Topic: Energy and Environment

Zoning Laws Are Strangling Silicon Valley

Many of the best jobs for computer programmers are concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area, where dozens of innovative software companies—Google, Facebook, Apple, Intel, Cisco, Adobe—are located. This concentration of innovative, rapidly-growing firms shows up in income statistics. For example, the average wage in the San Jose metropolitan area, around $80,000, is among the nation’s highest.

Yet strangely, the Bay Area as a whole has been growing slowly. Between 1990 and 2000, the population of the Bay Area grew by 12.6 percent, slower than the 13.2 percent growth rate of the nation as a whole. Between 2000 and 2010, the Bay Area grew by just 5.4 percent, barely half the 9.7 percent growth rate of the nation as a whole. Compare that to the Phoenix metropolitan area. Despite dramatically lower wages (the average is less than $50,000) it attracted enough people to grow by a whopping 45 percent in the 1990s, and by 29 percent in the last decade.

A major factor is a severe shortage of housing in the Bay Area. Lots of people would like to live there, but the supply of homes hasn’t kept up. As a result, the median home in the Bay Area cost about $600,000 in 2009. This means that even though Silicon Valley firms offer some of the nation’s highest wages, many families can still increase their standard of living by moving to cities like Phoenix, where the median home costs about a third as much.

This pattern has been with us for long enough that most of us just take it for granted. Everyone knows that large cities are outrageously expensive, and that families often have to move to less glamorous cities to find homes they can afford. But in his new book The Gated City, Ryan Avent argues that this complacency is misguided. Living in the heart of a large city will never be as cheap, per square foot, as living in an outer-ring suburb. But the enormous discrepancy in housing costs between Silicon Valley and the Sun Belt is mostly a result of government regulations, not the inevitably higher costs of urban life.

In the 19th Century, the most innovative cities tended to also be the fastest growing. New York, Chicago, and Detroit all grew by an order of magnitude in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as key American industries grew in them. Skyscrapers sprang up in these cities’ downtowns. In New York and Chicago especially, developers built dense, walkable neighborhoods to accommodate the surging demand for housing. And this, in turn, helped keep supply in balance with demand and avoided large price increases.

This isn’t happening in Silicon Valley. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the tallest skyscraper in San Jose, the self-styled capital of Silicon Valley, is a pathetic 22 stories tall. Silicon Valley continues to be dominated by low-density, suburban patterns of development, even as housing prices have skyrocketed.

Why is this happening? In a nutshell, it’s because high-density development is illegal. The city of San Jose has 350 pages of regulations that place an effective ceiling on building density. The regulations include minimum lot sizes, minimum building setbacks, maximum building heights, minimum parking requirements, and so on. Of course, developers can apply for exceptions to these rules, but when they do so, city officials are besieged by what Avent calls NIMBY’s (“Not In My Back Yard”), local activists who strenuously oppose having more people live or work in their neighborhoods.

Avent argues that this isn’t just an aesthetic or lifestyle dispute between those who like the suburban lifestyle and those who prefer to live in cities. By strangling the growth of America’s densest and most productive cities, restrictive zoning laws actually make the nation poorer. When an engineer leaves his $80,000 job in Mountain View for a $60,000 job in Scottsdale, he may wind up with a larger house and more disposable income. But the economy as a whole becomes less productive. In a free market, developers would be allowed to supply more housing in Mountain View so that engineer could enjoy a higher salary and an affordable home. And the phenomenon isn’t limited to the Bay Area. Large, coastal cities like New York and Boston also have high wages but anemic population growth. Meanwhile, people flock to cities like Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Charlotte with lower wages but cheaper housing. Deregulation would not only allow more people to enjoy life in America’s most dynamic cities, but it would have a real impact on the nation’s economic growth.

The Gated City is a Kindle Single. It’s just $2, and short enough that you’ll be able to finish it in an afternoon.

Solyndra: Another Energy Boondoggle

The details surrounding the $535 million government loan to Solyndra – the now-bankrupt solar energy company that had been the green apple of the president’s eye – are still emerging. It remains to be seen whether or not the Obama administration broke any laws when it pushed the loan out the door despite obvious problems with the company’s finances.

At the very least, the administration is guilty of wasting taxpayer money. In that regard, it’s no different than all the other administrations that have tried to tinker with energy markets. When the dust settles, Solyndra will take its place alongside other infamous federal energy boondoggles, including the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, and the Superconducting Super Collider. (All of these and more are discussed in a Cato essay on federal energy subsidies.)

Congressional Republicans are salivating over the prospects of a scandal involving a key initiative of the administration. But Republicans should be careful when casting stones given their past and present support for energy subsidies. (Note to investigative reporters: Republican [and Democratic] governors like to hand out subsidies to businesses, which often backfire on taxpayers. I’d know.)

As the political circus over the Solyndra loan unfolds, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the more important question is whether taxpayers should be forced to subsidize energy companies to begin with. The Cato essay argues that they shouldn’t:

The private sector is entirely capable of performing research into coal, nuclear, solar, and alternative energy sources for itself. Businesses will fund new technologies when there is a reasonable chance of commercial success, as they do in every other private industry. Federal subsidies may even be actively damaging to our energy future by steering markets in the wrong direction, away from the best long-term energy solutions…

Policymakers often make grandiose promises, such as proposing to make America ‘energy independent’ or to convert the nation to a ‘green economy.’ Those visions don’t make any sense, but even if they did history shows that the Department of Energy would be incapable of putting them into place with any degree of competence. Federal energy schemes are often poorly managed and generate huge cost overruns, or they aim at objectives that make little economic sense[.]

Overregulation, Swing States and D.C. Cynicism

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries a news report on how the Obama administration, after more than two years of pursuing damn-the-costs government control over the private sector, is finally developing more internal debate about whether and when zealous regulations are worth the cost. In particular, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs chief Cass Sunstein, known as skeptical about some costly rules, has now acquired an important sometime ally in White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, who played a role in getting EPA to table some very expensive new air-quality standards the other day.

All well and good, but I was stopped short by a paragraph that shouldn’t pass without comment:

The same day, Mr. Daley met with industry groups, who gave the White House a map showing counties that would be out of compliance with the Clean Air Act if the stricter standards were put in place. The map showed that the rule would affect areas in the politically important 2012 election states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio.

Even by Washington standards, isn’t it appallingly cynical to evaluate environmental rules that could (critics have argued) cripple wide sectors of the economy according to whether the worst damage falls on politically vital states like Florida and Ohio, or just ho-hum non-swing states like Oklahoma, North Dakota and Tennessee? True, the article doesn’t say who was cynical enough to draw the connection here – the business groups giving the presentation? The White House listeners? Some third party whose viewpoint this is all being filtered through? But whoever’s being the cynic here, one of the costs is to feed the alienation of citizens of Texas in particular, whose officials and businesses have been complaining for more than a year of being singled out for hostile attention by the Obama EPA. For everyone’s good, I hope someone in the White House at this moment is writing a sharp letter disclaiming any special intent to help Pennsylvania, Virginia et al. And I hope after drafting that letter they will be cleared to send it off for publication in the Journal, not just keep it in the desk to show outraged delegations of Texans.

‘Subsidy Risk’ in Green Tech

Two-and-a-half years ago, I attended a venture capital conference that focused a good deal on “clean tech.” I wasn’t impressed.

[T]he current vogue for “clean tech” differs from the information technology revolution that has done so much for the economy and society. Venture investors may be turning to government subsidy and regulatory advantage for their portfolio businesses, rather than producing to meet a market demand. “Going green” may mean “going red” in at least two senses—a more socialist political economy and a government even deeper in debt.

Essaying to instill some doubts among investors who were banking on “political will,” I asked pointedly how VCs assessed subsidy risk and the vagaries of public policy. The responses weren’t insightful or memorable.

Some vindication of my doubts comes in an article called “The Crisis in Clean Energy” ($) by David Victor and Kassia Yanosek in the July/August Foreign Affairs.

In the United States, most clean-energy subsidies come from the federal government, which makes them especially volatile. Every few years, key federal subsidies for most sources of clean energy expire. Investment freezes until, usually in the final hours of budget negotiations, Congress finds the money to renew the incentives—and investors rush in again. As a result, most investors favor low-risk conventional clean-energy technologies that can be built quickly, before the next bust.

Elsewhere, they write, “With clean energy suffering from long time horizons, high capital intensity, and a heavy dependence on fickle public policies, some Silicon Valley venture firms are scaling back or even canceling their ‘clean tech’ investment arms.”

Alas, Victor and Yanosek don’t call for the federal government to clear the field so entrepreneurialism can flourish. They offer three bland “shifts in approach” that amount to more of the same. Until the federal government does clear the field, watch for the subsidy muddle in green tech to suppress profound innovations while government-directed investment brings modest returns to investors/tax-consumers at the expense of taxpayers.

Irene Wasn’t All That

Hurricane Irene (which seemed more like Tropical Storm Irene from Virginia Beach to New York City) has prompted the usual rhetoric from the usual suspects about global warming making these storms worse.  Too bad there is no evidence for this whatsoever on a global scale.

Ryan Maue, at Florida State University, tracks global tropical cyclone energy back to 1970, which is the time at which adequate data on hurricane winds became available. His “Accumulated Cyclone Energy” (ACE) index peaked in the mid 1990’s and in recent years has been at or near the lowest point ever recorded. His most recent refereed paper, in press at Geophysical Research Letters, is called “Recent Historically Low Global Tropical Cyclone Activity.”  Enough said?

However, there is an interesting trend in Atlantic hurricane activity. The Department of Commerce’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) is naming tropical storms that they clearly would have ignored in previous years.  This year we have had ten (the latest is “Jose”, which currently looks weak in satellite imagery), and I doubt that seven of these would have made the grade years ago.  In fact, I have written to NHC’s Chris Landsea (with whom I have authored refereed papers on hurricanes) about this, and he agrees that NHC is naming systems that they would have previously ignored or missed.  Frankly, some of our recent “tropical storms” have pitiful presentations, looking more like small clusters of thunderstorms than the familiar pinwheels of nascent hurricanes.  A recent paper in Journal of Geophysical Research, by Princeton’s Gabriele Villarini, noted the contamination of the Atlantic hurricane data by what he called “shorties.”

Why NHC is doing this, and why they kept Hurricane Irene’s “category” (one through five) high despite  acknowledging that hurricane hunter aircraft were having trouble finding enough wind, has more to do with risk aversion than any putative conspiracy to toe the politically correct line on global warming. The result is that ships at sea are “warned” of brisk winds and high seas that might have previously surprised them, and that politicians and emergency management officials can justify massive evacuation orders. This used to be known as covering one’s posterior.  Now NHC sometimes calls it “the course of least regret.”

It is also a dangerous practice. People who endure the endless torture of a hurricane evacuation from barrier islands like the North Carolina Outer Banks from storms that cause little damage may be reluctant to leave when the next – big and real – one shows up.

Consumers and the ‘Smart Grid’

The drive to let consumer-level electricity prices float as prices do in innumerable other markets has been stunted by complaints about so-called “smart meters” that would give consumers the ability to respond to fluctuations in the realtime price of electricity.

When the California Energy Commission attempted to put these kinds of meters into new buildings, the knee-jerk reaction consisted largely of complaints about the government “taking over” consumers’ electricity consumption in the case of a looming blackout. For more on why these concerns lacked some essential context, listen to the podcast with Peter Van Doren on the case of the CEC.

As I discussed with economist Lynne Kiesling at Cato University, consumer-side responses to varying electricity prices could take many forms, from smarter appliances plugged into the same pricing information to battery technology to take advantage of times of low electricity demand. What’s more, dynamic pricing could someday let consumers turn the product of electricity into the service of electricity by allowing consumers to pay a premium for costlier but “greener” methods of electricity generation.

Here’s more from Kiesling on smart meters.

2,000 Deaths per Year … for the Environment

Something as simple as the concept of tradeoffs can cause cognitive dissonance to good-hearted people who want too hard to drive the society toward their perception of the good.

A nice illustration of that is the cost in lives of making cars that use less gasoline. How can doing good for the environment possibly be harmful? Oh, it can be deadly.

Nicely illustrated by CEI’s Sam Kazman on John Stossel’s show.