Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why aren't urban dwellers libertarian?

The Atlantic Cities website has run a series of articles focused on the urban-rural divide in the country's politics. This map perhaps places the contrast in its starkest relief, dramatically illustrating urban voters' preference for the Democratic party, and by extension larger government:

Upon reflection this should be something of a puzzle, given urban dwellers' myriad experiences with government failure. Indeed, these should be prime candidates for membership in the vast right-wing conspiracy.  Consider, for example, life in Washington DC.

Schools. The schools are, to put matters mildly, of questionable quality. Standardized testing earlier this year revealed that only 46 percent of the students in traditional government-run schools (i.e. not charters) were rated as proficient in math and 44 percent in reading. Amazingly, both of those figures are improvements over the previous year. Not only are the schools lacking academically, but they also suffer from violence. The Washington Examiner reports that during the 2010-11 school year there were numerous incidents of both students attacking teachers and teachers attacking students, while according to the Heritage Foundation:
Statistics show that the D.C. public school system is one of the most dangerous in the country. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 11.3 percent of D.C. high school students reported being "threatened or injured" with a weapon on school property during the previous year--a rate well above the national average and higher than most states. Reports from nongovernmental sources have confirmed that many students in D.C. schools are exposed to violence and crime on a regular basis. For example, The Washington Post reported in 2007 that nine violent school incidents are reported on a typical day in Washington, D.C.
All this while spending nearly $30,000 per student!

Housing. As the Greater Greater Washington blog (no bastion of right-wing thought -- blog founder David Alpert describes himself as a lifelong Democrat) points out, government regulation is a key factor behind the high cost of housing in the area:
The local process for getting residential projects approved and built is complex, costly, time-consuming, and uncertain. Fees and proffers can add between $30,000 and $50,000 to the cost of a housing unit. 
The developer also is required to provide many "extras" that may not specifically have been among the items demanded by the buyer. The most recent buyer ends up paying for amenities that the entire neighborhood enjoys—parks, bike racks, benches, and walking trails, among other benefits. 
Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily the developer who pays; the extra costs usually are incorporated in the final sales price or rent amounts. If the cost is more than what the market will bear, the project simply won't get built. 
...In addition to local regulations, a variety of state and federal regulations relate to new home construction. States have transportation and environmental regulations that apply to new projects. for example, a requirement to conduct traffic impact analyses when traffic is expected to be over a certain threshold, and the power to deny curb cuts or access to state roads. 
At the federal level, water quality regulations are controlling runoff to local watersheds, pre-empting local decision-making on the right location for new housing units. The developer has to work not only with local planning staff, but often also with a range of state and federal agencies and reviewers during each development application. 
As there is no one who can coordinate agencies at different levels of government or unify their comments on a development application, there is the potential for prolonged back and forth on certain requirements where different governmental levels have regulations that conflict with those of other levels.
The regulatory morass has served to enable NIMBYs determined to downsize or even outright prevent development from taking place. Construction of a new grocery store and housing on Wisconsin Avenue, for example, started earlier this year after a delay of over ten years due to various legal hurdles thrown up by some neighborhood residents. Given the ability to opponents to gum up the regulatory works, little wonder another developer decided to scale back plans from a new building with 70 housing units to 9 or 10 in the face of neighborhood opposition.

All of this regulation has served to increase costs, limit supply and boost the price of housing.

Business regulation: It isn't just housing where the cost of government regulation is found, with local bureaucrats, politicians and NIMBYs also taking aim at businesses. Note this recent article from the Washington Blade, a gay-focused publication not exactly known for spouting right-wing sentiment:
Seasonal Pantry market and supper club chef Daniel O’Brien and Sundevich eatery operator Ali Bagheri are both residents of the Logan-Shaw neighborhood where their jointly owned businesses are located. Teaming up to plan the conversion of a vacant 9th Street, N.W., storefront into an intimate 56-seat bar serving a rustic light menu and crafted cocktails self-initialized as A&D, they didn’t anticipate the licensing hassles that awaited.
Adjacent to the charming street-side Seasonal Pantry and in front of the alley-located Sundevich with its engaging interior in a former garage, the modest venue was destined to become a welcomed addition to the community. Located between N and O streets only a half-block north of the Washington Convention Center, this new amenity would transform an abandoned property on the still-ragged commercial corridor. 
After meeting with neighbors and reaching agreement on concerns regarding noise and trash pick-up, they discovered that the Logan [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] objected. The commission was suddenly demanding “compliance” with its “policy” requiring early closing times throughout the week in exchange for not protesting the liquor license application and delaying approval. 
The rationale? The ANC now demands truncated operating hours for new businesses, even in commercial zones, as standard edict. This stance circumvents citywide regulations through coercive so-called “Voluntary” Agreements. 
Confronting a commonplace dilemma, the businessmen couldn’t afford continued delays. When license protests are lodged, either by small groups or ANCs, it takes a minimum of eight months to a year to resolve, costing huge sums. 
The well-regarded entrepreneurs had no choice other than to cave. This concession, according to O’Brien, will cost $50,000 in lost annual revenue – a hefty and potentially debilitating sum for a small venture in an industry with tight margins and intensive capitalization requirements. 
Ironically, Bagheri alone attended the monthly ANC meeting on Nov. 7 – O’Brien was a Bravo “Top Chef” competitor that evening. He was representing his multiple-award-winning establishment, while Bagheri – no slacker in garnering honorific distinctions for his popular venue – was the duo’s delegate. 
Claiming “control” over their fiefdom, commissioners create differing rules for businesses within close competitive proximity while limiting local patron options. Fancying themselves “legislators” rather than the advisory body of their title, they have become sufficiently emboldened to flout abrogation of citywide law within their “territory.”
Newer and more innovative businesses, meanwhile, arguably face even tougher regulations. Take some of the hassles faced by food trucks for example:
Current regulations state that a food truck can only stop to serve if it is “hailed” by customers (similar to an ice cream truck), and that a food truck must close and leave if it has no waiting line of customers. As a result, police can fine and shut down a food truck without a line.  
...In addition, under current regulations a vending license holder, typically the owner, must be on a food truck in order to serve customers. For the food truck to operate without the owner, he or she must buy additional vending licenses for employees. As a result, many food trucks are paying for multiple licenses – as many as seven for one business. 
Then of course there is the DC government's battle against Uber, a smartphone app that allows users to call what are basically high-end taxis. Here is a taste of what has been going on:
To placate drivers concerned that Uber might undercut them on price, [DC Councilwoman Mary] Cheh is proposing to set the minimum “sedan class” fare at five times the taxi drop rate — currently $3. But that has vexed Uber and many of its customers. While the $15 legal minimum would match Uber’s own current per-trip minimum, the company has recently moved to roll out a lower-priced service in other cities. The $15 floor, Uber argues, would prevent such a service in D.C., thus “handicapping a reliable, high quality transportation alternative so that Uber cannot offer a high quality service at the best possible price.”
Yes, that's right, Cheh favored the government setting prices, which always work out well. Fortunately, after a public backlash -- actively cheer-leaded by Uber and lefty scribes such as Matt Yglesias and James Fallows -- the City Council legitimized the service this month. More instructive, however, is that when confronted with a new service that has been widely praised by consumers for its usefulness, service quality and even its ability to combat racial discrimination, the City Council's first instinct was to place regulations and restrictions on it. Little wonder the company's CEO says he never asks for permission before setting up operations in a city:
“If you put yourself in the position to ask for something that is already legal, you’ll find you’ll never be able to roll out,” [Uber founder and CEO Travis] Kalanick said in an interview. “The corruption of the taxi industries will make it so you will never get to market.”
One can't help but wonder about the fortunes of less well-connected companies, and how many other potentially useful enterprises we never hear about that have been stifled.

Taxis. Anyone who lives in a city is probably going to set foot in a taxi at some point, and thus have another encounter with government regulation. Already the government issues licenses (well, theoretically, as no new licenses have been issued since 2010) determines how much taxis can charge for fares, extra passengers and even luggage handling. Furthermore, the City Council has been kicking around the idea of further expanding its powers so that it can determine what color the taxis should be painted, the features the cars must offer and impose a new surcharge to pay for the costs of the taxi bureaucracy. 

Unsurprisingly, this intersection of government and private enterprise has not only threatened consumers through reduced choice and higher costs, but has produced plenty of corruption as well.

Actual taxi color scheme being considered by the DC government

Public transportation: The DC Metrorail and bus systems are sufficiently problem-plagued that there is a blog dedicated solely to documenting its shortcomings (the worst being a crash in 2009 which resulted in nine fatalities), a planned streetcar system continues to suffer from delays and operation of the local airports appear to be a case study in nepotism.

Politicians and bureaucrats. 2012 has seen no shortage of scandal among elected DC officials, with Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 in government funds earmarked for youth sports and arts, Councilman Kwame Brown admitting to lying about his income on bank loan applications as well as a misdemeanor campaign finance violation and two campaign staffers for current Mayor Vincent Gray have also run afoul of campaign finance laws. Councilman Michael Brown owes the IRS $50,000 in unpaid income tax.

With all of the various legal problem, it's perhaps little wonder that this year's ballot featured measures that would prohibit felons from becoming a council member or mayor.

Former mayor Marion Barry, who has faced a host of legal problems over the years and continues to serve in elected office on the City Council, managed to raise racial tensions earlier this year with his pledge to “do something about these Asians coming in, opening businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go.” He even managed to commit a gaffe in his apology for the remarks. More generally, race was certainly a subtext of the last mayoral race. 

Moving down the government food chain, the default disposition of city bureaucrats tends to be one of disinterest, and certainly a sharp contrast from what one encounters at for-profit enterprises such as the Apple store. This is small potatoes, meanwhile, compared with some of the crime that has taken place inside the halls of government. In 2009 a tax manager was found guilty -- along with 10 co-conspirators -- of embezzling $48 million.

Summary. Citizens of Washington DC are exposed to government dysfunction on an almost daily basis. The schools are poor, housing costs are high (in large part due to regulations), innovative and more traditional businesses alike are stymied by government meddling, and some of the most city's prominent figures in government have run afoul of the law. Yet, even with confronted with such regular demonstrations of public sector ineptitude, they continue to vote for politicians that typically favor even bigger government by overwhelming margins.


Related: A couple of interesting features on Tulsa and Colorado Springs, two of the very few cities in the country that reliably vote Republican.

Update: And now The Washington Times reports that the city's firehouses are ridden with various problems including bed bugs, missing smoke detectors, leaking roofs, flooded basements, rodent infestations and inoperable heating or cooling systems.

No comments: