In Defense of Suburban Sprawl

SprawlBK.jpg Image source: web version of WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. P16) For at least half a century, academics, aesthetes and all-purpose agonizers have looked at our ever-sprawling cities with disdain and even horror. The spectacle of rings and rings of humankind nested in single-family homes has inspired in them all sorts of revulsion and, relatedly, a whole discipline of blame: Suburban sprawl has been faulted for exacerbating racial tension, contributing to energy shortages, worsening pollution and heating up the globe — even expanding waistlines.

Largely missing from this debate has been a sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living. With Robert Bruegmann’s “Sprawl: A Compact History,” we now have one. What a pleasure it is: well-written, accessible and eager to challenge the current cant about sprawl.
No, Mr. Bruegmann says, don’t go blaming the Federal Highway Administration for sprawl or the executives at General Motors and Exxon or racist developers fleeing urban environments. Don’t even blame Karl Rove. You really don’t need to blame anyone. Mr. Bruegmann notes that contemporary sprawl — best defined by places like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston — is nothing new. It represents “merely the latest chapter in a long and curious history.”
What propels that curious history is something often overlooked by the makers of grand theories — the particular choices of individual human beings. Mr. Bruegmann places the urge to sprawl squarely where it belongs: on people’s logical desire to escape the high costs, crime, pollution, congestion and lack of privacy that accompanies life in dense cities.

For the full review, read:
JOEL KOTKIN. “In Praise of ‘Burbs. Academics, planners and tastemakers may vilify suburbia as an American blight. But even the Romans knew: It can be nice to get out of the city.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 10, 2005): P16.

The book that Kotkin’s review is praising:
Robert Bruegmann. Sprawl: A Compact History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. (264 pages, $27.50)

Is Democracy a Normal or Inferior Good?

In economics a “normal” good is one where, ceteris paribus, consumers demand more of it when their incomes rise. Conversely, an “inferior” good is one where, ceteris paribus, consumers demand less of it when their incomes rise. Here is an example relevant to the continuing debate about whether political democracy is a normal or inferior good:

A huge throng of pro-democracy protesters poured through the skyscraper canyons of Hong Kong on Sunday afternoon, defying warnings from senior Chinese officials who refuse to set a timetable for general elections here.
The march continued well past sunset, as more and more men, women and children of all ages emerged from side streets and subway stations to join. Organizers estimated the peaceful crowd at 250,000, while the police put it at 63,000.
At either measure, the turnout was surprising because Hong Kong’s economy is booming, unemployment is falling and the city now has a popular and charismatic chief executive, Donald Tsang.

KEITH BRADSHER. “Hong Kong Protesters Want Election Timetable.” The New York Times (Mon., December 5, 2005): A6.

Audacious Nigerian Kleptocrat Cross-dresses to Evade Justice: More on Why Africa is Poor


“Workers installing imported marble on a staircase at Mr. Alamieyeseigha’s official mansion.” Photo by Michael Kamber for The New York Times. Source of photo and caption: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/29/international/africa/29nigeria.html?pagewanted=1

YENAGOA, Nigeria, Nov. 22 – Precisely where in the rogue’s gallery of corrupt Nigerian leaders Diepreye Alamieyeseigha will fall is a matter for history to judge. Gen. Sani Abacha, the military dictator who helped himself to at least $3 billion and salted it away in foreign bank accounts, doubtless stole far more.
But General Abacha – who ruled the country from 1993 to 1998 – never fled money-laundering charges in a foreign land by donning a dress and a wig to match forged travel documents, as Mr. Alamieyeseigha, the governor of a small oil-producing state in the Niger Delta, did last week, government officials said.
For their sheer audacity, his antics are likely to earn him a prominent place among the leaders who in the past four decades are believed to have stolen or misspent $400 billion in government money, most of it the profits from Nigeria’s oil reserves.
“It is a new low,” said Gani Fawehinmi, one of Nigeria’s most prominent lawyers and a longtime campaigner for good governance. “And in Nigeria that is saying something.”
Mr. Alamieyeseigha is suspected of siphoning millions of dollars in cash and buying an oil refinery in Ecuador along with several houses in London, California and South Africa. He has denied stealing money from the state.
The sordid saga of the governor comes as the federal government has engaged in a broad effort to rehabilitate the country’s image around the world.
Long associated with rampant corruption and kleptocratic governments, Nigeria has year in and year out gotten one of the worst scores in Transparency International’s world corruption perception index, though this year its rating improved slightly.
Corruption touches virtually every aspect of Nigerian life, from the millions of sham e-mail messages sent each year by people claiming to be Nigerian officials seeking help with transferring large sums of money out of the country, to the police officers who routinely set up roadblocks, sometimes every few hundred yards, to extract bribes of 20 naira, about 15 cents, from drivers. (p. A1)

For the full article, see:
LYDIA POLGREEN. “As Nigeria Tries to Fight Graft, a New Sordid Tale.” The New York Times (Tues., November 29, 2005): A1 & A12.

Never Say Die: Milton Friedman on Vouchers, Again

From an opinion-piece by Milton Friedman, at age 93, in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Whatever the promise of vouchers for the education of New Orleans children, the reform will be opposed by the teachers unions and the educational administrators. They now control a monopoly school system. They are determined to preserve that control, and will go to almost any lengths to do so.
Unions to the contrary, the reform would achieve the purposes of Louisiana far better than the present system. The state’s objective is the education of its children, not the construction of buildings or the running of schools. Those are means not ends. The state’s objective would be better served by a competitive educational market than by a government monopoly. Producers of educational services would compete to attract students. Parents, empowered by the voucher, would have a wide range to choose from. As in other industries, such a competitive free market would lead to improvements in quality and reductions in cost.
If, by a political miracle, Louisiana could overcome the opposition of the unions and enact universal vouchers, it would not only serve itself, it would also render a service to the rest of the country by providing a large scale example of what the market can do for education when permitted to operate.

MILTON FRIEDMAN. “The Promise of Vouchers.” The Wall Street Journal (Mon., December 5, 2005): A20.

Use for Subsidized Corn: Ski Iowa

Source of image: “Mark Kegans for The New York Times”, at http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/articles/09harvest.html

(p. A1) As Iowa finishes harvesting its second-largest corn crop in history, Roger Fray is racing to cope with the most visible challenge arising from the United States’ ballooning farm subsidy program: the mega-corn pile.
Soaring more than 60 feet high and spreading a football field wide, the mound of corn behind the headquarters of West Central Cooperative here resembles a little yellow ski hill. ”There is no engineering class that teaches you how to cover a pile like this,” Mr. Fray, the company’s executive vice president for grain marketing, said from the adjacent road. ”This is country creativity.”
At 2.7 million bushels, the giant pile illustrates the explosive growth in corn production by American farmers in recent years, which this year is estimated to reach a nationwide total of at least 10.9 billion bushels, second only to last year’s 11.8 billion bushels.
But this season’s bumper crop is too much of a good thing, underscoring what critics call a paradox at the heart of the government farm subsidy program: America’s efficient farmers may be encouraged to produce far more than the country can use, depressing prices and raising subsidy payments.
. . .
(p. A1) Even as the Bush administration tries to persuade member nations of the World Trade Organization that it is serious about trimming agricultural subsidies, federal spending on farm payments is closing in on the (p. C4) record of $22.9 billion set in 2000, when the Asian financial crisis caused American exports to fall and crop prices to sink, pushing the Midwest farm belt into recession.
If export sales stay weak, this year’s subsidies could hit a new record. Just last week the United States Agriculture Department raised its projection of payments to farmers by $1.3 billion, to $22.7 billion. In 2004, the subsidies were only $13.3 billion.
In response to pressure, the Bush administration said last month that the United States was prepared to cut its most trade-distorting farm subsidies by 60 percent over five years. The world’s poor nations, which tend to be heavily dependent on agriculture, complain that American and European Union farm subsidies spur growers to produce gluts that depress crop prices throughout the world.
. . .
Lately the giant piles have become the butt of jokes in farm country. They were spoofed in a fake picture, widely e-mailed, that showed a skier airborne atop West Central’s biggest pile, with the caption that said ”one thing you can do with a 3-million-bushel pile of harvested corn: Ski Iowa.”

ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO. “Mountains of Corn and a Sea of Farm Subsidies.” The New York Times (Weds., November 9, 2005): A1 & C4.
Source of image: http://www.chicagoboyz.net/archives/2004_11.html

Unintended Consequences

China’s plans to vaccinate billions of chickens against avian flu could backfire and end up spreading the disease, poultry and vaccine experts warned last week.
Vaccination teams can easily carry the virus from farm to farm on their shoes, clothes and equipment unless they change or sterilize them each time, the experts said. That could be particularly difficult in a country like China, where the veterinary care system is underfinanced and millions of birds are kept in small flocks by families.
Also, experts said, the task is likely to be overwhelming, because the Chinese eat about 14 billion chickens a year, so mass vaccinations would have to be repeated again and again, while the risk of the disease being reintroduced by migratory birds, in which it is now endemic, would be constant.
Bird vaccination campaigns involve a huge amount of labor because the animals must be injected one by one. China’s Agriculture Ministry said last Tuesday that it would inject all of the nation’s 5.2 billion chickens, geese and ducks with a vaccine.
Vaccinators were partly to blame for an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease in California that lasted from 1971 to 1973, Dr. Carol Cardona, a poultry expert at the University of California at Davis, said last week.
In that case, the disease arrived with South American parrots imported for pet stores and spread to commercial poultry farms, but the state tried to vaccinate all “backyard birds,” like home-raised poultry.
“It became very clear that the vaccination crews themselves actually spread the virus,” Dr. Cardona said. “It’s very likely that this may happen in China as well.”

For full article, see: DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. “Health Experts Fear Chinese Flu Vaccination Plan Could Backfire.” The New York Times, Section 1 (Sun., November 20, 2005): 4.

Dear Feds: Stop Bugging US!

15bugs.1842.jpg Asian lady beetles (Photo source: online version of article cited below, downloaded from: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/15/national/15bugs.html?pagewanted=1)

(p. A18) This Asian cousin of the benign, beloved ladybug has transformed domestic life in rural and suburban regions from Louisiana to Canada, intruding on the peace – and the attics, curtains and nostrils – of a significant swath of the nation.

Some years, the beetle problem is terrible. Some years, like this one, there are fewer beetles. But even so, in the 12 years that the beetle has spread from the South through the East and Midwest, irritation has given way to fury in its favorite wooded haunts.
“Please help us get rid of these bugs!” one Kentuckian commented on an anonymous survey by the University of Kentucky’s entomology department. “It’s so bad you can’t eat safely. They are falling into the food and drinks.”
A second person wrote, “A huge swarm enveloped my house last fall, causing me to fall off the porch and break my shoulder.” From a third came a cri de coeur: “Get rid of these pests. They are making me crazy. They have ruined my life.”
Unlike domestic ladybugs, the multicolored Asian variety likes to keep its polka dots indoors in the winter. In older rural neighborhoods, where houses are not knit tight, only insecticide can hope to keep them out. They swarm by the tens of thousands. Unlike the domestic ladybug, the Asian variety leaves a yellow stain. It can bite. Worst of all, it stinks.
. . .
It was for the benefit of farmers like the pecan growers that the Department of Agriculture released Asian lady beetles in the 1980’s in Georgia and elsewhere. The promise of aphid-free fruit trees and crops had prompted the department to try to import the bugs repeatedly, from 1916 on. But they never seemed to survive, until the early 1990’s.
A 1995 article in the journal Agricultural Research quoted William H. Day, a federal entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service, saying, “U.S.D.A. scientists have gone overseas for more than 100 years to search for, test, import, rear, release and evaluate exotic beneficial lady beetles, parasitic wasps, other insects and microorganisms.”

FELICITY BARRINGER. “Asian Cousin of Ladybug Is a Most Unwelcome Guest.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 15, 2005): A18.
(Note: ellipsis added.)