Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Oakland May Revisit Contract with Wells Fargo

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Many Oakland residents watched with envy in the past few months as Berkeley’s city council began to explore divesting from Wells Fargo and moving the city’s money and banking services to a smaller, more community-oriented bank. Peralta Community College District has also begun making moves to divest from large banks. San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have also taken steps in recent years to encourage responsible banking practices by banks which do business with those cities.

Divestiture has been a longterm goal of some Oakland residents too—in past years, the city council has pursued the possibility of moving the city’s money out of ginormous global financial institutions and into a local bank or credit union, but little has ever come of it. The city has always concluded, as I understand it, that given the volume and variety of banking services that a city of Oakland’s size requires, only a few large banks are capable of handling those needs at a feasible cost. (See, for example, this staff report from 2009 recommending that Wells Fargo be given their current contract.)

The widespread disapproval of how megabanks behaved before and during the current housing and financial crises, along with the Occupy Wall Street movement, have rekindled interest in moving Oakland’s money out of Wells Fargo, which currently holds the contract for both the city’s depository and custodial banking services (at some times in the past, separate banks have handled the two types of banking services, but since 2009, Wells Fargo has handled both). I don’t know what the current prospects are for divesting from Wells Fargo (probably not good!), but it appears that some Oakland councilmembers are at least hoping to wrangle some concessions from Wells Fargo before granting any extension of their contract. A proposed resolution is on the agenda of the City Council’s Finance and Management Committee on Tuesday requiring that any renewal of the city’s contract with Wells Fargo be brought to the council, instead of being potentially extended on the authority of the City Administrator. Here is a memo from Councilmembers Brunner and Kaplan summarizing the rationale for the resolution:

To: Chair De La Fuente and Members of the Finance Committee
From: Councilmembers Brunner and Kaplan
Date:  March 13, 2012
Re:  Resolution To Require That Any Action To Extend the City’s Primary Depository and Custodial Banking Services Contracts Shall Be Authorized By The City Council

The City’s existing banking services contract with Wells Fargo expires on December 31, 2012. However, Resolution 82060 authorized the City Administrator to enter into two one-year extensions. This resolution rescinds that authority, and requires that any action to extend must be authorized by the City Council.

The role of financial institutions in the foreclosure crisis and recession has created renewed interest in and support for policies to hold banks responsible to the communities they serve. Many jurisdictions in California are now reviewing their banking contracts and considering responsible banking policies.

This resolution is to ensure that the City Council has the opportunity to hold its current contractor to responsible banking policies, and that their contract is not automatically extended without Council review and input.

The councilmembers, in a separate memo, express concern about the difficulty the city has had in getting information from Wells Fargo and other banks about foreclosures and loan modifications, and frustration that the banks have not done more to prevent foreclosures. Occupy Oakland has fruitfully joined forces with organizations like Causa Justa : Just Cause to use direct action to shut down foreclosure auctions and bring attention to the fraud and illegality behind many—if not most—foreclosures. Pressure from a broad coalition of activist groups, unions and churches has also reignited the city’s effort to renegotiate or end its interest rate swap deal with Goldman Sachs. It seems to me that the city’s negotiations with Wells Fargo—or other banks vying for the contract—may well be another place where strategically-applied pressure from Occupy Oakland and other groups might yield tangible results.

The proposed resolution (admittedly limited in scope) from Councilmembers Brunner and Kaplan will be discussed Finance and Management Committee meeting at noon today in the Sgt. Mark Dunakin Room on the 1st floor of City Hall. (And no, I won’t be there; I’ll be sitting on a barstool somewhere watching a soccer game on TV—priorities, people!)

Interesting Times

Friday, August 20th, 2010

“May you live in interesting times” —Ancient chinese curse, likely apocryphal

WeedsOver a year ago I posted this photograph from a vacant lot along the Oakland waterfront. One commenter suggested that it looked like a relic of the dying American economy. Another thought, more colorfully, that it was “maybe the last known hideout of a gang of Cotton Candy Carny Vendors on the run from the law.”

Whatever it evoked, the scene no longer exists. Construction crews have been working to expand neighboring Union Point Park, so this overgrown, debris-strewn lot has been transformed into tidily landscaped parkland, with a small stretch of the Bay Trail running through it. The graffiti-decorated concrete pipes have been replaced by new lampposts, landscaping and bike racks, and the cool (but deteriorating) boatworks building behind it will also be renovated and put to some use:

This project is funded by Measure DD, the bond measure passed by Oakland voters almost a decade ago—the same measure that is allowing for all the improvements around Lake Merritt, of which the redone parkland along the Lakeshore side is just one example:

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Unfortunately, the canada geese have discovered the plush new carpets of grass since these photos were taken, so picnickers and sunbathers aren’t quite as plentiful as they were in the spring, but even so, this side of the park still looks better than it has in decades. (Other wonders of the Lake Merritt work: the smooth pavement and new bike lanes which have turned a bike ride on Lakeshore from a medieval ordeal into a pleasure, and the razing/rebuilding of the 12th street viaduct, which is so exciting that someone has created an entire blog just to document daily developments in the construction.)

And Measure DD projects aren’t the only positive developments around Oakland these days. In fact, there is exciting news on many fronts: Oakland’s plentiful new restaurants are getting approving attention from coast to coast; new bars, clubs and performance spaces continue to open at a furious clip; and the art scene continues to thrive. I see more bikes on the road than ever before, with a wider variety of riders on them. Even with Oakland’s high unemployment rate and shrinking police force, crime continues to be down by double-digit percentages compared with recent years in nearly every category except residential burglaries. In many ways, Oakland feels a lot like a city on the upswing.

Why talk about curses, then? Because despite all this good news, one can’t help but wonder if Oakland is on the verge of collapse. The city’s municipal finances are in terrible shape and projected to get much worse. The unemployment rate is said to be around 17%, but given the wide disparity between Oakland’s rich and poor neighborhoods, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is more like 50% in some areas. Oakland’s precarious financial situation and wealth disparities are, of course, just a microcosm of what we also see on a state, national and global level. And events as varied as the ongoing economic crisis, the BP oil spill, and the rise of Sarah Palin as a prominent political figure have made some of us wonder if prophets of doom like Dmitri Orlov or Jim Kunstler might not only be entertaining cranks, but also correct.

During this moment of instability and pervasive anxiety, here comes the race for mayor. Ten candidates have ultimately qualified for the ballot, and while none of them (with the exception of the minor candidate who openly espouses municipal bankruptcy) seem nervy enough to propose solutions commensurate with the city’s fiscal problems, the race does promise some entertainment value. We have the “Green” Party candidate who wants to abolish parking meters. We have one city councilmember who seems to think that helping to squander all the city’s money during the boom years makes her qualified to lead the city during these bust years. We have a former community college trustee whose best-known accomplishment was using her public credit card for over $4000 of personal spending, some of it in Las Vegas. We have a professor and political analyst who seems smart and sensible, but perhaps more eager to share the details of his preferences in baked goods than the details of his plan to cope with Oakland’s fiscal disaster. We have a veteran politico who was term-limited out of his state senate seat, but apparently held it long enough to leverage it into a lucrative longterm arrangement with the state’s extremely powerful prison guard’s union.

As an under-40 blogger with an interest in “alternative” transportation, I may be demographically doomed to vote for Rebecca Kaplan, but some of her proposals seem fantastical (which is not to say fantastic) and some of her recent actions, such as placing herself between a line of riot police and an unruly crowd after the Mehserle verdict, or voting in support of a liquor store in North Oakland, have made a lot of people wonder if she is perhaps a bit too eager to be all things to all people. (Then again, she’s an energetic and smart lesbian former rabbinical student and transportation wonk who did her undergrad at MIT, on whose campus I spent much of my early boyhood—I mean, what’s not to love, right?)

Despite the motley assortment of oddballs, insiders and longshots who are running for mayor, it’s hard for me personally to muster any enthusiasm about any of them, but the campaign will at least provide a fair amount of drama for the next few months. As for whether Oakland—and the state and the nation—will see a renaissance in coming years, or enter a tailspin of ecological, financial, and social collapse…we’ll just have to wait and see. Interesting times, indeed.

When standing on principle means defending the status quo

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

I was talking to a politically active friend about a month ago, as the Senate was about to pass their version of health care reform legislation, and I told him I was nervous that the Democrats in Congress, being Democrats in Congress, would find some way to fumble the ball one yard from the end zone. My friend tried to reassure me that the hard part was over, and now it was just a matter of hammering out some compromise between the Senate and House versions of the bill, and finalizing passage of the negotiated bill for President Obama to sign.

Of course I had no inkling at the time about the cruel twist of fate that would cause such a fumble—the fact that it is Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat which is endangering the passage of any kind of health care reform is horrifying, given that the expansion of health care to the poor and uninsured was Kennedy’s life’s work. So what should be done now that the possibility of getting any compromise bill past another Republican filibuster attempt in the Senate is gone? I’m no expert in health care legislation, and I won’t pretend to understand the details of the legislation the Senate passed, but I trust people who do understand the details, like Jonathan Cohn of the New Republic, or Paul Krugman of the New York Times, or Dean Baker and Jacob Hacker and others who are urging Democrats in the House of Representatives to pass the Senate Bill as it is, so that it could go straight to President Obama for his signature without having to pass through the Senate gauntlet again.

In an ideal world, I would personally favor a much more socialized health care system, but we don’t live in an ideal world, or an ideal country—we live in a country where Scott Brown can be elected to the Senate in Massachusetts, and Sarah Palin can be the Vice Presidential candidate of one of the two major parties. If there is any time to set idealism aside and take an incremental step in the right direction, then this seems like it—tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance, resulting in untreated preventable illnesses, medical bankruptcies, and tens of thousands of preventable deaths every year. (If terrorism resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year, both parties in Congress would be falling over each other in their rush to do something about it; when our inadequate health care system results in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans every year, one party dithers and squabbles, while the other party just obstructs every effort at reform.)

I wrote to Congresswoman Barbara Lee via her house.gov web page today (letter reprinted below), and called her office as well. The aide I spoke to on the phone told me that Lee had not made a decision on whether she would be willing to support the flawed Senate bill, but said that they were getting a lot of feedback from constituents. I told him that this seemed likely to be the only real opportunity to pass any kind of significant health care reform for the foreseeable future, and that I urge Lee to help make sure that Democrats in the House of Representatives do not miss this chance. I encourage other people to contact Congresswoman Lee (or whoever your representative is) and tell her staff that this is not the time to hold out for a better bill, or to shelve health care reform until some other year—if it was this difficult to get inadequate legislation through the Senate with a filibuster-proof supermajority, then “progressive” Democrats are crazy if they think that they will be able to get something better passed in the near future. Barbara Lee may not have to worry about her own re-election, but opposing the Senate bill because it is inadequate is not standing on principle—it is supporting the status quo.

The phone number of Lee’s Washington office is (202) 225-2661, and her staff eagerly await your calls.

Here is a copy of the email I sent through Lee’s website, typos and all. I should have crafted it offline instead of trying to compose it on the fly inside the form on her website, but I pretty much managed to say what I wanted to say:

Dear Congresswoman Lee,

I am concerned that if Congress does not enact the health care reforms currently on the table, then significant health care legislation with not be passed for years and probably decades. I know that the Senate bill is very imperfect, but the status quo is simply unacceptable: tens of millions of Americans have no insurance, resulting in unnecessary deaths, expensive emergency-room visits, and medical-related bankruptcies. This is a disaster! I am appalled that Democratic members of congress are on the verge of letting this unique opportunity to enact real reform pass by.

Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House are unlikely to be this large in coming years, so the notion that it is better to wait and try to pass better legislation in coming months or years strikes me as wishful thinking. This may be the only chance to take a significant step in the right direction on health care reform, and if this opportunity passes, then Democrats in Congress will share responsibility for all the unnecessary deaths and bankruptcies that we see in the future.

Please do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I urge you to do everything in your power to pass the Senate health care reform bill and get it on President Obama’s desk. Please let me know where you stand on this once-in-a-generation chance to finally do something about our awful current health care system.

Sincerely,

Partners in Help

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

There are few better ways to spend one’s money than to give it to Partners In Health. That has long been true; this week it’s truer.

While PIH is now a large organization operating in many countries around the world, it began in Haiti, and still has a large medical footprint on the ground there, making the organization well equipped to mobilize quickly and effectively to help people affected by the earthquake. Here is a note posted to their website:

Over the past 18 hours, Partners In Health staff in Boston and Haiti have been working to collect as much information as possible about the conditions on the ground, the relief efforts taking shape, and all relevant logistics issues in order to respond efficiently and effectively to the most urgent needs in the field. At the moment, PIH’s Chief Medical Officer is on her way to Haiti, where she will meet with Zanmi Lasante leadership and head physicians, who are already working to ensure PIH’s coordinated relief efforts leveraging the skills of more than 120 doctors and nearly 500 nurses and nursing assistants who work at Zanmi Lasante’s sites.

We have already begun to implement a two-part strategy to address the immediate need for emergency medical care in Port-au-Prince. First, we are organizing the logistics to get the medical staff and supplies needed for setting up field hospital sites in Port-au-Prince where we can triage patients, provide emergency care, and send those who need surgery or more complex treatment to our functioning hospitals and surgical facilities. To do this, we are creating a supply chain through the Dominican Republic. Second, we are ensuring that our facilities in the Central Plateau are ready to serve the flow of patients from Port-au-Prince. Operating and procedure rooms are staffed, supplied, and equipped for surgeries and we have converted a church in Cange into a large triage area. Already our sites in Cange and Hinche are reporting a steady flow of people coming with medical needs from the capital city. In the days that come we will need to make sure our pharmacies and supplies stay stocked and our staff continue to be able to respond.

Currently, our greatest need is financial support. Haiti is facing a crisis worse than it has seen in years, and it is a country that has faced years of crisis, both natural disaster and otherwise. The country is in need of millions of dollars right now to meet the needs of the communities hardest hit by the earthquake. Our facilities are strategically placed just two hours outside of Port-au-Prince and will inevitably absorb the flow of patients out of the city. In addition, we need cash on-hand to quickly procure emergency medical supplies, basic living necessities, as well as transportation and logistics support for the tens of thousands of people that will be seeking care at mobile field hospitals in the capital city.  Any and all support that will help us respond to the immediate needs and continue our mission of strengthening the public health system in Haiti is greatly appreciated. Help us stand up for Haiti now.

If you are not in a position to make a financial contribution, you can help us raise awareness of the earthquake tragedy. Please alert your friends to the situation and direct them to this webpage for updates and ways to help.

If Partners In Health isn’t your cup of tea for political or other reasons, lists of relief organizations abound, like this one at the New York Times website. Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross are always deserving of financial assistance too, and as far as I can tell they are well positioned to provide help to those in and around Port-au-Prince.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes feels overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world, and impotent in the face of it all (and of course, self-recriminations about all of the frivolous ways I spend my time and my money just make me feel worse). Ultimately, though, doing something is always better than doing nothing, so please—do something.

The Triumph of Hope over Experience

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

In a city which had to severely cut core services in order to deal with a 20% shortfall in its general fund earlier this year, and which faces further fiscal fiascoes for the foreseeable future, can someone explain to me why being the Chair of the City Council’s Finance Committee is being touted by Oakland mayoral candidate Jean Quan’s supporters as an argument in her favor, rather than an argument against her?

Quan’s supporters cited her knowledge of Oakland city government as one of her main qualifications for mayor. She has served as chair of the City Council Finance Committee, which has had to make difficult decisions in cutting close to $100 million from the 2009 city budget, with a projected $25 million of budgets cuts still to come in 2010.

“She’s the one who knows the city of Oakland inside and out,” said Claudia Falconer, president of the Montclair Village Association. “It’s a troubled time, and cities across the country are having fiscal problems. Jean knows the Finance Department of the City of Oakland better than anyone else.”

I’m not masochistic enough to pay very close attention to Oakland’s government, so maybe someone can convince me that Quan is part of the solution rather than part of the problem when it comes to Oakland’s financial problems, but at first blush, I find this argument less than compelling. The same article notes that she wants to model her campaign after Obama’s, with a lot of grassroots neighborhood organizing. Obama certainly ran an impressive campaign, but let’s not forget that he also benefited from a widespread “throw the bums out!” sentiment, and that similar feelings will motivate a lot of voters in 2010’s elections too. (Not that the idea of voting for Don Perata for mayor makes me any more excited—the only prospect that really excites me about Oakland’s mayoral election is the thought that maybe I won’t be able to vote in it because I won’t live here anymore. Now that’s change I can believe in!)

A Virtual Holiday Food Drive

Friday, December 4th, 2009

I wrote about the increasing hunger crisis in the United States back in May, when Breadline USA came out. Difficulty putting food on the table is not a problem faced only by the poorest of the poor: many working people now rely on food stamps, food banks, soup kitchens in order to fill the gap between what they can afford and what they need. Record numbers of Americans were “food insecure” in 2008, the Department of Agriculture reported last month, and things have only become worse since then, as unemployment and underemployment levels have continued to rise. Food stamps are used by more people than at any time in history, and so on and so on.

Given this bleak reality, I am pleased to take part in a Virtual Holiday Food Drive which has been organized by other Oakland bloggers. The money raised goes directly to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, which provides enough food for 300,000 meals a week. All you need to do is click on the image below, then click the “shop” button. You will then be able to either “shop” for food items for the food bank (it gives you a sense of how far food banks are able to stretch monetary donations by buying in bulk), or simply enter a dollar amount.

Holiday Food Drive

Anything you are able to give would be much appreciated (by me, of course, but much more importantly, by the many people who are helped by the ACCFB every day). We have a goal of $2,000 by December 20th, and are already nearing the halfway point less than a week into the drive, thanks to a limited number of very generous donors. If a less limited number of similarly generous donors (even a $5 donation can be very generous, depending on one’s circumstances!) pitch in, then this goal is very doable, and the real goal, of course, is to exceed the goal by as much as possible. More information on this virtual food drive can be found here.

I know that some of my regular readers are far removed from Alameda County, and may have their own plans to volunteer or donate to food banks in their own regions. I would never suggest that you give to the ACCFB instead of helping out closer to your home, but what better way to put into practice the Buddhist virtue of expanding circles of compassion than to supplement local giving with additional help farther afield? Or if anyone was saving up to buy me a cool Festivus gift like a sailboat or an annual subscription to US Weekly, then may I suggest that the money would be better spent providing food to those who need it?

Regardless of how you choose to help the less fortunate among us during this holiday season: thank you!

East 18th Gets Thrift Store that Lakeshore Spurned

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I noticed today that an Out of the Closet thrift store is about to open on East 18th Street, in the space that Hollywood Video used to occupy. Employees who were there setting up the shop told me that the grand opening is on Saturday. I normally wouldn’t write a long post about the opening of a thrift store in my neighborhood, but the opening of this particular store says a lot about the city of Oakland.

Out of the Closet

I’ll begin at the beginning. Over a year and a half ago, a GapKids store on Lakeshore Avenue closed (the regular Gap store a few doors down remains open). The landlord entered into negotiations to rent the empty storefront to a thrift store chain called Out of the Closet, which is operated by (and supports) the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. When neighborhood residents got wind of those negotiations from a post at the Grand Lake Guardian website, some of them were not pleased to hear that a déclassé thrift store—and especially a thrift store with a bright pink and blue color scheme—was going to be coming to that shopping strip, which has become a pretty nice little shopping district in recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of some of the same people who objected to Out of the Closet.

My City Councilmember, Pat Kernighan, wrote an open letter to the community in which she said that when she learned about the negotiations, she had “immediately contacted the owner’s broker, Steve Banker of LCB Associates, and told him that a thrift store would not be welcomed by the majority of area residents.” She apparently believed that the majority of residents would not welcome a thrift store because she had been contacted by 15 people who were not happy about the coming of the thrift store, but only by 3 people who approved of the store. I’m very dubious of that conclusion. Anyone who has ever dealt with the public in any way should know that people are much more likely to speak up if they are angry about something, and in this case, that phenomenon was amplified because most of the neighborhood residents who even knew about the negotiations were people who had read about it in an anti-thrift store blog post which encouraged people to call Kernighan to complain. That’s hardly going to produce a representative sample of public opinion.

In any case, Kernighan made clear in her letter what her own feelings were: she wrote that she personally didn’t think the store was a “good fit” for Lakeshore, and that she was trying to get a “more desirable” store to move into that location. She said she had contacted representatives of Out of the Closet and “explained that Lakeshore is trying hard to attract more shoppers with disposable income to keep all the stores in business and that a thrift store would lead in the other direction.” She also expressed the concerns that people would dump stuff in front of the store after-hours, and that the thrift store would create blight.

Many local residents clearly agreed with her, and some of the comments on the post called Out of the Closet a “dumpy, cheap chain” and expressed a desire for locally-owned mom and pop stores, cute boutiques and restaurants, etc. Other people took strong exception to Kernighan’s letter, and interpreted her comments about “good fit,” “more desirable,” and “attract more shoppers with disposable income” as a not-so-subtle way of saying, “we want poor people to stay away from Lakeshore Avenue and keep to their own neighborhoods where they belong.” I was one of those who took offense, and I wrote a somewhat intemperate comment on her open letter reflecting that point of view. In my opinion, the socioeconomic diversity of Lakeshore Avenue is a feature, not a bug, especially as it is surrounded by a wide variety of residential neighborhoods, with upscale single-family homes on side, and some of Oakland’s densest middle-class apartment districts on the other. For a Councilmember basically to be telling a large percentage of her constituents that they weren’t welcome on Lakeshore Avenue really bothered some of us.

Anyway, within a week, Kernighan announced that Out of the Closet had withdrawn its effort to take over the GapKids space. I don’t know whether the objections of Kernighan and others were a factor in the collapse of the deal, but presumably they didn’t help matters. Apparently East 18th Street, which tends to attract people with less “disposable income” than Lakeshore, is considered a “good fit” for Out of the Closet, because I haven’t heard any objections from Kernighan (she represents both shopping districts). I look forward to shopping there, and as far as I’m concerned, Lakeshore’s loss is East 18th’s gain.

The little brouhaha over Out of the Closet on Lakeshore is sadly typical of the way business is done—or rather, undone—in Oakland. I’ll give some other examples. Chip Johnson, the East Bay columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written several times about a guy he knows who was stymied in his efforts to open a little bike shop in Chinatown because of Oakland’s byzantine zoning laws and expensive permitting process. Johnson points out that the city bureaucracy seems designed to hamper economic development and enterpreneurship, not encourage it (so much for the mom-and-pop stores that Kernighan was so eager to support).

In another example, A Better Oakland wrote yesterday about a City Council “Emergency Ordinance” requiring new nail salons and laundromats to receive a “major conditional use permit” from the city for the next year, until the City can find a more long-term way to deal with the proliferation of nail salons. It costs about $3000 just to apply for one of those conditional use permits, and presumably many of them would not be granted because, as the ordinance says, “the proliferation of nail salons and self-serve laundromats along major retail corridors has become an increasing concern to Councilmembers, retail store owners and merchant associations.” In a city with a high violent crime rate and many vacant storefronts in every shopping district, it’s hard for many people to understand why “emergency” action must be taken to prevent more nail salons or laundromats from filling some of those vacant storefronts.

Finally, the East Bay Express has an article this week about how an Oakland city official discovered that used book and clothing stores could be regulated under a state “Secondhand Dealers” law which is intended to help police track stolen goods. The law is primarily meant for pawnshops, and it requires that all employees be finger-printed and a special annual fee of more than $500 must be paid for secondhard-dealing permits. Most onerous is that detailed records of each item bought and sold must be kept, and the personal information (I assume that means name, address, and driver’s license number) of each customer must be documented. Most cities exempt non-pawnshops from these requirements, but Oakland recently sent letters to 48 second-hand retailers warning them that they had until September 10th to apply for these permits and start complying with this law. Needless to say, it would be a death sentence for used bookstores—which aren’t exactly a booming business these days—if they started having to ask each customer for their personal information in order to buy a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights or The Iliad.

I’ve never considered myself especially “pro-business” (it depends on the business!) and in a lot of ways, I’m politically in line with the Oakland City Council: I’m pro-labor, I worry about the fraying of our already-porous safety net, I would like to see less income disparity and more social justice, I support strong environmental regulations, etc., etc., etc. In many parts of the county, I would be at the far left end of the political spectrum. But there’s a joke about how a conservative is a liberal who’s been a victim of crime, and my own version of the joke is that a conservative is a liberal who has lived in Oakland for more than a few years. Oakland seems to be overflowing with examples of how government’s meddling in private contracts, or micromanaging economic development from the top down, can lead to adverse unintended consequences.

Oh, and that former GapKids storefront on Lakeshore Avenue that people were so eager to keep Out of the Closet away from a year and a half ago, because it wouldn’t be a “good fit” for the neighborhood? It’s been sitting empty ever since.

If You Build Community, They Will Come (a corollary: If You Raze It, They Will Leave)

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

They came on foot, on scooters and on skateboards. They came on scraper bikes and fixies and longtails. They came in strollers and buses and, yes, some of them came in cars. However they got there, a lot of people came out to enjoy the Lakefest held on Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue on Saturday and Sunday:

Lakefest 2009

I wouldn’t normally post anything about a street festival that was mostly indistinguishable from all the other street festivals which are held on summer weekends across the country (a closed street, booths with crafts or T-shirts or massages or information about local organizations, food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs in front of the local restaurants and cafes, music stages, inflatable bouncy houses and slides for children—you know the routine). What most interested me about this festival, however, was the counterpoint it provided to an event that had happened two days before and a block away.

Closing for Business

The owner of the Grand Lake Theater, Allen Michaan, who is still fuming about the changes to parking meter rates and hours that I wrote about two weeks ago, held a meeting at the theater to discuss how businesses should respond to the increases. He proposes a local business closure all day on Thursday (Aug. 6th) in order to protest the new meter rules. He is also gathering signatures for a petition to recall City Councilmembers unless they rescind the higher rates and hours.

Closing for Business

I couldn’t help but be struck by the difference between these two events. In one case, you had a festival that closed a busy street to car traffic and reduced the amount of parking in the neighborhood (because the many parking spots on Lakeshore Ave were rendered unavailable), yet people showed up in droves nonetheless, to hang out, to eat, to drink, to buy, to watch and to listen. In the other case, you had some local business owners who are raising so much hell about the “parking crisis” that they may end up losing even more customers.

Lakefest 2009

How might their behavior cause them to lose customers? Three possible ways that I can see: First, residents who might have been willing to pay a bit more for parking are now basically being told by Michaan and a few other vocal merchants that it makes more economic sense to drive to a distant suburb to see a movie or visit a restaurant, because they will save a few dollars on parking (a dubious proposition, in my opinion, once you factor in the “value” of one’s time and the cost of fuel). I can’t help but wonder if any people have avoided coming to the area because they have seen Michaan or another business owner on TV talking about how the city of Oakland is going to “mug” and “extort” them if they try to park in this neighborhood. Second, organizing the business closure on Thursday will bring attention to the issue as they hope, but it will probably also piss off a lot of customers, who may well blame the business owners instead of the City Council if they come here to do some shopping and discover that their favorite stores have voluntarily closed for the day. This reminds me of a kid on a schoolyard who gets upset and takes his ball and goes home—he might succeed in punishing the other kids, but he also punishes himself. Third, turning this issue into World War III garners support from those who agree with them, but it also alienates the Oakland residents who disagree with them on the issue, or who at the very least think that their tactics are misguided and divisive (some commenters on local blogs are already saying they will start avoiding the businesses that are leading this campaign).

I won’t get too much into the merits of the debate, since I pretty much said everything I have to say in my earlier post. (I didn’t expect to write a second post about parking in as many weeks, especially since I don’t even own a car myself.) My personal opinion is that whatever pocketbook pain drivers experience now is literally small change compared to how expensive driving will soon become (the chief economist of the International Energy Agency is now warning that we will soon face oil shortages which will put our economy and way of life in even greater peril than they are now, a view of peak oil that was widely dismissed as a fringe theory just a few years ago). For better or worse, many people will have to start driving less because it will become so expensive, and it will probably be a difficult transition, but my general feeling is that the process will be much less painful in the long run if we start encouraging a change in behavior now instead of waiting for external circumstances to force the issue.

Given that likely future, combined with Oakland’s desperate need for more revenue in the present, I am inclined to support meter rates which will raise revenue, will reduce the amount of time drivers spend circling the block looking for a spot, and will encourage people to start walking, biking, and riding the bus for more of their routine trips. That said, if the effect on our neighborhood’s businesses is as dramatic as the merchants claim, then I am not necessarily opposed to changing the current meter rules. Maybe a compromise of $1.75 instead of the new $2 or the old $1.50? Maybe a return to $1.50, but keeping the extended hours? Maybe allowing cars to stay in spots for more than 2 hours at a time? Maybe different prices at peak times versus offpeak times? I don’t know, but whatever the right balance is, it should be guided by statistics and rational debate, not anecdotes, counterproductive media campaigns, and recall threats.

In other words, even if it’s true that local business has fallen by more than 30% due to the meter changes, and even if it’s true that the City Council should rescind or alter the new meter rules, I still don’t think that the combative reaction of Michaan and others is a productive approach to this particular issue. It has certainly succeeded in getting attention to the issue: the Tribune and the Chronicle have published several articles each on the subject, and the issue has been all over TV and the internet too. The crowds at Lakefest suggest to me, however, that angry business owners would have been better off brainstorming about creative ways to entice people to our neighborhood and building an even stronger sense of community, rather than banding together to accuse elected officials of “municipal muggings” and “extortion.” Do these people look like they are being mugged or extorted?

Lakefest 2009

Positive efforts to draw people to the Grand Lake area wouldn’t preclude also making an effort to change the meter rules, but rants, threats, closing of businesses, and demonization of councilmembers don’t seem like constructive ways to encourage people to come to our neighborhood. (One also wonders where these local business owners were when it was being debated by the City Council several months ago—one blog post on the topic attracted 47 comments back in early June, so it’s not as if some people weren’t aware of the possible changes to come. Perhaps if these business owners were more engaged with the local decision-making process, we wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess to begin with.)

This neighborhood has a lot going for it, and I think most people in Oakland appreciate the advantages that a neighborhood like Grand Lake has over a mall with free parking in Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill (two cities cited by Michaan as being “successful” because they have free parking). How about a campaign to remind people of the unique character and businesses in this neighborhood, and more special events to draw people to the area, instead of a divisive feud with the City Council and a publicity campaign that may serve to drive away even more customers? Has Allen Michaan pointed out even once in his media interviews that, as the Grand Lake Theater’s own website advertises, there is a free city-owned parking lot across the street from his theater where people can park for 4 hours at a stretch, or that his theater is one of the few in the Bay Area where an adult ticket still costs less than $10, at least a buck less per ticket than most theaters in neighboring communities? That is the kind of information that he should be spreading far and wide in the media, in order to encourage people to come enjoy his beautiful theater and other nearby businesses, but instead he seems so absorbed in his own righteous indignation that he cannot do anything except focus on the negative and lash out at the City Council—actions that seem likely to exacerbate whatever ill effects the new meter rules are having on his business.

So Quaint, Those Brits

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Some eminent British economists sent a letter to the Queen explaining how they failed to foresee the financial crisis. (Here, we just give such people high government posts instead.)

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Parker Scorned

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

The Grand Lake Theater here in Oakland is well known for its political advocacy, from messages on the marquee calling for the prosecution of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to anti-war events featuring Barbara Lee and Sean Penn. Normally the issues the theater focuses on are national, at a safe remove from the day to day lives of local residents—heaven forbid you should make your liberal bay area customers feel uncomfortable about their own lifestyles, when it’s so much easier to reassure them that they are right-thinking and right-acting, unlike those nefarious folks in Washington.

The management of the Grand Lake have recently found a local issue that is worthy of their attention: increases in parking meter hours and fees. To the barricades, drivers!

Cause Celebre

Judging from media reports and the reactions of some residents of my neighborhood, the theater’s stance is squarely in the mainstream of local opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about how the increased meter hours, increased fees and increased enforcement are “inspiring a revolt.” CBS5 had a story a few days ago featuring indignant drivers and business owners on Grand Avenue, which concluded by saying that people plan to “storm the city council meeting next week.”

Even though I don’t own an automobile and think that most of our cities are far too car-centric, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of these drivers or merchants. Obviously I don’t want commerce to move away from local stores and neighborhoods and toward malls in the suburbs, and I can also understand how infuriating it is when a mismanaged government or institution (BART comes to mind) punishes the poor and middle class with increased fees in order to make up for shortfalls in its budget. (Increased fees of various kinds, whether they be parking meter fees in Oakland or tuition fees at state universities, are a predictable consequence of a dysfunctional government and a population which has been persuaded by pandering politicians that governments can somehow keep spending more and more money without raising taxes.)

As sympathetic as I might be, however, there are benefits to extended meter hours and increased fees that deserve to be spelled out. Anyone who has driven to (for example) Grand Lake or Chinatown for dinner after 6:00 when the parking used to be free has probably spent some time circling the block looking for a parking space. When people drive in circles looking for scarce open spots, the costs of parking have not disappeared, they have just been transferred elsewhere: instead of paying for a meter, one is paying in wasted time, and paying in agitation, and paying in extra gasoline use, and paying in toxic emissions, and paying in increased traffic volume as other cars circle looking for parking as well.

Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor who has become an unlikely guru among many urbanists, has spent years trying to persuade people that parking should cost more money, and that failure to apply market pricing to public parking has been terribly detrimental to our cities (his best-known work is titled The High Cost of Free Parking). His basic rule of thumb for curbside parking is that meters should cost the lowest possible price which will render about 15 percent of spaces vacant at any given time, and that the money earned from meters should be used in that same neighborhood for local improvements (streetscaping, sidewalk cleaning, security, whatever), so that local residents and business owners feel invested in the meters instead of oppressed by them.

Setting meter prices high enough so that there are always some vacancies eliminates the Yogi Berra problem (“nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”) and encourages more turnover, so that you have more shoppers making more visits to a particular street, instead of a smaller number of visitors occupying spaces for longer periods of time. And if higher meter costs encourage some people to walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving—well, so much the better. An alternative “solution” to parking shortages has always been to build more and more parking, but that has some unfortunate repercussions: it ruins public spaces with unsightly parking lots, and it just gives people an incentive to drive even more, which in turn increases the demand for parking even more, leading to the construction of yet more parking lots. Some people might think that more car traffic and more parking lots would be good for Oakland’s most walkable shopping districts in the long run, but I’m not one of them.

Shoup argues, based on real-world examples such as Old Town Pasadena, that while merchants and residents typically resist increased parking fees at first, they often become supporters after they get used to the change, because they see the benefits that can accrue from increased revenue and increased consumer turnover, especially when money is used directly for neighborhood improvements that make the area more welcoming to shoppers, such as nicer sidewalks, less grime, less crime, etc. San Francisco is experimenting with a demand-based pricing system in certain neighborhoods which causes prices to fluctuate dramatically from less than a buck an hour to over ten dollars an hour for the same parking spot, depending on when it is being used. (The gist of Shoup’s arguments are outlined well in this Streetfilms video and this Toronto Star article, and in many other articles and interviews linked to from his UCLA website.)

I’ve gone on at some length in the past about some of the unexpected benefits of getting out of one’s car (or losing it altogether) and biking and walking places instead. Yes, it often takes a bit longer, but there are quality of life benefits that far outweigh the drawbacks, as far as I’m concerned. (For an example of the stress and anxiety that can come from driving a car everywhere, see the gentleman featured in the CBS5 report I mentioned above—some people complain about how shrill and entitled we bicyclists are, and I won’t argue with that, but I’d say we can’t hold a candle to the average American driver when it comes to entitlement and righteous indignation. Even the CBS5 reporter, who seems generally sympathetic to their point of view, describes people as “ranting and raving.”) As I mentioned in my post about how much nicer it is to get around by bike instead of by car, it wasn’t until I was forced by circumstance (a totaled car and not enough money for a new one) to start riding a bike everywhere that I realized that I actually preferred it for most local trips. I think human beings are often remarkably bad at knowing what will actually bring them satisfaction.

Given how hard it is for people (all of us, not just automobile drivers) to imagine that a change in lifestyle might actually improve our lives, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who are outraged about having to pay more for parking in Oakland live within walking distance of the destinations that they currently drive to, and whether they might discover that spending 20 minutes strolling to the Grand Lake Theatre for a movie, or to Arizmendi for coffee and pastry, or to Walden Pond Books for a used paperback is actually a much more pleasurable experience than driving there and looking for parking (even free parking). I agree that it would be a shame if people start driving to malls in the suburbs instead of driving to Oakland neighborhoods for dinner or a movie, but if some significant number of people start walking and biking to those Oakland neighborhoods instead of driving because they don’t want to pay $2/hour for a meter, or because they fear getting a parking ticket from an overzealous parking enforcement officer, then I would consider that a feature, not a bug.

Hunger in America

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Breadline USAMy friend Sasha Abramsky has just come out with a book about hunger in the United States, called Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It. I picked up a copy yesterday, and while I’m only about 50 pages into it so far, I can already highly recommend it to anyone interested in “food insecurity” (to use a current buzzword) and the myriad ways that increasing inequality has bred increasing hardship in modern society.

There have been a number of worthy and well-known books about American food culture in recent years, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and those two in particular were revelatory to many of us in their own ways. Those books, however, tend to focus on the perverse consequences, both social and medical, of an abundance of cheap calories, due to corn-based industrial agriculture, fast food chains, and so on.

That’s an important story, to be sure, but Sasha’s book addresses the flip side of our food problem, which is not a surplus of affordable food, but a deficit, and the fact that growing numbers of Americans—including people with full-time jobs—struggle to feed themselves and their families. As housing costs, medical costs, transportation costs, and food costs increase, while wages stagnate (or vanish altogether as jobs are lost), more and more people are forced to choose between medicine and protein, or between paying for their housing or paying for their dinner.

To say that Breadline USA is about food is like saying that Anna Karenina is about adultery: while food insecurity is the thread that stitches the book together, one can’t discuss hunger without delving into the larger economic forces that have put us in a situation where people working full-time at low-wage jobs often rely on food banks to keep their refrigerators minimally stocked. It’s no fluke that the first chapter is more about energy costs than food, describing the difficulties faced by residents of rural Siskiyou County, in the shadow of Mount Shasta, as transportation costs rise, public transportation is skeletal at best, and jobs in one’s own town are often nonexistent. Food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens these days don’t only serve the homeless or the unemployed—more and more, they are the last resort of the working poor, retirees, or others who had previously prided themselves on never having had to accept a handout from anyone.

The book is a compelling mixture of on-the-ground reportage backed up with data and policy discussion, interspersed with personal narrative—a combination that will be familiar to anyone who has read Sasha’s earlier books on the criminal justice system or voting rights. The bulk of the reporting for the book was done before the implosion of the housing bubble caused our house-of-cards economic system to teeter so frighteningly, and it’s safe to say that the hardships faced by the poor and the lower middle class are now much more dire than they were when the book went to press, as jobs continue to disappear and government safety nets fray. You can get a taste of what Breadline USA is all about by listening to Sasha’s interview at Truthdig or reading some of the articles at his website or for the Guardian newspaper (California readers may be interested in his Guardian articles on our state’s economic problems as well).

Spendthrift BART directors vote to raise fares

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

As I feared and warned about just two weeks ago, BART’s profligate board of directors just voted to raise fares six months earlier than planned, citing budget deficits. See, it’s okay to waste money, because you can always get transit-dependent citizens (along with BART employees) to pay for it. Never mind that those citizens are also suffering in this lousy economy, and that the reason many of them use public transportation is because they can’t afford to own cars, and that for environmental reasons we should be doing everything we can encourage, not discourage, use of public transit. Here is CBS5’s early story on the vote:

Bay Area Rapid Transit riders can expect to start paying more to ride and park this summer as the transit agency tries to close a $250 million deficit projected over the next four years.

BART directors voted Thursday to adopt three fare hikes that will go into effect on July 1.

At the end of a lengthy discussion, BART directors voted to raise basic train fares by 6.1 percent and to add 25 cents to the minimum fare for short trips. They also voted to charge an extra $2 surcharge for all trips to the San Francisco International Airport.

The 25-cent increase in the minimum fare will increase the base fare from $1.50 to $1.75.

BART directors also voted to begin charging a $1 parking fee at eight additional stations. Parking fees are already in place at some BART stations.

BART had not been slated to increase its fares until Jan. 1, but directors voted to move up the fare increases by six months because of BART’s large budget deficit.

Union contracts expire on June 30 and BART is also likely to ask for significant concessions from employees to help make up for the budget shortfall.

I haven’t heard yet whether Lynette Sweet, the BART director who recently said that raising fares to SFO would be “hard to swallow” and a “hardship,” voted for the fare hike.

It was pretty clear that something like this was coming, but I thought that the BART directors would wait a while, for fear that it would appear unseemly to raise fares two weeks after deciding to waste half a billion dollars on a train-in-the-sky to Oakland Airport. Apparently they had no such qualms, however.