Friday, February 28, 2014

SLC's proud Hive Pass goes on sale tomorrow and could save you thousands

We've mentioned this before, but SLC has come out with a subsidized transit pass for $30/mo (or $350/yr) that goes on sale tomorrow. They're calling it the Hive Pass and this thing will be good on buses, TRAX, Frontrunner, MAX, and the new Sugarhouse Streetcar. This is a steal of a deal compared to the regular pass that costs $198/mo.

And the real kicker: if your family is thinking about selling one of its cars, the savings could be a few thousand dollars. Every year. Sadly, the conservative Corrolla costs at least $5k/yr to own. Even if the car's paid off, maintenance, gas, repairs, and registration, and depreciation add up to a few thousand per year. Here's the breakdown:

The Hive Pass has been touted as being the only such program in the country. I'm going to look into that, but either way it's an amazing thing. Good for SLC!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Senator Shiozawa on why he doesn't want to use Medicaid money to pay for Medicaid

Are they close to taking the Medicaid expansion money?
I contacted Utah Senator Brian Shiozawa yesterday. By way of background, he’s now pushing what appears to be the senate’s main proposal related to taking the ACA Medicaid expansion money. Instead of using the federal money for expanding Medicaid, however, he instead wants to use it to buy private health insurance for poor Utahns. So I emailed this (among other things):
I do wonder, however, why you want to use the federal money to buy poor Utahns private insurance, as was reported yesterday here:
Many studies have shown that Medicaid is more cost efficient per-person than private insurance. I've written up a response to your proposal and wondered if you'd respond and thus facilitate a public discussion of this important issue.
And while I won’t quote him, he kindly responded by saying he was in favor of using the Medicaid money to buy private insurance because
  1. Yes, he wants doctors to get reimbursed more than what Medicaid provides.
  2. He thinks doctors who accept Medicaid are hard to find, and thus wants to make it easier on the enrollees of his yet-to-be-named Utah private/public insurance program for the poor.
  3. He says that this setup would appease his colleagues in the Senate who are worried about crowding out (although he didn’t say this was his view).
I appreciate that he responded so quickly, the fact that he wants to accept the expansion money, and the fact that he provides reasons for his thinking. I’ll take each of his three reasons in turn.

1. Should we feel bad for doctors who have to accept Medicaid’s low reimbursement rate? There’s obviously not a right or wrong answer to this. But considering the fact that (a) health care costs are insanely expensive in the US and (b) even pediatricians (who are among the lowest earning physicians) make around $150,000/yr, forcing doctors to accept a lower reimbursement rate than private insurance would provide just doesn't seem wrong. Nations with universal health care world-wide basically set the price of their health services to keep costs down, and they’d be stupid not to do it considering the leverage their size provides. Same with Medicaid: If we don’t use the leverage provided by Medicaid’s size (and instead go the private insurance route), we’ll use tax dollars less efficiently and provide health coverage for fewer poor people.

2. It’s true that not every doctor accepts Medicaid, just like any particular employer-based insurance plan doesn't allow you to go see just any doctor. However, this study found that 84% of Utah physicians accept Medicaid, whereas the rate is about 66% nationwide, which I’m sure is better than what I’d find with the good insurance provided by my employer. Overall, however, we’ll have people in Utah on Medicaid whether we expand or not. If we're concerned about acceptance rates, we can either make it more difficult for those currently with Medicaid to find a doctor by marginalizing Medicaid or make it easier on Medicaid recipients to find a doctor by bringing 58,000 poor Utahns into the system. While certainly some doctors will continue to refuse Medicaid, many more would start accepting it with that many new potential clients (which would make it easier on all who are enrolled in the program).

3. Many conservative politicians are worried that by expanding Medicaid we’ll induce poor people to switch to Medicaid even if they already had private insurance (this is the crowding out that you might have heard of). While yes, this does happen, overall there aren't a lot of poor people with employer-based health insurance. For example, a family of 4 at 138% of the poverty line (where the Medicaid expansion might reach), makes only $32,000/yr and often doesn't have private health insurance. This study, for example, found that only around 20% of those newly enrolled in Wisconsin’s Medicaid expansion already had private health insurance, and similar figures have been found nationwide here, here, and here. Here’s the kicker though: Sen Shiozawa’s plan wouldn't avoid this (negligible) problem, as people who previously paid for their own private health insurance could just switch to private insurance paid for by the state of Utah. The conclusion of this piece explains it well.

Overall, sticking with a pure Medicaid expansion would be the wiser choice, as it’s more cost-efficient, it's widely accepted, and the (low) crowd out isn't any worse than under Senator Shiozawa’s plan. Local officials don’t need to reinvent the wheel only to provide a more inefficient program.

I sent him this and will let you know how he responds.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Utah Legislature seeks to take ACA Medicaid expansion money and fill pockets of private insurers

While the Utah House has been opposed to taking federal dollars to expand Medicaid as part of the ACA, the Utah Senate appears to be willing to do so. KSL reported yesterday that Senator Shiozawa has presented a plan that would take the expansion money and use it to direct people to private insurance coverage as much as possible. While it’s heartening to see the Senate willing to take the federal money (since Utahns are paying those taxes either way), the plan that Shiozawa put forward would use the money much less efficiently than if Utah just expanded Medicaid.

Why? Well study after study has shown that Medicaid provided much more coverage per dollar spent than does private insurance. And this makes intuitive sense, as private insurers are for profit.

In terms of the cost differences, this paper, published in Health Affairs, found that
if an average low-income Medicaid adult were instead covered by private health insurance for a full year, total spending would climb from $5,671 per person per year to $7,126, an increase of 26 percent. The level of out-of-pocket payments would rise from $197 to $1,293, an increase of 556 percent.
So, compared to using Medicaid, Shiozawa’s plan would cost 26% more to insure the same amount of people. Now why would that be desirable in any universe?

And how does Medicaid provide more cost efficient service? From the CBPP:
First, the average cost that insurers (i.e. the public program or private insurance plan) pay per beneficiary is lower under public programs than under private insurance, probably because these programs reimburse health care providers at lower rates and have lower administrative costs. Second, the average out-of-pocket costs that individuals incur are substantially lower under public programs than private insurance because Medicaid and SCHIP limit cost-sharing for low-income beneficiaries.
Indeed, the Kaiser Family Foundation states that Medicaid administrative costs are half of those of private insurers; in addition, Medicaid doesn’t have to make a profit, and it also reimburses doctors at a lower rate than does private insurance*.

Why does the Utah legislature want to reinvent the wheel in order to use our tax dollars less efficiently?

*Perhaps this is the reason Dr Shiozawa opposes Medicaid expansion? I'll email him to check.

Postscript: And no, Medicaid costs aren't out of control, and can't be used as an excuse for not expanding the program in Utah.

No, per-person Medicaid spending isn't unsustainable; it's actually flat

Lots of confused talk about Medicaid and how accepting the federal ACA Medicaid expansion will somehow leave Utah broke down the line. Despite what you've heard, Medicaid costs aren't out of control, and in fact, have grown notably slower than those of private insurance.

This figure is from this Brookings study:

Note how spending, per beneficiary, has grown more slowly for Medicaid (the red line) than for any of the other major types of insurance. This study has more on how health care cost growth has grown more slowly for Medicaid than private insurance. Utah legislators would do well to keep this in mind when figuring out how to use the ACA Medicaid expansion money.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lucky 13 is the best burger joint in SLC

The lovely wife and I were at Lucky 13 on Friday night. If you haven’t been, Lucky 13 has quickly become the premier hamburger joint in SLC. The food is amazing. These guys smoke their own bacon, offer veggie burgers, and even have contest burgers, if competitive eating is your thing. The fries are crispy and slightly spiced. Lucky 13 outshines the tough local competition in SLC in that they’re open at night, which puts them ahead of Guzzi’s, and they don’t charge a cover on weekends, which puts them ahead of the venerable Garage (although the latter does have live music on the weekends). Here is Lucky 13 on Yelp and Google+.

And the burger menu:

And the location is on 1300 S, just west of the ballpark:

Why am I not there right now?

Strangely specific Salt Lake City parking regulations target bowling alleys and radio stations

Considering America's love of free markets, it's a bit odd that parking space minimums exist at all. If you want to find the cause of sprawl (and why we can't walk anywhere in SLC), here is ground zero.

First, the residential requirements

For example, apparently SLC thinks builders are stupid and must regulate the fact that a group home must have 1 space per each dwelling and "1 parking space for every 2 support staff present during the busiest shift."

The fun continues on to bowling alleys:

Apparently bowling alleys must have 2 spaces per lane. This is the law in SLC. Specifics are also provided for libraries, tennis courts, and radio stations. This is how the over-allocation of space to parking lots occurs and how sprawl is written into the SLC ordinances.

*This data comes from Chapter21A.44.060 of this document.

Wasatch Front Air Quality: It Starts, and Ends, With Government

Capitol to locals: "You're the problem."
A Utah policy website has an article up called “Wasatch Front Air Quality: It Starts, and Ends, with Us,” with the ultimate implication being that each of us is responsible for local air quality problems. Indeed many in the Utah legislature feel as if the solution to our air quality issues lies not with modified laws, but with the collective, benevolent and individual actions by local citizens. They are wrong. While, yes, cars aren’t driven by robots (yet), Wasatch Front residents are only responding to incentives provided by state and local governments.

First and foremost, state officials refuse to price gasoline at rates that would make alternative fuels and non-car based transportation competitive. Local officials often throw up their hands and lament the fact that green technologies just aren't competitive as if it's a fact of life. But this is the fault of state politicians. Twenty-first century transportation solutions require money to develop and implement (ie, electric charging stations, natural gas fuel stations, etc). Gas, oil, and the combustion engine were first used in the late 1800s and the corresponding legacy infrastructure from that fact makes gas very cheap compared to the health and environmental issues its combustion causes. If politicians actually care about our winter air quality issues, they need to raise the gas tax to make non-car based options transportation options competitive.

Second, the local officials are the ones deciding on UTA’s funding. If UTA is not convenient for you, this is likely a failure of YOUR state representative in the legislature. UTA does what it can with the funds it gets. Overall, if cars are significantly more convenient for us Utahns than buses, this is the fault of the Utah state government. There’s no universal law that states that it needs to take an hour on a bus (or several buses) to travel the same distance as a 10 minute car ride. There is also no universal law that public transport passes can't be subsidized state wide (as SLC has done, to its credit) or that UTA can't be free for everyone.

In addition, there are numerous local zoning laws, which are the fault of SLC and other local cities, which discourage density and make it so that driving or buses are necessary in the first place. SLC zoning ordinances, for example, limit the height of buildings (even in the city center), which pushes construction out to the suburbs and increases vehicle use and decreases air quality. Zoning laws by SLC and other local cities also require buildings to come with a minimum amount of parking (as if the builder couldn't make that decision), which often over-allocates space to parking lots, making the building-to-lot ratio smaller than it would be via the free market.

Also, it’s the state and city governments which decree that roads are to be primarily for private vehicles use. Why should every lane be dedicated to vehicles? Many countries have bus rapid transit (BRT) programs that feature dedicated lanes for buses, which makes these systems not only good for air quality, but also fast and convenient. 

Overall, if the air is dirty, it’s because local politicians don’t understand the power of incentives.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Abravanel Hall is the best place to hear music in SLC

Abravanel: the cultural heart of SLC?
My wife and I were at Abravanel Hall last Wednesday night for the Magic of Harry Potter, performed by the Utah Symphony. The music was fabulous and only cost $8 a ticket, which makes me want to go the symphony more often. (And the music somehow got me more interested in the books, which will make my wife happy.) I particularly want to highlight the stunning venue, which is one of Salt Lake City's finest cultural assets. Abravenel Hall is gorgeous and sits in the heart of downtown (at 123 W South Temple), with a Trax station right in front and ample parking just to the east in the City Creek Center. I was surprised to learn that it first opened way back in 1979, originally called Symphony Hall, and was renamed in 1993 after Utah Symphony conductor Maurice Abravanel.

The building is home to the Utah Symphony, whose conductor is Thierry Fischer. Vladimir Kulenovic, the associate conductor, was (charming and) in charge the night we were there. Tickets to Utah Symphony events are often discounted and a fabulous way to spend an evening. The event calendar is here.

Question though: are we a little too eager as a society to give standing ovations? Maybe.

Anyhoo, here it is in SLC:

And for those into Harry Potter, the program:

When you get a chance, go check out the Utah Symphony in this fine venue!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Zions Bank giving marketing lessons

Maybe I'm weird (not really up for debate, ask my wife), but doesn't it seem as if something amazing wouldn't need the word amazing attached to it? This credit card offer is from here.

It's the capital Z that gives it that extra special touch. Compare that with the understated simplicity of AMEX.

In terms of cash back cards, it's hard to beat AMEX Blue Cash or the Fidelity AMEX Card. But then again, the word amazing isn't printed on these cards, so who knows.

Why you should be excited about SLC

SLC: Beautiful AND economically vibrant
With the Google Fiber announcement, Salt Lake City seems to be on something of a roll. And good for those making it happen! Seeing this, I thought I'd outline a few events that should make one happy to live in SLC.

1. While not a sure thing, Google Fiber has announced that SLC will be one of 34 cities (or nine metropolitan areas) examined as a potential site for expansion. Currently, the service is up and running in Austin, Kansas City, and Provo. Costs currently run $70/mo for a 1,000 Mbps (ie, Gigabit) connection, the 5Mbps service is free, and they're even offering a TV package (which will make it even easier to ditch Comcast). Considering the stranglehold Comcast and Century Link have on Utah (and much of the country), this competition is badly needed.

2. Salt Lake City recently announced its partnering with UTA to provide $30 transit passes for local residents, that will be available starting March 1st. The new website is here and the FAQ is here. They're calling it the Hive Pass and it's quite a significant program, as the pass is good on UTA buses, TRAX, and even FrontRunner.

3. UTA recently finished the Sugar House Streetcar project. While that's significant in itself, what UTA and Salt Lake County have done together in the last 5 years is nothing short of amazing. In just a few short years, TRAX extensions were added to South Jordan (finished Aug 2011), West Valley (Aug 2011), the airport (April 2013), and Draper (Aug 2013). This is on top of the already existing lines to Sandy (finished 1999) the University of Utah (finished 2001 and expanded in 2003). TRAX now boasts 44.8 miles of track. Additionally, FrontRunner (ie, commuter rail) is now running to Ogden (since April 2008) and now Provo (Dec 2012) and boasts 88 miles of track. This article has much more and states that SLC is currently number one in the nation in per-capita transit spending, which it surely doesn't get enough credit for (especially from this blog).

4. Finally, as of December, the Wasatch Front is one of the most vibrant economic regions in the nation (measured by unemployment rates), with SLC, Logan, Provo, and Ogden making it into the top 20 for metropolitan areas nationwide. Wooohoooo!

In term of lowest unemployment nationwide, Logan is tied for number 1; SLC and Provo are tied for 13; and Ogden is at tied for the 19th spot. A 3.5% unemployment rate is surely something to be proud of. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is the Tea Party turning potentially reasonable politicians into liars?

I must have ignored local politics for too long, as Chris Stewart is kind of a mystery to me. Not like he's an enigma or something; I just don't know anything about him. But, for starters, he represents Utah's 2nd congressional district in the US House.

He recently spoke to the Utah legislature. When asked about immigration reform, he said this:
There has been so much distrust between the executive and Congress now that many of us don’t believe any longer the president will enforce the laws we give him.
And he says this despite the fact that deportations under Obama have been roughly double the amount during the Bush administration:

The figure is from this Economist article. I'm not saying Obama is good or bad because of large deportation numbers, I'm just pointing out the fact that Rep Christ Stewart is being dishonest about immigration. If we're going to have a debate in this country about what works vs what doesn't, we probably ought to start by understanding what's actually happening.

Perhaps Rep Stewart is just pandering to the Tea Party here. It seems that after Mike Lee outflanked Bob Bennett on the right and stole his senate seat, GOP politicians are scared of it happening to them. Note the trite and pandering tweets we've been getting from Senator Orrin Hatch recently:

For the State of the Union, President Obama speaks for over an hour, touches on a dozen different policy proposals, and all Hatch can come up with is that? The man's been in the senate since 1976 and these are the tweets he's sending. Where's the gravitas? Where's the reasoning? Perhaps all Republican politicians are scared to death of being ousted by the Tea Party, and aren't allowed to reason publicly as a result.

Why more inflation would be super helpful

Many people think that inflation is bad always,
Seriously, full speed ahead
everywhere, and forever. But it’s not. A lack of inflation, in fact, may be part of why our nation’s economy can’t seem to get any momentum. This is rarely discussed outside of econ arenas, so I was happy to see this story (via the AP) on inflation in the Salt Lake Tribune yesterday. First, I'll flesh out their list of inflation’s benefits and then show that, despite the frequent cries currency debasement the last few years, inflation is currently at historic lows.

1. Inflation makes people and corporations more eager to spend money. As the value of one’s cash pile dwindles because of inflation (think Apple’s pointless $150 billion stash), one looks for investments and expansion projects in a hurry.

2. Inflation erodes the value of debts that are in nominal dollars (ie, not linked to inflation—think mortgages and most debt in America). While the payments stay the same over time, with higher inflation (and the wage inflation that comes with it), the country would more quickly erase much of the debt and underwater mortgage overhang from the crises of 2009.

3.In a recession, if wages were able to fall it would help the job market to clear (ie, jobless can find jobs) and for the economy to more quickly be restored to full employment through lower labor costs. Economists debate how sticky (or flexible) nominal wages actually are. If inflation were higher, employers could more easily reduce real (ie, inflation adjusted) wages by not giving raises, while not lowering nominal wages (which is hard). While it sounds bad to take a pay cut, this would actually help produce higher wages in the end via a more dynamic economy.

4. The Federal Reserve lowers interest rates (ie, makes money cheaper) in bad times to stoke the economy and raises rates in good times to ward off inflation. With the recent crisis, the Federal Reserve has lowered rates all the way to zero (where they run out of this kind of ammunition). If inflation were higher, the Federal Reserve would have more room to cut (and could actually turn real interest rates negative), as nominal interest rates are naturally higher with higher inflation. Negative real interest rates means one would actually be paid to take out a loan (to start a business, expand their company, etc).

It’s weird. Instead of people calling for such measures the last few years, we’ve actually had a large number of people worried about money debasement and inflation that’s too high. Looking at the data, this is silly.

The figure is from the awesome FRED website. Note that inflation is currently lower than it’s been in ~50 years. Based on the 2% inflation target the Federal Reserve has set and the benefits of inflation laid out above, we could actually use more dollar debasement around these parts.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Another view of SLC at NYC density

Here’s another way of looking at SLC with high population density. Instead of making the city square, I’ve positioned it such that it doesn’t have any intra-city freeways (which kill the dynamic) or hills, which inhibit walkability. This is SLC with its current population, NYC’s population density, just 307 blocks (6.9 sq mi instead of its current 109 sq mi), within 1-15 and the east bench, and between 600 N and 1700 S. (Click to zoom.)

Just food for thought in terms of what's technically possible in a given space.

NIMBYs around SLC are making us fatter, poorer, and less productive

Sandy: Feeeel the history
In past posts I've alluded to the fact that there are forces inhibiting the market from efficiently deciding on city density. While city councils and the legislatures are surely playing a role, it’s also coming from the fact that property owners now seem to think that this ownership allows them to dictate what is and isn't allowed on neighboring property. These are the not-in-my-backyard folks (or NIMBYs). You probably have heard of these guys, and in the name of ample on-street parking, they’re making us fatter, poorer, and less productive. What do they do? They oppose new construction in their neighborhood (most often rejecting new tall buildings), such that their neighborhood doesn't experience increased traffic, noise, or parking problems. These guys, along with the historic preservationist crowd, want to freeze time in their neighborhood for the residents that are already living there (while benefits to potential future residents are summarily dismissed). While that's fine if that's their goal in life, the sizable downsides to such a policy are often ignored.

Consider the recent Missionary Training Center expansion proposed by the LDS Church (via the Trib):
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had proposed the nine-story MTC tower to replace five cramped classroom structures with antiquated plumbing and ventilation systems. The new building was expected to open in 2014 and appeared to meet existing zoning restrictions on height.
Friday's retreat was welcomed by residents of the adjoining Pleasant View neighborhood, who had argued the church was ramming the plan through without their blessing. Neighbors had alleged that the nine-story structure would have broken prior promises capping the height of MTC buildings.
So apparently the LDS Church, who own the property and are well within their zoning rights, are expected to get the “blessing” of the surrounding community to build a nine story building. Because the Pleasant View neighborhood was apparently cranky that week, the building doesn't get built.

Another example: The Sandy Club, which is an after school program for Boys and girls, recently purchased land in Sandy, UT. The club has been in its current (cramped) location since 1995 and wanted to start construction on a new building. The proposed building height? Thirty-four feet (three or four stories). Result: neighbors are passing out fliers in a campaign to stop its construction, saying that the proposed building doesn't fit with the “historic feel” of the neighborhood.

But so what if these buildings don’t get built? Why does it matter? No new tall buildings mean shorter buildings, which by necessity push construction out to the periphery of cities. Result: sprawl, longer commutes, fatter residents, poorer people, and a less productive workforce. All in the name of a good view or a sweet street-side parking spot.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How big would SLC be if it were built like NYC?

Just as an exercise, I've calculated what SLC's size would be if it had the population density of various other cities (and kept the same SLC population). So, if SLC kept the same number of residents and were built up like NYC, what would it look like? A map of this is shown below (click on it to zoom), as is the data for many cities. While all cities certainly shouldn't look the same, this provides a way to think how particular city designs might make life easier or better. In the map below, notice the faint outline around the current city and the bold red line showing what a NYC-like SLC would look like (this is NYC density with all 5 boroughs, so it wouldn't necessarily be all skyscrapers, either). It would run roughly 2.6 mi on a side, so think 900 W to ~700 E and 500 N to ~1300 S. Basically all of the people in Rose Park, Glendale, Poplar Grove, Liberty Wells, Harvard-Yale, and Sugarhouse would fit in the downtown area. (And it wouldn't necessarily be an urban slum, as NYC is a pleasant enough place.)

The data below not only show the physical size of SLC if it had the density of other cities, but also it's length (if square). So, if SLC even had the population density of San Diego (not exactly known for being urban), SLC would require about half the space it currently occupies (ie, 47 sq mi instead of 109).

Thinking about how SLC compares to other cities may help us find ways to make it better. To be clear, I'm not saying any particular setup should be forced on anyone. Certainly, the local market in any one city should decide how to best allocate space. In future posts, I'll discuss how strict local ordinances, laws, and rules have made SLC less dense than what the market would otherwise decide on.

Friday, February 14, 2014

How low-density policies make us fatter, poorer, and less productive

Hong Kong: what are they getting wrong here?
I've been criticizing anti-density policies pretty heavily lately and I realize that I haven't made the case as to why density is good in the first place. I'll try make just a few points.

1. Long commutes are horrible for your health. Research shows that "when you control for sociodemographic characteristics, smoking, alcohol intake, family history of diabetes, and history of high cholesterol that commuting distance is negatively associated with physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness and positively associated with BMI, waste circumference, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and continuous metabolic score." That's from Matt Yglesias. Interestingly, he also explains that one still suffers negative health effects from driving even if they're adding physical activity into the mix.

2. Density makes us richer and more productive: From Ryan Avent: "Economists studying cities routinely find that after controlling for other variables, workers in denser places earn higher wages and are more productive. Some studies suggest that doubling density raises productivity by around 6 percent while others peg the impact at up to 28 percent. Some economists have concluded that more than half the variation in output per worker across the United States can be explained by density alone; density explains more of the productivity gap across states than education levels or industry concentrations or tax policies." See also herehere and here.

3. Denser networks of bus/train routes and more frequent service are possible in higher density areas because the people (and tax dollars) are there to justify them.

4. In denser areas, retail is able to specialize into more niche markets. Restaurants are able to specialize and thus the food is better. Density makes it easier to find a job that fits your skills and to be an entrepreneur. This is all touched on by Ryan Avent:
Density doesn’t work without talent. A small market may only support restaurants producing food that caters to a broad range of tastes. These restaurants will have to hire generalists — cooks who can produce a broad range of cuisines. Specialization and fine-tuning of one’s skills aren’t rewarded; too few patrons will have the specific taste for the particular cuisine to appreciate the quality. Time spent nailing down the nuances of one cuisine is time a chef isn’t using to maintain a good-enough command of a broad range of dishes.
In the larger market, supporting multiple niche cuisines, the calculus is different. Because there may be multiple Vietnamese restaurants competing for patrons, mastery of that specific style is necessary to maintain an edge against the competition. This is particularly true as the concentration of Vietnamese restaurants is likely to attract devotees of the cuisine with a well-developed knowledge of and taste for it. Hence, the larger marketplace pushes for, rather than against, specialization.
Meanwhile, a worker hoping to make a living as a Vietnamese chef will have a much easier time of things in the larger city. Labor turnover may be greater — if there’s only one Vietnamese restaurant in a town, then head-chef spots may only rarely open up — and so the odds of finding employment are higher. The larger city also provides insurance against bad fortune. If you’re a Vietnamese chef working at the one Vietnamese restaurant in a town and the one Vietnamese restaurant goes bankrupt, then you’re obviously in a tough economic situation. You must either take another job for which you’re less qualified, which may mean a reduction in compensation, or move. In the larger city, by contrast, competing restaurants can absorb and reemploy the labor and resources of defunct competitors.
This insurance function is important. It reduces the risks associated with specialization and therefore encourages more of it. By allowing workers to focus on tasks at which they’re relatively better than others, specialization helps drive economic growth. It’s also an engine of innovation. As workers focus on a specific task, they may well find better ways to do it. They might better schedule their days or invent something entirely new — software code written to expedite repeated tasks, or a machine that automates portions of a task. Of course, existing companies can be resistant to innovation. Dense cities, by acting as a source of insurance, enable workers with good ideas to take risks and start new businesses. If these workers fail, they have a good chance of finding employment elsewhere in the city. And if they succeed, the task of staffing the company is made easier by the existing pool of talent, and odds are good that customers and suppliers are close to hand, as well. Big cities provide a climate in which innovation can flourish, and in which innovators have the resources they need to exploit new ideas.
This is kind of a rough and tumble list, but those are the basics. Higher densities in cities would make us healthier, wealthier, more productive, more likely to have a job that suits us, and better able to quit our jobs to start new ventures. Oh, and higher density also reduces our air pollution per-capita, as our car trips would be shorter and we'd be more likely to take trips via walking/biking/transiting. Density isn't a panacea for all social ills, but it does seem strange that current policy largely ignores its benefits.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Will the LDS Church revitalize Philly more than SLC?

It was announced yesterday that the LDS Church plans to build a 32 story apartment tower in the Center City portion of Philadelphia (hat tip to Marcus). The 258 unit tower will be accompanied by 13 townhouses, a meetinghouse, and retail space (and is set for completion in 2016). The project is being handled by the Church’s for-profit real estate arm, Property Reserve Inc, so it appears to be a financial investment that would also enhance the area around the Philadelphia LDS Temple, which has been under construction since 2011. The urbanist in me welcomes the news of the Church’s commitment to central business districts (well, at least those that have an LDS temple).

By comparison, the City Creek project in SLC resulted in the construction of three separate condo developments (Promontory, which is 30 floors; the Regent, which is 20 floors, and Richards Court ). As of Jan 17th 2014, these City Creek condo units had the following occupancy rates:

105 of 185 units (57%)
2 bedroom units start around $650,000

103 of 150 (69%)
2 bedroom units start around $498,000

39 of 91 (43%)
2 bedroom units start around $688,000

With the City Creek goal being to revitalize downtown SLC, one wonders why they didn't dedicate one of the towers to apartments and/or build more reasonably priced condos. One of the main benefits being that the apartment dwellers would be much more likely to live in SLC full time (and support downtown businesses), as compared to the type of people who are likely to use these units as vacation or winter/summer homes. Considering goals of the City Creek project, the size of the units, and the nature of urban living in general, young professionals would seem to be their target tenant. But considering the ritzy prices listed above, I’m not imagining too many locals are using these as a primary residence. So why build ritzy condos in SLC and apartments for the people in Philly?

Postscript: I forgot to mention the fact that City Creek Landing does have 111 apartment units, where a two bedroom starts at ~$1500/mo. I've called to check, and availability happens rarely, which makes me think the Church could have developed the other three buildings as apartments and wouldn't have had any problem filling them. That's also based on the tight market my wife and I experienced when apartment hunting in SLC. The focus on luxury at City Creek--many 2 bedroom apts in SLC can be had for as little as $800/mo--makes me think that Property Reserve Inc was simply looking to make a large return on its money, rather than the Church trying to pave the way for more local residents to live (full-time) in the central business district.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The dirty air rubber hits the road today

Got this email this morning from Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) about a few committee hearings taking place up at the state capitol today. Whether you go or not, today's a great day to express our opinion overall (see the legislature Twitter and email list here).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Curry Fried Chicken on the cheap

The lovely wife and I went out tonight to Curry Fried Chicken (for the first time), which is at 660 S State in downtown SLC. It's halal certified, delicious, cheap, and the owner, Sunny Nisar, is super friendly. I don't really like the word "vibe", but this place had a great vibe. (Some stranger with gauged ears lightly accosted us at the soda machine, incredulous upon hearing that we hadn't eaten there before.) And apparently it's popular with the local refugee population, for what that's worth. Here it is on Yelp and Google+ (where it's rare to see a 4.4). Anyhoo, the menu was basic and economical:

We shared the Shwarma / Doner plate. Shwarma has been called the holy grail of pita wraps; Sunny was nice enough to do two for us. It featured a soft pita, fresh veggies, spicy sauce, and tender meat. This was accompanied by a generous portion of lentils, rice, and vegetable curry. Finally, I present the official halal seal of approval. Get there when you can.

If Salt Lake City wants to revitalize downtown, they might want to get people to live there

Yesterday we looked and found that Salt Lake City proper is sparsely populated, perhaps to an odd degree. I found its density odd because one would expect the suburbs to have a lower population density compared to the city center (you know, sprawl and all that). To figure out what’s going on, today we’ll look at data from Wikipedia showing the population density and growth rate of cities around SLC (in order of population # growth). Recall that while the 1970s-1990s saw a flight to the suburbs, the last decade has been filled with talk of an urban renewal as people finally started driving less. Do you see it?

and here are the cities ordered by percentage growth from 2000 to 2010

Couple things. Indeed, SLC is sparsely populated compared to the surrounding suburbs and it hasn't been growing much over the last ~13 years, especially compared to the rest of the county. In fact, except for Sandy, SLC has been growing more slowly (in percentage terms) compared to every other city in the valley (and Sandy's population density is much higher than Salt Lake's, so one can't say SLC is full). With population along the Wasatch Front projected to grow by 1.4 million over the next 30 years, to remain relevant, Salt Lake City will have to remove its barriers to population growth. This would also go a long way to help mitigate our air quality issues, as current SLC policy appears to be pushing people out to suburbia in giant numbers.

Postscript: To be entirely fair, these numbers leave off the last 2-3 years (which we'll look at soon), but it would be quite difficult to make any solid conclusions from the sparse population data available since the 2010 census.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Is SLC especially sprawly compared to other cities?

One thing that hasn’t come up much (from the politicians at least) in the talk of SLC air quality is the urban (or un-urban) design of the city and surrounding communities. Upgrades to vehicle mileage may help little if residents are compelled to push to the outskirts of the city to find affordable housing. While there are a several issues involved here that we’ll unpack over time, today we’ll simply look at the density of Salt Lake City proper compared to other western cities. This will at least give us an idea of whether our notable winter air quality issues are mainly due to the surrounding mountains or if we are more sprawly (and thus probably more spew-y) than other cities. The data are from wikipedia.

I was actually pretty surprised by these. Who knew that SLC proper made Boise look downright metropolitan? Boise proper has about 60% more people per square mile than SLC proper. And who knew Las Vegas and Tucson were such comparatively dense cities? I’ll let the data here mainly speak for itself, but perhaps Salt Lake isn't just suffering from unlucky geography when it comes to air quality.

** Note: the data obviously aren’t a perfect proxy of metro density, as SLC proper is smaller (area-wise) compared to its metro area than are these other cities.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A clean air bill passes the senate! (and other Utah political housekeeping)

Can thank him at @senatorjenkins
Just some random info that may or may not help:

Utah's 2014 legislative session runs through March 13th. A list of contact info (including Twitter) for Utah politicians is here. And contact info for the Clean Air Caucus is here.

One may track the progress of a particular bill here (try SB139, for an example)
  1. Type in the bill number (SB139) to go to the bill's main page
  2. Click "Status", which is underneath the bill's title
  3. Select tracking option, add email address 
  4. Click "Subscribe"
See a list of recent bills (by day) here.

Also, it appears that Gov Herbert is trying to encourage the legislature to accept the ACA-related Medicaid expansion for Utah and calls the move "common sense," although from looking at his Twitter page I'm not so sure. The man can be reached at @governorherbert

The Senate passed its first clean air bill of the 2014 session Friday. SB99, sponsored by Senator Scott Jenkins (pictured above), would require that at least 50% of state government vehicle purchases be high efficiency or alternative fuel-based (natural gas, electric, low-sulfur, etc). The bill will now go to the house. Hey, it's a start. Let's keep it going!

Friday, February 7, 2014

New bills proposed to worsen Utah air quality

Despite recent concerns about air quality in Utah, local Representative Wayne Harper (through SB139) has proposed raising licensing fees on hybrids, electric cars, and other low-emissions vehicles because he believes they're not paying their fair share of infrastructure costs. See here and here. He says
These cars are still having the same impact as other vehicles, but they do not have to pay for the wear and tear on our roads.
Yes, if they're driving the same miles. Sure. But, if you make it so highway funding comes from anywhere other than gas taxes, we're causing the exact problem that he's trying to avoid. Overall, those who drive more use more gas. And a tax on this gas is the wisest way to pay for vehicle-related infrastructure.

Rep Harper can be reached at

In other bad policy news coming out of the Utah legislature, Rep Johnny Anderson (pictured above) has proposed cutting the gas tax and raising the sales tax. Here are the details:
The 24.5 cent per gallon gas tax would be cut in half at the pump, only 12.25 cents per gallon. But the state’s general sales tax, now at 4.7 percent on all sales but unprepared food, would go up to 4.9 percent.
One of the touted perks of this bill:
Cutting our state gasoline tax in half should help gasoline retailers in Utah border towns.
Awesome! Even though it's not wise to breathe for much of our winters here in SLC, at least our border town gas stations are booming! Ah, the benefits of living in the Beehive State. By decreasing the gas tax, this insane (proposed) legislation would make people more prone to driving, despite the fact that SLC suffers from some of the worst air quality in the nation. Seriously, have these guys never heard of incentives? Our state is trying to find a way to fund infrastructure and clean the air. Call me crazy, but it seems as if both goals could be easily achieved by raising gas taxes.

Rep Anderson can be reached at

Postscript: for those wondering about the personal impact of my proposal, I must add that UTA should be enabled to vastly expand their bus system (via some of this gas tax revenue), such that commuters would actually be able to reduce their commuting costs overall.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

If the GOP loves markets, why are they fine with market failures?

Markets are generally awesome. People are right to defend them, laud them, and promote them. When something is in short supply, the price of this thing goes up and incentivizes increased production (and of course, vice-versa). When trying to come up with a way to solve air quality problems, one is basically trying to solve a market failure. This failure occurs when the price of something doesn't accurately reflect the social ills its consumption produces.

Take gasoline, for example. It’s broadly priced via supply and demand; the market doesn't know that the results of combustion cause people to develop respiratory ailments. Because the market doesn't know this, it under-prices gasoline and thus it is over-consumed relative to the environmental, respiratory, and (yes, even) economic damage it causes. (The more dependent the economy is on gasoline, the more local economic policies are subsumed by fluctuations in the global price of oil.)

Sadly, instead of fixing this mispricing of gasoline and ending the market failure, politicians (of all stripes, but especially the GOP—democrats tend to favor taxes on carbon) tend to favor industrial policy wherein they pick which technologies may save us from choking on our exhaust. We see this in the myriad subsidies, deductions, tax credits, loan, and grant programs being thrown to the solar, wind, and natural gas industries in an attempt to bolster the country’s efforts to move to clean energy. In light of this and the government bureaucracy needed to run the complicated programs, it’s odd that the GOP tends to throw the word socialism around derisively. It's especially odd because their policies toward energy are essentially keeping the market from functioning in the face of high and socially-harmful energy consumption.

We all get that the government doesn't make great bets on particular industries or companies. That’s fine; few of us can predict the future. Instead of trying, they should just keep government lean, raise the price of dirty fuels, and let the market sort out the solution. John McCain, the former GOP presidential nominee, supported this openly during his 2008 campaign. So why isn't this on the local or national legislative radar now?

Postscript: For those wondering, the impact of higher energy costs on consumers could be mitigated by subsidized transit passes, funded by the higher tax on gasoline.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What are local politicians doing to fix air pollution?

While much has been made about the legislature’s promises to clean up the air, what is actually being done? What bills are on offer? Talking with my local Rep, Becky Chavez-Houck, she passed along the following information on what’s actually being considered.

HB 19 by Rep. Arent would encourage the use of electric vehicles by remove regulatory barriers to the construction of power stations by changing the definition of a public utility.

HB38 by Rep. Arent would create the position of state sustainability director in the Governor’s office to coordinate efforts (and share best practices) among local agencies related to air quality improvement.

HB 41 by Rep. Handy would establish a grant program to replace up to 170 “dirty diesel” school buses in the next year (and requires matching funds from districts). Also promotes alternative fuel infrastructure.

HB 55 by Rep. Poulson would create an income tax credit up to $100 for individuals purchasing monthly transit passes during Jan, Feb, and July.

HB 61 by Rep. Arent would increase subsidies for electric-hybrid vehicle purchases, allow direct grants for alternative refueling infrastructure; also would provide grants for heavy duty diesel retrofits.

HB 74 by Rep. Snow would provide a state income tax credits (up to $2500) for the purchase or lease of an electric vehicle, plug in electric hybrid vehicle, natural gas vehicle.

HB 271 by Rep. Perry and Sen Bramble would fine drivers, whose vehicles produce visible contaminants; the driver will be stopped and cited ($40 first time, increasing to $250) with a misdemeanor.

What do you think? While it's a helpful start, overall it seems like small beer that's overly complicated. Are police officers actually going to be stopping the hundreds of large trucks in South Jordan that produce visible pollution? Is a $100 transit pass tax credit (which benefit you won't notice till next tax season) going to alter your behavior? Several of these bills talk of grant programs, rebates, credits, subsidies, and creating new government officials. Most of these bills would make regulations more complex, when legislators should be looking to simplify. Here's how to both solve the air quality problem and not expand government: increase the gas tax and use part of the revenue to allow UTA to be free for everyone. Say a 40 cent gas tax increase per year until our air quality doesn't exceed health standards for one winter. The tax would encourage people to move away from dirty habits (and allow the market to decide what might the best alternative) and raise revenue. What say you?

Monday, February 3, 2014

What is the Clean Air Caucus?

In an attempt to start addressing the air quality issues faced by Wasatch Front residents, the Utah House of Representatives has formed a bipartisan group called the Clean Air Caucus. See here, here, or here. Rep Patricia Arent is not only the founder and co-chair (there are six co-chairs), but has also proposed five different bills on air quality. Arent is pictured at right (photo from here).

Among other things, the caucus is sponsoring bills to more strictly enforce red burn days, promote the construction of electric charging stations, raise the sales tax that funds public transit to a full 1%, create a new sustainability coordinator in the governor’s office, and/or set aside $200k for a loan/grant program to help citizens move to cleaner vehicles. I’ll further detail the bills in a separate post.

The co-chairs of the caucus include:

Rep Patricia Arent (D-Milcreek)

Rep Lowry Snow (R-Washington County)
Rep Jack Draxler (R-Cache County)

Rep Rebeccca Chavez-Houck (D-Salt Lake City)

Rep Edward Redd (R-Cache County)

Rep Joel Briscoe (D-Salt Lake County)

These are the people crafting the policies that will or won’t solve our air quality issues. Whatever your opinion, they won’t know how you feel unless you tweet or email them. It would also be help to urge the rest of the House or Senate to support this caucus.

Overall, it appears that the legislature is likely to read what you write, as I’ve received a number of helpful responses to my tweets and emails.