Notes From Babel

Archive for February 2010

“I Think We Need a Ruling on This”

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Over the holidays, I ritually go through my favorite Christmas movies.  Among the more unlikely members of that set is The Ref with Denis Leary and Kevin Spacey.  In the opening scene, Lloyd (Spacey’s character) and Caroline are meeting with their therapist over their many marital issues, one of them being Caroline’s affair.  After Caroline suggests that, under the circumstances, hers “shouldn’t even be counted as an affair,” Lloyd expresses the importance of being able to enforce the basic content of the words we use.

Dr. Wong:  Lloyd, how do you feel about Caroline’s affair?

Caroline:  He just wants me to wear a red “A” and sleep in the basement.

Lloyd:  Is that so unreasonable?

Caroline: Everything’s either black or white with him.  You know, he doesn’t… he doesn’t see where he’s responsible.   And I mean, it just didn’t mean anything to me.  It shouldn’t even be counted as an affair.

Lloyd:  I think we need a ruling on this.


Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Posted in Language, Uncategorized

Sentiment and Reason

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That it does not matter what a man believes is a statement heard on every side today.  The statement carries a fearful implication.  If a man is a philosopher in the sense with which we started, what he believes tells him what the world is for.  How can men who disagree about what the world is for agree about any of the minutiae of daily conduct?  The statement really means that it does not matter what a man believes so long as he does not take his beliefs seriously.  Anyone can observe that this is the status to which religious belief has been reduced for many years.  But suppose he does take his beliefs seriously?  Then what he believes places a stamp upon his experience, and he belongs to a culture, which is a league founded on exclusive principles. To become eligible, one must be able to say the right words about the right things, which signifies in turn that one must be a man of correct sentiments.  This phrase, so dear to the eighteenth century, carries us back to the last age that saw sentiment and reason in a proper partnership.

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences 23 (Univ. Chicago Press 1948).

Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Is Ukiah Unfairly Teeing Up to Use Eminent Domain Against the Palace Hotel?

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Nossaman’s Eminent Domain Report talks about how the city of Ukiah is getting increasingly frustrated with the owners of the dilapidated Palace Hotel in the middle of its downtown, and is currently considering reviving the local redevelopment agency’s eminent domain authority to force the project forward:

Nearby residents recall the Palace Hotel serving as a hub of activity in the 1970’s and 1980’s when it housed a restaurant, a bar, and a popular music venue attracting well known acts.  But the Hotel has been sitting vacant since 1988.  According to the article, in 1994, more than 200 downtown merchants and customers signed a petition demanding that the city have the building either cleaned up or torn down.

The property appraised in 2006 for $309,000, but the owners purportedly want over $1 million.  A study commissioned by the city concluded it would cost $4.5 million just to tear the Palace Hotel down.  Like any redevelopment, the proposed use of eminent domain is drawing a wide range of opinions.

I’d be very interested to know more about the $4.5 million demo estimate—seems like a big number to just float out there all by itself.  And it looks like there have been some suggestions made in the past for renovating or re-provisioning the building for other uses besides tearing it down completely.  The $309,000 appraisal at the height of the real estate boom also seems conspicuously low, and I would guess it has something to do with onerous historic district regulations and other land use controls relevant to this downtown area that tend to make maintaining such properties ridiculously expensive.  As a result, redevelopment agencies are able to low-ball the owners to re-provision their property as they like.

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Talk about two left feet…

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From Market Urbanism.  Note the last line—I was thinking exactly the same thing:

Just in case you were under the impression that Obama’s high-speed rail commitment was genuine, the Boston Globe would like to disabuse you of that notion:

The railroad tracks from Boston to Washington – the busiest rail artery in the nation, and one that also carries America’s only high-speed train, the Acela – have been virtually shut out of $8 billion worth of federal stimulus money set aside for high-speed rail projects because of a strict environmental review required by the Obama administration.

Because such a review would take years, states along the Northeast rail corridor are not able to pursue stimulus money for a variety of crucial upgrades.

Instead, the $8 billion is going to be split up to ten ways amongst other regions, such as California, the Gulf Coast, and the “Chicago Hub.”

I love the irony of environmental standards stopping the Obama administration from making the one high-speed rail investment that has any chance of getting people out of their cars.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 24, 2010 at 10:31 pm

California’s New “Green” Housing Restrictions

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As California deals with possibly the worst effects of the housing bust and one of the most hostile regulatory regimes in the nation, the legislature nonetheless has seen fit to artificially inflate housing costs even further with new “green” building standards. According to NPR, “[t]he law, which takes effect next year, is the first of its kind in the country.”

Californians already struggle with devastatingly unaffordable housing markets.  The markets in San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, and Los Angeles/Orange County rank 6th, 12th, 14th and 15th most unaffordable in the world, respectively, according to the 6th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.  The reason is land use regulations.  A 2002 paper reported the cost of a buildable quarter-acre lot in San Francisco was $700,000.  The cost of an additional, non-buildable quarter-acre?  A paltry $85,000.  This means that the costs of permitting, fees, and regulatory compliance stacks up well over $600,000Six-hundred grand caused by busy-body lawmakers! One wonders whether they have any idea.

A study of the Seattle market revealed the same trend:  stiff regulations there artificially inflated median inflation-adjusted values by more than $200,000.

How much more will California’s new green laws tack on?

Not to mention—whatever the high-minded intentions are behind the legislation are mooted by the law of unintended consequences.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 24, 2010 at 12:21 am

Posted in Land Use

Think Our Housing Market Is Bad? Londoners Ponder Paying $200K to Live in a Toilet

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While researching for a piece I’m writing for The Claremont Institute’s Golden State Center for State and Local Government, I came across this factoid that caused me to break out into hysterics:

On August 12, 2002 the Wall Street Journal described a 350-square-foot former public toilet in south London that developers are turning into a “stylish apartment.” They expect to sell it for around $200,000. “Believe me,” a developer told the Journal, “there will be a lot of interest.”

[Oh, I forgot to add the punchline:  Heavily-regulated San Francisco could not match that deal, proposing in 2008 a development of even smaller (250 square feet) condos for even more money (starting at $279,000).  So there you have it:  Living in San Francisco is not quite as affordable or as spacious as living in a toilet.]

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Posted in Land Use

Capitalism versus Socialism Is NOT a “Lesser of Two Evils” Question

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Elijah posted this comment over at CAI, suggesting that, even if socialism isn’t perfect, it’s no worse than capitalism:


Under what conditions would any system qualify as ‘better’ to you? It seems as if you are completely closed to the possibility of anything else being better. The general opinion out here, even among conservatives, seems to point to the possibility of more socialism in a mixed economy. What is the ‘power’ necessary to convince you that a mixed system is better? What about the nations with the highest standard of living? Norway? Sweden? Canada? Each of these three countries at the top of a standard of living list has a strong mixed system. You’ve argued using the movement in Sweden to re-privatise healthcare, but that is a minority movement and most other European countries are very optimistic about the ‘Nordic Model’.

I know you and Tim have laid out how any amount of socialism is coercion, but I simply disagree. I take far greater issue with tax money being sent to fund wars in which soldiers are killing and being killed for a cause I strongly disagree with. The welfare of the state involves not only ‘protecting of borders’ (which is not necessarily what America is doing in the Middle East), but also the care of American citizens. Libertarianism is often associated with anarchy – do you believe in the complete dissolution of the federal government since it is so utterly corrupted and useless? Do you approve of a national military and national public works projects, or should this all be privatised?

Also, against Tim’s anti-populist views, American politics allows for the possibility of a greater implementation of socialism in America if the legislators (and correspondingly the majority of citizens) approve. I know you believe the government is utterly flawed, but I believe that while it is flawed the government has the infrastructure to accomplish great tasks and doing so while employing more Americans.

To which I responded (at least I think I responded—my comment didn’t show up right away):

I have a feeling I’ve corrected this before, but whatever you feel about the beneficence of state action, it is most certainly coercion.  It is only a matter of definition.  This is why the “nanny state” moniker is not merely a clever derogation—the relationship between a state that purports to restrict and compel action as it purports to know best how to serve the needs of its constituents is exactly the relationship between parent and progeny.

Sir Flinders Petrie said, “When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority, and the civilization steadily decays.”  As Robert Weaver put it, the majority’s “outcry comes masked as an assertion that property rights should not be allowed to stand in the way of human rights, which would be well enough if human rights had not been divorced from duties.  But as it is, the mass simply decides that it can get something without submitting to the discipline of work and proceeds to dispossess.”  In short, a personal ethic that compels the forfeiture of property to those in need does not necessarily have anything to say about political theory.  More importantly—and here is an appeal to your own values, Elijah—why would you ever advocate for a political system that would allow others to decide whether you could express your personal ethics?  Indeed, if the “mixed” system is to succeed in besting a liberty-oriented system, it must reserve the right to commandeer the property that individuals might otherwise give to charitable causes that the state does not find to be in line with the “public good.”

Finally, there are strong reasons to believe that these “mixed” systems are not sustainable.  Europe will be crushed under the weight of its demography and entitlement systems.  And if the U.S. ever adopts a more European or Canadian style of regulations on medical and pharmaceutical research and development, the cost control issue will be a moot point.  As it is, cost controls work because there is at least one major market—the U.S.—where the medical industry’s investments and innovations pay off.  Take the U.S. out of that equation, and medical advancement will seriously diminish.  What will happen then?  Not much imagination is needed here:  coercion having gotten us that far, more coercion will be employed to get us out, and governments will begin considering taking over medical and pharmaceutical research altogether.  This lesson is played out over and over in the past.  The Left refuses to read the minutes of the last meeting.

Finally, I strongly object to the suggestion that socialism is permitted by our nation’s laws.  Perhaps if one takes the cynical legal realist position—that there are no natural rights or duties except what a judge or legislator declares—then the vast federal regulatory structure and expansion of the Commerce Clause can be explained.   But this view utterly betrays man’s moral quality, putting man below beasts in that regard.  See Tim Sandefur’s excellent explication of this here.

[Also, respectfully, what in blazes does anyone mean by a “mixed” system?  We already do live in a mixed system, if anyone cares to notice things like the U.S. government’s takeover of the world’s second (formerly first) largest auto maker, its stakehold in the national banks, and its control over whether Californians have access to water, to cite just a few.  I suspect this supposedly innocent plea for a sort of “middle ground” is the same brand of can’t-we-all-just-get-along flummery as all that fake “bi-partisan” claptrap.  It’s just re-branding:  “I’ve agreed to re-name my position “mixed regime,” so the least you can do is abandon your objections and go along with it.”  What kind of middle ground is that? ]

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Capitalism, Socialism

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