Nov 29, 2012

An Unconvincing Case for the DC Height Limit

Over at the Atlantic Cities, Kaid Benfield has an "urbanist" case for the DC height limit, which might really be an elaborate plot to get Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias prescriptions for blood pressure medication. But let's assume not.

First, let me clear away one small annoyance before getting to the meat of the case: Banfield's repeated implication (which is common in this type of argument) that everyone who disagrees with him is a whinging carpetbagger who hasn't earned the right to opine on his favorite city:
That said, I can’t sit on this any longer: the law that restricts the height of buildings in D.C. is under attack from all sorts of sources (many of them out-of-towners or relative newcomers to the city, probably not a coincidence).
Now, maybe I'm just a whinging carpetbagger who hasn't earned the right to opine on such things, but this is bogus (I do live in DC, for the record). We don't say that political reporters have to live in Ohio for ten years to opine on its swing state-iness, we don't say health policy reporters have to be licensed doctors. Really, you don't have to live in any city at all to write about its policies. It might help, sure, but like any policy matter, the meat of the understanding lies in study of the issue. Buses work pretty much the same everywhere.

With that out of the way, let's take on the meat of the argument. The height limit stops DC from growing, argue the repeal-ists, but Banfield disagrees:
Actually, DC can grow under current law. In 1950, with the height restrictions fully in effect, the city’s population was 802,178. In 2011, its estimated population was 617,996. The truth is that we were a "shrinking city" until about a decade ago, and we are nowhere near full capacity today.
This leaves out a lot of history. DC's absolute peak of population was in large part due to huge temporary wartime buildings which have since been demolished.

But consider: DC's residential vacancy rate is extremely low, and its office vacancy rate is the lowest in the nation. Of the existing structures in the District, we quite clearly are at full capacity right now, and one reason we can't get back to 1950 levels of density is the Height Act preventing additional construction. There are a lot of other reasons, most prominently grim NIMBY politics, but that is surely part of the explanation. I suppose it's not surprising that Banfield wouldn't credit this point, since he apparently doesn't believe in economics:
Building height has little to do with affordability. The argument that a limit on building height restricts housing supply and thus leads to higher prices is essentially the same argument made against Portland’s urban growth boundary. In both cases, it’s hogwash: if affordability were closely related to building height and density, New York City and San Francisco would be the two most affordable big cities in America.
This is wrong in about every way imaginable. What crude economics would suggest is that when you restrict the supply of something, you increase its price relative to what it would be otherwise. No one is saying that if you remove the restrictions the price will magically collapse. San Francisco is a paradigmatic example of this; apparently unbeknownst to Banfield, it has whopping great restrictions on its housing supply! Clearly DC, like other walkable cities with good public transport, will always be expensive—the high rents are evidence that it's a desirable place to live. But to argue that supply restrictions have no effect on price is just loony—why does he think that places like Phoenix are so cheap if it isn't high supply?

Banfield does make some decent points. I appreciate that he is in favor of density, and makes a good point that cities can get quite dense without tall buildings (while failing to note that Paris is five times denser than DC).

But his confusion is indicative of a common failure to consider economic evidence in favor of misty sentimentality. I've got nothing against sentimentality per se, it's just that in these sorts of arguments the hard economics doesn't even get a hearing. Consider that way back in 1998, a couple economists calculated that 22 percent of DC's real estate price was due to regulatory restriction. Matt Yglesias, looking only at downtown DC, reframes that probably-underestimated calculation:
In other words, you could allow for skyscrapers in the central business district, impose a staggering 22 percent tax on office rents, eliminate the D.C. sales tax, and still come out with cheaper after-tax office rents and more tax revenue than we have today.
The Monthly offices are based in DC, and that extra rent is money that could be going to me and the other staff, money which I at least would mostly spend in DC on goods and services, increasing local employment and helping the overall economy. Multiplied across the city, that would be a substantial economic windfall for everyone involved. Don't those sorts of considerations deserve equal weight with aesthetic considerations?

[Cross-posted from Political Animal.]

Nov 25, 2012

A Few Pictures from Thanksgiving

Bonus points for finding the California Condor and some polygamists' house.

Nov 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm spending today in St. George, Utah with long-lost relatives some of whom I haven't seen in many years. I hope your holiday is full of joy and plenty

Nov 19, 2012

Game Review Roundup

This is just some notes on games I've been playing recently.

To start, Steam has crazy bargains on a regular basis, so much so that it can be a bit dangerous if you're not careful. They're mostly games at least a couple years old, but still, I got Limbo for $2.50, Braid for $5, Grand Theft Auto 4 for $5, and Bioshock for $5. Easy to go overboard, but that's a lot of game for $17.50. Anyway—

Torchlight 2: This is an exceptionally well-executed Diablo clone. Everything about it drips Blizzard influence, from the art design to the quests to the loot to the generic fantasy story. Luckily it also has Blizzard's trademark perfectionist execution as well, and the result is clean, well-designed and very fun to play. It's not surprising or innovative really anywhere, but it is highly polished.

I did regret though that there wasn't more than a halfhearted, generic story. For a game with such a high level of execution, it's a shame to have such an afterthought of a story. I just watched Wreck-It Ralph, and though that was pretty much paint-by-numbers as far as the plot structure, the characters were well acted and fleshed out, and the screenwriter snuck in some great class politics here and there, and the film was a lot better for it. I always like it when game developers take story as seriously as play mechanics/

Braid: This is a 2D indie platformer with splendid art design, a somewhat pretentious story and a very cool time-control mechanic. Some of the puzzles are devilishly tricky, but don't give up, they're all doable. Highly recommended.

Limbo: This is another 2D indie platformer that is one of the creepier games I've played. You play a nameless boy lost in a forest full of horrifying dangers, and die over and over and over trying to figure out the puzzles. Superb atmospherics, and a very good ending. Highly recommended.

Bioshock: This one is quite old, I know. Shooter with RPG elements. The part I liked most was the Ayn Rand tie-in, which remains relevant today. Recommended.

GTA 4: Seems they've patched most of the horrible bugs that plagued this console port—though it still takes 30-45 minutes just to sign up for all the Windows Live et al bullshit without which you can't save your game—but it's damn near broken using the keyboard. Most of the minigames are flat unplayable, and driving isn't much better. Where if you are driving with a controller you can access all points on the steering continuum using the analog stuck, driving with keys you can only steer by slamming the wheels from lock to lock like a crazy person, and as a result you crash, a lot.

GTA 4 does support the $25 USB Xbox controller, and allegedly other ones as well, but I couldn't get it to work with my crappy South African knockoff controller after trying for a few hours. This one will have to wait for another day.

Finally, I just discovered this guy, probably now my favorite game reviewer of all time:

Programming Note

Pardon the lack of posting of late. I've been transitioning into my new job at the Monthly, which requires quite a bit more work than the piecemeal stuff I've been doing previously, so I've had less time. I'm trying to get a dedicated place of my own on the Monthly site, so things may become sparser yet here.

Also, I must admit, I've been on a bit of a bender catching up on the three years of video games I've missed.

On further reflection though, I've decided to make a daily post part of my morning routine, even if it's just a simple video or quick thought. Again, this may move over to a new work blog, but I'll keep you posted if that does happen.

Nov 13, 2012

The Deficit Scolds Revealed as Obvious Frauds

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I was watching some Up with Chris this morning (update: posted above) and Hayes about came unglued making the point that few in Washington seems to get—that the problem with the fiscal slope (the set of tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect automatically next year) is that it will make the federal deficit too small. And yet we have the same parade of rattling deficit scolds who have been gravely intoning about how immoral it is to leave such a debt load to our children suddenly up in arms about this fiscal slope. Consider this throwaway line from Andrew Sullivan:
We are facing automatic massive tax hikes and huge, crude spending cuts starting January 1 if we cannot get a bipartisan deal on Bowles-Simpson lines (of course there is room for tweaking and bargaining). A failure to get that kind of deal would tip the US and the world into a new global depression.
Every single thing about this is wrong or misleading. First, it's true that the fiscal slope's massive dose of austerity would probably cause a recession, but they will take effect only gradually. There is plenty of time to get a deal before the cumulative impact on aggregate demand would be noticeable, and the extra taxes collected could even be rebated to restore consumer spending. Sullivan's implication that there are bone-crunching effects starting January 1 is wrong.

But more importantly, Bowles-Simpson is in no universe a solution to the problem of the fiscal slope. We could simply return to the status quo ante, ignoring this Ahab quest for a Grand Bipartisan Bargain altogether, and the problem would be averted. Proposing Bowles-Simpson (remember, allegedly a deficit reduction plan) as a solution for the fiscal slope is like saying, "There will be a famine, so therefore we must stop growing so much food." The only conceivable reason for it would be to entice Republicans—but remember, the president holds all the cards after January 1st.

As Matt Yglesias points out, the GOP has no leverage here and things will likely play out as Obama desires. Dems get a bit more revenue, and the House gets to vote for tax cuts after they've gone up. In fact, the NYT today has a story about how John Boehner has been bluntly warning his caucus they're going to have to swallow some painful votes.

But this moment has starkly revealed the fiscal scolds for what they are: a bunch of frauds. Not Sullivan, I think, he seems more just muddled by a weird crush on the Bowles-Simpson plan, but nearly all of the rest. Read this incredibly duplicitous letter from a bunch of CEOs sounding the alarm about this issue. What's their recommended solution? Why, tax reform which just coincidentally includes lower rates for everyone.

Nobody cares about the deficit, least of all the people who whine about it constantly. Their preferences have been revealed.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has more, including an amazing catch from a deficit scold org saying we should only cut "low priority" spending. Wonder what that means...
[Cross-posted from Political Animal.]

Nov 8, 2012


This is the tyrannical injustice from the Obama administration that I find most inexplicable:

Nov 7, 2012

Time for Puerto Rico to Become the 51st State

In a little-noticed vote last night, after many failed attempts, Puerto Rico voted to officially join the United States as a full state:
The two-part referendum asked whether the island wanted to change its 114-year relationship with the United States. Nearly 54 percent, or 922,374 people, sought to change it, while 46 percent, or 786,749 people, favored the status quo. Ninety-six percent of 1,643 precincts were reporting as of early Wednesday.
The second question asked voters to choose from three options, with statehood by far the favorite, garnering 61 percent. Sovereign free association, which would have allowed for more autonomy, received 33 percent, while independence got 5 percent.
The issue now moves to Congress. President Obama has promised to respect the wishes of such a vote, and both party platforms for this year agree. Gerald Ford, George Bush I, and even Reagan supported statehood. The trouble in Congress could come if some troglodyte adds an amendment forcing Puerto Rico to adopt English as the offial language or some other mischief. Republicans might filibuster the bill in the Senate, eyeing possible Democratic pickups in Congress.

On the other hand, as Kevin Drum points out, there is some real momentum behind filibuster reform for the next Congress. Also, previous bills which failed in the Senate were only about forcing a referendum in Puerto Rico to choose to change their status; with that question disposed of, a simple clean bill granting them statehood ought to be easier to pass. And with President Obama winning more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, Republicans may be finally whipped into finding some issues to win back Latino support.

But fundamentally, all this is beside the point. The United States annexed Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American war in 1898, and Puerto Ricans have been citizens since 1917. They (like residents of Washington, DC and the other territories) must register for the draft and pay taxes [UPDATE: turns out the tax thing is not quite accurate. Some Puerto Rican income is exempt from tax, but they do have to pay others. See here for the gory details], but cannot vote for President and are not represented in Congress.

This state of affairs, like all colonies, is a travesty of justice and an embarrassment for an allegedly democratic state. Now that the Puerto Rican people have chosen statehood freely and fairly, they should be welcomed as full fellow citizens with all speed.

Nov 2, 2012

How to Put Climate in a Disaster Story

Bloomberg Businessweek shows how it's done:

The story is also great:
Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change. Men and women in white lab coats tell us—and they’re right—that many factors contribute to each severe weather episode. Climate deniers exploit scientific complexity to avoid any discussion at all.
Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it: At least 40 U.S. deaths. Economic losses expected to climb as high as $50 billion. Eight million homes without power. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated. More than 15,000 flights grounded. Factories, stores, and hospitals shut. Lower Manhattan dark, silent, and underwater.