October 31, 2005
FSC for the Feds?
The US Forest Service is finally going to look into the merits of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for a small number of forests, including the Fremont National Forest in southern Oregon. Continued cutting on federal land, even under FSC standards, is not exactly popular with many conservationists. But the reality nowadays is that federal-land logging is likely to increase because of the Healthy Forests Initiative and, especially, slick new administrative procedures that may reduce environmental and endangered species' reviews. So FSC labelling could be a golden opportunity for conservationists to endorse something positive.
Getting the Forest Service to comply with FSC standards wouldn't be the big conservation victory that many greens have long sought--it won't stop cutting in national forests--but it would be an honorable compromise. FSC would guarantee careful reviews and monitoring that are fundamental to any good conservation planning. That is, the label could perhaps offset the increasingly weak review standards performed by federal agencies.
October 28, 2005
Economic Good News... Or Is It?
Headline story: the US economy posted tremendous third-quarter growth, 3.8 percent. To quote the New York Times article:
"This is actually fairly amazing..." Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist for MFR Inc. said...
That 3.8 percent growth in GDP is, of course, due to higher spending. Personal consumption, in fact, was up by 3.9 percent. I wonder, could the higher spending possibly have anything to do with the rising fuel prices that--just by pure coincidence--helped oil companies post the highest quarterly profits ever?
And is that spending really a good thing? Consider two other little items from the very same article--the one that characterizes the "strong" growth in an economy that "picked up speed." Disposable income is down and the personal savings rate is now solidly below zero:
- "Adjusted for inflation, disposable income fell 0.9 percent... Some of the drop was attributable to lost rental and business income on the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita lashed the region."
- "The personal saving rate fell into negative territory, minus 1.1 percent, from 0.1 percent. That indicates that people were paying for their increased spending by borrowing more money."
I hate to harp on the bad news, but those recent nuggets of trouble (suitable, of course, only to color the headline story that GDP is rising) are just the tip of the iceberg...
- The national poverty rate has risen for 4 consecutive years so that now 1 in 8 Americans lives in poverty.
- The number of people without health insurance coverage is steadily on the rise--by 800,000 last year--so that today 45.8 million Americans have no health insurance.
- Adjusted for inflation, the national median income has either remained unchanged or actually declined in every year since 1999.
- In October, the US Consumer Confidence Index fell to its lowest point in 2 years.
So someone please tell me, in the face of so many countervailing indicators--the sort of indicators that people actually experience--why is GDP growth still reported as the single gauge of economic progress? Why does GDP's growth merit favorable subjective characterizations like "strong"? And why, in the media's eyes, is "GDP" semantically equivalent to "the economy"?
UPDATE 10/31/05: Want to hear more bad news about the economy? According to Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force, new late-October data from the USDA shows..
...the fifth consecutive annual increase in the number of food insecure Americans nationwide. The total number of people living in food insecure households -- meaning those households that experienced difficulty purchasing food due to a lack of financial resources -- increased to 38.2 million in 2004.
Read the full USDA report here.
October 27, 2005
The Coverage of Climate Change
There's this cheery bit from the Christian Science Monitor: as climate change continues, the Northwest is expected to warm faster than the rest of the planet. In fact, according to climate scientists, the Puget Sound region has already been warming at a "substantially greater" rate than the earth as a whole.
Apart from the usual dire ecological problems--shrinking snowpack, screwed up streamflows, rising sea levels--the news is precipitating considerable worry from some economists. As the article has it:
Economists in the region warn that this could come with a big price tag. Global warming "is likely to impose significant economic costs," 52 leading economists from around the country warned in a recent letter to government and business officials in Oregon.
"The adjustments that businesses, households, and communities will have to make are without precedent," the economists wrote. "Many changes seem largely unavoidable, and some are clearly imminent."
For just one example of the costs of climate change, remember the Northwest's ski industry, which took a beating last winter because of the lousy snowfall. Today's Seattle Times covers the ski industry's woes and, in a positive development for media coverage of this issue, the Times mentions the connection to climate change (though in an oddly elliptical way).
Readers of this blog may remember that I covered this ski-less season ad nauseum last winter (here, here, and here, for example). Despite tons of Northwest media coverage of the skimpy snowfall--and a pretty direct link to climate change--the media almost never attributed the shuttered businesses to climate change. But less than a year later, the media appears to have (finally) connected the dots--yet another promising sign that the public consciousness of global warming is evolving rapidly, if none too soon.
UPDATE: Seattle's conference, ""The Future Ain't What It Used to Be -- Planning for Climate Disruption" was attended by a number of heavy-hitters, including Christine Todd Whitman. Read the coverage in the Seattle Times, here, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, here.
October 26, 2005
So Long Caribou?
In a troubling new development for mountain caribou, the BC government is considering abandoning efforts to sustain the most threatened and isolated populations of mountain caribou in the province. That decision would almost certainly be a death knell for the few remaining caribou, the Selkirk herd, that continue to visit the continental United States. (Read the full reporting in the Globe and Mail.)
The Selkirk caribou roam in remote areas of British Columbia, Idaho, and Washington, but they are clinging to precarious existence with fewer than 3 dozen animals, despite repeated "augmentation" efforts. Cross-border cooperation and restoration efforts have been critical to the survival of the Selkirk herd and without BC support those caribou are not likely to be long for this world. Protecting these last visitors to the lower 48 is a good example of the big hurdles faced by those who would protect and restore ecosystems. Not only are the ecological problems thorny, but the problems are complicated by the fact that wildlife, habitats--and environmental problems generally--don't observe the political boundaries that are usually the foundation of our policies for restoration, such as they are.
UPDATE: A good article in the Seattle Times on the reactions from both Canadian and American conservationists. For example:
"The international transborder herd would be written off for extinction," said Joe Scott with Conservation Northwest of Bellingham. "That's totally and completely unacceptable."
October 25, 2005
Canada Questions Feebates
We're a little late on this bit of depressing news. A report issued last week by Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy recommended against implementing feebates, one of the most promising market tools around for encouraging the purchase of energy-efficient products and for tugging the entire car and truck market toward better fuel efficiency. (The NRTEE was charged with studying feebate options after the idea was proposed last spring.)
Here's their reasoning:
"Instead of using one economic instrument, such as a feebate, the government should develop an integrated and coherent sustainable transportation strategy for Canada focused on all aspects of the transportation sector," the agency said. . . A further study of feebates could be part of that strategy, it added.
Well, sure, nothing wrong with an integrated approach, but feebates could be an important piece of that. They're a much broader solution than NRTEE gives them credit for (and far more far-reaching than tax credits for hybrids, which, strangely, NRTEE does promote).
You can read a whole piece about their promise here, but in short, feebates are what's called a systemic solution--a solution that fixes a bunch of problems at once. They're a plus for the economy, because they help make vehicle price tags tell the truth about the productivity costs of economywide overconsumption of fuel. Because of their structure, they keep the entire market shifting toward fuel savings. They're also a big plus for clean air and a secure climate. And they benefit communities, because inefficient vehicles hemorrhage dollars from local economies.
Finally, with feebates, buyers get paid to choose vehicles that save them money anyway.
The backstory, not surprisingly, is that Canadian automakers are putting the pressure on, citing in this Vancouver Sun story (registration required) that "consumers don't want to be forced into buying vehicles that don't suit their needs."
We'd be willing to bet that these days a wider range of ultra-energy-efficient vehicles--which tools such as feebates will drive the market toward--would suit consumers' needs very well.
October 24, 2005
Housing Supplies, Housing Surprise
The Eugene Register-Guard notes a problem: higher land prices are making it harder for nonprofits to build affordable housing in the city.
The New York Times reports on what America's biggest city has done about the same problem: an inclusionary zoning program, that lets developers build at higher densities, provided that they set aside some housing units for low-income housing.
Now, if anything, the Big Apple's problems with providing affordable housing positively dwarf Eugene's, since both land and construction costs are so much more expensive in New York. But if the Grey Lady is to be believed, inclusionary zoning can harness the high demand for housing to create more housing options for folks who don't have the money for a luxury condo:
"The traditional equation," said Shaun Donovan, the commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, "has been that the stronger the real estate market, the harder it is to provide affordable housing. These programs turn that old equation on its head because the stronger the market, the greater the incentive for developers to use these programs and, therefore, provide affordable housing."
As we've mentioned before, hundreds of jurisdictions around the country have used inclusionary zoning to try to boost affordable housing, with mixed results. Here's hoping that New York's recent experience can offer some lessons that other places can learn from.
Is Sprawl Spendy?
The authors looked at housing prices in 452 urban areas across the US, along with measures of a couple dozen factors that can influence housing prices -- including urban form, but also education levels, weather, demographics, recent population influx, the size of homes, and employment factors, among others. Controlling for other variables, cities that have a higher share of total housing in their "central areas" (as defined by the US census) tend to have slightly lower median home prices, and fewer very-expensive homes, than cities that are more sprawling and decentralized.
This, of course, runs counter to the intuition--and the much-touted arguments from the anti-smart growth set--that housing is cheaper in spread-out, poorly bounded metro areas.
That said, as careful as this research seems to be, there's good reason not to read too much into it.
First off,the share of housing in a city's "central area" may not do such a good job of capturing what most researchers think of as sprawl: low-density housing, homes and services strictly segregated, and streets designed for cars rather than walking. I don't doubt that there's some relation between "centralization" as defined here, and "sprawl" as most researchers think of it. But it's possible that the correlation is loose -- and that some "centralized" cities still have relatively "sprawling" layouts by other metrics.
Second, the real story here is that controlling sprawl seems to have a very minor effect on housing prices: 10 percent increase in the share of homes within a city's central area leads to an 0.2 percent decrease in median home prices. That's a pretty small effect -- and it's overwhelmed by other factors that the researchers looked at. Household income has about 40 times as much influence on home prices as does "centralization." Construction costs have about 30 times as much impact. So in the big picture, there's not much evidence that controlling sprawl makes housing significantly cheaper, or that facilitating sprawl makes it more expensive.
But perhaps that's the point: the effects of urban form on housing prices are ambiguous, and can depend on lots of factors that are as hard to predict as they are to measure. Which can make it just as hard for smart growth advocates to prove that good planning can lead to more affordable housing, as it is for smart-growth naysayers to prove that the unfettered free market makes housing cheaper.
A Minimum Minimum
Just in case you were wondering: the federal minimum wage in the US--currently $5.15 per hour--is at its lowest level in 5 decades, adjusted for inflation:
The nominal US minimum wage has remained unchanged for the last 9 years; over that time, inflation has whittled away more than a fifth of the buying power of an hour of minimum-wage work.
The (relatively) good news for low-income workers is that, in the Northwest, these minimum wage standards only apply to Idaho and Montana; Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska have adopted a higher minimum wage. Washington's is currently $7.35 per hour, and is adjusted upward each year for inflation. In January it will rise to $7.63. (That's still lower than the inflation-adjusted federal minimum wage during most of the 1960's and 1970's, by the way.) Oregon's is currently $7.25 per hour, and is also indexed for inflation.
BC's minimum wage is Can$8.00. Adjusting for purchasing power of the Canadian and US dollars, that's about $6.67 in US dollars. And this isn't inflation-indexed -- meaning that inflation erodes its value every year. So, overall, minimum wage standards seem to be one area in which Washington and Oregon may be doing a better job than BC in protecting low-income workers.
How Green Is It?
Many of us in the Northwest have explored “green” options for consumer goods and services. Whether this means purchasing organic fruits from the farmers market or buying hybrid vehicles, we’d like to be healthier and reduce our ecological footprint.
But sorting out fact from fiction when buying green can be daunting. To help you clear up some of the confusion, NEW has put together a short list of some good online sources to answer questions you may have about, say, whether or not that eyeliner truly wasn’t tested on animals.
We’d also like to hear about guides and resources that you’ve found helpful in making the right choices—we can’t cover them all! Please comment below to share those sites with other readers.
October 21, 2005
Bowling Together, One Last Time
Today in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a sweetly-sad story about the closing of a bowling alley in north Seattle. There's nothing terribly profound, of course, about one business closing down, but columnist Susan Paynter does a terrific job of characterizing the place as a nexus of social capital, though she doesn't use the term herself. In light of the recent dialogue on this blog about the role of density, gentrification, and community, I thought I'd toss out this article as food for thought.
"You should start the day off with a little bit of laughter," Wayne Luders told me. He and wife Ruth come from home a few blocks away for the friendship, the circle of acquaintances they count on around the tabletop, and down-to-earth servers like Louise Adams who, Wayne admits, sometimes calls him worse names than "Sweetpea."
Like the other regulars -- the serious night-league bowlers with monogrammed bags, the daytime senior señoritas sporting matching shirts, and the every Tuesday and Thursday railroad retiree -- they dread March when they'll loose their moorings.
That the business closing is actually a bowling alley, gives a certain literal heft to the worry that social capital is declining, a worry that is most commonly connected to Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone. But more to the point, Leilani Lanes is not closing because business is slow (though it's worth noting that league bowling there has declined sharply, as it has almost everywhere). No, the alley is closing in part because real estate values have gotten so high that it's hard for the owners to justify the building's current use.
There's much more money in re-developing the alley into apartments, condos, retail outlets, or more profitable businesses. It strikes me that the closing of this alley--like the passing of many timeworn elements in any city--should not just be shrugged off as a matter of amoral invincible "market forces." It's truly regrettable when places of close community pass away, but it's a problem that's damnably hard to fix.
I'm certainly not a no-growther. I believe, for instance, that much of the new development in Seattle over the last two decades has made the city healthier and better in a thousand and one ways. A profusion of new commercial districts, walkable neighborhoods, and even farmer's markets is breathing a great deal of life into the city. But at the same time, there's something lamentable about the loss of "great good places" like the bowling alley--places where the community has gathered for years--places that forge the bonds that keep cities vibrant and may even keep people healthier too.
Waldal worries it will be the end of social contact for many. That they will sit, immobile and isolated by their separate TV screens.
Longtime bowling-league secretary Mary Pelan, a self-described senior citizen, started bowling at age 17. She guesses she'll walk for exercise -- probably alone -- when the place shuts its doors. "So many connections will be shredded and that's just a shame," she said.
But what to do? In the face of a growing population and the practical need for increasing density (not to mention the environmental and social needs), how do we preserve the "great good places" that make the places where we live worth living in?