3.29.2009

Strive for Five, Seeking True Glory


Apparently, the SI cover jinx can apply to business CEOs, too. This paper suggests that CEOs tend to underperform after winning some acclaim in the business press. [Thanks to Paul Krugman's blog for the link.]

Contrast this with the quiet humility (albeit mixed with a fierce competitiveness, a steely resolve, and a determined confidence) demonstrated with what management guru Jim Collins calls "Level 5 leaders." Check out Collins' definition: "Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious - but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves."

Not a bad credo for today's Christian. Power and fame can easily corrupt. Better for our souls and for our missions that we instead humble ourselves that He may be exalted.

It is the sentiment Jesus seems to be suggesting when he tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14): "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Not: "It's bad to want to be exalted." Rather: "We were made to be exalted by subsuming ourselves into something and Someone far greater and far more worthy of exultation."

We are all glory seekers. Tragically, too many of us too much of the time settle for the finite glory of ourselves and of own accomplishments. Not to demean ourselves or our accomplishments; there is something glorious in them.

But would that we sign on for a cause and a Creator far more glorious. Would that we emulate Collins' Level 5 leaders and channel ourselves, our abilities, and our ambitions towards the greater goal of building an eternal and heavenly and glorious Kingdom, with and for our King. May we be found humbling ourselves and redirecting our ambition, that He may be exalted, and we with Him.

Two of Those Christians


I appreciated the wisdom and sentiment expressed in a recent post by a colleague of mine about a new avenue he has for proclaiming his faith: "One of THOSE Christians." Having recently "outed" myself at a conference, I can certainly resonate with where Bruce is coming from.

The fact of the matter is that the world is watching. What will they see in our words, our actions, our vocations, our pursuits? Are we indistinguishable from others? Are we indistinguishable from the negative archetypes that so easily come to mind? Or are we compelling in our faith, our peace, our activism?

If Christians have a bad rep, we largely deserve it. And if those who are watching us cannot see traces of our Savior, shame on us. Would that our Refiner continue to refine us, until He and others can see His image reflected in our lives.

Time and Money, Revisited


I recently took another look at a post of mine from a couple of years ago about how I spend my time and money, and decided to ballpark what my allocations are this time around, with of course the major life difference being that we now have two kids instead of one. Here's what I came up with (1st % = 2007, 2nd % = 2009):

TIME
Sleep 30.0% 30.0%
Work 30.0% 30.0%
Kid errands (bedtime, meals, shuttling) 7.5% 7.5%
Religious (personal prayer, church meetings) 7.5% 7.5%
Adult errands (paperwork, chores, house) 7.5% 7.5%
Adult fun (dates, leisure, exercise) 7.5% 7.5%
Family fun (zoo, play dates, horseplay) 10.0% 10.0%
Total 100.0% 100.0%

Not much change here, thanks to our keeping our kids on a tight schedule, and their being relatively good about bedtime and naps.

MONEY
Taxes 30.0% 20.0%
Savings (retirement, college) 30.0% 15.0%
Giving (church, charities) 12.5% 12.5%
Mortgage/transportation 12.5% 15.0%
Utilities (house, phone) 7.5% 7.5%
Day care 0.0% 20.0%
Groceries, personal care 5.0% 10.0%
Leisure, discretionary 2.5% 0.0%
Total 100.0% 100.0%

Many of the changes here are my bads from last time: I didn't factor in our tax refund, our transportation costs, or our day care needs. Notably, day care needs and grocery bills have spiked up since we've added a second child, so savings and leisure have had to take a hit. (Kids, start earning those college scholarships now!)

3.28.2009

More Feedback


Anonymous asked me to post his most recent comments, which I have done below, as well as my response. Enjoy the exchange, and please join in as well.

***

Urban Christian, Why didn't you post my most recent comments? You commented that more people should rent, that there are too many owners etc. I observed that your attitude was noblesse oblige. I want to know your Christian justification for forcing me out of my home of many years because i DO NOT HAVE enough money to pay three times more tax. You have it. I don't. If I am forced to sell because of unreasonable taxes a high paid lawyer, doctor or other professional (like you) will come along and take over my home. Please tell me how there is a faith based justification for this.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : 6:42 AM




Dear Anonymous, thanks again for your feedback, and I’m sorry that you feel I haven’t properly responded to your thoughts. Let me try to do so below.



“I observed that your attitude was noblesse oblige.” I was not previously familiar with this term so I had to look it up. Apparently, it can mean, neutrally, the notion that the richer you are, the more of a sense of debt you owe to society and to help others; and it can also connote, more pejoratively, a condescending attitude of the rich towards the poor.

I’m not sure in what context you mean the phrase. But I do concur that, within the context of Philadelphia as well as the rest of the world, I would consider myself materially rich; and that with that should come some sense of obligation to give back, and that I should do so in a way that is not demeaning or snobby.

I must confess I far too often fall short in both ways: both in not being as generous as I should be, as well as in being generous in ways that are more about uplifting myself than others. But I would consider myself, albeit with much need for improvement, at least aware of how to properly and faithfully conduct myself as a person who has been blessed with resources. And I would hope that my blog posts reflect that, that when I explore an issue I am not looking to advance causes that necessarily enrich myself but rather try to consider what is best for others and particularly the most marginalized and impoverished among us.



“I want to know your Christian justification for forcing me out of my home of many years because i DO NOT HAVE enough money to pay three times more tax.” Let’s be clear here. I wasn’t advocating that you pay three times more tax; I was noting that if actual value assessment, which I support, was to be enacted, then per Philadelphia Forward’s property tax calculator, I might have to pay three times more in property tax. This reflects the fact that I was lucky enough to buy a house at a time and in a location that subsequently appreciated rapidly. Your change in tax bill if actual value assessment is implemented would depend on when and for how much you bought it for, and how much it has appreciated or depreciated since then. In fact, if you are “underwater,” it is quite possible your tax bill would actually go down.

But remember what we were originally talking about: not actual value assessment but shifting tax burdens from sales/wage/business to property. So, depending on how much you make and buy, even if the City were to raise property tax rates, the reduction in the other tax rates might mean you end up with about the same overall bill if not lower. The “Christian justification” for recommending such a revenue-neutral shift between tax revenue sources is to move away from less equitable and more distortive taxes to more equitable and less distortive ones, for the overall benefit of society and commerce.

Does this mean there are none who would be adversely impacted from such a shift? Of course not: everyone will have to adjust, and some may bear a heavier burden, although hopefully those that do are in the best position to do so. The goal of representative government, even for an idealistic Christian like me, isn’t to please everyone or give them exactly what they want, but to manage all of the trade-offs in a way that is fairest to the most people, has the least amount of inequity and distortion, and allows for healthy growth that can provide opportunities for everyone. My take on how to best reach that sort of equilibrium is to ask more out of property taxes and less out of sales, wage, and business taxes.



“You have it. I don't. If I am forced to sell because of unreasonable taxes a high paid lawyer, doctor or other professional (like you) will come along and take over my home. Please tell me how there is a faith based justification for this.” I’m not sure what to make of this statement. To begin with, I wasn’t proposing that we raise taxes, but rather that we shift the mix around; so it’s not necessarily a given that your overall tax bill or mine would go up. If you are in fact forced to sell your house on account of an overall increase in tax burden, then that is certainly a hardship, especially if your property value has depreciated significantly.

But I’m not sure why selling to someone with lots of money is so infuriating to you. Whoever you’d sell your house to, rich or poor, wouldn’t be “taking it over,” but rather they’d be buying it from you at a mutually agreed upon price. They may have more leverage than you do because of present conditions, but that’s not a matter of injustice as much as it is the fact that because of falling prices, it’s a buyer’s market; so if you decide that at the same time you need to sell your current house, you want to buy another house instead of renting, you’ll have the same leverage in those negotiations.

There is certainly no faith based justification for the rich soaking the poor out of assets; the Bible is resoundingly voluminous and clear on how God feels about that. But I don’t see how that is what is happening or would happen.



I hope this clarifies my position for you. Thanks again for your comments.
# posted by Blogger LH : 5:39 AM

Lights Out, Lights On


You've probably seen this already, but 2,000+ cities are planning on turning the lights out at 8:30p local time as part of Earth Hour, a coordinated event that seeks to draw attention to the issues of climate change and global warming. This won't be hard in the Huang household, since we're often lights out by that hour.

If this event can help call attention to the need for intentional action to curb resource consumption, then that's great. But I hope that the behavioral changes we start to see among individuals, firms, and governments aren't just associated with hitting the switch once a year, but rather the little decisions we make throughout our daily routines - to put recyclables in the recycle bin instead of the trash, to reduce the amount of trash in the first place, to turn off lights when not in use.

For all of our tough talk about tackling the environment, far too many of us piss away far too much in precious resources - we let the water run, we idle our cars, and we leave appliances plugged in. Government can regulate us towards some better behavior, through carbon taxes or an end to below-wholesale electricity prices for example, but ultimately we all have to make conscious decisions to treat our scarce resources appropriately. In other words, turn the lights out at 8:30p tonight . . . but leave the light on inside your head.

3.27.2009

A Day at the Beach













I get a lot of ribbing when I tell people that one of our clients is the territorial government of the US Virgin Islands. But you can ask our clients, our local partner, or anyone on my staff who I've assigned to this gig: we work hard on this assignment.

If you know me, you know I'd have it no other way. And, with plenty of other studies to work on, plus a wife and two kids waiting for me at home, if my work calls for me to physically go down there, I really do want to get in, do my thing, and get back home.

But I have to admit that it's not a bad perk to celebrate a successful meeting by spending the afternoon at the beach. My local partner was kind enough to bring me to not one, but two of St. Thomas' best: Magens Bay and Lindquist Beach. We hit the first almost as soon as I arrived on the island Wednesday afternoon, and the second after our Thursday morning presentation but before my Thursday afternoon flight home.

All in all, I was only away from home for 36 hours. But after two trips to the places you see in these pictures, I feel like I had a far deeper getaway. (You do realize that one of the reasons I'm working so hard for this client is so we can get asked back for more work in the future, right?!?)

Diversity in the Suburbs


With downtowns picking up our very richest and inner ring suburbs increasingly bearing many of the same social challenges as their inner city neighbors, stereotypical city-suburb differences are giving way to a more nuanced spatial story. One interesting development is the unrelenting ethnic diversification of a big city’s major suburban communities (the last two data points from a presentation I attended on the Penn campus earlier this month):

* Having conducted Philadelphia’s study of the participation of minority and women owned firms in municipal business for the past three years, my firm has seen noticeable growth in the proportion of contracts won by non-whites who are located in the suburbs.

* From 1970 to 2006, the percentage of our region’s foreign-born population that lives outside of Philadelphia has gone from one-half (52%) to two-thirds (68%).

* This decade, almost ten times more Mexicans have moved into the Philadelphia suburbs than have moved into Philadelphia (this startling fact is somewhat blunted by the greater existence of undocumented Mexicans within the city than in the suburbs).

There’s more to unpack here, to be sure. But suffice to say that there’s now a lot more that cities and suburbs potentially have in common, in terms of challenges such as multilingual education and immigrant services, as well as enhancements such as ethnic restaurants and workplace diversity. We live in interesting times, and we live in a wonderful country.

3.25.2009

Welcome to New York


While Congress does its very best to keep the world's best and brightest away, leave it to NYC and Mayor Bloomberg to put out the welcome mat: "City Hall Contest Seeks Next Big Idea." $60K is a rounding error for the Gotham City budget (and for Hizzoner, for that matter.) And for that, the Big Apple gets not only a plethora of potentially good ideas, but also burnishes its reputation around the world as the place where you want to go to hit it big. Well played, Bloomy.

3.24.2009

Baseball At Its Best


If you're jaded about the national pastime - steroid scandals, sullen stars, surreal contracts - look no further than last night's World Baseball Classic final at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The game was so compelling that I watched the highlights on ESPN twice.

And why not, it had everything. Japan vs. South Korea. A "soccer outside the US" buzz in the stadium. Hustle plays. Clutch hits. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat.

That was baseball at its best, on so many levels. Here's hoping it's a fitting entree into the 2009 Major League Baseball season.

Feedback


I was so pleased recently to see some push back on one of my previous posts that I not only responded but have posted the exchange here. [Original post here.]It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that what I write is simply my perspective, which is woefully limited and open to being shaped by the opinion of others. Therefore, please feel free to chime in on this and/or any other of my rantings

***

Dear Urban Christian,
I too am an urban Christian and I could not agree LESS with your comments. I bought my home many years ago and struggled with the mortgage for years. I sacrificed to keep my home. Now I find myself with a limited income (no I am not a senior citizen) and not able to pay any significant increase in taxes. I can tolerate the proposed "temporary" taxes however I simply could not pay dramatically higher taxes as a result of reassessments. Why on earth do you think real estate taxes are a more equitable way of taxing? Sales taxes are far easier for the public to bear. You can manage your personal expenses but you can not avoid your property tax bill (though thousands of Philadelphians are evidently doing so). The wage tax affects those who have jobs. They are in a better position to pay than those who are unemployed or underemployed. And then there are the elderly on fixed incomes. High real estate taxes simply punish one sector of the society while making our neighborhoods all the more class oriented. I am at risk of losing my home because of the likelihood of huge tax increases due to reassessments. I may be forced to sell in a depressed market. Is this your idea of Christianity? I advise you to think a bit harder about the consequences of your ideas.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : 8:12 AM


Dear Anonymous,

Excellent - finally some disagreement! For all the dreck I put out, I was beginning to wonder if anyone was critically reading what I was writing. Thank you for your comments, as well as for your perspective. I appreciate both, and hope that you'll take the comments below in the spirit of healthy discourse and mutual sharpening.

You should know that, when actual value assessment is instituted, I am likely to have my property taxes triple (!). And yet, I am for it. Think of what happens when real values get out of line with assessed values: hot places like University City pay less than they should, and as a result, dead places like where most of the poorest people in Philadelphia live pay more than they should. That is hardly an equitable system that should be allowed to continue just because those who live in high-flying neighborhoods have the political power to oppose any change, and/or those who live in run-down neighborhoods have been falsely instructed that actual value assessment will lead to higher property tax bills. In fact, what is likely going to happen is that actual value assessment will cause prices in higher-growth areas to cool off temporarily, and prices in lower-growth areas to start to rise for the first time in awhile; this would then narrow and not widen the stratification of neighborhoods within the City.

(By the way, consider three additional positives about actual value assessment. First, when housing prices decline, property tax bills will also adjust and decline; so there's some built-in relief right there. Second, since assessed values don't currently reflect actual values, the City has no incentive to make positive investments in neighborhoods and then pay for them over time with the extra property tax revenues generated by these enhancements; with actual value assessment, they could do this all the time, either formally through tax increment financing or informally through the annual capital budget. Third, the flip side of the previous point is true: the City is at present insufficiently disincentivized from having bad things happen to neighborhoods, since declines in market values won't adversely affect property tax revenues.)

But my post wasn't about reassessments, which would be revenue-neutral to the City; it was about getting more out of property taxes in general, and less out of other sources, like sales taxes, business taxes, and wage taxes. Here, I have to disagree with you that sales taxes are easier for the public to bear; even with all the exemptions, sales taxes are far more regressive in nature, since taxable consumption represents a higher proportion of expenditures for poorer people than for richer people. And business and wage tax bases are the most mobile, and thus lowering those rates at a local level have been shown to be the most effective in attracting more employers and more employees (and, conversely, raising those rates is the most effective way to shoo them away and thus cause even more job losses and economic contraction; take the non-City side of City Line Avenue and the flight of the professional class to the suburbs as two notable examples).

All taxes are painful; but municipalities have generate revenue somewhere to have the funds to dispense towards public services. And property taxes are the most equitable and least distortive, in terms of who bears the pain (since property ownership is the best barometer for wealth) and how people respond to them (since you can't move a house outside of city limits).

To be sure, it's painful to get that tax bill all at once, which is probably why property taxes are of all taxes most vilified. And, to be sure, senior citizens on fixed income will take a hit, and it therefore probably makes sense to offer them some sort of exemption or relief.

And, to be sure, homeowners will take a hit; but who ever said that everyone has to be a homeowner? We probably actually have too much homeownership in this country than is optimal, between subsidizing it via the mortgage interest deduction and having very loose lending for most of this decade. There is nothing wrong with renting, and in fact there probably needs to be a little bit more renting than there currently is, both to make the cost of housing more affordable for more people as well as to make our workforce more flexible when it comes to moving around to adjust to the spatial changes in job distribution associated with an economy in transition to a more knowledge-based core.

All of that said, there are two sides to every story, and I understand where you're coming from and that you'd suffer personal pain if property taxes were hiked. And hey, I've just told you that I'm for a change that would cause my property tax bill to triple AND lead to declines in my house price; so clearly, it's reasonable to wonder if someone as insane as that can squeeze out a sensible argument. But I do believe that, looking at things outside of my own personal gains and losses, there is a legitimate, faith-based, equity-seeking case to be made for both actual value assessment and for generating more revenue out of property taxes so that we can experience less pain in other tax categories.

Thanks again for your feedback and your insight.
# posted by Blogger LH : 5:19 AM

3.23.2009

A Sensible Solution


A sagging economy. An overbuilt housing market. Two birds, meet one stone: "Immigrants Can Help Fix the Housing Bubble." Yes, on so many levels.

The Idolatry of Education


You'll not find a more pro-education person than me. Growing up in an immigrant family, the value of education could not be embedded more deeply in me. You can do no wrong, education, for you are the solution to many of our domestic ills, the hope for a better life, the way out for millions otherwise destined to very marginalized lives.

And yet. I wonder if I and others are guilty of the idolatry of education, or else that education is complicit in other, damning sins of ours. We may not return to the outward racism of the 50's and 60's when faced with the possibility of our children sharing their classroom with their black and brown friends, but our protests are equally vehement and equally effective. Much of the neighborhood-level opposition surrounding higher-density developments as a solution to suburban sprawl and a way to more effectively capitalize on transit infrastructure is a veiled fear of having to make room in our schools for the children of "those people." And it is commonplace for even the most radical of city-loving urban transplants to yield to the pressure to move to the burbs, ostensibly to provide their kids with a better education; willing, it seems, to endure hardship for the Kingdom - except when it comes to their childrens' schooling.

You can see the nervousness in opposition to school district consolidation plans. School districts have become so powerful that they can even stop the readiest of shovels, even those wielded by the second most powerful person in the world. And let's not get started on the whole cottage industry that has sprouted up to feed parents' insecurity about getting their kids into elite universities, as well as the even more elite preschools (!) that are promised as a necessary on-ramp to those universities.

The importance of our childrens' education is so important than otherwise moral friends of mine have not only cheated to get their kids into a better school (by providing a false home address) but consider such an act to be not wrong and in fact very right. For who can argue with doing whatever you can to give your kids the best?

It is easy to identify and shun idols that represent things that are impotent, destructive, or ignoble. It can be more difficult to accept and let go of idols that are honorable, good, and edifying. And yet. These are the very idols that we are most in need of saying no to as gods. I wonder if education is one for us well-educated, high-achieving, good-intentioned believers of this generation: something God deems very good but that we have chased after, defended, and hidden behind to the detriment of our commitment to His truths, His rules, and His values.

I Want Higher Property Taxes


Here's the problem I have with Mayor Nutter's plan to temporarily hike property taxes. Not that I think it's bad to hike this tax, although many are in this camp. Not that I am skeptical that this will be temporary, although many are in this camp.

No, my problem is that in saying that the hike is temporary, he curtails his ability to move us towards a mix of taxes in which property taxes contribute more and wage and business taxes less to the municipal budget. As I have written previously, of all the taxes out there, property taxes are the least distortive and most equitable; and yet, Philadelphia's property taxes are too low, relative to other, more distortive and inequitable sources.

At some point, some mayor is going to have to say the following: over the next decade, we're going to make this right. We're going to raise property taxes and lower wage and business taxes. The City is going to end up with about the same amount of money (i.e. it's going to be "revenue neutral"). Sure, there will be winners and losers, as there always is when there is reform. But the net result will be a taxing system that is fairer, stabler, and less painful to the very people and entities that are most mobile and most needed to be retained within our jurisdiction.

I don't know that Mayor Nutter can be that mayor. Now that he's called the property tax increase a temporary one, he'll doubly not want to turn around two years later and say, "Actually, I'd like to make it more permanent." And, maybe I'm alone in the entire city, but I think that's too bad.

3.22.2009

Let Us Pray For The Children


It was our turn to lead and host our small group of young families from our church. Since we'd been having so many good discussions around marriage and parenting, I decided to lead us in a review of things we should pray for our children, as compiled by a staffer in John Piper's church.

Two things occurred to us as we were discussing these items as a group. First, we noted how much these represented things we wanted for ourselves, both for its own sake as well as to be a good example for our kids: to choose Jesus for ourselves, to be generous in our giving, to fully utilize the unique gifts and perspectives God gave each of us to serve others.

Second, we noted that despite the uncontroversial nature of these things we should pray for our kids, these would never enter into the minds of parents who aren't themselves believers. This was surprising to me: normally, one considers the Christian full of good moral things that every parent, no matter what the religion, would think to be good for their kids.

And yet we are increasingly a post-Christian nation, a generation that has become cynical of religion and leery if not mocking of those who take such things seriously. We have also become a people for whom purity in thought and sanctity in marriage are no longer expected. Finally, we are inherently self-serving, seeking ever greater accolades and comforts and successes.

So the notion of cleaving to timeless truths, of having no instruction manual but the Bible and no gods but the God of the Bible, of saving yourself for marriage and holding captive your thought life against lust and greed, and of losing your life for the sake of the gospel and its expansion to the farthest corners of the world and the darkest crevices of our society . . . well, these can seem odd at best and dangerous at worst to even the most kind and open-hearted of secular people.

Lest we spiral despairingly into a defeatism - our own example is far cry from what we wish for our kids, and our society too hostile and too suffocating for such values to blossom intact in their lives - we are reminded that this is not about our efforts. Sure, we are to hold ourselves to the highest standards possible, and instruct our children as best as we can.

But ultimately, we start and end that effort where we should: on our knees in prayer to God. He wants these things far more than we do, for us and for our children. With His help, we can say no to the pernicious conforming of our values and ideals to those of the world, and say yes to being transformed in mind and body and direction and purpose. Where we are unable by human effort and wishful thinking, He is able - to keep us on the path, and to shepherd our children through the same minefield.

And so let us know that our children are watching, and shore up our lives accordingly. And let us be aware of the influences, some subtle and some not so subtle, that seek to misdirect and hurt and claim our children for some other purpose than what God has made them for. But before, during, and after, let us also pray for our children, and in doing so join our desire for their protection, provision, and promotion with One who is supremely able to protect, provide, and promote.

3.21.2009

2009 MLB Predictions


The boys of summer are finally back. Steroid scandals aside, here's to a great 2009. And by the way, feel free to hop on the A's bandwagon: plenty of room here.

AL: Rays, Twins, A's, WC Yankees
NL: Phillies, Cubs, D'Backs, WC Dodgers
DS: Rays, Yanks, Dodgers, Cubs
WS: Yankees over Dodgers in 6

The Real March Madness


So let me get this straight. We're in the middle of the worst financial crisis in 75 years. Congress decides to extend a bailout to AIG because of the central role it plays in our financial system. It allows "please stay" bonuses so AIG can have some ammo in stemming the exodus of its best and brightest at a time of maximum stress and maximum scrutiny. Then, when those bonuses are triggered, public rage moves Congress to grandstand about how treasonous it is to take that money.

Even worse, Congress then passes a 90 percent (!) tax on either bonuses or anything over $250,000 in household income, which probably covers hundreds if not thousands of decent AIG workers and their families who were already wondering whether it was worth to hang in there and try to turn this thing around. Meanwhile, Treasury still hasn't filled most of its top positions and no one seems to appreciate the fact that the entire global financial system is in disarray.

I admit I have no idea what we need to do to fix this. But I sure as heck know that it can't involve creating a massive disincentive for the very people who have the skills to get us going again. I'm also pretty sure that reactionary and over-reaching legislative actions spawned by media frenzy and public rage are both bad policy and bad business. I'm also quite certain that people who are vilified and threatened and then who are made to return to the US government 90 percent of their extra effort will be impaired in giving their best to this cause.

[Links courtesy of Marginal Revolution.]

3.20.2009

A I Gee


Well, this doesn't look good, does it (source: ABC News) -

Top AIG recipients for the 2008 campaign:
1. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., $103,100
2. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., $101,332

Nor does this: "Dodd Admits to Role in AIG Loophole."

However you feel about the AIG bonuses, the cameras are surely loving the ability to cover the rabid backlash and the execs' backtracking, while politicians are surely loving the ability to talk tough in front of those cameras.

Meanwhile, won't someone step up and figure out how to un-gum our global financial system? Or have we given in to Parkinson's Law of Triviality? (Link courtesy of Greg Mankiw's blog.)

3.19.2009

Construction Industry Diversity



Public service or shameless plug? For both reasons, I present you with a link to a report my firm contributed substantively to on a pro bono basis: "The Mayor's Advisory Commission on Construction Industry Diversity: Report and Recommendations." [warning: large pdf] Very much along the same lines in narrative and analysis to the citywide Disparity Study that our firm has produced the past two years and is working on right now. Well-received, and good to see the Administration, from the Mayor on down, take the whole exercise seriously. Job well done, all around.

Water is Not Free


I know there are people out there that wonder aloud about high water bills. It falls from the sky, right? My answer has always been that it takes sophisticated purification systems to make that "free" water usable in our homes to drink and bathe in. Not having to pay for that water would disincentive us from properly conserving it, given its finiteness and the cost associated with preparing it for us.

But even water that doesn't need to be treated for human use can bear a steep price. Take my home state of California, where rain on the Sierra Nevadas in the northern part of the state is needed to offset a deficit of water in the southern parts of the state. This article from this week's Economist tells of a water market for southern farmers, to deal with the core issue of water availability in the parched south: not that water is too scarce, but it is too cheap.

Even at triple the price from last year. farmers are going to have treat water as the precious resource it is. More will install drip irrigation systems, and more will shift from water-heavy crops to water-light crops. Few will unthoughtfully squander away something they've paid so much for. This is very rational behavior, stimulated by a free market. Imagine that, coming out of California.

Motown Renaissance


Don't sleep on Detroit. Oh sure, crime is up, foreclosures are up, and the main industry, auto manufacturing, is in the tank. But things have gotten so bad that they may create the laboratory for a potentially explosive recovery. According to Next American City, artists are coming from as far away as Europe, enticed by house prices as low as $100 (!), seeing the Motor City as an affordable and intriguing experiment in urban living.

Manufacturing is not, by itself, going to save any place, least of all car making and least of all Detroit. We have become too efficient in making things because of machinery, the world supply chain too efficient for labor-intensive things to be in the US when they can be outsourced to lower-wage parts of the world. The future of job creation is going to come from investments in intellectual capital, not industrial capital.

And, both in urban renaissances and in economic innovation, the artists are often found on the bleeding edge. That Detroit is now populating itself with these urban pioneers bodes well for its future ability to innovate its way back to the vital role it once played in our global economy, and to the vibrant scene it once enjoyed. It'll take more than even a big influx of tattooed grungies to turn this around; but that there is starting to be such an influx is enough to convince me to keep my eye out on the Motor City.

3.16.2009

Get the Price Right


In brief: taxing health care benefits good, limiting tax deduction for giving bad. [Thanks to Greg Mankiw's blog for the link.] When people get uppity about paying for something they're not used to paying for - soft drinks on airplanes, or garbage pickup - it's helpful to remember that life is about trade-offs.

It can seem silly to argue that anything is too cheap, but everything has its consequences: too-cheap gas may discourage conservation and encourage sprawl, and too-cheap mortgages may discourage frugality and encourage over-buying. Not coincidentally, global warming and the global housing meltdown are two of the hottest topics around.

We in this country believe in the importance of freedom of speech. It is such a basic right that we too often take it for granted, forgetting that the government controls the press in some countries (hello, Russia!) and jails people for speaking ill of them in others (hello, Thailand!).

Well, economists will tell you price is a form of speech. It communicates so much to both buyer and seller. And it works best when it can adjust to changes in supply and demand. Would that we all become more literate when it comes to divining when prices are artificially low or artificially high as a result of public policy, and ask our elected officials to help get the price right that there might be a more socially optimal level of consumption.

We're Getting There


In case you missed it, here's an op-ed co-written by a respected non-profit leader (who happens to be one of our favorite clients) and one of our City Council members: "SEPTA is Our Key to Green Future." When I first came to Philly for college, SEPTA's motto was "We're Getting There." And I wasn't even sure if that ironic saying was even apt: service was sub-par, safety wasn't guaranteed, and funding woes made it look like maybe they're weren't actually going in the right direction.

But with dedicated funding via Act 44 and a new leader at the helm, combined with a new and cooperative City administration as well as heightened environmental realities, our much-maligned transit authority has stepped up. And the op-ed is right on: SEPTA is the key to a region that is competitive, sustainable, and attractive.

We can get this right, Philly. We can capitalize on our "bones," make our neighborhoods safer and prettier, and move people around with earth-saving efficiency. This time, we really are "getting there."

3.15.2009

What is Relevant


Being an elder of a 140+ year old congregation that inhabits a 100+ year old building, we spend a lot of leadership time and effort on issues related to maintenance and upkeep of physical plant. To be sure, there are days I wonder what it would be like to not have to worry about such things, and thus have mindspace and money freed up for ministry.

But there are other days I see our physical structure as a great resource for us and our community: we play host to a school and two ethnic congregations, as well as countless special events put on by us and others. And we get to be part of an initiative with Partners for Sacred Places, which is helping us make the most of this treasured facility. Our property is an apt analogy for the Church - capital "C" - in general: it may be old and require extra care that we sometimes wish we didn't have to worry about, but we still have a purpose to fulfill in this generation.

Ah, but that is today's challenge: this article wonders aloud if the evangelical church is dying a slow albeit accelerating death, this article sings the praises of congregations that break from the traditional look and feel of church, and this article reminds us of how much of a bad word "Jesus Christ" has become.

Last year, I tried to capture our modern cynicism with Christianity and with religion in general in this post. And of course, you probably saw the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, in which the proportion of Americans who say that have no religion has almost doubled in two decades, to 15 percent.

Both the cynics and the churched are increasingly asking, "Is the church even relevant today?" The cynics say "no," and have plenty of ammunition from which to draw such a conclusion. The churched say "yes," and try desperately to infuse their church life with rock music and Twitter and piercings.

I wonder if this is the right question in the first place. God does not seem to care if He is relevant or not; He is who He is. Jesus, God in the flesh, did not seem to care about His popularity, especially not when it conflicted with His purpose.

Does this mean we Christians go about our business, and to hell (literally) with others? Certainly not. Does this mean we automatically dismiss any new-fangled, seeker-friendly, translated-for-this-generation idea? Not necessarily.

The Bible is clear that this life and the next is about God. This may seem like an obvious statement until you ask yourself: is my religion about how I can use God to serve my purposes? Is the Bible simply a pick-and-choose book that I turn to when I need a certain kind of help or support? In my prayers, do I use the word "I" and "my" and "me" a lot?

Or have I subsumed my agenda for His, my purposes for His, my will for His? Do I actively fight against the world wanting to bend me towards its ways, even and especially in the spiritual realm (seeking power and popularity through my good deeds and church roles, for example)? Am I intentionally "dying to self," "mortifying the flesh," "waging war against sin"? (See how violently and actively we must live if we want to live according to the Bible?)

Paradoxically, this is the greediest way to true satisfaction. Want to save your life? - lose it. Want to be exalted? - humble yourself. Want to be full? - empty yourself.

And, paradoxically, in saying no to the relevance of asking the question, "are we relevant," we become profoundly and irresistibly attractive to this world and this generation. We have become so cynical towards authority (governments fail us, corporations are greedy) and especially towards religion (narrow-minded, out-of-date, controlling, out for money just like anyone else), and yet still long for a profound experience with divinity and glory. That we have encased ourselves in a layer of jadedness only means that we are longing all the more for true authenticity and community and healing and wholeness. We find ourselves helpless to do anything about our hidden addictions, about our community's brokenness, about the great need around the world - and yet it is only through the individually and corporately transformative message of the gospel that we can have the truly audacious hope.

For all of life's problems and for all of the ways we aren't even asking the right questions or pointing in the right direction, God has the answers. And, profoundly, He has chosen a broken and tattered and wounded and wobbly church through which to manifest those answers.

Fellow Christians, we are that church. Let's get busy being God's hands and feet, eyes and ears, heart and mind. Let's give God room to refine away ways of ours that contrary to His ways. Let's behold greatness and glory, righteousness and truth, and emerge radiating such things to a world that longs for them.

No matter how much cynicism and weariness and despair have been accumulated in our own hearts and in our generation, God is still in the business of salvation and transformation, healing and wholeness. He still mends when all seems broken, still shines with unmistakable brilliance, still uses a motley and imperfect crew to accomplish pure and perfect ends. I cannot think of a more rewarding or relevant cause to commit to.

Weaving Something Beautiful Together


A really nice piece - on the very top of the front page of the University City Review, no less - on our church's Lenten Series: "Woodland Church Weaves Together a New Way of Doing Lent." "Weave" is an apt word, as the story has two strings to it:

* One is about Josina, our Children, Youth, and Family Director, is leading a massive art project whereby people write prayer requests on plastic bags and we weave them together into a rug, which will signify God taking trash and turning into treasure.

* One is about how our congregation, which is pretty ethnically diverse in its own right, is co-hosting three Sunday suppers with two other congregations which meet in our facility; which means that sandwiching our dinner will be one hosted by a Chinese congregation and one hosted by our Ethiopian congregation. (Noodles and injera bread, here we come!)

We may be motley, and we may be fraying, and we may not always be that pretty to look at. But we are Woodland, and we are God's. Come join us!

Powerful Synergy


I loved this article in this week's Business Week: "The World is IBM's Classroom." The concept is simple: combine Peace Corps-like service with management training. This works on so many levels: IBM gets its top prospects invaluable training in cross-cultural communication, non-traditional problem-solving, and team-building. And IBM gives to the world its best assets, which are its brains.

This reminds me of a brilliant non-profit concept founded by my good friend over at Suburban Family Guy: Synergy Ministries. Noting the power of short-term missions trips, yet wanting to contribute his secular gifts as well as his spiritual gifts, my friend organized groups to work with missions agencies all around the world, where in addition to Bible studies and mercy ministries they could set up databases and design websites.

Again, as with IBM's initiative, win-win synergy. Participants got invaluable perspective on the world plus an opportunity to use their hard skills for good purposes. And participants left behind lasting results that otherwise might not have materialized.

Ironically, in a rapidly globalizing world, both our need to meet need as well as our hope of remaining competitive lie in the extent to which we can walk a mile in the shoes of someone else thousands of miles away. Kudos to my friend and to IBM for tapping into this powerful synergy.

3.13.2009

Taxing Burps and Farts



Here's a serious article on a funny topic: "What do cars and cows have in common? No, not horns." Apparently cows burp and fart out 50 percent more CO2 than the average car, and thus as a group contribute to about 18 percent of the greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming.

Now that I've finally controlled my giggling and can keep a straight face for a few minutes, I have to say that I'm torn here. On the one hand, taxing a negative externality leads to a more socially optimal amount of that negative externality; or to put it another way, the fact that it is not being taxed means there isn't enough incentive to reduce it. If cows and things related to them, like meat and milk, become more expensive, that's only fair, to compensate for this negative externality and eventually reduce the demand for its production in the first place. And hey, when it comes to saving the environment and reducing carbon emissions, there can't be any sacred cows. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

On the other hand, we're talking about cows here, not to mention somewhat uncontrollable bodily functions. And some absurd and uncomfortable questions would have to follow. Could a farmer that feeds his cows Gas-X qualify for an exemption? While the tax proposal is being discussed, will someone create a market for carbon offsets against flatulence? Don't other animals burp and fart, too, and should they be taxed as well? (The Huang household would go bankrupt under the commencement of such a tax at even the slightest rate levels.)

Or have I been duped into ranting about an early April Fools article? Whether this article is serious or not, it brings up a serious issue. Now if you'll excuse, I have to go over to the side and recommence giggling.

3.12.2009

Political Power or Public Service


If the Democrats should be ashamed that they are squandering their time in power, the Republicans should be equally ashamed that they are acting petty because of their time out of power. If there have been pundits offering advice for the GOP, too often it is cut from the preference for political power over public service. Here are two, more reasoned articles from sources I respect:

"Rising Above Partisanship," by Arlen Specter (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 2009)

"Taking a Depression Seriously," by David Brooks (New York Times, March 9, 2009)

Importantly, while both sound the same theme that crisis (in this case, economic) means flexibility is in order, neither calls for wholesale abandonment of core principles; if anything, Republican values are all the more needed, if applied innovatively as opposed to typically.

In our earliest days, we were not all in agreement. The beauty of our Founding Fathers' work, and of our great nation, is that our politics is a process. Rather than settling once and for all who is right and who is wrong, we continue a dialogue that began over 230 years ago. We funnel that dialogue into policy and action, and we need a diversity of perspectives for both the policy and the action.

Too many of our elected officials, the analysts that support them, and the commentators that opine on them, are concerned about their own power base to remember the public service they are supposed to render to all of us. They are concerned about their own livelihoods, which is natural and understandable, except that they have forsaken the responsibility and perspective that comes with their job, which is to be concerned for all of our livelihoods.

We are better than this. Our Founding Fathers were farmers and merchants, generals and aristocrats. And yet, in sacrificing personal gain to help establish "a more perfect Union," they became immortal in our history books and glorious in our heritage. This is what we are made of, what we sign on to and have indoctrinated into us, whether our ancestors came here 200 years ago or 200 hours ago, by choice or by force.

2008-2009 will go down in the history books, like 1929-1932 and 1973-1974 and 1981-1982. What will be said of us by future generations? What will be said of our current leaders? And what will future leaders take away from these times that will help shape their policies and actions when it is time for their moment of decision?

Let's hope that it won't be said of us that we fought bitterly for our own selves, and found that in trying to save our livelihoods we lost them. It turns out that what Jesus is recorded as saying in the eighth chapter of the gospel according to Mark - "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it" - is not so paradoxical after all.

Turning Away the Best and Brightest


As a child of highly educated immigrants, this article sends a special shudder down my spine: "It's a Terrible Time to Reject Skilled Workers." Of course, H-1B's have always gotten the shaft around here, but the Employ American Workers Act, which was embedded in the recent stimulus bill, now says companies getting government support can't hire skilled immigrants with H-1B visas unless they show they haven't laid off or plan to lay off an American from a similar occupation. Frighteningly, this may even lead to non-US students deciding not to come here for grad school in the first place, fearing their future employment prospects here are impaired.

Both my parents came to America as grad students. In words that simultaneously demonstrate my parents' terseness with words and the breath-taking nature of the decision they made in their 20's, they simply explained it to me like this: "We bought a one-way ticket." Their intention was that of millions of highly educated immigrants that have culturally, economically, and civically enriched America over the years: to get the best education in the world, work in the best economy in the world, and in doing so provide the best opportunities in the world for their children.

How many smart, honest, devoted, and eager 20-somethings around the world are holding the American dream in their heart, perhaps seeing the economic and political carnage in their homelands, daring to consider a new life in the land of opportunity, only to have second thoughts on account of subtle and not-so-subtle messages that "skilled immigrants need not apply"? How many born and yet-to-be born children are the 2009 equivalent of me, circa 1973, with the possibility of either being raised here in America and given every advantage to become all they can be intellectually and socially and inter-personally, or else potentially settling for something less than that in their home country?

I do not know how we will turn around this dismal economy. But I sure as heck know that it can't possibly involve turning away the world's brightest and most daring people, and with them their born and yet-to-be born children. My parents were fortunate enough to make that one-way trip many years ago, and I am forever indebted to them and to this country for all of the privilege and opportunity I have had in my life. Accordingly, I take the responsibilities of citizenship and of giving back very seriously. For the sake of this great nation, it would be a shame if there were less such stories in future generations; that would not be the America that I have come to know and love.

3.11.2009

Retail in Philadelphia


Sorry for the late notice, but at 9 o'clock this morning, my firm will be giving its final presentation at City Hall for a three-year study on retail in Philadelphia. This was my first assignment when I started this job, so there is a particular sense of personal satisfaction associated with this completion.

You'll soon be able to go to our website and download the 10-page executive summary, 700-page (!) report and appendices, and reams and reams of actual data on the 260+ commercial corridors in Philadelphia. But in the meantime, let me summarize three years of work into four points:

* A diversity of retail centers work in Philadelphia. As a group, the top-performing corridors turned out to be a nice mix of auto-oriented and transit-oriented, regional-serving and neighborhood-serving, old and new.

* There is a wide disparity in corridor performance. The top 5 percent of corridors represent a disproportionate amount of shopping trips and sales dollars, while the bottom 40 percent represent relatively little activity.

* Appearance matters. It turns out aesthetics are not just the purview of geeky designers with too-cool glasses who are detached from the real world; the most powerful interventions at the corridor level were those that gave visual signals of beauty, safety, cleanliness, and care.

* There's room for improvement re: making retail more pedestrian-accessible. Far too many transit-proximate sites were not transit-oriented, as vast seas of parking and drive-through uses announced to the world, "drive to us, don't walk to us." Meanwhile, auto-oriented corridors were particularly pedestrian-inhospitable, as evidenced by the fact that of trips of less than 1/4 mile to such places, 70 percent were by car.

Obviously, there's a lot more here, which you can hear about later this morning or read about to your heart's content from our report. We're hoping for lots of follow-on work; having spent three years exploring retail in Philadelphia, we've only scratched the surface of what we can know and what we can answer.

3.09.2009

Politics and Analysis


If there's anything I learned in two years of grad school, it's that between politics and analysis, you need both if you want to make a good decision. So I felt like I was back in grad school finishing up a homework assignment when I made the following reply to a recent comment on my blog:

Our firm (www.econsult.com) does a lot of studies that try to help make this case for governments. For example, comparing the upfront tax subsidies for a proposed development with the ongoing spike up in tax revenues as a result of the new activity it represents, to see if the jurisdiction is better off making the investment and reaping the benefit or not making the investment in the first place.

But we recognize that there is more to a decision than just NPV. On the one hand, a project could have a negative NPV but generate other, intangible benefits (environmental, aesthetic, equity, civic pride) that make it worth spending the money. On the other hand, a project could have a positive NPV but the opportunity cost it represents is too great to green-light (the jurisdiction is maxed out on debt, or other projects have even higher potential NPVs and we can't do all of them at once).

Nevertheless, as you noted, decisions are often just as much about politics as analysis. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing: analysis has its limits, as we understand that our projections are merely guesses, while the political process, if done well, can be an effective way to balance many interests when making a decision. Selfishly, we want governments and the private actors that intersect with them to hire us to add numbers to the mix; but we get that decisions can't be boiled down to just numbers.

The best case scenario is to not pit politics against analysis, but to honor the role of both in making a decision. After all, we're talking about public dollars and public space. We wouldn't want some eggheads to crunch out a number that is the end all and be all of the discussion; nor would we want to make a decision without exploring its likely NPV consequences.


The fact is, politics and analysis are inextricably intertwined in modern America. There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated analysis, since everything is political. And of course we all know that politics has become its own science, now that candidates enlist PhD's to help them with their polling and their campaign strategies.

So it's not so much a serial thing - I figure out what's politically feasible and then bend the analysis to match that, or I do the analysis, and then figure out how to politically sell the result - as much as it is a parallel thing - I need the best of both to make the best decision. Each year, a class of Felsonians enter the world understanding this; here's hoping their influence is felt on elected officials, consultants and lobbyists, and constituencies.

Florida on America


I'm not a huge Richard Florida fan, but his article in this month's Atlantic was spot on: "How the Crash Will Reshape America." Correctly, he conflates our debt-swollen, living-beyond-our-means consumption patterns with the suburbanization of our country. Just as we overspent and are now stuck with a painful bill, so have we over-decentralized and are now stuck with land use patterns that are far from optimal.

Importantly, Florida's not referring preeminently to sprawl's adverse environmental consequences. Rather, he notes that an information age depends on clusters of creative types generating new ideas and innovations, and thus spread-out America may be in danger of losing its edge in this important aspect of capitalism. He's rooting for this real estate and financial crisis to rejigger our landscape to naturally favor the New Yorks of the nation, places in which one can find "the jostling of many different professions and different types of people, all in a dense environment . . . and essential spur to innovation - to the creation of things that are truly new."

According to Florida, here's where we must necessarily flow into: "A more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities. Serendipitously, it will be a landscape suited to a world in which petroleum is no longer cheap by any measure. But most of all, it will be a landscape that can accommodate and accelerate invention, innovation, and creation - the activities in which the US still holds a big comparative advantage."

I do not mean to discount the pain that many Americans currently feel. But imagine if we did not have such a rude awakening, that somehow our unsustainable cycle of buying more house than we can afford, using those houses as piggy banks to sustain ever more lavish lifestyles, and counting on rising asset prices to keep the whole thing going - continued even longer than it did. As we spread out further, guzzling scarce resources as we went along, we would distance ourselves from each other and lose the natural stimulant of interpersonal cross-pollination. Numbed by our flat screen TVs and hulking SUVs, the rest of the world would lap us when it came to scientific patents and medical advances and technological breakthroughs.

Is the age of American hegemony over? Time will tell. But, absent the huge wake-up we have had in the past 18 months, perhaps we would not have come to our senses. Now, amidst the rubble of the worst economic slowdown in 75 years, maybe we can reorganize ourselves in ways that restore the entrepreneurial engine that is our competitive edge, and do so in ways that capitalize on and are not blind to the new realities of a post-petroleum, environmentally fragile planet.

3.08.2009

Less Car, More Money


While the federal government tries to move heaven and earth to put a few bucks in our pockets and help us afford more house, I have a piece of advice if you want to take matters into your own hands: move to a place where you're not completely reliant on cars to get around.

You know the places where cars are a necessity: the streets are spaghettis, the interstate is within shouting distance, and you can't walk to anything - not a park or a church or a convenience store or a restaurant. So it wouldn't be unusual for a couple with two kids to have to own two cars and drive them each 12,500 miles, when you factor in all the shuttling to work and play and church.

Contrast that with a neighborhood that has transit options to get you to employment and entertainment hubs, where you can walk the kids to school and to playgrounds, and where Thai food or a triple mocha cappuccino is a leisurely stroll away. If you're bold, you get rid of both your cars and rely on buses and on car share programs; but let's not go so far, and instead say you keep one car, put 7,500 miles on it, and burn through about 100 bucks a month on tokens.

At 50 cents a mile in gas, insurance, and maintenance, you're talking about $12,500 a year in transportation costs for Scenario A and $4,950 a year for Scenario B. Aw heck, let's round up Scenario B to an even $5,500, and chalk that up to a couple nice pairs of sneakers and a couple of fleece pullovers for you and the missus for all the extra walking you get to do.

So that's a $7,000 a year savings, or almost $600 a month more in your pocket. And remember, that's cash; it would be the equivalent of getting a $10,000 raise in your paycheck. Last I checked, employers weren't giving out $10,000 raises and Uncle Sam wasn't proposing a $7,000 rebate.

Or let's express that savings in another way. Suppose that instead of having extra money in your pocket, you want to buy more house. According to my PITI calculator, having an extra $7,000 a year to put towards a mortgage means you can buy well over $100,000 more house than you could have before. Meanwhile, I'm not holding my breath that Congress can figure out a good way to get people $100,000 more house.

I'll save the other, non-financial benefits of living in a less auto-oriented neighborhood for some other day. Just remember that in dollar terms, you're talking about $10,000 more salary or $100,000 more house.

So the next time you hear about a friend or family member moving from the suburbs to the city, remember that it might not be out of a desire to nobly trade down ("what a selfless urban pioneer you are") or trendily trade up ("Sex and the City, here you come!"). Instead, it might just be they've decided not wait for the government to give them the stimulus package they were able to go and get themselves.

Secret Nap Time


As a typical parent of two small kids, sleep is in short supply. Working obviously prevents me from grabbing any naps during the week, and sometimes the obvious time blocks of weekend afternoons while the kids are sleeping are unavailable if I have made plans or have to power through to catch up on chores. But I've discovered one, sure-fire time block for napping: Sunday morning.

By 8ish, I've been up for quite some time, the kids have gotten changed and fed, and yet we're still a good hour away from having to get ready for church. So I turn on the TV, lie down on the couch, and tell the kids to sit on me. They like piling on me, and they're a great substitute for a blanket. Hey, you catch Z's however you can.

3.07.2009

Good Debt, Bad Debt


For a while, I have been meaning to post on the subject of good debt and bad debt; and a fellow blogger's comment earlier this week gave me the opportunity to get my writing juices going. Here's an excerpt from my response:

Debt is good when you can do one of two things: 1) use the money you've borrowed to do something to improve your future income (examples: an individual going to college, a business buying more efficient machinery), or 2) spread out the cost of an asset over time to match the life of the asset (examples: house, car).

The problem is when people pile on debt that does neither of those two things, but instead is used to increase present standard of living with no regard to future decrease in standard of living on account of having to pay it back. (Of course, peoples' illusion that their house prices and stock portfolios could only go up and therefore they could keep flipping their mortgages and using their equity as a no-downside piggy bank was what caused, oh, only the worst global economic meltdown in the last 75 years.)

Compound the pain in this particular case in that federal subsidies of house (mortgage interest deduction) and car (highway construction) cause already irrational consumers to buy even more house and car than is socially optimal, with adverse consequences borne by the rest of us.


While the whole notion of "the government's budget is like my family's budget" is a little too simplistic, I do think it is correct to say that we should hold our federal government to similar standards as far as whether and when it is good to take on new debt. Optimists will say Obama's moves save us from a worse economic crisis and lay the foundation for an increased economic productivity and energy efficiency that helps us pay off the debt we're incurring to do all of this. Pessimists will say Obama's moves represent an increase in our government's "standard of living," which is to say a higher level of public expenditures with no commensurate enhancement in our ability to pay for them.

Time will tell whether we ought to have been optimistic or pessimistic about all this. And that's what we're all holding our breath about, both here in the US and around the world, and both us and generations to follow.

California Dreamin'


I got a chance to meet the wife of Robb Armstrong, creator of "Jump Start," at an event several years back. Having followed the cartoon, it was fun to hear her say how much of it was based on their own lives in the Philadelphia area. Of course, since I have become a father, the cartoon has taken on even more meaning, since it centers so much on kids, parenting, and marriage.

The plot lately has involved the NFL linebacker brother of one of the main characters being traded from the Eagles to the Chargers. I got a kick out of yesterday's strip, as it artfully captured a main pro and a main con of California living, as compared to Philadelphia living: warm weather versus crippling congestion. Even if you don't have a bi-coastal identity like I do, I hope you find this similarly amusing.

Two Thumbs Up for Mayor Nutter


1. I haven't been able to verify the validity of this link, but here's a podcast of my colleague Anne O'Callaghan from the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians [link courtesy of Immigrant Power] on Mayor Nutter presiding over a swearing-in naturalization ceremony at City Hall. As noted in a recent report we did for the Welcoming Center which will be released shortly, the big cities in the Midwest and Northeast that grew did so because outflow of residents to the South and West was replaced by inflow of immigrants. Nice to see Mayor Nutter understand that if he wants to meet his goal of increasing the City's population by 75,000 over the next decade, being friendly to immigrants will be essential.

2. I attended the Mayor's press conference in which he announced the fusion of the City's Recreation Department and the Fairmount Park Commission. As he spoke of his own personal connection to these city assets - using the libraries and pools as a kid, teaching his daughter how to ride a bike on Belmont Plateau - he appeared to tear up before regaining his composure. Here is a true Philadelphian, who understands just how meaningful libraries and parks and pools and rec centers are to the well-being of our children and families, and who is doing what he can in a constrained environment to do right by these municipal assets and by our citizenry. I appreciated that out of our chief executive.

Don't Trash This Good Idea


Call me a contrarian, but here's yet another unpopular tax I'm in favor of: charging Philly residents per trash bag. I was talking to a friend of mine who works in the Managing Director's office, and he explained the mechanics to me: you buy as many City-certified bags as you need, can only leave out trash in those bags, and recycling is free. As far as enforcement, there's no incentive to dump your bags in front of your neighbor's house, because you've already paid for the bags.

There's still the very big problem of the City having to monitor that people weren't illegally dumping trash elsewhere; and you probably have to do something to counter-balance the regressivity of this "tax," in that it hurts the pockets of the poor more than the rich. But on its face, this idea seems to make perfect sense. After all, there's a big difference in cost to the City if I leave one bag out on Tuesday morning or ten, in terms of trash guys having to grab them, trucks having to move them, and dumps having to hold them. Making trash a variable cost for households creates an incentive to reduce trash in the first place, and to divert as much of what is created that can be recycled into recycling.

Apparently, at a dollar or two a bag, you're looking at getting yourself up to halfway to plugging the $1 billion hole in the next five-year budget. Of course, most of the calls to the City, and most of the people interviewed for this news story, were overwhelmingly against such a move. Too bad: it's not often you can increase revenues, decrease costs, and save the environment all in one fell swoop.

3.06.2009

Less Oases


Because I am both busy and introverted, little oases throughout the week mean all the more to me. I currently have 16 possible oases a week. Each morning, between exercising and getting the kids up, I might have 15 to 60 minutes to check email, blog, and catch up on sports and news. Each evening, after the kids are in bed, I can sink into my bed for a good hour with a good book or a business magazine. And weekend afternoons, I may have one or two hours to catch up on errands, tidy up, or even relax.

I don't always get all 16 each week, but I try not to give up too many. But for the past few days, I've been a bit parched. I worked right through several pockets this weekend and into early this week, finishing up taxes and updating financial matters. Two nights this week, I've had church gatherings - our monthly leadership team meeting and our twice-a-month couples' small group meeting - that go long enough to infringe on both my evening as well prevent me from waking up early enough the morning after. And right smack dab in the middle of all this, Jada was a wreck one evening on account of a current bout of sadness.

In other words, over half my oases were shot this week. Thankfully, the taxes are done, there are no weekend house projects any more complicated than replacing a light bulb, and Jada now appears to be back to her normal self at bedtime. So I'm looking forward to a much-needed recharge of my emotional batteries.

3.05.2009

News Flash: Driving is A Lot More Expensive Than You Think


I’ve been banging on the subject of higher gas taxes for awhile now, but haven’t really offered a whole lot of numbers. Well, thanks to the good people over at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VPTI), I now have some estimates. Check out their 500+ page report entitled “Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis” here.

Importantly, they distinguish driving costs into three categories: internal variable, internal fixed, and external. “Internal” means they are borne by the driver himself, external by others; while “variable” means costs go up as you drive more, while “fixed” means costs stay the same no matter how much you drive. Therefore, “internal fixed” influences how many cars you buy, and “internal variable” influences how much you drive them.

Unfortunately, “external” conservatively represents over a third of the costs associated with driving: “internal variable” is 37 percent, “internal fixed” is 28 percent, and “external” is 35 percent. Which means that for every dollar a driver spends to own and drive his car, others bear an additional 54 cents (35% divided by 37%+28%). Which means we have far more driving than is socially optimal.

Even worse, many of the categories associated with “internal” costs are things many drivers don’t think about, so to the extent they discount them in their heads, what they think is their cost of owning and driving a car is even less than what it really is. Consider these 23 (!) costs associated with transportation:

• Vehicle Ownership Fixed costs of owning a vehicle. (internal fixed)

• Vehicle Operation - Variable vehicle costs, including fuel, oil, tires, tolls and short-term parking fees. (internal variable)

• Operating Subsidies - Financial subsidies for public transit services. (external fixed)

• Travel Time - The value of time used for travel. (internal variable)

• Internal Crash - Crash costs borne directly by travelers. (internal variable)

• External Crash - Crash costs a traveler imposes on others. (external variable)

• Internal Activity Benefits - Health benefits of active transportation to travelers (a cost where foregone). (internal variable)

• External Activity Benefits - Health benefits of active transportation to society (a cost where foregone). (external variable)

• Internal Parking - Off-street residential parking and long-term leased parking paid by users. (internal fixed)

• External Parking - Off-street parking costs not borne directly by users. (external variable)

• Congestion - Congestion costs imposed on other road users. (external variable)

• Road Facilities - Roadway facility construction and operating expenses not paid by user fees. (external variable)

• Land Value - The value of land used in public road rights-of-way. (external fixed)

• Traffic Services - Costs of providing traffic services such as traffic policing, and emergency services. (external variable)

• Transport Diversity - The value to society of a diverse transport system, particularly for non-drivers. (external variable)

• Air Pollution - Costs of vehicle air pollution emissions. (external variable)

• Greenhouse Gas Pollution - Lifecycle costs of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. (external variable)

• Noise - Costs of vehicle noise pollution emissions. (external variable)

• Resource Externalities - External costs of resource consumption, particularly petroleum. (external variable)

• Barrier Effect - Delays that roads and traffic cause to nonmotorized travel. (external variable)

• Land Use Impacts - Increased costs of sprawled, automobile-oriented land use. (external fixed)

• Water Pollution - Water pollution and hydrologic impacts caused by transport facilities and vehicles. (external variable)

• Waste External - costs associated with disposal of vehicle wastes. (external variable)

So if you ask the typical person how much it costs for them to drive, they might just think of gas, which at today’s prices is something like 8 cents a mile. Others might know, for tax or expense report purposes, that the IRS number for 2008 was 50 cents a mile. But factoring in all those costs above, the VPTI report conservatively estimates the number to be about 80 cents a mile for the average car and $1.00 for a SUV.

When you think something is 40 to 90 percent off, you tend to buy more of it. And that’s what’s happened with driving. And, as noted above, most of the cost is not borne by each driver unknowingly; it’s borne by society in very painful ways, whether bodily injury, lost time, environmental degradation, or inefficient land use patterns.

When gas shot up to $4 a gallon last summer, all sorts of rational behavior starting emerging. People made choices to take transit, carpool, and bundle errands. Some even bought fuel-efficient cars or moved away from isolated, auto-dependent places. Sadly, much of that behavior has evaporated as gas prices plummeted. Remember that at $4 a gallon, the per-mile cost is about 20 cents a mile. If you had in your mind that driving actually cost four to five times more than that, you might make even more drastic changes to your life.

Until we figure out how to price driving more accurately, those sorts of behaviors are not going to become commonplace. And we will all be worse for it, economically and socially and medically and environmentally.