Tag Archives: taxes

Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.

Wow.

Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

I Get My Comments Published in the NYT, Expect Hate Mail

The problem with economics and other soft sciences is that a series of unsubstantiated pronouncements constitute an argument. We have no reason to trust any of these explanations, much less the standard liberal bromide that we need to tax money away from savers and give to spendthrifts. All of these theories are propounded by Keynesians who got the Japanese and Europeans into the pickle in the first place. My problem is that we in the USA have exactly the same trajectory and Keynesians in charge as did the Japanese and Europeans. The throwing money at the dartboard to pick a solution has failed and no one has any better ideas.
Economics, as a “science” does not have the power that would justify allowing the Fed and Congress, or any other central power to engineer the economy. Capitalistic societies have booms and busts, deflations and inflations, localized collapses and even disappearances of productive life. Visit any ghost town or recall the 1840, 1870-90, 1930 deflations, the panics, most short lived and self correcting in the history of the USA.
There may not be anything wrong with deflation. Little people who save can gain by putting money under their mattresses and won’t lose it to inflation. Investors will need to be much more careful to be sure that their projects make sense, our government will struggle and be hampered in its attempts to “help” people.
Finally, under socialism, planned economies, welfare states and the like there are no booms, only chronic busts.

City Hall Wants a Communications Officer; the Real Motives Unmasked. Castration by the Hatch Act.

The next commission meeting is this next Tuesday. On the agenda is a request to approve 78K to hire a “specialist” to communicate good news etc about Kentwood (and here I thought that I did a pretty good job.)

One of the provisions gave me a start. This employee is tasked with “Develop(ing) and execut(ing) campaigns and/or associated materials to support City millage initiatives.”

Wow.

First of all, what millage initiatives or tax increases does City Hall envision. What shortage of funds exists to justify this assault on our benighted taxpayer? And who exactly wants to raise taxes? Someone who promised not to when (s)he was elected?

I’m going to vote against this entire fraud on laws well established nationally and apparently also copied into the Michigan law. (I can’t link for some reason.)

https://www.michigan.gov/documents/wda/00-16_Hatch-Act_454709_7.pdf

Supporting this schema would be against the law and I’ll vote no.

Ramming Kentwood into More Debt, Raising Taxes by the Back Door

We got the Parks and Recreation Commissioners’ minutes for the last 3 months in the latest city commission packet. We’ve been missing a lot more than just delayed reports.

The commissioners are Emily Bridson, Bob Coughlin, Brian Dickey, Mimi Madden, Dustin Moseley, Kevin Small and Chair Bob Jones. Mr. Terry Schweitzer of planning is usually present at their meetings. Mark Rambo, Deputy City Administrator was there in March, the laying on of hands by our City Hall so to speak.

It seems that there are actual plans to replace the Kent Activities Center (KAC) on 48th and to spend more money on other recreation opportunities for “new families” and “new businesses” that will be moving to Kentwood. (And the whole time I thought that we were merely serving the same old long suffering taxpayers and shopworn residents, shame on me.)

The Parks and Rec Commission has been using Federal Community Block Grants, DNR, and some of the money left over from a now expired parks millage to fund new acquisitions and upgrades, and doing just fine. The operational money comes from the city’s general fund and I’m told that we will be in surplus as we pay down our bonds.

The Parks and Recreation Commission envisions expansion of facilities although the amount land in Kentwood hasn’t changed in 5 decades and the city is thought to be 90% “built out.” It’s hard to justify expansion if the supply of park services has been adequate for 50 years; do they think that our aging population want more grassland on which to play soccer or to jog?

There is a saving grace of caution in these minutes that comes from City Hall. I have been asking for data documenting how much our parks and rec facilities are actually used since I was elected in 2013. Are they near capacity, or are they, as my personal observations seem to show, almost abandoned? The Paul Henry Bike Trail that my wife and I did on the Fourth of July was busy enough but not long enough for serious biking. (We were really put off by the traffic along 60th Street and it’s hard to see where this path could be expanded to make it more natural.) We saw a half dozen small parks along the way, all empty on the biggest summer holiday of the year.

Mark Rambo in addressing the Commissioners’ request for guidance in borrowing the money for their new projects, suggests being sure that there is a need for more recreational facility and providing documentation.  If we need to renew the Parks Millage we should know how much is needed, and for what.  The Commission needs to identify activities that are missing in the Kentwood area that the public can’t get when it flocks to Planet Fitness and MVP voting with their own money.

Our Parks and Rec department read the statistically flawed, push-poll-generated parks study from 2 or 3 years ago and apparently wants to rush us past the gritty Kentwood realities to get to some sort of promised land that might be valid in California or in the minds of academic dreamers who state that a community needs a swimming pool for every 20,000 residents. (Where do these numbers come from?)

Just as our police use crime data to focus their resources , the Parks and Rec commission need to show usage, picnic tables occupied by families on holidays, kids playing sandlot baseball on weekday afternoons and young couples watching birds and flowers in nature preserves ere we pile yet more debt and the taxes on our indebted populace to pay for this stuff.

The Silver Line, Form Based Building Codes, the Hard Pressed Taxpayer whom I Throw under the Bus.

 

I’ll start with a direct quote from Wikipedia;

“Form-Based Codes foster predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle, with a lesser focus on land use, through municipal regulations.” (I will ignore the self serving “results in a high-quality” blather in this article.)

It seems that the latest fad in city planning is “The New Urbanism” aka “Smart Cities.” Our Grand Rapids area has bought into it. The idea is that we should live in crowded conditions along linear tracks where benevolent public-private entities arrange our jobs, leisure, shopping and public transportation, all of it ‘’walkable.”

Where to begin.

The public transit is easiest; the government built the Silver Line along our western border on South Division (32 million dollars) and we’re taxed directly millions for its operating budget. It is also planned to restrict the traffic flow along this road.

The rest of this scheme envisions private investors building apartments, stores, restaurants, offices and factories along this corridor so that a population of young, technically savvy  fictive entrepreneurs would move in, start businesses, leave a low carbon footprint and eschew urban sprawl.

In the matter of building the utopia, these urban planning romantics should be embarrassed that Kentwood and most of the Grand Rapids urban area has been built over many years under rules imposed by a constantly changing cadres of academically trained urban planners. The result looks like Fort Dix, NJ-you know, vast groupings of uniform buildings all constructed by the low bidder, painted the same color, bland and aligned, used for the same purpose standing like so many soldiers at attention. A few hundred yards away stands a grouping of a different generation of boring structures representing  the fashion of the day when it was produced by government fiat.

The planning and zoning commissions needed to distance themselves from evidence of their past sins, and sought salvation by trying to copy the few interesting portions of the urban area like the west side of GR and the Hill District that had been built before planning and zoning desecrations.

They think that abandoning the zoning that forced landowners to restrict the uses of their land to do what the government wants to now forcing builders to build structures in shapes and configurations that planners favored but allowing a wider range of uses (housing, retail trade, manufacturing)  all in the same neighborhood would rebuild deteriorated areas. Thus the hallowed “form based building codes.” All new building would be forced to have the same general architecture, in this case looking like what was built during the horse and buggy era,  but would be allowed to have different uses.

Cute.

The planning commission has been studying this for years as have Grand Rapids and Wyoming. Wyoming has actually re-written some of their codes to implement this advance of civilization. Now our planning commission wants 25K to hire a consulting firm to re-write our codes. I asked why we just couldn’t rip off the Wyoming codes? The answer was that our planning commission wanted to do it again, uniquely, or some such balderdash.

I voted with everyone else to authorize the expenditure and for this I apologize. In my defense, my “nay” would have only prolonged the farce. And remember the ancient saw, “Against stupidity the gods contend in vain.”

The Parks Commission Envisions, and Politicians Out Themselves Acquiescing to a Tax Increase.

 

The Parks Commission is a favorite of Commissioner Coughlin and he arranged for that commission to address our early February meeting. Three Parks Commissioners based their presenttion on the statistically flawed and self serving Parks study which cost the taxpayers 50K three or four years ago. Ignoring its weak foundations, the Park commissioner recommended a 1 mil tax increase (about 10% of our property taxes) to fund new acquisitions and buildings proposed in that document, stuff like buying up land, putting up a new activities building and several swimming pools.

Several City Commissioners commented. Commissioner Redmond was enthusiastically supportive, noting that he’d just been elected and would not need to run for another 4 years. Commissioner Coughlin who had arranged for the presentation beamed his approval and lamented letting the previous Parks millage lapse 3 years ago. Our mayor noted that he was not in favor of building pools and that tax increase would have to go before the voters. That referendum would not be possible this year, 2017 was an election year (Did he want to run?) but that it would be great in 2018.

I noted that Grand Rapids had at least 3 pools that they could not afford to open. (I didn’t say anything, but we had also just spent over 80 K on a refurbishing the basketball court and on waterproofing the cement underlying the existing activities building after a natural spring was discovered in the middle of the very expensive new court flooring. I had asked about plans for planning a new activities center when replacing the gym floor was first proposed, and had been assured that there were no plans to replace that building. Truth telling in  City Hall is trivial.)

I only document this episode because I see that the proposed minutes of that meeting did not include much of what transpired. I’ll try to correct the record this Tuesday and expect to be rebuffed and lied to again. But this account should interest some candidates in this summer’s primary elections, and again next year when some might seek re-election.

Prop 1-15 goes to the Wall, and Voters’ Lists are now Filtered.

One quarter of registered voters came out and they crushed Prop 1-15. The whining by the well-funded losers has started. M-live has already published one of their vapid editorials. Bridgemi pontificates on the choices that they deem the state legislators must consider. But no one has commented on the political implications of who came out to vote and what that means for politicians and future elections.

I’ll note that virtually every “professional” meaning leftist writer, teacher, academician and petty politician at the city and county level publicly supported Prop 1-15. The city commission in Kentwood voted unanimously to support with only Commissioner DeMaagd voicing any reservations. (I was not there for that meeting.)

I’d intuit that the arrogance of this snooty group infuriated the peasants who came out in droves to waylay this crude power grab by their betters. But the trashing that they inflicted on Prop 1-15 is just the short term casualty. The election created a list of voters who were probably fiscally conservative and who were motivated to react to the political highway robbery (really, I just now stumbled on this image) such as Prop 1-15. They will still be outraged by the affront for some years and may well want to punish politicians who aligned themselves with the ballot question. Anyone who has the funds can use the May ’15 voter list to efficiently contact and mobilize an electorate that is primed to help oust office holders who foolishly supported this political cock up..