and it’s likely that states will seek more bailouts from a debt-saturated federal government.

It’s hard to see how more federal spending (i.e. debt)  is the way to stimulate cash-strapped states. Yet, that’s the argument made by Ezra Klein in this Sunday’s Post.

Before issuing debt to cover debt it might be worth asking what have state and local governments been doing with all the economic development/infrastructure debt they’ve issued these past years?

Harrisburg issued debt for an incinerator that was supposed to make money. Now called a financial ”fiasco,” the incinerator threatens to sink the city’s budget. Steven Malanga discusses the debts incurred by what should be a profit-making enterprise — the 40 year old New Jersey Meadowlands, as well as the long-running “redevelopment debt” odyssey of California.

There is no magic in debt-financed infrastructure and economic-development, only a deferred tax bill to pay for the government’s gambles.

Race to the Top a Mixed Bag

After Delaware and Tennessee were awarded funds from the newest federal aid to education program, Race to the Top (RTTT), many states are still competing in an attempt to be awarded funds in the second round.

RTTT has several advantages over the former federal education program, No Child Left Behind, in that Race to the Top encourages innovation and competition at the state level rather than prescribing one top-down solution for all schools.

However, RTTT suffers from the problems that will plague any top-down education reform, in that it exponentially increases the bureaucracy of education. Because federal regulators do not have the local knowledge necessary to evaluate programs in individual schools, they must rely on statistics to evaluate school performance. A Washington Post blogger opines:

Part of the problem for D.C. may have been the trouble it has had in developing a data information system. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years but still no real system exists. And using “data” to drive reform is one of Duncan’s core principles, even though we all know that data is vulnerable to manipulation.


Duncan uses a lot of jargon too, but it is easy to understand what he is trying to do with education: expand charter schools, increase student standardized testing, link teacher pay to test scores and close down the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Unfortunately, what is not easy to understand is why President Obama’s education secretary is pushing those initiatives. This administration was supposed to bring some reason back into education reform after the failed era of No Child Left Behind.

Furthermore, the lack of local knowledge regarding schools at the federal level forces federal officials to allocate RTTT funds based on metrics that may not reflect the actual quality of state and local education reforms. The lack of transparency behind the allocation of federal funds led Colorado Governor Bill Ritter to consider dropping out of the second round of the competition. The New York Times reports:

Colorado, which had hoped to win $377 million, ended in 14th place. Now Mr. Ritter says the scoring by anonymous judges seemed inscrutable, some Coloradans view the contest as federal intrusion and the governor has not decided whether to reapply for the second round.

“It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s,” Mr. Ritter said.

Colorado is not the only state where the initial results of the Obama administration’s signature school improvement initiative, known as Race to the Top, have left a sour taste. Many states are questioning the criteria by which winners were chosen, wondering why there were only two that won and criticizing a last-minute cap on future awards.

RTTT’s emphasis on accountability and competition between schools offer some improvement over No Child Left Behind’s focus on multiple-choice standardized testing. However, RTTT’s failures so far demonstrate the reasons that education policy should not be managed at the federal level.

Free Market Farmland

The Washington Post reports that across the country, new neighborhood developments are including farmland as an amenity for residents whose housing prices include funding for the provision of open space and readily available, hyper-local produce.

This trend demonstrates that developers, when legally permitted to do so, cater to the demands of their consumers. Recent changes in land use policy, allowing for more mixed-use development, have legalized the blending of residential and agricultural uses.

The article explains:

Most of these projects start with a matchup between a fine old farm to save and a smart developer with a vision, but in the case of Potomac Vegetable Farms (http://www.potomacvegetablefarms.com), west of Tysons Corner, the farmers saved it themselves. Hiu Newcomb and her family now have a co-housing project (a community with shared common areas and responsibilities) clustered in one area, but most of the popular farm remains.

In Northern Virginia and many areas of the country where development is being designed around farms, the concept is primarily a luxury for the Whole Foods set that values local farmers and produce. However, a similar trend is emerging in Detroit, as previously discussed here, as a way of putting deserted urban space to use.

Earlier this week, the Detroit City Planning Commission moved to codify this trend, working to update the zoning code to permit more agricultural uses within city limits. However, local television news station WLNS explains:

The draft includes recommendations such as allowing small projects to buy city land at reduced prices with lower tax rates. And it suggests larger farms would need to show how they would benefit the community to get such breaks.

The draft also suggests setting soil testing rules.

While allowing entrepreneurs to make valuable use of vacant land in Detroit makes great economic sense, the city should consider whether, particularly given its current budget condition, a subsidy program is advisable policy.

Report from Snowmageddon

The levels of damages from the recent Washington snowfalls were nothing like the widespread destruction of property and loss of lives from Hurricane Katrina. Still, the governments in the Washington area, while not facing a natural disaster of the same magnitude, showed a Katrina-like ineptitude.

Heavy snow fell in my Maryland neighborhood from mid-afternoon on Friday, February 5, until late Saturday, February 6, leaving about 20 to 25 inches of snow. This was admittedly an extreme event that has happened only about 4 or 5 times in the past 30 years. It required state and local governments to show some real flexibility and an ability to devise new strategic responses on the fly. They failed!

A Montgomery County snowplow did finally come through my neighborhood on the evening of February 7, actually sooner than I had feared. The real problem was the arterials. Even on Monday the 15th, while my neighborhood roads were showing bare pavement, nearby East-West Highway — a main thoroughfare for Montgomery County — was covered with layers of ice and snow. Only one lane was functioning in each direction.

Continue reading

Sidewalk Accountability and Parking Property Rights

While the latest installment of DC’s record-breaking winter snow has passed over the area, the mountains of snow lining streets and piled on sidewalks appear to be here to stay for the time being. These problems, unusual this far south, are testing residents’ patience with their neighbors.

DC law states that residents are responsible for clearing the snow from sidewalks on their property, but the monumental task that this poses after two major storms has left some unwilling or unable to face up to the task.  The Washington Post discusses the problem:

It was fully 48 hours since the flakes of Snowmageddon had ceased falling, but by midday Monday, many residents and merchants in Adams Morgan still had not cleared their portions of public walkways, disregarding the District’s law mandating that property owners clear snow and ice from their sidewalks within eight hours after the snowfall’s completion.

Through the Mid-Atlantic, rules regarding sidewalk shoveling vary from the mere expectation of courtesy to fines up to $100 for homeowners and business owners who do not do the right thing.  While these municipal rules vary in how well they encourage citizens to maintain sidewalks, this issue might be better dealt with at a neighborhood rather than a city level.

In Understanding Institutional Diversity, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom examines community-based efforts for solving collective action problems like sidewalks covered in snow. She suggests that shunning can be very effective in encouraging community members to follow rules. Imagine being publicly embarrassed at a neighborhood meeting for failing to shovel your walks in a timely manner.

Robert Nelson of the Mercatus Center explains in Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government that the rise of private Neighborhood Associations is helping localities deal more effectively with such collective action problems.  

In another snow-related economic conundrum, vehicle owners struggle to protect their rights to parking spaces that they have laboriously shoveled.  In Boston, drivers can legally save their cleaned spots with lawn chairs or cones, but no such official rule exists in DC. However, an unscientific Washington Post poll found that 76% of respondents favored the right to reserve parking spots, effectively suggesting that the effort of shoveling is worth a guarantee of property rights.

Assorted Links

The Washington Post calls on Rep. Charles Rangel to resign from the House Ways and Means Committee.

To save money in New Jersey, Five Morris County, N.J. towns may merge health services, and two Cumberland County towns split their elementary school.

Waiving the “Buy American” restriction in the stimulus bill doesn’t please unions in Auburn, Maine. Manhole covers for a$2.3 million sewer project will be made in Canada.

Is a smart grid a dumb idea?

Assorted Links

Twittering thievery: using social media to find stolen bikes.

“A nearly unrelenting tale of woe and disappointment”: SAT scores decline in 2009. Performance  gap widens.

Maryland’s obscure Board of Public Works is the only state entity with constitutional authority to make budget cuts.

Recession-triggered cupcake sector boomlet? The Washington Post reports half a dozen cupcake bakeries open in the D.C. area since 2007.

Malaise and Misery Ahead for State Budgets

Most states have closed the books on FY 2009 — just barely. July marks the start of the FY 2010 for many states, but as the Washington Post reports, just six weeks in a dozen states are short by a total of $24 billion. This year is certain to be a repeat of the last — only much worse, with revenues unlikely to recover in the short-term. Some of the budget balancing tactics of last year are depleted. Reserve funds are empty. And at least half of the federal stimulus has been spent.

With the choice between further tax hikes or budget cuts (or both), it’s likely that many states will choose something FY 2009 saw a great deal of, budget gimmicks. But these also have a cost. While deferring pension payments, eliminating property tax rebates, or taking out a line of credit to balance the budget may have seen New Jersey through July 2009, it was enough for Moody’s to downgrade the state from a “stable to a “negative” credit rating.

miseryindexnjMoody’s credit review was prompted by New Jersey’s planned issuance of $200 million in school construction bonds. New Jersey’s bleak fiscal picture isn’t an overnight occurrence. The state’s steady march to insolvency dates back decades and is driven by many things, including the tripling of taxpayer-supported debt since 1990 to $45 billion (most of it not approved by taxpayers). According to the New Jersey Taxpayers’ Association’s Misery Index, taxpayers have felt the increasing pressure of runaway government spending for a decade.

The federal bailout may have gotten New Jersey through part of its budget ordeal — but it has not stopped the state from the mistakes that brought it to the brink.  In considering how to tackle the coming year elected officials must break with the habits of the past, increased spending supported by ever-increasing taxation.

Tolls, Yes; Speed Bumps, No

speedbumpHow about letting local neighborhoods charge tolls on outside drivers for the use of their immediate streets?

It is now technologically fully feasible with EZ passes or other devices. This idea occurred to me as I was thinking about a recent controversy in Montgomery County, Maryland over neighborhood speed bumps (or “speed humps” as they are sometimes called).

Speed bumps in Montgomery County, like much of the rest of the country, have proliferated — now totaling 1,200, amounting to one bump per 2.2 miles of road. While many neighborhoods like them, they infuriate others. They also pose problems for fire and other emergency vehicles. In 1998, responding to rising complaints, Montgomery County initiated a new policy to make it more difficult to use speed bumps. Since then, 388 out of 653 proposed speed bumps have been approved.

In this case, a request for bumps was made by the Springfield Civic Association and involves a section of Cromwell Drive in Bethesda that has become popular with harried commuters. A vote of the 38 households directly involved would be required, and approval would require an affirmative 80 percent supermajority.

Other neighbors who live close by — but not directly on Cromwell Drive — are protesting.  They find speed bumps annoying and time consuming. Under Montgomery County policy, such adjoining neighbors can have a say only if they are “landlocked,” having no other way to reach their homes other than using Cromwell Drive.  Technically, 50 percent of landlocked neighbors must also approve but Montgomery County in practice almost always ignores this requirement. Continue reading

Neighborhood Influence in City Planning

Proposed changes to Washington DC’s Metrorail system offer an opportunity to look at the power that neighborhood residents can have when they are able to organize themselves into blocks of constituents.

In Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb just north of the city limits, neighbors are uniting in order to voice their opinions of where stops should on the proposed Purple Line should be placed in order to avoid disrupting the current land uses. As one resident explains in a recent Washington Post article:

I think standing up for our community when we were threatened with being divided by the Purple Line really made us realize how lucky we were to have what we have.

This example stands out in contrast to many communities that are not able to overcome the collective action problem they encounter when local governments suggest changes to infrastructure and city design.  Planning projects are most likely to succeed when residents have an active voice in shaping the landscape of their towns and cities because those who use the infrastructure and transportation networks everyday posses the local knowledge necessary to know how these amenities could best be improved. When city planners ignore the local knowledge of their residents, they are likely to enact changes that physically tear apart communities, as poor placement of the Purple Line would.

One important factor in allowing neighbors to work together in order to achieve the critical mass necessary to influence policy is mixed land uses, where commercial and residential uses are intermingled, and the physical landscape encourages people to interact in business and social relationships.  Silver Spring residents portray how this feature of the neighborhood is currently flourishing:

Daniel Goodwin, owner of Silver Spring Books, said he enjoys the “good exchange of information” with local customers. That conversation often carries over to the area’s local restaurants and coffee shops. A co-owner of Kefa Cafe, Lene Tsegaye, noted that her shop does not feature Internet access because she wants to encourage chatting.

A new Metro line may benefit the people of Silver Spring by offering easier access to the rest of the Washington metropolitan area and by making it easier for people from other parts of the city to fequent Silver Spring businesses. By improving the strength of neighborhood organizations to challenge top-down efforts as seen in this example, city planners may make their own jobs more difficult in the narrow sense, but they will also facilitate the transmission of the necessary information from the bottom up, which will be able to guide planners’ policy appropriately.