Zoning, Grandmas, and Affordable Housing

On its front page today, the Washington Post writes about legal and regulatory obstacles to building small second housing units on single-family lots, often for aging family members.

Second homes, often called “granny flats,” have become a new front in the conflict that pits the need for more housing in the country’s most expensive cities against the wishes of neighbors who want to preserve their communities. The same battles flare over large developments that might loom over single-family neighborhoods. But even this modest idea for new housing — let homeowners build it in their own back yards — has run into not-in-my-back-yard resistance….

Homes like the Coffees’, proponents argue, could help ease housing shortages that have made $2,000-a-month one-bedrooms look like a bargain in cities such as Los Angeles. They could yield new affordable housing at no cost to the public. They could add rentals and economic diversity to more neighborhoods. And they could expand housing options for a population in which baby boomers are aging and millennials are stuck at home.

Many neighbors, though, protest that a glut of back yard building would spoil the character of neighborhoods designed around the American ideal of one family on one lot surrounded by verdant lawn. …

“You have surging housing prices in the most prosperous cities in the country, and at the same time income inequality is growing, and there’s a cultural and demographic resurgence of urban living,” [Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute] said. Young people with less money, in particular, he adds, are “slamming into their parents and grandparents’ regulatory regimes of strict limits on construction of new housing.”

It’s not the first time I’d heard of the problem. In 1996 George Liebmann wrote in Regulation about how “Zoning makes it more difficult to keep aged parents close by and care for them.” He recommended that “Duplex homes and accessory apartments should be permitted in all new residential construction. Housing options such as these allow elderly persons to live near their adult children without intruding on their children’s privacy.” (“Modernization of Zoning,” pp. 71, 75). Note that he was talking not about separate structures but simply residential units attached to the main house. And even those were impeded by zoning regulations. I mentioned them briefly in my 1997 book Libertarianism: A Primer and my 2015 update, The Libertarian Mind (p. 309).

Local officials think their zoning rules are more important than keeping families together.  They fume that allowing such small structures for grandma would “turn our zoning ordinance upside down.” And what’s more important, saving money and keeping grandma near her family or strict adherence to zoning regulations? The Post article, featuring a conflict in Los Angeles, notes the problem of NIMBY or “not in my back yard” attitudes by neighbors. And in this case, as reporter Emily Badger notes, it’s actually in your back yard. Or technically, it’s a matter of “not in my neighbor’s back yard.”

Brink Lindsey wrote about how zoning limits affordable housing in his recent paper on regressive regulation, as did Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko in Regulation.

Posted on August 8, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cato University 2016: A Libertarian History of the World (Through a New Lens)

From Cato University 2016: Summer Seminar on Political Economy

The Cato Institute’s premier educational event, this annual program brings together outstanding faculty and participants from across the country and, often, from around the globe in order to examine the roots of our commitment to liberty and limited government, and explore the ideas and values on which the American republic was founded.

Posted on July 28, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Government Unions and Dysfunctional Government

Why is government so often dysfunctional? Why is it, in contrast to the voluntary sector of society, so often slow, inefficient, wasteful, and counterproductive? Peter Schuck explored the question at length recently in his book Why Government Fails So Often. Chris Edwards offers a shorter and more libertarian analysis in a recent Cato policy study. But maybe these two new stories from the past few days shed some light on the question, first from Washington, D.C.:

Metro officials fired a senior mechanic just weeks after the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident last year, alleging that he failed to properly inspect a tunnel fan, falsified an inspection report, and later lied about it to investigators.

But now, the largest union representing Metro workers is fighting the transit agency to have the mechanic reinstated.

Seyoum Haile, a 13-year Metro veteran, was terminated one month after the January 2015 incident that resulted in the death of a passenger — but arbitrators said he should be suspended instead, and now the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 is suing to get him back on the job.

Meanwhile, in Miami:

National condemnation has been swift today after video showed Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black behavioral tech trying to help an autistic patient, holding his arms in the air before a North Miami Police officer shoots him. But Miami’s two most prominent police union chiefs have now leaped to the officer’s defense. 

John Rivera, who leads the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, says the officer was actually trying to protect Kinsey because he believed the autistic man, who was holding a toy truck, had a gun — but then he accidentally shot Kinsey instead. 

For more on the consequences of government employee unions, see here and here.

Posted on July 25, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Power Always Attracts Friends and Supplicants

Napoleon Trump

A month ago Politico reported:

Donald Trump is trying to win over a skeptical Republican donor class, but they’ve closed their wallets — and they’re angry.

Today the New York Times reports a different view:

G.O.P.’s Moneyed Class Finds Its Place in New Trump World

In his unlikely rise to the Republican nomination Donald J. Trump attacked lobbyists, disparaged big donors and railed against the party’s establishment. But on the shores of Lake Erie this week, beyond the glare of television cameras, the power of the permanent political class seemed virtually undisturbed.

Though Mr. Trump promises to topple Washington’s “rigged system,” the opening rounds of his party’s quadrennial meeting accentuated a more enduring maxim: Money always adapts to power.

At a downtown barbecue joint, lobbyists cheerfully passed out stickers reading “Make Lobbying Great Again” as they schmoozed on Monday with Republican ambassadors, lawmakers and executives. At a windowless bar tucked behind the Ritz-Carlton hotel, whose rooms were set aside for the party’s most generous benefactors, allies of Mr. Trump pitched a clutch of receptive party donors on contributing to a pro-Trump “super PAC.”

To be sure, a number of individual and corporate donors stayed away from the Republican convention and seem to be unwilling to support Donald Trump. Still, the reconciliation of so many principled conservatives, prudent donors, and former targets of vicious personal attacks puts me in mind, again, of the following headlines that may have appeared in a Paris newspaper, perhaps Le Moniteur Universel, in 1815 as Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba and advanced through France:

March 9

THE ANTHROPOPHAGUS HAS QUITTED HIS DEN

March 10

THE CORSICAN OGRE HAS LANDED AT CAPE JUAN

March 11

THE TIGER HAS ARRIVED AT CAP

March 12

THE MONSTER SLEPT AT GRENOBLE

March 13

THE TYRANT HAS PASSED THOUGH LYONS

March 14

THE USURPER IS DIRECTING HIS STEPS TOWARDS DIJON

March 18

BONAPARTE IS ONLY SIXTY LEAGUES FROM THE CAPITAL

He has been fortunate enough to escape his pursuers

March 19

BONAPARTE IS ADVANCING WITH RAPID STEPS, BUT HE WILL NEVER ENTER PARIS

March 20

NAPOLEON WILL, TOMORROW, BE UNDER OUR RAMPARTS

March 21

THE EMPEROR IS AT FONTAINEBLEAU

March 22

HIS IMPERIAL AND ROYAL MAJESTY arrived yesterday evening at the Tuileries, amid the joyful acclamation of his devoted and faithful subjects

So far, those last few headlines have not been replicated, but those who wish to be near power have already begun rallying around.

Posted on July 21, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Porn Is Not a ‘Public Health Crisis’

A Republican National Convention platform committee has declared pornography “a public health crisis.” Committee members don’t seem to know what “public health” means.

Lately it’s been liberal Democrats who have applied the “public health” label to everything they don’t like — smoking, obesity, venereal disease, motorcycle accidents, and more. They see “public health” as a blank check for government action.

The meaning of “public health” has sprawled out lazily over the decades. Once, it referred to the project of securing health benefits that were public: clean water, improved sanitation, and the control of epidemics through treatment, quarantine, and immunization. Public health officials worked to drain swamps that might breed mosquitoes and thus spread malaria. They strove to ensure that water supplies were not contaminated with cholera, typhoid, or other diseases. The U.S. Public Health Service began as the Marine Hospital Service, and one of its primary functions was ensuring that sailors didn’t expose domestic populations to new and virulent illnesses from overseas.

Calling something a “public health problem” suggests that it is different from a personal health problem in ways that demand collective action.

Those were legitimate public health issues because they involved consumption of a collective good (air or water) and/or the communication of disease to parties who had not consented to put themselves at risk. It is difficult for individuals to protect themselves against illnesses found in air, water, or food. A breeding ground for disease-carrying insects poses a risk to entire communities.

In the United States and other developed countries those public health problems have been largely solved. For instance, in the 1920s there were 13,000-15,000 reported cases of diphtheria each year in the United States. In the past decade, fewer  than five cases of diphtheria have been reported in the United States. Of course, we still face new problems such as Ebola and Zika.

But bureaucracies notoriously want to expand. So, true to form, the public health authorities have broadened their mandate and kept on going. They launched informational and regulatory crusades against such health problems as smoking, venereal disease, AIDS, and obesity. Pick up any newspaper and you’re apt to find a story about these “public health crises.” Those are all health problems, to be sure, but are they really public health problems?

There’s an easy, perfectly private way to avoid increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease: Don’t smoke. You don’t need any collective action for that.

As for obesity, it doesn’t take a village for me to eat less and exercise more.

Pornography may be an even more ridiculous extension of the “public health” claim. The GOP platform draft says, “Pornography, with his harmful effects, especially on children, has become a public health crisis that is destroying the life of millions.” But it offers no evidence. Advocates often claim that pornography promotes sexual violence against women.

But in a 2009 review of the literature, psychologists Christopher Ferguson and Richard Hartley concluded: “it is time to discard the hypothesis that pornography contributes to increased sexual assault behavior.” Indeed, as pornography has become ever easier to find on the internet, rape rates in the United States have steadily fallen. Rape is a crime and should be prosecuted vigorously, but there’s little evidence that pornography is causing the incidence to increase.

Language matters. Calling something a “public health problem” suggests that it is different from a personal health problem in ways that demand collective action. And while it doesn’t strictly follow, either in principle or historically, that “collective action” must be state action, that distinction is easily elided in the face of a “public health crisis.” If smoking and obesity are called public health problems, then it seems that we need a public health bureaucracy to solve them — and the Public Health Service and all its sister agencies don’t get to close up shop with the satisfaction of a job well done. So let’s start using honest language: Smoking and obesity are health problems. In fact, they are widespread health problems. But they are not public health problems. Nor is pornography, despite the views of the right-wing groups lobbying the Republican convention.

Posted on July 12, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

What Do We Know about Education?

It’s the 50th anniversary of the legendary Coleman Report, as George Will discusses today in the Washington Post. Will summarizes what experts in 1966 believed about education, and what additional experience revealed:

The consensus then was that the best predictor of a school’s performance was the amount of money spent on it: Increase financial inputs, and cognitive outputs would increase proportionately. As the postwar baby boom moved through public schools like a pig through a python, almost everything improved — school buildings, teachers’ salaries, class sizes, per-pupil expenditures — except outcomes measured by standardized tests.

Andrew Coulson put that key fact in a handy chart:

Education spending and results

Politicians, experts, and the education establishment still aren’t willing to accept the lesson demonstrated by this chart.

But if money doesn’t work, what does? Coleman emphasized cultural factors, notably strong families. Coulson believed that schools could improve, and that competition could help us discover best educational practices. This fall, public television stations will broadcast his documentary asking why educational innovations are so rarely tested and replicated.

Posted on July 7, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Happy Second of July

As Americans enjoy the Fourth of July holiday, I hope we take a few minutes to remember what the Fourth of July is: America’s Independence Day, celebrating our Declaration of Independence, in which we declared ourselves, in Lincoln’s words, “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The fireworks would be today if John Adams had his way. It was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from Great Britain. On July 4 Congress approved the final text of the Declaration. As Adams predicted in a letter to his wife Abigail:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is the most eloquent libertarian essay in history, especially its philosophical core:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson moved smoothly from our natural rights to the right of revolution:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. 

The ideas of the Declaration, given legal form in the Constitution, took the United States of America from a small frontier outpost on the edge of the developed world to the richest country in the world in scarcely a century. The country failed in many ways to live up to the vision of the Declaration, notably in the institution of chattel slavery. But over the next two centuries that vision inspired Americans to extend the promises of the Declaration — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to more and more people. That process continues to the present day, as with the Supreme Court’s ruling for equal marriage freedom last year.

At the very least this weekend, if you’ve never seen the wonderful film 1776, watch it late on July 4 (actually 1:00 am EDT on July 5) on TCM.

Posted on July 2, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Disaster of World War I

Wilson's War

On this day 100 years ago, the Battle of the Somme began. Over the course of five months it would see a million men killed or wounded. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties on July 1 alone, making it the worst day in British military history.

Cato senior fellow and historian Jim Powell wrote about the blunders and consequences of World War I in his book Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War IIHe summarized his argument in Cato Policy Report two years ago:

World War I was probably history’s worst catastrophe, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was substantially responsible for unintended consequences of the war that played out in Germany and Russia, contributing to the rise of totalitarian regimes and another world war. 

Indeed World War I was a catastrophe, a foolish and unnecessary war, a war of European potentates that both England and the United States could have stayed out of but that became indeed a World War, the Great War. In our own country the war gave us economic planning, conscription, nationalization of the railroads, a sedition act, confiscatory income tax rates, and prohibition. Internationally World War I and its conclusion led directly to the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of National Socialism, World War II, and the Cold War. 

On this weekend as we celebrate American independence we should mourn those who went to war, and we should resolve not to risk American lives in the future except when our vital national interests are at stake.

Posted on July 1, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Good Schools Coming — in 10 or 20 Years (Maybe)

Kaya Henderson has gotten great reviews for her work as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Test scores are up during her tenure, though not as much as the hype. But take a look at this vision in an article on her departure:

Henderson cautions that improving schools that had long struggled does not happen quickly. And even with the school reform efforts over the the past decade, it may still be another decade — or more — before anyone can declare something approaching victory.

“There will be a day when every school in the city is doing amazing work and you won’t have to enter a lottery, you literally could drop your kid off at any school and have them an amazing experience. I believe we’re within reach of that, probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” she says.

Good schools “sometime in the next 10 or 20 years” – “probably”? Can you imagine a private-company CEO promising that his company would be good at its core business “probably sometime in the next 10 or 20 years,” after his retirement?

No wonder Albert Shanker, the first head of the American Federation of Teachers, said back in 1989:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

Indeed, we have in each city in the United States an essentially centralized, monopoly, uncompetitive, one-size-fits-all school system that has been stagnating for more than a century. As I wrote in the book Liberating Schools,

The problem of the government schools is the problem inherent in all government institutions. In the private sector, firms must attract voluntary customers or they fail; and if they fail, investors lose their money, and managers and employees lose their jobs. The possibility of failure, therefore, is a powerful incentive to find out what customers want and to deliver it efficiently. But in the government sector, failures are not punished, they are rewarded. If a government agency is set up to deal with a problem and the problem gets worse, the agency is rewarded with more money and more staff — because, after all, its task is now bigger.  An agency that fails year after year, that does not simply fail to solve the problem but actually makes it worse, will be rewarded with an ever-increasing budget.  What kind of incentive system is this?  

This is ridiculous. Every form of communication and information technology is changing before our eyes, except the schools and the post office. It’s time to give families a choice. Free them from the monopoly school system. Give families education tax credits or education savings accounts. Make homeschooling easier. Let them opt out of the big-box school – and get their money back – and watch Khan Academy videos. 

Children spend 12 years in government monopoly schools. If they don’t get started right in the first couple of years, they’re running behind for life. It’s just not right to tell parents to wait 10 to 20 years for the tax-supported monopoly schools to start educating decently.

Posted on June 30, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Complicated Clinton Organization

Where did Hillary Clinton’s campaign get the “I’m with her” slogan that Donald Trump criticized last week? I saw this in the Washington Post:

Ida Woldemichael, a designer who came up with “I’m with Her” for the Clinton campaign,…is a graphic designer who worked for the Clinton Foundation before joining the campaign about a year ago.

Not that the Clinton Foundation is any kind of tax-exempt, dictator-supported, $2 billion advance team for the Clinton campaign.

Posted on June 27, 2016  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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