Category Archives: Uncategorized
Trump May Be Inconsistent But His Administration Is Not — At Least On The Environment

Will this place still be “Carrizo Plain National Monument” after Trump’s administration has its way? Photo by Steve Hymon

In these first 100 days, our new president has backtracked on many promises, completely reversed course in others, and demonstrated an alarming disregard for the truth.

It’s enough to make some political observers think that he’s basically a malleable mishmash of blathering, with his only core desire to self-promote and perhaps increase his riches from from his various business dealings.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently:

What on earth is the point of trying to understand him when there is nothing to understand? Calling him a liar is true enough, but liars have some cognitive grip on reality, and he doesn’t. Liars remember what they have said before. His brain is a neural Etch A Sketch. He doesn’t speak, we realize; he emits random noises. He refuses to take responsibility for anything. He can accuse his predecessor and Obama’s national security adviser of crimes, and provide no evidence for either. He has no strategy beyond the next 24 hours, no guiding philosophy, no politics, no consistency at all — just whatever makes him feel good about himself this second. He therefore believes whatever bizarre nonfact he can instantly cook up in his addled head, or whatever the last person who spoke to him said. He makes Chauncey Gardiner look like Abraham Lincoln. Occam’s razor points us to the obvious: He has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. Which is reassuring and still terrifying all at once.

That may be true when it comes to Trump personally and as a politician.  But it does not apply when it comes to his appointees in the administration on the environment.  Because across-the-board, the administration seems motivated by one thing when it comes to the environment, and that’s boosting the oil, gas, and coal industries at the expense of everything else.

There are too many examples to cite, but it’s worth going through some of them:

  1. Attempting to roll back key regulations like the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards
  2. Gutting the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy clean tech research, and public transit, among others
  3. Overturning environmental regulations with Congress through use of the once-obscure Congressional Review Act
  4. Reviewing, with the likely intent of undoing, prior national monument designations, including the Carrizo Plain here in California that I recently profiled.

So while Trump may be incoherent and bereft of some core principles, he has empowered an administration full of individuals dead set on boosting oil, gas, and coal exploitation, at the expense of the environment and public health.

Understanding NIMBYs

nimbyNIMBYs are at the heart of California’s biggest economic and environmental problems: high housing costs, sprawl, and air pollution. These not-in-my-backyard residents have too-often successfully sued, lobbied, and cajoled their local governments to kill new housing, pushing home prices and rents through the roof and any new development out into sprawl areas far from jobs.

Adding insult to injury for those struggling with high housing costs, many of these NIMBYs were fortunate enough to buy homes in the state back in the 1970s when housing was plentiful and cheap and property taxes were low (and still are for them, thanks to Prop 13).

So if reaching these NIMBYs (or at least out-organizing them) is the key to solving the housing and environmental problems, how should we understand their motivations?  To this end, Richard Florida in City Lab recently examined a white paper by Paavo Monkkonen that explores what motivates NIMBYism.  Florida summarized the four main factors in the report:

  • Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.

  • Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.

  • Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s “by-right” legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.

  • Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.

To counter NIMBY effects, Monkkonen recommends more inclusive and regionalized planning, improved enforcement of existing land use laws, and better framing of local planning decisions through more data, in order to assuage local concerns.

From my experience observing NIMBY behavior around proposed housing and new development in cities and towns, these categories make sense.  But I think they can be broadened and simplified to three main ones:

1) NIMBYs with practical concerns about new development, like concern over parking and service constraints, described above.  These individuals are the easiest to work with because their concerns are often valid and can be addressed with smart public policies, like removing parking requirements to discourage automobile ownership among new residents, or appropriate fees to fund services and infrastructure investments.

2) NIMBYs who hate density.  These are individuals who genuinely believe that even something like a three-story building is essentially a skyscraper, and that skyscrapers are ugly, terrible, and confine people to rabbit-hutch like existences.  I categorize these types as essentially anti-urban.  There’s not a whole lot that can be done to alleviate their fears, absent showing them photos of elegant density and exposing them to the genuine joys of urban living, with its convenience, vibrance, and exposure to cultural activities that city living can bring.

3) Racists and bigots.  These are individuals, usually in well-off neighborhoods, who fear that new development will bring in racial or ethnic minorities or low-income people who are not “worthy” of the benefits of an affluent neighborhood.  There is not much that can be done to reach these individuals, in my experience.

What does this categorization mean for housing advocates?  Well, the best option is to try to split Group #1 off from the NIMBY mass, through dialogue and openness to mitigation measures.  Or alternatively, they can simply try to out-organize all three NIMBY groups, by pulling together coalitions of young people, renters, labor unions, and some smart growth advocates, for example.

That out-organizing process has been happening in Los Angeles, with the defeat of Measure S.  If it continues, even members of Group #1 may find themselves left out of the process.  That may not be a bad thing, if they demand excessive mitigation measures.  But in the short term, they represent the most reachable NIMBY group.

Goodbye Bill O’Reilly

With the longtime conservative talk show host now out at Fox News due to sexual harassment allegations and settlements, I can’t help but remember his classic caught-on-camera meltdown on Inside Edition that was leaked a few years back [NSFW language]:

Given this apparent lack of self-control and verbal abuse of his staff, it’s not surprising he found himself in the trouble he’s in.

Adios Bill.

The Importance Of Gratitude

A reminder from Lisa Earle McLeod of the power of being thankful:

Look at anyone who feels like life is treating them wrong, you’ll see a total absence of gratitude. When you’re stuck in victimhood – be it lifelong victimhood or anger at the driver who cut you off on the freeway – you’re only thinking about yourself. It might not seem like self-focus when you’re feeling wronged by a boss or spouse, but in that state, all your attention is on your own negative feelings. Victimhood takes the negative aspect of a situation, pulls it inward and keeps it there.

Gratitude is different. Standing in gratitude is about seeing the good, bringing it in, and then it naturally radiates back out. For me, gratitude is not a pious head down, taking only meager offerings attitude. Gratitude is a head up smiling openhearted glow.

This may be one of the secret sauces for many religions, which often encourage gratitude and thankfulness on a daily (if not hourly) basis. And once you start saying or thinking these positive thoughts, cognitive behavioralism kicks in and can actually make you feel better.

Solving The Affordable Vs. Market-Rate Housing Debate

haste2.Kahn-Design-Associates.COURTESYCalifornia’s housing shortage has been well documented. But the obvious solutions to the problem — like eliminating local land use restrictions on new growth — have been stymied in part by infighting among the housing advocate community.

The split involves affordable housing advocates and those who want more market-rate development. Here’s the basic summary of their positions, as I see them:

  1. Market-rate housing advocates typically want barriers to all new housing removed as quickly as possible. They usually support policies to subsidize affordable housing for low-income residents but mainly want to see housing of all types built as fast and cheaply as possible.
  2. Affordable housing advocates want more subsidies for affordable housing and more affordable units required of market-rate projects. In that aspect, they often align with market-rate developer advocates. But they are also protective of low-income neighborhoods from gentrification, which they primarily blame on new market-rate developments in these neighborhoods, and so will often oppose market-rate projects in low-income areas. They also use existing land use restrictions on market-rate development as leverage to extract more affordable housing units or dollars. As a result, many of these advocates tend to want to keep the status quo (at least for market-rate development restrictions) and limit new development to prevent gentrification.

This split was perhaps most prominent back in 2011, when a bill to reduce excessive local parking requirements statewide on new housing near transit was opposed by affordable housing advocates. Why?  Many of these advocates use high parking requirements as leverage to extract more affordable units. Using the state’s “density bonus” law, they can trade reductions in parking requirements for more affordable units.

The split also appears when it comes to raising dollars for affordable housing production. Affordable advocates will attempt to extract the most fees and affordable units they can from market-rate development, which in turn makes market-rate development harder to build.

But there’s a solution to this problem that leaders on both side could support: a separately funded, statewide source of permanent dollars for affordable housing. A separate source of funding would go a long way to eliminating the incentive for affordables to oppose or weaken market-rate development.

Such a plan has been proposed in the legislature, such as SB 2 (Atkins), which would impose a $75 fee on recorded real estate documents to fund affordable housing. But its future is murky, absent more broad-based support.

To be sure, such a fund wouldn’t solve the concerns that affordable housing advocates have about gentrification caused by specific market-rate projects, and it may not reduce their resistance to alleviating local land use restrictions when those restrictions could lead to more affordable units.  But at least they would no longer have an incentive to extract higher fees from market-rate development, and a bigger pot of money for affordable units across the board may reduce their desperation to claw every bit they can from new projects.

In the long run, California will not be able to subsidize its way out of the affordable housing crisis.  It would require billions of dollars we don’t have.  And in fact, most low-income residents don’t live in subsidized housing but rather in the market-rate housing of yesteryear, which has now come down in price with age.  So the more we fail to build market-rate housing today, the more we limit affordable units for future generations.

It’s not an easy fight to solve, but a permanent source of dollars for affordable units is not only the right thing to do on its own merits, it could ease our housing debates going forward.

The California Superbloom — Carrizo Plain Edition
Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Steve Hymon

Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Steve Hymon

It’s hard not to feel like climate change has already hit California. We just finished the driest five-year period in recorded history, but then swung this year to the other extreme, with the wettest year on record, at least in some parts of the state. And the rain continues now into spring, later than typical rainfall patterns.

But the upside of the wild swing (in addition to ending the drought) is an incredible superbloom. I had the opportunity to see the beginning of the peak in Carrizo Plain earlier this month. For those who don’t know it, Carrizo is a national monument located west of Bakersfield over the hill from the Central Valley. It represents so much of what the Central Valley used to be before the advent of agriculture, aqueducts, and development.

But since I’m not a professional-grade photographer, I have to rely on those with much better cameras and skills to capture the area and the current bloom. One of those is Steve Hymon, transit blogger for LA Metro. You can see one of his best pictures of Carrizo Plain’s Soda Lake above, and visit his site for more photos of Carrizo and the surrounding area.

I’ll leave you with one more that captures the spectacle:

Photo by Steve Hymon

Photo by Steve Hymon

While the peak may be fading now, the area is still worth visiting for its one-of-a-kind bird life and endangered species, stark beauty, and San Andreas fault-induced visuals.

California’s Courageous Plan For Transportation Infrastructure Repair

7800801564_594fdc5fe9_bLast week the California legislature did what many have been hoping for at the national level: pass an infrastructure bill. The issue was the state’s nearly $60 billion backlog in deferred maintenance for our transportation infrastructure.

But rather than deficit spend or raid other programs, the legislature took a politically brave step with SB 1 (Beall) of raising gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for this work. It took a two-thirds super majority, which meant no room to spare on votes.

From an environmental perspective, the plan is good because it generally doesn’t pay for new capacity, just repairs and maintenance of existing infrastructure. The money will also help fund transit and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Environmentalists complained about a weakening of standards for truck drivers to retrofit or retire their dirtiest vehicles, but those impacts could potentially be blunted by tightening other environmental standards related to fuels and pollution limits.  Some also objected to the new annual electric vehicle fee ($100) per year, which could discourage consumer adoption.  But that fee seems relatively modest for vehicles that contribute to wear-and-tear on the roads.

The primary criticisms of the plan boiled down to the following:

1) California should spend its existing dollars more efficiently. Republicans and even one Democrat took this approach, arguing that “Caltrans reforms” could save us an equivalent amount of money. However, none of them to my knowledge spelled out exactly how much money could be saved and how from these reforms.  I also don’t know of any study that has attempted to quantify potential savings. As a result, this criticism struck me as ideological posturing, along the lines that eliminating foreign aid and welfare could help balance the federal budget, when those programs are a mere pittance compared to military and insurance spending.

2) California should devote high speed rail money to deferred maintenance instead of funding this unpopular train project. Democratic state senator Steve Glazer made this argument, which is uninformed and inaccurate. High speed rail is funded by state bond money, approved by the voters, that cannot legally be diverted to other uses. Additional federal dollars are also reserved solely for train projects. Some cap-and-trade auction proceeds are directed to high speed rail and could theoretically go to other transportation uses, but these are only a few billion dollars at this point, hardly anywhere close to the $60 billion we need. Plus, those funds should go to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which high speed rail will do once it’s built and operational, whereas highway investments have the opposite impact.

3) California should find the money from existing transportation revenues that are instead spent on the general fund or other non-transportation sources.  I’m admittedly less familiar with how transportation revenues are spent in the state, and in concept I would support efforts to ensure that dollars collected from transportation go to transportation improvements.  But the critics, to my knowledge, presented no hard numbers on how much could be redirected to address the funding needs.  So it was hard to take this criticism too seriously.

4) Californians already are overtaxed on transportation.  Not when it comes to the gas tax and spending for road maintenance.  The existing state and federal gas taxes have not kept up with inflation, and as vehicles become more fuel efficient, the revenues will continue to fail to keep up with usage.  In short, most drivers are actually getting a cheap ride when it comes to paying for their fair share of road repair, minus the bills they have to pay to repair their cars from hitting potholes.

Overall, it’s an important spending bill that should help the environment to some extent, while also providing a fiscal stimulus in rural communities through the repair work.  Higher gas taxes could also marginally dissuade people from buying gas guzzlers, although the taxes are relatively minimal compared to the price of gasoline.

But don’t expect this kind of action at the federal level, barring unlikely bipartisan cooperation with the Trump administration.  Because raising taxes and fees isn’t popular, and it takes courage to do so when the need is great.  And that kind of courage and foresight is in short supply at the federal level.

Happy Baseball Season!

Spring is finally, officially here with the start of baseball season. In celebration of the sport and my favorite team, the Oakland A’s, here’s my 2007 song (and 2012 video) Champions:

Play ball!

Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” — Book Review

In the midst of last year’s presidential race, the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer released an in-depth expose on the influence of billionaires on our political process.  Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a comprehensive, well-researched book detailing this sordid side to our democracy and its potentially corrupting influence on our political debates and decision making.

It mostly focuses on the Koch brothers.  As two of the wealthiest men in the world, their private fortune comes from the oil-and-gas industry, by way of the company their father started.  Steeped in extreme right-wing ideology, the brothers became politically active largely in the face of environmental regulations, which undermined their business’s profits.

Mayer also describes other politically active right-wing billionaires, like Art Pope, Richard Mellon Scaife, and the DeVos family in Michigan.  Many are aggrieved due to environmental regulations and government prosecution of their corporate wrongdoing, but most are die-hard believers in the “bootstrap” theory: that government largesse removes the incentive to work hard and that the poor should be blamed for their bad personal decisions.

It details their efforts not just to fund political campaigns, but a vast web of think tanks and academic researchers to seed conservative ideas, coupled with post-Citizens United funneling of funds to a web of untraceable political organizations.  They failed coming up against a popular president in Barack Obama, but they had huge success at the state level and in securing both houses of Congress for Republicans.

The book is an important, albeit slightly tedious and depressing read.  It probably could have been shortened, and it also could have more fairly described some of the similar activities on the left.  And too often Mayer failed to acknowledge that money doesn’t always win.

But all in all, it’s an alarming and important wake-up call about how economic inequality has now concentrated not just wealth but political power in the hands of a few.  I recommend it to anyone interested in politics and the state of our democracy.

The Future Of Energy In 2030: California State Bar Conference On April 12th

How we generate, distribute and use electricity is key to meeting California’s environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals.  We need to be much more efficient with the electricity we use, while ensuring that it comes from greenhouse gas-free sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, coupled with energy storage technologies. We also need to electrify almost everything, from transportation to home heating.
The state has ambitious goals in all these areas for 2030, including a 50% renewable energy mandate, a requirement that we double energy efficiency in existing buildings, a related energy storage target, and electric vehicle deployment goal, among others.

But with so many technology changes, uncertainty over federal energy policies, and challenges related to financing and cost, what will the grid of 2030 look like?

The State Bar’s environmental law section is hosting a conference to explore this question, on Wednesday, April 12th in downtown Los Angeles.  Co-sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, the conference will feature:

  • Keynote by new California Public Utilities Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen;
  • Panel on the impact of the Trump Administration on California’s energy policies;
  • Discussion of the rise of community choice aggregation as an alternative to the traditional utility model; and
  • Speakers from leading utilities, renewable energy companies, public agencies and nonprofit groups.

You can see the full agenda and register at the State Bar’s conference website.  Reduced rates are available for students and government/nonprofit employees.  Register now to secure your spot!

**UPDATE: California State Senate President pro Tem Kevin De Leon is now confirmed for the afternoon address.

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