Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Long-Awaited Endorsement

I'm a day late and a dollar short, but this blog is an enthusiastic endorser of Sen. Barack Obama for both the Democratic nomination and President of the United States.

In my opinion, there are three important criteria by which to evaluate presidential candidates.
  1. The thrust of the top two or three domestic policy initiatives. New presidents don't really get to have any more than that. The details aren't important because they'll be hacked to pieces by Congress anyway.
  2. Foreign policy. Presidents have a huge amount of power in this area.
  3. Intangibles. Character, judgment, intelligence, oratorical skill, and management style obviously matter in a candidate. Experience, of course, is related to these qualities.
For domestic policy initiatives, there is little difference between Clinton and Obama: they're both going to prioritize health care and climate change. The differences probably won't matter. However, I think Obama plays much better in red states and is therefore likely to assemble filibuster-proof majorities in the Senate.

It's harder to determine exactly what McCain's domestic priorities are, but I'd expect government reform, a fiscally irresponsible tax cut, and maybe some health reform. It's unclear enough to make a very informed statement. If McCain actually wants to do serious climate change and health care legislation, he may actually find it easier than the Democrats because it'd play as a Nixon-to-China moment. Let's call it a push, which I think is charitable to McCain.

On foreign policy, there is a clear distinction between Obama and the others. Whether for political reasons or because it's what she actually believes, Senator Clinton's record strongly indicates that she will take a hawkish attitude on Iran, Iraq, and other matters.

The generally hawkish approach to international problems, typified by both Senator McCain and Senator Clinton, has proved to fairly destructive to our interests and blind to the appearance of our actions in the rest of the world. It's not just that Senator Obama was right about Iraq; he was right for exactly the right reasons. That's a rare statement.

On intangibles, I'm once again going to state that Obama is the superior candidate, although McCain in particular has some strong attributes. Here's a highly subjective list of why I think so:
  • His speeches suggest that he understands conservative arguments and is able to listen to, and intelligently judge, ideas from across the ideological spectrum. That's bad to some people, but after the last eight years I'm excited about the possibility of having a President that can be convinced by data.
  • The judgment of people I trust (like Megan McArdle and Matthew Yglesias) is that he has a particularly strong group of economic and foreign policy advisors.
  • His reticence to engage in smear campaigns and the like is refreshing. An Obama win might correct some bad political behavior by other candidates.
  • The election of an African-American president would be a much more powerful "rebranding" of America than the election of a woman, which has happened in many other places and will be seen as a vehicle for the restoration of Bill Clinton.
  • His communication skills make him more able to mobilize people for change.
  • His campaign has been, by far, the best run of the big three. That speaks well of his management and leadership. The Clinton campaign seems infected with the same kind of yes-men and dysfunctional dynamics that have crippled the Bush Administration.
Senator Obama is the second candidate to which I have ever donated. Interestingly, the first was Sen. McCain in 2000. You should too.


Primaries & Caucuses

There's a lot of opinions floating around about the primary and caucus process. These kinds of pieces used to be focused on the special role of Iowa and New Hampshire, which really is indefensible, and demonstrably leads to irresponsible policies like ethanol subsidies. Now that it's clear that Iowa and New Hampshire weren't decisive, however, the focus has turned to the structure of the entire process, and whether caucuses, superdelegates, etc. are truly small-d democratic or not.

People are asserting a lot of rights that don't actually exist. After all, what do you really want out of a nominating process? In a perfect world, I'd prefer to see all the candidates in a single primary that passes through a rotating schedule of states, with the top two vote-getters going to the general. In 2008, that very well might have meant Obama and Clinton in November. But that's not the system we're ever going to get, nor would it be very appealing to partisans of right and left, since it provides maximum incentive for everyone to portray themselves as centrists.

In reality, the parties are trying to obtain a candidate that most reflects the ideals of the party faithful while still being appealing enough to the nation to win in the general election. There's no imperative here to be democratic, to "count every vote", to avoid disenfranchisement, or anything else. Is it really more appropriate to have a primary, where there can be many independents and crossovers, or a caucus that restricts the franchise to true believers? In reality, there's a strong argument for a mix of caucuses and primaries, to capture both objectives of the process. Perhaps it'd be better if every state had a Texas-like mix of both, but it's clear that the state-by-state hodgepodge is a pretty good second-best.

Similarly, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with dedicated party hacks (i.e., superdelegates) getting extra influence on the process. After all, if you're dissatisfied with the nominee, you can always vote for the other guy, unless you're a dedicated partisan.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Woo Hoo!

So I've just become the newest contributor to the Seattle Transit Blog! Now, someone may actually read and comment on what I have to say.


Transit NOW... Tomorrow

Metro has finally released the first details about the RapidRide program, or at least the section that's on SR99. Be sure to click through to the fancy map. In isolation, it looks great.

While I'm always for more and better transit, I'm uneasy and/or miffed at a few aspects of this, particularly in light of Ron Sims' defection to the anti-ST2 camp.

(1) When we voted for Transit NOW!(!!!!), that certainly led to the expectation that the transit would arrive, uh, now. 2010 is hardly forever, and I know projects take time, but I think Ron Sims oversold a bit. It certainly makes his complaining about ST taking too long a little rich.

(2) I wonder if Sims' opposition to South King County light rail is that it replaces this bit of his legacy?

(3) It seems awful repetitive to run BRT down the exact route that light rail is planning to use. It leaves us with several awful or doubtful alternatives:
- light rail is permanently trashed in favor of inferior BRT technology that also forces a transfer at SeaTac to connect with the rest of the system.
- the BRT is constructed to be rail convertible. I'm doubtful this is happening, and at any rate would create a big fight if it involved suspending existing BRT to lay track.
- The Rapid Ride investments will be abandoned when light rail arrives, or they will run simultaneously. That would get us one transit corridor for the price of two! Nice job Metro!

(4) I'm struck by the relative opacity of Metro compared to Sound Transit. The ST website pretty much lays out everything they're going to do. Almost a full year after the voters approved Transit Now, we're only now seeing a small part of the project. Given how often ST is bashed for being unaccountable and mismanaged, I'm struck by the fact that my experience receiving responses to comments from both agencies is similarly skewed.

(5) Is it an accident that the portion of Transit Now that most duplicates ST2 is the first to be released, just before the ballot!

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

2007 Baseball Playoffs

As I mentioned last year, my rule of thumb is root for teams that haven't won it in a long time, unless I have a special interest in one of the teams. Under that criterion, the rank of worthiness for this year would have been:

1) Chicago Cubs, 1908
2) Cleveland Indians, 1948
3) Philadelphia Phillies, 1980
4) Colorado Rockies, 1993 (year of inception)
5) New York Yankees, 2000
6) Arizona Diamondbacks, 2001
7) Los Angeles Angels, 2002
8) Boston Red Sox, 2004

But that wasn't what was in my heart. First of all, I hate the Yankees, so they're always at the bottom of the barrel. In addition, I'm a recovering Red Sox fan from my time as a college student there (nowadays, I root for the Mariners -- a colossal mistake if there ever was one).

Still, I can't help but remain fond of the Red Sox, but I decided that while I would be OK with them winning it all, I wouldn't actively root for them. With their matchup against the perpetually suffering Indians, this resolve was put to the test.

I failed.

Starting in Game 1, I couldn't stay away from Fenway Park, the players I loved in 2004, and the guys I (purely by coincidence) have on my fantasy team. I found myself rooting hard for Boston.

Until Game 7.

Once the game was firmly in hand, I immediately regretted my feelings. The nature of the Cleveland collapse helped me put my finger on what was wrong.

For a long time, Boston fans claimed a sort of moral superiority due to their intense suffering. To be a Yankee fan was easy, and a bit of a cop-out; to adopt perpetually choking losers was to somehow embrace the reality of the world.

In this playoffs, however, the Red Sox are the Yankees; they're a juggernaut, loaded at every position and confident (arrogant) in their ability to prevail. The Indians are the Red Sox of old: a solid team, but clearly snakebit every time they were close to making it happen.

So where's that moral superiority now? Boston fans are left merely with the ethic of rooting for the home team. If it's not your home team, you're merely a bandwagon jumper, no better than people born and bred in Kansas City, say, that root for the Yankees.

It feels terrible. I want to say "Go Rockies," but I just can't bring myself to do it.

May the best team win. That's probably the Red Sox.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Knock me over with a feather

I'm on record as favoring rapid withdrawal from Iraq, and I maintain that position, but I'm a pretty cheap date when it comes to good news coming from there. I've followed that whole debacle from the beginning with almost my full attention. After all, I was there for 6 months, and I have a pretty good grasp of both the military and military history. As they say, the best lack all conviction; all that I know is that I don't know.

However, I do have the sneaking suspicion that all sides are wrong:
  • The hawks are wrong: the consequences of withdrawal are not that great for the United States.
  • The moderates are wrong: leaving "just enough troops to lose" is not a good strategy.
  • The doves are wrong: the war is not "lost." I'd like to talk about that today.
In spite of all the mismanagement (at all levels), etc., I'm always conscious of the possibility of pulling a pyrrhic victory out of this mess. What does that mean? Just that Iraq turns out to be a decent country, for an absolutely unreasonable cost. Maybe there are free and fair elections, although formation of genuine liberal-democratic institutions are probably out of reach.

The general consensus seems to be forming that by purely military measures, the war is going pretty well relative to the recent past. General Petraeus has produced our first halfway decent counterinsurgency strategy, violence is declining, and Al Qaeda is not doing so hot (haven't heard about a big car bomb in a while, have you?)

But none of that really matters if the politics collapses. Skeptics point to the total lack of progress at the national level, and project that forward. But political progress isn't linear, or even monotonic (math term). I have no idea what might be possible in the next few months, or years.

What's more promising is the apparent emergence of a group of post-Saddam leaders at the community level, as represented by the various Awakening fronts. Real democracy comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. In our haste to get out of there, one of our many cardinal sins was to get this backwards.

I'm curious to see what the next Iraqi election (knock on wood) will produce. It seems like the extremist parties have lost credibility; I think we might be pleasantly surprised by the result, if it's allowed to happen.

Whether that outcome is worth another 300 American lives and $300 billion or so is not at all clear to me. But I wish everyone in this debate wasn't so damn sure of themselves.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

Don't stop me, I'm on a roll

Here's the SLOG comment I made yesterday about RTID and global warming:

Make no mistake: I'm supporting this because I support ST2, and because I believe that it will will not come back in similar form in 2008 if this measure goes down.

However, I'm trying to think about the real impact of RTID. As I noted before, it makes my head hurt, but please chip in if you have any constructive feedback.

I'd hoped that the Stranger, or somebody, would talk to some experts and report on this, but I guess I'll have to do it myself.

(1) The type of road project that is most destructive to the environment is probably new roads through virgin territory, like the old I-605 proposal. What's most bad about this is that sprawl develops around these highways because they provide easy access to everything else.

As far as I can tell, the only RTID project anything like this is the Cross-Base Highway. While this will reduce travel times (see below), the ability for developers to add parking lots and strip malls is severely limited by the fact that it's, you know, across a base. And I'm fairly skeptical that that project will ever get really started.

(2) The type that's almost certainly good for the environment is HOV improvements, because they encourage bus and carpool use. A significant chunk of RTID falls in this category (SR 520, BRT on SR 99 in Shoreline, 167/405 interchange, etc.)

(3) That leaves the great middle: projects that increase capacity and/or improve traffic flow of general-purpose lanes, which amount to two sides of the same coin. The net effect of doing this over doing nothing is:

- Somewhat more people move to the Puget Sound region. I think this is a net plus (?), given the relatively high proportion of carbon-neutral energy production here.

- Car capacity increases: it takes more cars to get to bad congestion, shifting the equilibrium point where people shift to transit. Almost certainly a net minus.

- Growing suburbs: favors lower-density development in existing outer suburbs, rather than more density in inner suburbs and Seattle. A minus for the environment, but the neighborhood movement will like it, and probably results in more affordable housing.

- Less idling in traffic: congestion isn't binary; there's slow traffic and very slow traffic. Wider roads result in more cars, but quite probably a shorter commute for each of those cars. Probably a net plus.

Taking all this together (and I wish I had numbers to make this more certain), I can't conclude anything other than that RTID is a mild net minus taken in isolation. Throw in 50 miles of light rail, and it's a no-brainer.

And another thing...

As if Microsoft employees all live on Capitol Hill, and they couldn't be downtown, or on Rainier Ave, or in Bellevue, if they couldn't stomach the "cumbersome" 38 minute commute from Capitol Hill.

I just don't understand...

Ron Sims is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

It pains me to say this, but Ron Sims might as well be an anything-but-rail activist with his hit piece in the Times that attacks the ST2/RTID proposal. My immediate response is, "huh?"

Sims goes a lot farther than the Sierra Club and other enviros, who oppose this package mainly because of the environmental impacts of road expansion, and whom he praises in the piece. After a brief shot at the proposed lid on SR 520 (!), he leaves the rest of RTID untouched and focuses his attention on slamming ST2.

He spends a paragraph complaining about the package's size:
If approved, we will see the largest tax increase in state history. Starting in January, car-tab taxes will triple, and the sales tax will be 9.5 percent (10 percent in King County restaurants).
and in the very next paragraphs, complains that the delivery is too slow and that the package doesn't do enough:
The benefits of this package are far from immediate. Even if on schedule, 60 percent of new light rail won't open until 2027. Light rail across Lake Washington is at least 14 years away. The Northgate extension is 11 years away...

This roads-and-transit plan just doesn't move enough people.
Which is it, Mr. Sims? Do you want an expensive package that delivers lots improvements quickly, or do you want a relatively low tax rate that spreads out expenditures over the long term?

He then descends into a diatribe against the ST2 plan that is totally divorced from reality, political and otherwise:
Projected light-rail ridership to Bellevue and Overlake is lackluster because of indirect routing. Traveling from Capitol Hill to the Microsoft campus via downtown Seattle and Mercer Island is slow and cumbersome. The retrofit of Interstate 90 for light rail will slow express-bus service and increase commute times to Issaquah, Sammamish and North Bend.
How exactly does he propose to get from Seattle to Overlake? Via SR 520? When will that bridge be complete? I thought the rail completion dates were too far in the future! More specifically, the ST2 plan (Appendix C) projects a Capitol Hill-Overlake time using light rail of 38 minutes. The existing transit time is 55 minutes, and is projected to be 63 minutes in 2030. How is this "slow and cumbersome?"

Service to Northgate finally delivers on the promise of light rail. But delay to 2018 is inexcusable; this badly needed segment can and should be built sooner.

What? They won't even get to UW till 2016! Where does he think the money to accelerate this is going to come from? How does rejecting the package, reworking the schedule (which will take months, or years, of staff work and process) somehow accelerate delivery?

It makes you wonder if Ron Sims has ever attended a ST2 board meeting, or what he's been listening to if he has. Snohomish County officials fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the acceleration of the Northgate construction as far as 2018. To think that they would acquiesce to further diversion of their funds into Seattle is fantasy.

To the south, we have different inefficiencies. Light rail would connect Seattle to Tacoma (already served by faster Sounder Trains) and run along Highway 99 (where last year's King County Metro "Transit Now" tax increase is ramping up bus-rapid-transit service).

Instead, expanded bus service could generate much higher ridership in this corridor while freeing up funds for light rail to Southcenter and Renton. In Pierce County, we can achieve more traffic relief by extending light rail within Tacoma to the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University.
Aha! So this would interfere with Mr. Sims' precious "Transit Now! legacy". I never figured him for the rail-bashing BRT set, but now we see his true colors. Spoken like a true Kemper Freemanite, who supports buses because he never actually rides them.

Instead, expanded bus service could generate much higher ridership in this corridor while freeing up funds for light rail to Southcenter and Renton. In Pierce County, we can achieve more traffic relief by extending light rail within Tacoma to the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University.

If someone lives along the I-5 corridor (in King County, no less), what does Sounder do for them? The point of the South line isn't so much for people in Tacoma (unless they're going to the airport), the point is to serve the people along the route. And anyone who's actually ridden Sounder knows that the service is non-existent after about 5:45 pm, thanks to a crappy agreement with BNSF. That's hardly comprehensive transit service. Perish the thought you might want to take the train to work, and then catch a Mariners game before heading home.

The Pierce County representatives on the ST board seem to have endorsed a direct link with Seattle over improvements in Tacoma; I guess Ron Sims understands Pierce County's needs better than them, enough to trash a line that would serve his own constituents in the I-5 corridor.
The package before us does not include solutions like congestion pricing or variable tolls. The goal of congestion pricing is to keep our highways moving efficiently, getting people to work or home in the shortest amount of time. With congestion pricing we would see immediate results.
Great, Mr. Sims! I'm glad to see you're on board with congestion pricing. We can get that started whether or not ST2/RTID pass, and I eagerly anticipate seeing your leadership in moving this politically unpopular initiative forward.

Sims finishes up with a bunch of global warming boilerplate and some total non-sequiturs:
The private sector is already a tremendous partner, with many employers providing subsidized bus passes and van pools. In concert with congestion pricing, we need to consider remote work sites, telecommuting and other alternatives.
As if Prop. 1 precludes any of the above.
But, the most important option to accompany congestion pricing must be better access to transit. Transit is also critical to the environment.
Which is why you've spent the past several hundred words slagging the only major transit project realizable in the next decade or so?

I'm just mystified by this essay. It's like a press release from Kemper Freeman.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Subsidized Housing

Although the last post might lead you to believe that I'm opposed to subsidized housing, nothing could be further from the truth. I do think, however, that the purposes behind it are hopelessly muddled.

When people write about it, they seem to think that the purpose is to give everyone who wants to a chance to live in the city. I spent most of the last post attacking that as a feasible goal.

So what is the purpose? Why are our tax dollars going to prevent people from moving to Burien?

The city is a more vibrant place if there are people of different income levels. The very attractions that brought us here in the first place (ethnic restaurants, active nightlife) are threatened if the young and the, well, "ethnic", are priced out of city life.

So, it's in the interests of the city to ensure that a certain critical mass of these communities live in the city, or it becomes a giant version of Medina. But spare me the spasms of outrage every time a family is forced to move out of the city because of a small reduction in available housing.

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Affordable Housing

No issue in this city lends itself more to unfocused whining than the shortage of "affordable" housing. It seems like everyone pontificating on this issue slumps into Mossback-like pining for 1962. We certainly could achieve 1962-like demand for housing by simply deporting the excess population and barring newcomers, but I hope no one is advocating that.

The most contemptible of these gripes are those who, when citing the fact that housing is unaffordable, cite the price of single-family homes. Here's a quick economics lesson: given that the supply of potential single-family homes within the Seattle city limits is finite, and the demand almost certainly exceeds that, the price will increase. Accept it. The Seattle Times is particularly bad about using this metric in an economically illiterate way.

Living in the city limits is desirable. There's a finite number of homes available. Call it n. If you're the n+1-th richest household that wants to live in the city, you're SOL. You don't have an inalienable right to what is an extremely limited resource. Transit connections are excellent in South King County and Tacoma -- move there.

Real Solutions:
(1) Increase Density. Increase the supply of housing available, and prices will come down -- or at least grow more slowly than they otherwise would. Duh.

"But I have to have a yard...!" Then get out of the city.

(2) Allow Ex-urban Growth. Much worse for the environment than (1), but you can' t have everything. Are you trying to reduce housing prices, or reduce sprawl? The two are fundamentally in conflict sometimes, so pick one.

I'll talk about subsidized housing in a later post.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Sound Transit

I'm all about having a dedicated-right-of-way transit system in Seattle, so you'll find no blogger rooting harder for Sound Transit. They've gotten a whole lot less incompetent than they used to be.

But they're not really on the ball. Check out the 2006 milestone checklist now that it's, uh, 2007.

Quick, before they take it down.


The 520 Bridge

Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin wrote an op-ed in yesterday's times arguing for the Pacific Interchange Option in a 6-lane rebuild of the 520 Bridge. I wholeheartedly concur with his position.

He does a deft job of summarizing the many reasons this is a good idea, but I want to talk about it from a transit perspective. The worst part of riding a bus over the 520 bridge is not the backup on the Eastside (which buses bypass), nor the bridge itself, but the merge onto a hideously congested I-5. This probably adds 15 minutes to the trip, a time that will no doubt get worse in the future.

Projected time to take light rail from Husky Stadium to Westlake?

8 minutes.

Terminating all those Seattle-bound buses at Husky Stadium and dumping the riders on to light rail results in both a faster ride for them, and less congestion at one of the worst chokepoints in the region.

This only really works, though, with the Pacific Interchange Option. That's why it's the only forward-thinking choice.

Light Rail through South Bellevue

The Times ran a piece reporting that residents of Southwest Bellevue are opposed to light rail plans that would run the line near their neighborhood, instead opting for a longer route that goes out by the freeway.

How shortsighted this is.

They're afraid of traffic and noise. I suppose they think it'll reduce their property values.

What they fail to realize is that having a station within walking distance will dramatically increase their property values. Shortly before I was born, the residents of Georgetown (the one in D.C.) successfully resisted the placement of a stop in their neighborhood. The metro simply runs under Georgetown today without stopping.

Boy, do they regret that.

I suppose building a station might condemn 1 or 2 homes. Is that any way to make regional policy? What about the extra few minutes the detour adds to the commute, for everyone, for ever and ever?


Strategies in the War on Terror

1) Play Defense. Do some police work to catch some bad guys, but essentially accept that you'll get hit every now and then, until the Islamic world sorts itself out. I would characterize this as the center point of Democratic Party opinion.

2) Surrender. Stop supporting Israel, pull all troops out of the Middle East, and look the other way when quasi-fascist regimes take over places that are far away. This is the "far left" solution.

3) Reform the Middle East. Find the most vulnerable nasty regimes, and replace it with something better. Decent regimes should drain the swamp of rage that creates terrorism. This is the Bush administration policy. How's that working out?

4) Kill'em All. The drunken-frat-boy approach to foreign policy.

5) Divide and Conquer. If the Shiites and Sunnis are at each other's throats, will they have time to worry about the Palestinians, much less us?

We tried (3) but it's dead. We may have an opportunity to do (5), a less ethical, but possibly quite effective, option. We can set the region ablaze (and maybe make our problems go away) by pulling out of Iraq now.

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