A tale of two states

June 15, 2017

Republicans claim excess government spending hobbles the economy and fosters dependence.  Lower taxes will stimulate the economy and benefit everyone.  Democrats claim that investment in the public sector will raise all boats, and those in the educational establishment are always claiming under funding.  Both, it appears, are wrong.

This story shows that, as of a few years ago, New York maintained its standing as first in the nation — by a large margin — in per capita school spending.  While some argue that the spending is not evenly distributed, per capita spending in the New York City is even higher.  Results are nowhere near the top.  By most measures, New York ranks mid-pack among the states, or even below.  How, then, can education in New York be under funded?  I would like to see a direct response from one or more of the teachers’ unions or their lobbying arm, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

This story, among many others, details how the tax cutting experiment in Kansas failed so badly to stimulate the economy, and in doing so, hurt the most vulnerable, that the legislature there repealed it and overrode the Governor’s veto.  No comment from the Koch brothers or any other conservative think tank.

What do these stories have in common?  They both prove that conventional wisdom of whatever ideological bent is likely wrong.  Simple solutions simply don’t work to solve complicated problems.  They prove that we need to hear less from special interests on each side of the aisle and more from moderate, thoughtful people who will seek to apply tailored, empirically based solutions to societal problems, and not continue policies that have proven to be ineffective.


Traffic management

January 21, 2017

The delays occasioned by traffic jams, red lights and other things that slow our automotive travel are a major source of frustration to most of us.  As individuals, we can mitigate this frustration by choosing our home and work locations, and the times at which we work.  We may be able to telecommute, walk or bike, or take public transit (which has its own frustrations).  But in today’s automobile-dominated society, most of us have to use the private automobile for most of our travel, much of which must be done on a rigid schedule.

We deal with this frustration with fancy sound systems, luxury seating and blue tooth connections that allow us to use some of our automotive downtime productively.  However, those measures do not address the tremendous waste of oil-based fuel and its concomitant pollution. Government, on behalf of us all, can do more to manage traffic and its related delays, but in our geographic area it has largely failed to act.

While I was driving down Washington Avenue in Albany recently, hitting red light after red light, my frustration triggered some early memories — from the 1960s — of driving up and down avenues in Manhattan with my father, watching each light turn green as we approached it.  My dad explained to me that the lights were timed so that you would rarely have to stop, if you maintained a steady speed at or around the limit.  I am aware of nowhere in our area that employs this proven (and by now, probably more affordable), technology.

Another local failure, on the part of the Thruway Authority, is its lagging behind the Mass Pike in eliminating toll plazas at exits and entries to its highways, with all tolls being tallied by gantries over the road that read E-Z Pass transponders without the need for cars to slow down (a few such gantries do exist on the Thruway, most notably near the Harriman exit, but they have not replaced the toll plazas at the entries and exits).  Although the demolition of the toll plazas and barriers on the Mass Pike is not complete, travel time savings already have been noted.

While we now do have electronic signs on many of our primary roads advising of travel time to various points, these signs do not offer alternatives when delays are indicated, and in most cases no alternatives exist.  While information may reduce frustration during times of congestion, expenditures aimed at reducing congestion would be a better use of taxpayer funds.

Money spent on reducing traffic congestion, as well as on things like bike paths and libraries, benefits everyone by making the area a more attractive one in which to live.  Unfortunately, in New York, “everyone” is not a special interest, which may be why government under-spends in many of these areas.


Rent regulations expire; upstate concerned

June 16, 2015

Why would upstate care about NYC area rent regulations, prompting the unlikely headline above?  As time goes on, those lucky enough to have moved into rent stabilized apartments in the City pay less and less of their total income for rent.  Over twenty years or more, these savings can become substantial, producing enough to enable the tenant to purchase a weekend home, which many do in areas surrounding Albany, such as Hudson, the Catskills and the Taconics.  These weekenders pump a lot of money into local upstate economies.  So why do upstaters usually  regard rent regulation as socialistic and anathematic to their values? I suppose many don’t understand that they are beneficiaries (in many cases indirectly) of the law of unintended consequences, but I do believe (though I haven’t seen any studies) that the economic impact on many localities of weekend visits by NYC residents is substantial.

As one who benefited from rent stabilization many years ago, I understand that it makes some parts of the City affordable to those who otherwise would have to live in less desirable areas, and that it therefore may increase diversity in those areas.  I also have seen the effect of a lack of regulation in the commercial rent sector in the City, where many local businesses not fortunate enough to own the buildings they occupy have been forced out, to be replaced by stores and restaurants one finds at malls in more suburban locales.  This does not make the City more attractive.

Nonetheless, rent regulation has many flaws, even if you accept its basic premise.  Though allegedly a restraint on price increases, it is in reality a confiscation of wealth from private owners and a transfer of such wealth to others who, unless they are very high earners, qualify for the program regardless of their net worth or income.  It encourages people to stay in apartments they do not need, because downsizing would cost, rather than save, them money.  When an “empty nester” holds on to a five-room apartment in which he has lived for 30 years because moving to a studio would result in a rent increase, how does that help the young family wanting to move to the City?  One also should not forget that, in the 1970s and 80s when I lived in the City, many landlords who did not want to be subject to rent stabilization converted their buildings into condos and coops and thus removed them from the rental market, though some protections were afforded to tenants who did not wish to buy their units.  And, since rental properties are valued for tax purposes by the income they produce, regulated rents result in under taxed properties, meaning the City does without some tax revenue or others make up the difference.

The unintended consequences of a blunt instrument do not mean it should be abolished.  Certainly, it should not be abolished all at once without prior notice.  If the powers that be line up in a way that indicates support for continuing the present system may not exist, the responsible course of action would be to extend the current system for a year or two, and to use the time to develop a plan for an orderly transition to a substitute, whether it be a different form of regulation or gradual deregulation.  Of course, during that time, the balance of power could shift, meaning it likely will not happen.