Sunday Reading – 04/14/19


The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

What the Science Says About Monsanto’s Beleaguered Weedkiller ‘Roundup’ – When it comes to allegations that the weedkiller Roundup causes cancer, the law is making up its mind faster than science.

Hundreds of lawsuits have been brought in state and federal courts against the product’s manufacturer, Monsanto, and its parent company, Bayer, which last year bought the agrochemical giant for around $63 billion. The suits claim that Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, contributes to or causes cancer in people.

Scientifically, the evidence is mixed.

Animal-based lab studies have shown that rats and mice exposed to glyphosate sometimes get tumors, which can be cancerous. But the tumors that rats and mice got weren’t consistent: They didn’t appear in the same place on every rat; some rats never got them; and the tumors didn’t seem to be dose-dependent. These studies haven’t yet told a clear story about the mechanism for why the tumors, and cancer, show up.

In humans, research has yet to find a statistically significant connection between cancer and glyphosate — possibly because there isn’t any or maybe because people are exposed to a lot of carcinogens, and generally it’s hard to tease out the effects of just one. So this is an area where opposing experts in court spend a lot of time debating.

Meanwhile, oversight bodies around the world have come down on different sides of the issue. The World Health Organization decided glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen. The European Food Safety Authority concluded that it probably isn’t. In the U.S., the EPA says glyphosate “has low toxicity for humans.” But California has listed glyphosate as a known cancer-causing chemical. Read More > at KQED

Sacramento wants to tax soda, tires, guns, water, pain pills, lawyers, car batteries… – Not all taxes are evil. Some are justified. But many are unwarranted. And others are eye-rollers.

One of the more controversial and annoying taxes currently being proposed is a state levy on sugary soft drinks. More on that later.

Here’s an eye-roller: A bill that would authorize San Francisco to turn its crooked Lombard Street — a tourist attraction after so many movie appearances — into a toll road, maybe even requiring reservations. Think they have a traffic jam now on weekends? Wait until cars are lined up behind a tollgate.

There are a whole bunch of taxing ideas in the Capitol: on new tires, firearms, water, prescription painkillers, lawyers, car batteries, corporations based on their CEO pay, estates worth more than $3.5 million, oil and gas extraction. The list goes on.

The oil and gas extraction tax is long overdue. We’re the only major oil-producing state without one. It would raise an estimated $1.5 billion a year.

The California Tax Foundation has counted more than $6.2 billion worth of tax increase proposals pending in the Legislature. It expects the figure to grow substantially as bills are amended with details.

Polls show that California voters already think they’re overtaxed. No surprise there. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

No State Imports More Electricity Than California – California has taken bold action by shuttering its coal plants, planning to shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant so it can increase its share of renewable energy, or that’s what the Greenies out there want to believe. In reality, the Golden State simply imports electricity generated by coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities from Arizona and Nevada and pretends they are “green energy” leaders.

In fact, no other state imports more electricity than does California.

California imports so much electricity because it simply cannot provide for itself in terms of electricity generation, at least not at the lowest cost.

…As you can see, imports fall when it is sunny out, and increase again when the sun goes down. It just so happens that the sun wasn’t shining when the demand for electricity in California was highest. California’s policies promoting renewables at the expense of dispatchable generation place it in an odd predicament, it must pay other states to take the excess electricity generated by renewables when their generation is high, and it must also pay other states for their power when renewable generation is low. Read More > at the Center of the American Experience

Clearing forests: No simple solution to California wildfires – In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on wildfires, designed to expedite forest-thinning projects and other programs. In May 2018, former Gov. Jerry Brown called for doubling the amount of forest land treated each year in California by 2023. The state significantly increased the money it was spending on those efforts, with the Legislature earmarking $1 billion over five years in funds generated by the state’s carbon trading program. The Trump administration has also vowed to manage forests more aggressively.

Cal Fire and the state Board of Forestry estimate 23 million acres in the state’s responsibility area could benefit from fuel reduction. And those treatments aren’t one-time efforts: they must be repeated every few years to be effective.

Among the biggest complications in forest management are California’s strict environmental regulations.

Forest treatment projects must obtain approvals under the California Environmental Quality Act. Butte County Fire Safe Council Executive Director Calli-Jane DeAnda said the environmental review process typically uses up 10 to 15 percent of grant funds local fire agencies receive for forest management projects. The reviews can take years.

The state has been working since 2010 on an EIR that would cover all vegetation treatments in California under one overarching environmental document. It would identify environmentally sound processes for various natural landscapes. Then, if a project were proposed that met the guidelines for its landscape, it could be approved through a “checklist scenario,” according to Board of Forestry Executive Director Matt Dias. Read More > in the Associated Press

House Cats in Los Angeles Are in Serious Danger – The Humane Society of the United States warns that, while coyotes typically feed on such small mammals as rabbits and mice, they also sometimes make a meal of cats or small dogs. In Southern California, it’s more than “sometimes.”

Coyotes used to be found mostly in prairie and desert areas in Mexico and central North America — every U.S. state has one or more official animals, and the coyote is South Dakota’s state mammal — but today their range has expanded to include rural, suburban, and urban areas in almost every corner of the country.

A study three years ago by Utah State University looked for the animals in 105 metropolitan areas, including New York City, and found coyotes in 96 of them.

They have long been a fact of life in Los Angeles and vicinity — there were even 16 reports of these feral canines attacking humans in 2016 — but it turns out that Southern California’s coyotes have a particular fondness for cats.

They’re in the right place: California ranks No. 1 on the list of the states with the most cats, with more than seven million of them. That population might be shrinking, at least a little, though. A new study by the National Parks Service found that cats make up fully 20% of the diet of Los Angeles area coyotes. A crowd-sourcing app called Coyote Catcher logged 135 cat deaths by coyote attack in 2018. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St 

The nutrition study the $30B supplement industry doesn’t want you to see – A decade-long observational study of more than 30,000 people finds that certain vitamins and minerals may help extend your life and keep you from dying of cardiovascular disease—but only if you get those beneficial nutrients from foods, not supplements.

The study, published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is yet another to find that taking supplemental vitamins and minerals—either individually or in multivitamins—offers no discernible benefits in terms of reducing risks of death generally or death from cardiovascular disease and cancers, specifically. Simply put, popping pills can’t take the place of eating a healthy diet—an unflashy takeaway that likely won’t please the massive, $30 billion supplement industry.

Moreover, the study didn’t just find a lack of benefits from supplements. It also found potential harms. Getting high doses of calcium (1,000 mg or more per day) from supplements—but not from foods—was linked to higher cancer mortality risks in the study. Likewise, people taking vitamin D supplements who didn’t have vitamin D deficiencies may have higher risks of all-cause mortality and death from cancers.

It’s unclear from this observational study exactly why the same vitamins and minerals had different effects based on whether they were, say, chewed from a salad or gulped in a tightly packed capsule. But, it’s likely due to the fact that our bodies are tuned by evolution to best absorb and use micronutrients at the levels and ratios found in foods. Read More > at ars Technica

Why the world now has more Grandparents then Grandchildren – For the first time in history, there are more elderly people in the world than young children, according to the United Nations.

Their figures show that the number of over-65s surpassed that of under-fives at the end of 2018.

There are now around 705 million people over-65 on the planet, while those aged 0-4 number about 680 million.

Current trends point to a growing disparity between the oldest and the youngest by 2050 – there will be more than two over-65s for each person aged 0-4.

This widening gap symbolises a trend that demographers have been tracking for decades: in most countries we are all living longer and not making enough babies.

But how will this affect you? Could it already be doing so? Read More > in the BBC

Finally Some Robust Research Into Whether “Diversity Training” Actually Works – Unfortunately It’s Not Very Promising – Diversity trainings are big business. In the United States, companies spend about £6.1 billion per year, by one estimate, on programmes geared at making companies more inclusive and welcoming to members of often-underrepresented groups (British numbers aren’t easy to come by, but according to one recent survey, over a third of recruiters are planning to increase their investment in diversity initiatives).

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence-backed consensus about which sorts of diversity programmes work, and why, and there have been long-standing concerns in some quarters that these programmes don’t do much at all, or that they could actually be harmful. In part because of this dearth of evidence, the market for pro-diversity interventions is a bit of a Wild West with regard to quality.

For a new paper in PNAS, a prominent team of researchers, including Katherine Milkman, Angela Duckworth, and Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, partnered with a large global organisation to measure the real-world impact of the researchers’ own anti-bias intervention, designed principally to “promote inclusive attitudes and behaviors toward women, whereas a secondary focus was to promote the inclusion of other underrepresented groups (e.g., racial minorities).” The results were mixed at best – and unfortunately there are good reasons to be skeptical that even the more positive results are as positive as they seem. Read More > at Research Digest

Early look at tax data shows average bill dropped in 2018 – With tax season drawing to a close, H&R Block reports that its average customer paid $1,200, or 25 percent, less in federal tax in 2018 than 2017, providing one of the first pieces of hard data on how the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is affecting people in the real world.

People in the high-tax states of New Jersey, Massachusetts and California got the biggest tax cuts, even though many lost some or all of their federal deduction for state and local taxes.

This data is based on tax returns filed through March 31. It could change somewhat as more tax returns come in, and averages can be misleading, but experts expect the final data to show similar savings. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Utility Expert: Electricity Rates Will Skyrocket If California Doesn’t Curb Wildfires – PG&E customers would see their rates double nearly overnight if devastating utility-caused wildfires continue to sweep through California as they have the past two years, a UC Berkeley utility expert warned Wednesday.

But it’s not just PG&E customers who could face skyrocketing rates. In a two-page memo prepared for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, Steven Weissman — a former administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission — said that without “fundamental changes to law or industry structure,” and assuming that wildfires continue at recent levels, the average electricity customer statewide would experience a 50 percent rate hike in the first year alone.

That’s not the only potential consequence, he wrote. If electricity rates skyrocket, he said, California’s ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be threatened, as would the adoption of electric vehicles; businesses would suffer; and electric service would become less reliable even as rates climbed. Read More > at KQED

NewsConference: Homeless Crisis, More than a Housing Problemvideo

It would cost $12.7 billion to end homelessness in the San Francisco Bay region, a new report says – The estimated cost to end homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area is $12.7 billion and additional billions annually to fund ongoing services to the needy, according to a report released Wednesday.

“By virtually every measure, the Bay Area’s homeless crisis ranks among the worst in the United States,” said a report released by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a think tank focused on policy issues.

California’s nine-county Bay Area — from Sonoma in the north to Santa Clara in the south — has roughly 28,200 people experiencing homelessness, ranking it third nationally after New York and Los Angeles, respectively, according to the report. It estimated the average per unit cost of housing each homeless person in the Bay Area region at $450,000 but also noted that housing costs in San Francisco are more than $700,000 per unit when land is factored in.

Using the $450,000 per unit cost of Bay Area housing, the report estimates it would cost $12.7 billion “to end homelessness under current methods of building and providing services.” It also said providing services at about $25,000 per person annually to half of the region’s homeless population over 10 years would require another $3.5 billion. Read More > at CNBC

‘Boy crisis’ threatens America’s future with economic, health and suicide risks – In an astonishing disclosure about the two greatest dangers to the future of America’s economy, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell revealed on CBS’ “60 Minutes” last month the peril posed by “young males”: young males not looking for work; being addicted to drugs (think opioid crisis); and being unprepared for the transition to technology. Powell posits that this economic problem is also a national security problem. He implies that we ignore this crisis at our own peril. Yet his warning is ignored.

In my half-century of research on boys and men, I have discovered that there is, in fact, a boy crisis, that it is a global crisis, and that it is particularly egregious in America. The crisis is more than economic. It is multifaceted, with each facet magnifying the others.

It is a crisis of education. Worldwide, 60% of the students who achieve less than the baseline level of proficiency in any of the three core subjects of the Program for the International Assessment are boys. Even boys’ IQs are dropping.

It is a crisis of mental health. Boys’ suicide rate goes from only slightly more than girls before age 15 to three times that of girls’ between 15 and 19, to 4 1/2 times that of girls between 20 and 24. Mass shootersprisoners and Islamic State terrorism recruits are at least 90% male. Read More > at USA Today

Evidence of New Human Species Found in Philippines – In a handful of fossilized teeth and bones, scientists say they’ve found evidence of a previously unknown human species that lived in what is now the Philippines about 50,000 years ago. The discovery deepens the mystery of an era when the world was a melting pot of many different human kinds on the move.

Small-jawed with dainty teeth, able to walk upright but with feet still shaped to climb, these island creatures were a mix-and-match patchwork of primitive and advanced features in a unique variation of the human form, the scientists reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The announcement of a new species brings a region of the Pacific once considered a backwater of evolution into the mainstream of early human development, several anthropologists who study human origins said.

Many specialists in human fossils believe that a half dozen or so species of hominins, as closely related human species are called, may have co-existed around the world between 50,000 and 250,000 years ago. Several intermingled with our direct ancestors, bearing children together and leaving a legacy of hereditary traits that affect our health and well-being today, recent studies of ancient DNA reveal. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Nearly 70 percent of hotel websites leak personal data, Symantec study finds – A security flaw may be hiding in that confirmation email you get after booking a hotel room. A Symantec study of more than 1,500 hotels found that 67 percent of them were unwittingly leaking guests’ personal information. The hotels in the study were spread across 54 countries, including the U.S., Canada and even some in the E.U., despite strict GDPR protections. They ran the gamut in quality too, from two-star motels to five-star beach resorts.

The main issue involved booking confirmation emails, according to Symantec principal threat researcher Candid Wueest. Many of the messages include an active link that directs to a separate website where guests can access their reservation having to log in again. The booking code and the guest email are often in the URL itself, which in and of itself isn’t a big deal.

But, like many businesses, hotels share your personal data with third parties, meaning that your booking code and email are visible to them as well. The attacker would only need access to your booking code and email in order to find your address, full name, cell phone number, passport number and other highly sensitive information. Symantec also found that a smaller number of hotels didn’t encrypt the links sent in confirmation emails, giving attackers another window of opportunity. Read More > at Engadget

Overall U.S. Delinquency, Foreclosure Rates Lowest in Two Decades – Irvine, CA-based CoreLogic’s monthly Loan Performance Insights Report shows 4% of mortgages were in some stage of delinquency nationally in January 2019. That represents a 0.9 percentage point decline in the overall delinquency rate compared with January 2018, when it was 4.9%. The latest figure was the lowest for the month of January in at least 20 years.

CoreLogic’s Dr. Frank Nothaft says, “Income growth, home appreciation and sound underwriting combined have pushed delinquency rates to their lowest level in 20 years.” Yet, the economist points out the low delinquency rates on home mortgages stand in stark contrast to the rising delinquency rates on consumer credit. Delinquency rates for auto and student loans are higher now than they were during the early and mid-2000s, notes Nothaft.

CoreLogic defines delinquency as loans 30 days or more past due, including those in foreclosure. Measuring early-stage delinquency rates is important for analyzing the health of the mortgage market.

The foreclosure inventory rate in January – which measures the share of mortgages in some stage of the foreclosure process – was 0.4%, down 0.2 percentage points from January 2018. Read More > at Connect California

OPINION – Parkland victim’s father: Traumatized students shouldn’t have been flung into politics – More than a year has elapsed since 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, including my 14-year-old daughter, Alaina. But even now, our community is still experiencing the aftershocks of the attack.

Over the course of just one week in March, two more MSD students died, this time by suicide, adding to the horror of this senseless and preventable tragedy. Shortly after the Parkland suicides, the father of one of the 20 first-graders killed in the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, took his own life as well.

In the days immediately following the Parkland shooting, before the families of the victims had processed the magnitude of their loss, a cadre of vocal students, fueled by the news media frenzy, focused on political action. They marched, peddling a bromidic elixir of political prescriptions.

…The lack of focus was recently highlighted by MSD teacher Kimberly Krawczyk, who bravely spoke out about the failure of the school district to address the trauma experienced by students and teachers. She cited a lack of trauma training for counselors, a lack of privacy for grieving students seeking help, and an almost maniacal emphasis on hashtags, photo-ops and political protests. All of this left many students, teachers and staff to question whether or not they were being #MSDStrong.

The politicization and media-frenzied response to the murders overwhelmed and eclipsed the real, personal needs of the survivors and their loved ones. To be blunt, the cacophony of voices on gun control drowned out and suppressed a needed conversation on the mental health needs at the school and in the community. For that failure, our community is paying a heavy price. Read More > at USA Today

Government Raid Exposes $1B Medicare Telemarketing Scam – Federal indictments have been unsealed in one of the largest health care fraud schemes involving telemedicine and durable medical equipment marketing executives, resulting in charges against 24 defendants including the CEOs, COOs and others associated with five telemedicine companies, the owners of dozens of durable medical equipment (DME) companies and three licensed medical professionals for their alleged participation in health care fraud schemes involving more than $1.2 billion in losses.

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG) announced the investigation, as well as the execution of over 80 search warrants in 17 federal districts on Tuesday.

Furthermore, the Center for Medicare Services, Center for Program Integrity (CMS/CPI) has announced that it has taken adverse administrative action against 130 DME companies that submitted over $1.7 billion in claims, and were subsequently paid over $900 million.

…Some of the defendants allegedly controlled an international telemarketing network that lured over hundreds of thousands of elderly and/or disabled patients into a criminal scheme that crossed borders, involving call centers in the Philippines and throughout Latin America.

The defendants allegedly paid doctors to prescribe DME either without any patient interaction or with only a brief telephonic conversation with patients they had never met or seen.

The proceeds of the fraudulent scheme were allegedly laundered through international shell corporations and used to purchase exotic automobiles, yachts and luxury real estate in the United States and abroad. Read More > at American Security Today

California’s Attorney General enforces travel ban to South Carolina – yet turns a blind eye to governor’s trip to El Salvador – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced April 2 that he was extending California’s ban on taxpayer-funded trips to the State of South Carolina, saying it allows private faith-based groups to withhold adoption services over moral objections, effectively permitting discrimination against LGBTQ people.

Well and good, but why is the AG going silent about Governor Newsom’s junket to El Salvador, a country which actively discriminates against LGBTQ people? The country also deals harshly with women, not just banning abortion but vigorously prosecuting it regardless of the female’s age, whether she’s a victim of rape or incest, or to save her life.

The travel ban became law January 1, 2017. In enacting it, the Legislature stated California must take action to avoid financing or supporting discrimination against LGBTQ people and that it would be the state’s policy to promote fairness and equality and combat discrimination. The 2017 legislation notes that a state becomes subject to the travel ban if since mid-2015 it has enacted a law voiding or repealing, or having the effect of voiding or repealing, existing state or local protections against discrimination of LGBTQ people. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Zapping brain with precise electrical current boosts working memory in older adults, study finds – Shooting electrical current into the brain for just 25 minutes reversed the decline in working memory that comes with aging, scientists reported on Monday. Although the researchers tested the effects on people for only 50 minutes, the finding offers hope for boosting a mental function that is so crucial for reasoning, everyday problem-solving, and planning that it has been called the foundation of intelligence.

By stimulating the brain in precise regions with alternating current (AC), “we can bring back the superior working memory function you had when you were much younger,” psychology researcher Robert Reinhart of Boston University told reporters. “The negative age-related changes [in working memory] are not unchangeable.”

For alternating current, delivered by electrodes embedded in a skull cap, to become a treatment for working memory deficits, however, it would have to overcome a long list of hurdles, starting with proof that it’s safe. But whether or not the findings, published in Nature Neuroscience, result in any practical applications, they provide some of the strongest evidence yet of why older adults aren’t as good at remembering a just-heard phone number or an address in a just-seen text: Brain circuits become functionally disconnected and fall out of synchrony. Read More > at STAT

Recycling Isn’t About the Planet. It’s About Profit. – Recycling is the globe’s bizarro commodity, created by the richest people on Earth and sold to the developing world. Like all commodities, its price reflects a staggering string of interconnected happenings. Your 2011-era empty Coke bottle wasn’t just worth a lot because of high oil prices—it was worth a lot because Pakistan had suffered devastating monsoons in the summer of 2010. Flooding in the Indus River was one of a cascading series of events that sent cotton, in April 2011, to its highest nominal price since records began in 1870. Jeans were going to be more expensive, Levi’s announced. And so, it turned out, was recycled PET plastic, because for Chinese manufacturers of articles like teddy bears and blue jeans, polyester fibers made from old plastic bottles were a cost-effective replacement for cotton. Cotton was up; plastic was up; recycled PET prices went up. As when cotton hit its previous high price in 1995, the scramble was on for old bottles. Which you, American reader, the world’s leading consumer of soda and bottled water, had in spades.

It is currently, you may have heard, not a good time to be in the business of collecting and selling household recycling. Americans are still diligently filling our blue bags with everything we can, but there are fewer places for our dirty goods to go to find redemption. That’s in part thanks to China’s 2017 decision to shut the door on imports of recycled materials, ending a two-decade stretch during which the U.S. came to rely on the country to take and process about 70 percent of its used paper and 40 percent of its used plastic. In 2017, Republic Services, the second-largest waste collector in the U.S., was selling about 35 percent of its recyclables to China. By the end of 2018, China’s National Sword policy, which banned plastics outright and placed strict standards on paper imports, brought that number down to 1 percent.

After China stopped buying, a supply glut sent prices for recycled materials down, and fast. Recyclers found themselves dumping paper in landfills outside Seattle and incinerating plastic in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Glass recycling is local but expensive, and its reuse had often been subsidized by paper and plastic, so with paper and plastic prices in freefall, glass disposal became more of a burden too. In October, Northeastern recyclers were sending just 54 percent of the bottles they collected to processors for reuse. The rest were basically landfilled.

Is American recycling still functioning? “Functioning may be a little optimistic,” says Analiese Smith, who runs the recycling program in Waukesha County outside Milwaukee. “But we’re keeping the lights on.”

It’s also not all China’s fault. The country might be the easiest scapegoat, but this is a story about automation, deindustrialization, empty shipping containers, and dirty boxes. The interdependence of American producers and Chinese consumers is just one part of the recycling crisis. Every time you rinse out a jug or a can or a jar in your kitchen, you are, in some small way, competing with oil drillers and cotton pickers and miners and lumberjacks all over the world, because you too are creating a commodity. At present, the fruit of your labor is not terribly competitive. But your fortunes will turn.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Recycling writ large isn’t going anywhere. It’s an ancient practice motivated not by virtue but by profit. It’s also much bigger than your bottles. There are grease buyers and ship strippers and copper wire thieves. The single greatest recycled material in the United States, by weight, is ferrous scrap—primarily iron and steel from old cars. No one exports more ferrous scrap than we do. (The three biggest buyers are Turkey, Mexico, and Taiwan.) Read More > at Slate

Judge dismisses lawsuit that claimed bridge toll hikes were taxes requiring two-thirds voter approval – A San Francisco judge has ruled that the Bay Area bridge toll increases implemented earlier this year were fairly and legally passed by voters, clearing a path to putting the additional money raised toward more than 30 regional transportation projects.

The Superior Court judge last Wednesday dismissed outright a lawsuit brought by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association that argued the toll increases were essentially a tax, requiring two-thirds voter approval. Regional Measure 3 had passed last June with 54% of the vote.

The measure was expected to add $4.5 billion to Bay Area transportation coffers to fund projects designed to ease congestion and building up alternative transit systems such as ferry and bus services. Tolls went up by $1 on seven Bay Area bridges on Jan. 1 this year, but with the lawsuit pending, the money collected had not yet gone toward any new projects. The seven are the Bay Bridge, San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Dumbarton Bridge, Carquinez Bridge, Benicia-Martinez Bridge and Antioch Bridge. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

The Political Battle Over California’s Suburban Dream – In a hearing room in California’s capitol on Tuesday, State Senator Scott Wiener described a widespread housing crisis in stark terms. California is short about 3.5 million homes, he said, citing a McKinsey report that projected housing demand by 2025. Buying a home at the Golden State’s median price—over half a million dollars—is a fantasy for most households. Rents are soaring, homelessness is up, and displacement is refacing storied neighborhoods.

…That’s the intention behind Wiener’s Senate Bill 50, which proposes to rewrite the laws that have blocked high-volume housing construction. Like its predecessor SB 827, the transit-oriented housing bill that captured national attention last year, SB 50 faces vigorous opposition from many angles. But it cleared its first legislative hurdle this week when it passed that housing committee (which Wiener leads) with a bipartisan 9-1 vote.

The bill would set an unprecedented state standard for residential zoning codes in certain corners of California. Currently, it is illegal to build anything but single dwellings designed for single families, sometimes with an in-law unit, in roughly 80 percent of California’s residential neighborhoods. SB 50 would change those laws in areas that are near high-frequency transit lines, job clusters, and good schools, prying open opportunities for developers to build to taller heights, with more units per square foot.

It’s a solution to what is, in one respect, a geometry problem. Cities that cling to their coveted coastlines can expand outwardly only so far, and even in big metros like L.A. and the Bay area, the share of land that’s zoned for single-family housing is still about 70 percent. Governor Gavin Newsom has pledged to meet that 3.5 million-unit gap by 2025. But UCLA urban policy experts recently showed that zoning constraints prevent cities and counties from building more than 2.8 million new homes. “If you’re prohibited to build enough housing, then you’re sort of stuck,” Wiener said on Tuesday. Read More > at CityLab

Local Law Against Obstructing Sidewalks Survives Another Round in Federal Court – A Washington, D.C. law that prohibits people from blocking sidewalks and building entrances after a police officer tells them to move has withstood a challenge in federal appeals court.

The law has been criticized as racially discriminatory when it comes to how police have enforced it. In this case, lawyers for three people arrested for violating the statute argued it is unconstitutionally vague and leaves police too much discretion in how it is applied.

But a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in line with a lower court decision, ruled this was not so. The law’s terms, wrote Judge Cornelia Pillard in a 22-page ruling issued on Friday, “are clear enough to shield against arbitrary deployment.”

Under the D.C. law, it’s a misdemeanor to “crowd, obstruct, or incommode,” streets, sidewalks, building entrances and other types of thoroughfares after a police officer instructs a person to stop doing so. The law’s origins trace back to 1892. It was updated in 2011. Read More > at Route Fifty

Achievement Gap Between Rich and Poor Public School Students Unchanged Over 50 Years – Half a century of trying hasn’t closed one of schooling’s most vexing achievement gaps. According to a new paper, the gap in educational achievement between public school students in the bottom 10th socioeconomic status (SES) percentile and those in the top 90th SES percentile has remained essentially unchanged over the last 50 years.

“In terms of learning, students at the 10th SES percentile remain some three to four years behind those in the 90th percentile,” report a team of researchers led by the Stanford economist Eric Hanushek in their disheartening new National Bureau of Economic Research study, “The Unwavering SES Achievement Gap.”

It would be one thing, the researchers note, that “if all achievement were rising, i.e., if a rising tide was lifting all boats.” But that’s not what’s happening. Young adolescents’ performance has risen over the past 50 years, but their scores drift downward once they reach high school. The upshot is that there has been no significant improvement in the overall education achievement scores of American high school student cohorts born since the 1950s.

The persistence of the SES gap remains when the researchers compare only white students over time, and they take into account such factors as the changing ethnic makeup of American school children.

The researchers note that these disappointing results occurred despite the fact that “overall school funding increased dramatically on a per pupil basis, quadrupling in real dollars between 1960 and 2015.” In addition, pupil-teacher ratios declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 16.1 in 2014.

In light of these findings, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson makes some useful suggestions: “The national strategy of controlling the country’s schools—through subsidies and regulatory requirements—has prevailed for half a century. It has failed. The federal government should exit the business of overseeing K-12 education.

Samuelson adds, “We should let states and localities see whether they can make schools work better. The grandiose fix-it national plans are mostly exercises in political marketing. We need solutions, not slogans.” Read More > at Reason

Here’s What a New Car Costs the Average American – In some parts of the country (think major cities with solid public transportation), owning a car is a luxury. But in most of the U.S., it’s a necessity. It’s estimated that 95% of American households own a car, while 85% of U.S. workers rely on a vehicle to get to their jobs.

Still, there’s a difference between owning a car and buying a new, expensive one. And unfortunately, Americans seem to be trending toward the latter. As of late last year, the average new-car loan was $31,455, according to Experian’s State of the Automotive Finance Market report. That translates into an average monthly payment of $523.

The average monthly payment for a used car is $378. Granted, that’s still a lot of money, but it’s far better than the $523 it might cost you to have a new vehicle. In fact, if you were to go the used car route, you’d save $1,740 a year in car payments alone, which you could then use to pad your savings, pay off debt, or apply to any of your top financial goals.

Even if you’re intent on owning a new car, there’s a wide spectrum to choose from. Owning a small sedan, for example, is generally much cheaper than opting for a larger car, so think about your transportation needs and purchase a car that allows you to meet them without going overboard. Read More > at The Motley Fool

BART extension: It’s complicated – Riders have waited decades for BART to roll into Silicon Valley. Now, an ongoing financial negotiation stands in the way of the opening.

It’s the first stop in a Silicon Valley extension that Bay Area residents have wanted for decades, connecting the East Bay to tech jobs and cutting through downtown San Jose, where Google is planning a huge new campus. Sixteen miles of track would loop west and then north to wind up in Santa Clara, fulfilling BART’s long-standing dream of building out its map in the South Bay.

But the project, already a year overdue, is facing a complication: BART and the Santa Clara transit agency developing the extension haven’t agreed on how to fund the line once a sales tax expires in 23 years.

…Because Santa Clara County decided not to join the BART district when it formed in 1965, the county was left on its own to build the new track and stations and then pay BART to operate them. Officials would rely on a combination of fares and an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax that the county began collecting in 2012. Yet the tax expires in 2042, and it’s impossible to predict whether voters will approve a replacement.

The discussions have an eerie precedent that nobody wants to repeat. In the late 1990s, BART partnered with the San Mateo County Transit District to build a five-stop line down the Peninsula to San Francisco International Airport. SamTrans agreed to pay for operating costs, predicting the agency would recoup all the money in fares. Yet when the airport line opened in 2003, it drew only about half of the 50,000 anticipated daily customers, leaving a deficit of $18.4 million that first year. And the costs kept piling up.

In 2007, BART and SamTrans parted ways. Their divorce settlement gave BART custody of the line, plus $56 million in state infrastructure bond money and 2% of the annual proceeds from San Mateo County’s half-cent sales tax, which helped pay for the track to Warm Springs in the East Bay. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

NIMBYs Argue New Housing Supply Doesn’t Make Cities Affordable. They’re Wrong. – The idea that cities would be more affordable places to live if more housing construction were allowed to take place is both remarkably simple and remarkably controversial.

When the Los Angeles Times polled voters in late 2018 about the cause of the state’s housing shortage, just 13 percent identified a dearth of new residential construction as a primary factor, behind things like a lack of rent control, or foreign real estate speculators.

In Seattle, moderate, middle-class activists argued against a city council-led effort to allow for taller, denser construction in some neighborhoods on the grounds that it would make the city’s affordability problems worse, not better.

The same point was advanced by the much more left-wing Los Angeles Tenants Union, which argued in a recent Medium essay that new market-rate housing construction “does not lead to lower housing prices, but rather spurs gentrification and displacement.”

Yet just today, The Wall Street Journal offered a stunning rebuke of this argument with a profile on the one city that demonstrates free market housing policies can really work: Tokyo.

According to the Journal, the Japanese capital of nearly some 13 million people saw the construction of 145,000 new housing units started in 2018—more than New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and Boston combined. The country as a whole has managed to add close to the same amount of new housing as the U.S., despite having about half the population.

All this new housing construction has kept rents relatively flat, with the average cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in Tokyo hovering at $1,000 a month for the past decade. That’s well below median monthly rents for the two-bedroom apartments in, say, Los Angeles ($1,750), New York City ($2,500), or San Francisco ($3,110). Read More > at Reason 

Rail Travel Is Cleaner Than Driving or Flying, but Will Americans Buy In? – Transportation represents a large portion—about 29 percent—of U.S. emissions, and the share has been rising in recent years. Rail proponents often argue that investment in trains and public transportation is a key part of making transportation cleaner, and indeed, the Green New Deal calls for greatly expanding high-speed rail.

I’m a scholar of rail, and it’s clear to me that the quickest way to decrease greenhouse gases from transportation is to travel by train and move goods by rail instead of on the road or by air.

To explain why, it’s worth comparing rail to other modes of transportation on energy consumption and emissions, and to look at some of the developments that can make rail more widely used in the U.S. and less reliant on fossil fuels.

Transportation by rail is a major part of the transportation system in most countries, including in the U.S., which has the longest freight railway system in the world with approximately 140,000 miles. Rail passenger services are essential in many areas, primarily in population centers such as New York and Chicago, and intercity rail has a significant market share in some corridors, such as the Northeast. Rail also offers long-distance routes connecting many smaller communities with each other and the large metropolitan areas in the country. Read More > at Route Fifty

About Kevin

Councilmember - City of Oakley, Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit, Transplan, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority and RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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