E-Bikes, China and Human Aspirations

The Wall Street Journal recently carried an article entitled “E-Yikes: Electric Bikes Terrorize the Streets of China.” The article describes difficulties arising from the fact that nearly 120 million electric (battery) bicycles (E-Bikes) are now in operation in China, as people have abandoned mechanical bicycles and highly-polluting petrol motorbikes.

However, to the millions of owners, China’s E-Bikes are a boon, not a bane. E-Bikes are best understood in terms of human aspiration (just like cars in America or Western Europe). People generally seek to improve their lifestyles. Research at the University of Paris, the University of California, the University of North Carolina and elsewhere has clearly demonstrated a strong relationship between higher incomes and higher rates of economic growth where people have greater personal mobility. This is what the E-Bike provides.

In the large urban areas of the 21st century, even the dense Chinese urban areas, travel is highly dispersed. The efficient operation of the urban area requires an ability to travel from any point in the urban area to any other point in a short amount of time. As effective as public transport can be for trips within the dense (but generally small) urban core or to the urban core from suburban areas, a large share of trips simply cannot be feasibly made any other way than by personal mobility. This includes walking, for very short trips and bicycles for somewhat longer trips. But, it also includes substantial and increasing travel by faster modes of transport, particularly cars and two-wheeled vehicles. E-Bikes have greatly improved mobility. At the same time, the E-Bike has enormously reduced both the air pollution and carbon footprint of two-wheeled personal mobility.

This is not to discount the traffic and other difficulties. However, the Chinese, like their western counterparts, will continue to seek better lives and that means greater personal mobility. It means that E-Bike usage will continue to grow and that car usage will also continue to grow, as incomes rise. While that will make traffic congestion even worse, the spectacular automobile fuel efficiency improvements ahead will allow massive expansion of personal mobility, while moving in the right direction with respect to the carbon footprint. In the final analysis, the Chinese (and the Indians, Indonesians, etc.) would like to live as well as we do in the United States and Western Europe. And why not?

Photograph: E-Bike display at a Suzhou (Jiangsu) hypermarket.

Is Illinois 'Bankrupt'?

While California's much publicized budget battles have made the dire financial straights faced in Sacramento a topic of regular media conversation, other states are also experiencing major fiscal woes. According to experts interviewed by Crain's Chicago Business, Illinois currently finds itself in a state of de facto bankruptcy, with the state's ledgers appearing "to meet classic definitions of insolvency: Its liabilities far exceed its assets, and it's not generating enough cash to pay its bills."

According to Crain's, "While California has an even bigger budget hole to fill, Illinois ranks dead last among the states in terms of negative net worth compared with total expenditures." The state had a record $5.1 Billion in bills past due at year's end, has failed to pay some vendors for months, and has seen the average time to pay a bill double to nearly 92 days. The state also faces rapidly mounting pension obligations, and has seen it's ability to borrow restricted by its worsening credit rating. Facing piles of liabilities, and recession reduced receipts, the state is currently "living hand to mouth, paying bills as revenues come in each day, building up cash when special payments are coming due. Cash on hand varies from day to day, sometimes dipping below $1 million".

A business or municipality facing such financial challenges might be tempted (or forced) to seek the shelter of bankruptcy protection in order to place it's books in order. States, however, do not have recourse to that option under existing federal law. As a result "rather than having a court restructure its finances as in a bankruptcy filing, a state [has]to reorganize its spending and debt on its own." Lawmakers in Springfield, faced with a situation that is bankruptcy in all but name, will have to make difficult decisions regarding future taxes and services.

Traffic Congestion in Atlanta

I was pleased to have the opportunity to have an op-ed produced on transportation in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 17. The op-ed, entitled “Arterial system needed” argued that the most important thing the Atlanta metropolitan area could do to reduce traffic congestion would be to develop a decent arterial street system, something that, unbelievably, does not exist today. Regrettably, the permitted length of the op-ed did not permit much elaboration of the point, or mention of other important issues.

In metropolitan areas with effective arterial street systems (such as Los Angeles), there is usually a surface alternative to a grid-locked freeway. A skilled driver can use these alternate routes and avoid much of the frustration of congestion. This may or may not improve travel times, but it is certainly better for the psyche. In Atlanta, there are few alternatives to the freeways and even the freeway system itself is very sparse.

The principal elaboration for which I wish additional space had been available had to do with the role of transit. Many Atlanta officials are of the view that transit is the solution to traffic congestion. Many of them join pilgrimages to Portland (Oregon), where planners are only too happy to reinforce this view, with their doctrine to the effect that transit has transformed their urban area. The reality is that, after nearly 25 years of major transit improvements, transit’s market share in the Portland area is about the same as it was before.

There are proposals to expand the MARTA transit system and tax from the core counties of Fulton and DeKalb to suburban counties. It is hard to imagine a more counterproductive policy approach. This would shower the overly-costly MARTA system with a stream of revenue with which its out of control costs per mile could escalate. The additional cost to taxpayers and riders would be far in excess of any potential benefits. MARTA’s principal problem is not lack of funding; it is rather insufficient cost control.

The reality is that to reduce traffic congestion, transit would need to attract a large share of urban trips. In fact, however, whether in Paris, Portland or Atlanta, the transit system that could compete for most metropolitan trips has not yet been conceived of, much less developed or even proposed. Because of the necessity to travel from every point in an urban area to every other point, this is simply impossible. The vast majority of travel demand in all major urban areas of the United States and Western Europe is for personal mobility – automobiles – simply because there is no choice in their modern, affluent economies.

“First” vs. “Worst”

Taking on the Portland mystique is not easy – and likely I'll find out again with my most recent piece: Picture-perfect Portland?

But I'd also like to take a Midwest perspective that shows some surprising things. Let's compare Portland to a similarly sized and less acclaimed Midwest city, Indianapolis. You can think of Portland as being in “first place” from a policy perspective by popular acclaim. It has an urban growth boundary, extensive transit, excellent urban density, a strong biking culture, a strong culture of civic engagement, the most microbreweries per capita, and on down the line. It is a place people want to live in so badly that they will move there with no job in hand and would be one of the cities that comes to mind among similar sized metros as a talent hub.

If Portland is first, then you’d have to characterize Indianapolis as “worst”. Indianapolis is surrounded by expanding suburbia with very pro-sprawl policies on all four sides. It is one of the least dense cities in America. It has no rail transit and only the 99th largest bus system, along with one of the lowest transit market shares in the country. It is currently in the middle of a multi-billion program to widen about 60 miles of freeway. It just recently put in its very first bike lanes and scores near the bottom in green measures of sustainability. Its brand image also is hardly the best. You don’t hear too many people around the country going, “Man, I’ve gotta get me to Indianapolis.”

But let’s look at how these cities compare on various quantitative measures of urban performance.




Population Growth (2000-2008)



Domestic In-Migration (2000-2008)



International In-Migration (2000-2008)



Job Growth 2001-2009 (QCEW)

10,300 (1.1%)

17,100 (2.1%)

Job Growth 2001-2009 (CES)

23,800 (2.4%)

31,000 (3.6%)

Unemployment Rate (Nov 2009)



Per Capita GMP (2008)



Per Capital GMP Growth (2001-2008)



Median Household Income (ACS 2008)



Median Monthly Housing Cost (ACS 2008)



College Degree Attainment (ACS 2008)



Travel Time Index (Texas A&M)



Now in most of these Portland does beat Indy, but not by a lot. In job growth and unemployment – two big factors in today's economy – Indy actually does better. Portland's higher incomes are offset by higher housing costs. There are only two stats – international migration and GMP per capita growth – where Portland has a big lead.

Given the wide difference in their policies, it is striking to see these cities so close. By rights, it should be total world domination by Portland – but it isn’t.

Now obviously these aren’t the only statistics to measure a city by. Portland residents would no doubt tout their many livability advantages. Yet at some point isn’t livability supposed to translate into superior demographic and economic performance? Isn’t it supposed to make a city attractive to the talent pool needed to thrive in the 21st century? And isn’t that talent supposed to power the economy? I was particularly struck by how close the cities were on college degree attainment. While I called Portland a talent hub, perhaps I spoke too soon. Contrast with Boston, which has 41.9% of its over 25 population with a bachelors degree or better.

It may be that policy changes act with a lag. But Portland has been at this a long time. The UGB dates to 1973 and the light rail system started construction in the early 80s, for example. Perhaps other factors play a bigger role than many imagine. Land use and transportation policies might provide benefits to cities, but they do not, by themselves, create an economic dynamo.

Oregon Tries to Catch California – On the way down!

Oregon’s voters will soon give their judgment on Measures 66 and 67, measures that will raise income and corporate taxes in the recession-ravaged state – with unemployment at 11.1 percent, the eighth highest in the nation. Besides leaving the state with the highest marginal rate in the country, tied with Hawaii, more insidiously measure 67 will impose a minimum tax based on sales, not profits, implying an infinite marginal tax rate for low-profit companies.

This is not good news for businesses and citizens of Oregon. In a report titled Tax Policy and the Oregon Economy: The Effects of Measures 66 and 67, Two Cascade Policy Institute economists, Eric Fruits and Randall Pozdena, thoroughly review the literature on the impacts of tax increases on jobs and domestic migration, and they rigorously analyze the measures’ impact on Oregon jobs and migration.

They estimate the new measures through 2018, will cost Oregon employment losses of “approximately 47,000.”

Finally, Fruits and Pozdena examine the impacts of measures 66 and 67 on migration. They find that adoption of measures 66 and 67 will result in the loss of approximately 80,000 Oregon tax filers with a loss of $5.6 billion in adjusted gross income.

These results have to be taken as the minimum impacts. Fruits and Pozdena are careful researchers. They do nothing that is not completely defensible. Consequently, because of statistical issues, some of the potential impacts, particularly those of measure 67’s minimum tax based on sales are almost surely under measured.

Clearly Oregon , where many residents look down on the increasingly bedraggled Golden State seems anxious to follow California’s decline trajectory. We all know how that story ends: high unemployment, domestic out-migration, declining jobs, declining opportunity, and a vanishing middleclass.

I am not alone in seeing the warning signs.

The PEW Center on the States issued a report in November 2009 titled Beyond California: States in Fiscal Peril. PEW created an index using foreclosure rates, job losses, state revenues, budget gaps supermajority requirements, and money-management practices. The index resulted in values ranging from 6, Wyoming, to 30 California. Higher values are bad here, and the closer to California’s 30, the more a state is at risk of California-style fiscal problems. Oregon, with a value of 26 is listed as one of nine states that the PEW researchers consider at high risk.

Then there’s Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council’s recently released Small Business Survival Index. They use a much larger set of variables to create their index of public policy climates for entrepreneurship, a total of 39 indicators covering tax policy, regulation, crime rates, costs, and more. This index results in values ranging from 25.7 for South Dakota to 84 for the District of Columbia. As with the previous index, high numbers are bad. California, with a score of 77.7 is the second worst state, behind only New Jersey. Oregon’s score is 65.2, the 38th among states, and dangerously close to California’s score.

Now You Should be Really Fiscally Afraid in California

After reading a recent article I wrote about growing unfunded liabilities for public employee pensions and health care, a reader told me that it made him want to “burn his eyes out with red hot pokers.” Yes, the current situation – expanding debt, growing government, excessive pay and special privileges for government workers, thanks to union power – is not fun to read about. It can be downright scary, when one considers the financial mess that already is looming.

If you really want to be scared, you need to listen to the types of people who are now sounding the alarm bells. I’m a libertarian, and it’s not a surprise to hear me warn about the ill effects of government spending.

But listen to what former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, one of the state’s best-known liberal politicians, recently wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed:

"The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But politicians--pushed by our friends in labor--gradually expanded pay and benefits...while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages...This is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide...but at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact."

Democratic state Treasurer Bill Lockyer said at a legislative hearing: “It’s impossible for this Legislature to reform the pension system, and if we don’t it will bankrupt the state,”

The chief actuary for the California Public Employees Pension System called the current pension situation “unsustainable.”

This is from a recent Economic Policy Journal article: “According to the chairman of New Jersey’s pension fund, the US public pension system faces a higher-than-expected shortfall of more than $2 trillion.”

The only hope to rein in the current problem is for wider agreement that the days of enriching public employees must end. That means making inroads with liberal Democratic politicians, many of whom must realize that the future of other programs they support are imperiled by shaky finances and pension obligations that suck the life out of government budgets.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s journalism center and author of “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting The Nation.”

Municipal Budget Mess

A recent report from the National League of Cities projects a grim financial situation for many municipal governments during the next three years. According to the report the municipal sector "likely faces a combined, estimated shortfall of anywhere from $56 billion to $83 billion from 2010-2012." Such shortfalls will be "driven by declining tax revenues, ongoing service demands and cuts in state revenues". Facing large deficits, cities around the nation may be forced to "cure revenue declines and spending pressures with higher service fees, layoffs, unpaid furloughs, and drawing on reserves or canceling infrastructure projects".

The process of belt tightening has already begun in cities across the nation. In Michigan, the city of Jackson is asking municipal workers to take pay cuts to help close a $900,000 budget deficit. Toledo, Ohio, another rust belt city hard hit by the recession, may face a deficit of up to $44 million, and is being forced to consider "mid-contract union concessions, cutting city spending, and possibly asking the voters to increase the city's 2.25 percent income tax."

In California, already challenged by record state deficits, the city of Los Angeles may have a budget shortfall of $1 billion by 2013, "driven primarily by escalating employee pension costs and stagnant tax revenues". For the current fiscal year the city faces a deficit of $98 million. Under such budget conditions, the city's administrative officer projects substantial cuts to city services will be "unavoidable".

With states already facing their own set of budget challenges, the League of Cities is calling on the federal government to intercede. According to the League, "in the absence of additional federal intervention, a deepening local fiscal crisis could hobble the nation’s incipient recovery with more layoffs, furloughs, cancelled infrastructure projects, and reduced services." However, with an exploding federal debt load and federal budget deficits running at all time highs, municipal cries for increased aid may face a lukewarm reception in Washington, DC. Support for expanded stimulus efforts might prove lacking, with signs beginning to emerge that a mild economic recovery is underway, and many of the already passed stimulus dollars yet to be spent.

For now, cities facing deficits will have to find ways to solve the shortfall on their own. If they are unable to bridge the gap, municipalities may find themselves forced, like the city of Vallejo, California,to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.

A Milestone on the Road to Becoming a Third-World Economy

Northrop Grumman Corp started California’s New Year by announcing it is moving its headquarters to the Washington D.C. area. Unfortunately, they are neither the first nor the last major corporation to leave Southern California. It is a trend, one that may not last much longer, though since aren’t that many major corporations still headquartered in greater Los Angeles.

For decades, Southern California was the center of the aerospace world, a basic part of the Southern California’s DNA. Now, once Northrop leaves, there will be no major aerospace companies still headquartered in Southern California.

Aerospace is not the only industry abandoning Southern California. The region was once host to financial giants, like Bank of America, Security Pacific Bank, Countrywide, and First Interstate. Today, there are none. California was once a major automobile manufacturing state, with a dozen plants. Even the entertainment industry is slowly shifting away from its Hollywood roots.

When you lose corporate headquarters, you lose more than jobs. You lose the tax base, the leadership, the philanthropic giving, and the intangibles. Corporate headquarters are usually very good citizens.

Many local political leaders ignore this business’ exodus, or make excuses. The decline of the U.S. defense spending, aerospace spending in particular, is often given as a reason for the decline. But the last decade was not a bad one for defense; the industry thrived, just not in Southern California.

The reasons for this exodus are both simpler and less flattering than those usually given. One big reason is selfishness. California’s decline chose to consume, and not to produce. Wealthy, aging, Baby Boomers control the state. In the cause of “quality of life,” or “the environment,” they have succeeded in limiting opportunity for everyone else.

The other big reason for decline lies with governments, state and local, that now exist to serve themselves and not their citizens. The level of government goods and services, even infrastructure and basics, has declined, but state spending, adjusted for inflation and population, has continued to soar. The difference has been going into public employee’s pockets, through higher salaries, benefits, and generous retirement programs.

Remarkably, no Southern California economic sector is in ascendancy. Unemployment remains well above the national average, particularly in the middle class Inland Empire. The growth in bankruptcies has been about twice that of the United States. The state is becoming less equitable, the divide between those who have and those who do not have constantly growing, the middle class declining.

Southern California is starting to look a lot like a third-world economy, service based, inequitable, serving a wealthy, mostly aging few, with little opportunity for younger workers and a large underclass. Changing the region’s prospects will be very difficult. Nothing short of a major generational change in leadership is likely to change the current sad trajectory.

Avoiding Housing Bubbles: Regulating the (Land Use) Regulators

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke called for stronger regulation to avoid future asset bubbles, such as the housing bubble that precipitated the international financial crisis (the Great Recession) in an Atlanta speech.

The Chairman appears to miss the fact that regulation itself was a principal cause of the Great Recession. The culprit, however, was not financial regulation, but rather land use regulation, which drove house prices so high in highly regulated markets. When households that could not afford their mortgages defaulted, the losses were far too intense for the mortgage industry to sustain, and thus the Great Recession.

This is not to ignore the role of Congress and others, which fueled more liberal mortgage credit, and created the excess and credit-unworthy
additional demand for home ownership.

This higher demand, however, was only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for creating the bubble, which when burst, precipitated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In many markets, there was relatively little increase in house prices relative to incomes, as prices remained at or below the historic Median Multiple (median house price divided by median household income) standard of 3.0. In other markets, however, prices reached from 5 to 11 times incomes.

Already, a new bubble may be on the way to developing. Even after the huge losses, house prices in California were only beginning to return to sustainable historic levels (3.0 Median Multiple). Since bottoming out, however, prices in California have risen 20%, at an annualized rate greater than that of any bubble year.

Perhaps the first principle of regulation is understanding what to regulate. In the case of the housing bubble, it was land use regulations themselves that needed to be regulated.
To avoid future housing bubbles, no more effective action could be taken than to repeal the restrictive land use regulations, without which the last bubble would have been, at most, only slight compared to the destructive reality that ensued.

More Money for Bailout CEOs

The day before leaving town to vacation in an opulent $9 million, 5-bedroom home in Hawaii, the Obama administration pledged unlimited financial support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The mortgage giants are already beneficiaries of $200 billion in taxpayer aid. On Christmas Eve, regulatory filings reported that the CEOs of the two firms are in line for $6 million in compensation. Merry Christmas!

Executive compensation is the subject of many academic studies, but one focused on Fannie Mae from two Harvard Law School professors is especially well-named: “Perverse Incentives, Nonperformance Pay and Camouflage”. Executives are able to take unlimited risks and reap unlimited upside rewards knowing that US taxpayers will foot the bill on the downside. The mortgage-backed securities issued by the two firms remain at the center of the causes-and-effects of the financial meltdown.

The compensation for Fannie Mae’s senior managers is recommended by the Compensation Committee “in consultation and with the approval of the Conservator”, which is the U.S. Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). The FHFA was created in July 2008 when Bush signed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act. At the time, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the $200 billion Act would save 400,000 homeowners – in the first six months, exactly one homeowner was able to refinance under the program. The Act also was supposed to clean up the subprime mortgage crisis – which it did not do as evidenced by the collapse of the global financial markets a few months later.

Back to the current problem of paying $6 million to run a bankrupt company whose every financial obligation is guaranteed by taxpayer money. Who is on the compensation committee that recommended this pay day? Dennis Beresford from Ernst & Young (E&Y); Brenda Gaines, recently from Citigroup; Jonathan Plutzik, from Credit Suisse First Boston; and David Sidwell, from Morgan Stanley.

Back in 2004, Ernst & Young was engaged as a consultant to Fannie Mae – right after the Securities and Exchange Commission banned E&Y from taking on new clients. Citigroup took $25 billion in TARP bailout money and Morgan Stanley took $10 billion. Credit Suisse benefited by a mere $400 million as their share of the AIG Financial Products group bailout. Needless to say, this Compensation Committee knows a thing or two about controversies and federal aid!

Enjoy your luxury Christmas vacation, Mr. President, while 45 out of 50 U.S. states are enjoying statistically significant decreases in employment in the face of rising prices. Please take some time to contemplate the words GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt used in describing the leadership traits that need to change in America: “The richest people made the worst mistakes with the least accountability.”

And to the rest of you out there reading this, take some time to contemplate the words of Bill Moyers as he concluded a rather shocking essay of the role of lobbyists in the recent “healthcare reform” legislation: “Outrageous? You bet. But don't just get mad. Get busy.