Archives for August 8, 2012

What High Prices Mean

High home prices mean that this argument should not be the least bit persuasive to city council members voting on the Bethlehem zoning ordinance:

“I would have thought twice about buying the beautiful house I live in now if there was an office building because I don’t want it commercialized,” East Market Street resident Mary Anne Lynch said.

If you look at the prices on this map, you will see that the homes closest to downtown are priced higher than ones further away. The most expensive homes in Bethlehem are mostly clustered around downtown, and ones near the historic district are especially expensive.

What does this mean? It means lots of people would like to live in that neighborhood. The high prices are the exchange value. They represent how much money Mary Anne Lynch and owners of similar properties could trade their very beautiful homes for.

That people are willing to pay a lot more for these homes than for other homes means that Mary Anne Lynch should have very little political leverage in this zoning fight. Lots and lots of people would be very happy to take her place, so there’s no political imperative to do what she wants.

If city council allows businesses to use storefronts in the neighborhood, and Mary Anne Lynch decides she prefers to live in a single-use residential neighborhood because of this, the neighborhood is certainly not going to collapse. All that’s going to happen is that a different person will buy her house who does prefer to live in a mixed use neighborhood.

If this was a fragile neighborhood teetering on the edge of decline, rich people threatening to leave would carry more political weight. But does anybody really think no other rich people are going to buy these beautiful homes if the current owners take their toys and go live somewhere else? Please.

The War on Women Timeline

Handy guide to the beating women took from House Republicans in the 2011-2012 session.

Milton Friedman on the Negative Income Tax

Conservatives are horrified at the suggestion that giving poor people cash straight up would solve their cash-lacking problem, but Milton Friedman was a supporter of this policy. Here he is besting Buckley in an argument about it.

Dylan Matthews looks at the surprising amount of left-right agreement on basic income policies:

But it’s worth noting that a lot of people on both the left and right have proposed doing exactly what Romney falsely attacks Obama for (not actually) proposing: solving poverty by just writing checks. Milton Friedman, the libertarian Nobel laureate economist, proposed a version of this idea called a “negative income tax,” in which every household would be given a check for a set amount, such that some people actually had a negative tax burden. That got picked up by the Nixon administration, in particular then-aide and future U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Congress almost passed a version of the proposal. George McGovern proposed a $1,000 tax credit for every man woman in child during his 1972 run against Nixon, which he called a “demogrant”. So in 40 years, we’ve gone from both major party candidates supporting just writing people checks, to the very idea that a candidate would support that being the subject of an attack ad.

Despite the current unpopularity of the idea — commonly known as a “basic income” when it takes the form of an unconditional payment to all citizens — among policymakers, it has some adherents among intellectuals, including Charles Murray of AEI – of The Bell Curve  and Coming Apart  fame – and the political philosopher Philippe van Parijs. It’s also been adopted as a poverty reduction measure in Brazil and Namibia, with promising results.

Tea Party County Commissioners Vote to Keep Mooching Off City Health Departments

The bottom line:

“Someday an inevitable but avoidable public health disaster is going to hit, and people are going to look back and say, ‘Those are the folks who didn’t want to pay for public health,'” Jennings said.

Of course there already is a public health disaster, and it is that most of Lehigh and Northampton County have no population-level public health infrastructure at all. No restaurant inspections, no water quality monitoring, no inspections of daycares and swimming pools, no plan for public vaccinations in case of an epidemic.

GOP just don’t care bout that crap! They know that if there’s a real emergency, everybody can just free ride on Allentown’s health department like they did during the H1N1 scare.

Here’s the real issue: Allentown and Bethlehem are currently paying for public health departments. This is kind of useless though if everybody’s just going to free ride. If there’s an infectious disease outbreak somewhere in less populous areas, what are they going to do, turn people away? Of course not. It didn’t happen last time, and it won’t happen the next time.

Those areas should have to pay in. Currently the city health departments are struggling financially because all city programs are struggling under austerity budgeting, and they might have to scale back services. They would not have to scale back services, however, if they were funded out of the County tax bases, instead of just the city tax bases.

(Thanks: Colin McEvoy)

Bill Hansell Supports a County Police Department

Bill Hansell was unanimously elected interim Lehigh County Executive to serve out the remainder of Don Cunningham’s term.

Clearly he’s been reading the Geeting blog:

Hansell said having a county police department probably would save huge amounts of money compared to individual municipal police departments.

Mr. Hansell could start this off by offering police service to the municipalities that don’t current have local coverage, and then open it up to any municipality that wants to contract with the County for coverage.

Alan Jennings on Tea Party Governance in Lehigh County

Alan Jennings is totally right about this. It isn’t that the Tea People have a legitimate disagreement about the costs and benefits of a Bi-County Health Department. The amount of money it would cost per household is trivial – a few dollars a year. In my observation, the biggest obstacle is a very stubborn and well-cultivated ignorance. These people simply don’t believe, or more likely don’t *want* to believe, that population-level public health policy works, or that it is even desirable to try it. This is about the Tea Party’s smirking know-nothing worldview as much as it is about sticking it to the poors:

The new majority on the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners wants to kill the decades-long campaign to extend critical public health services to all residents in our two counties. I won’t go into a long account of the many merits of making sure people have access to immunizations, that restaurants be inspected so we are reasonably safe from cutting corners that can lead to ugly little diseases like salmonella or even being prepared for a terrorist attack on, say, our water supply.

I will say that the Lehigh Valley, largely through the thoughtful actions of the Pool Health Care Trust and the Two Rivers Health and Wellness Foundation, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on planning the department and helping to argue its case with elected officials. I will also say that nearly every public interest constituency, from the various medical professional associations, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Lehigh Valley Partnership to the Leagues of Women Voters, United Way and this agency, endorsed this measure. And, more than one public opinion poll said that a clear majority of voters supported it.

But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because this is not about the strength of the constituency in support of the measure, or the cost-effectiveness of the proposal, or even about the difference between right and wrong. This is about making a point. It’s about an ideological revulsion to collective good will manifesting itself through government action. It’s about disdain for those who just aren’t as lucky as these few individuals who would so recklessly abandon all this work over all these years.

There is another big lie at work here. The patron saint of modern conservatives is Ronald Reagan, who famously argued that the solutions for our many societal challenges should not be found at the federal level. He argued that they should be the domain of state and local government and, even better, the private sector.

So, the health department that was not going to be funded at the federal level went begging at the state level. This governor said, no, my administration is not interested (even though he is from the same party as the patron saint). So, if our public health is going to be protected, the state’s default leads us to local government. These new commissioners, as I mentioned above, also defaulted.

When it comes right down to it, it isn’t about what level of government deals with issues that impair the quality of our lives, either collectively or individually. When it comes right down to it, most of them believe that anyone who can’t keep up has nobody to blame but themselves. Imagine our world if those who created Medicare or Social Security, public education, pollution restrictions, child labor laws, or even traffic lights felt the same way.

I don’t know how many people yearn for the nineteenth century, but I hope the sum total are those few who have somehow managed to be in the majority on the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners.

Bethlehem NIMBYs Tweak Out Over “Disastrous” Corner Businesses


Most residents who spoke against the ordinance live in the center-city historic district. They fear their neighborhood, as well as residential neighborhoods throughout the city, will be degraded by the zoning change.

Before the vote, a half dozen residents made final appeals to council.

“Members of council, you have a bad section of zoning code here,” said resident Beall Fowler. “At best, it is embarrassing. At worst, it could be disastrous. Please do not pass it. Do the right thing. Bite the bullet. Postpone your vote and fix the code.”

The controversial part of the new law –Section 1304.04—“goes against all good city planning and zoning,” said Fowler. He argued it makes no sense that a corner residential property can become commercial just because it housed a business long ago. “A property’s use many years ago has no bearing on its present use or the present environment of the neighborhood.” Fowler said the corner designation is arbitrary, discriminatory and irrelevant, adding it would make just as much sense to pick “the third house from the corner that once was painted blue.”

Scheirer told council it would put residential neighborhoods all over Bethlehem at risk if it did not delay a vote and amend the ordinance. He questioned how many developers and their lawyers “are right now figuring out where they can invade residential neighborhoods.”

Resident Tim Stevens, a lawyer, again warned council there will be a legal challenge to the new zoning ordinance because that section is contrary to the purpose of a residential district. “We are quite optimistic we will prevail in overturning the act in its entirety.”

His wife, Christine Stevens, told council 1304.04 “is horrible. It doesn’t protect your residential community, which I thought was the whole point of zoning. The city is not protecting its residents.”

I actually agree with Beall Fowler on one thing, which is that what a building has historically been used for doesn’t have any bearing on its present use. But I think that’s correct because the government shouldn’t be telling people what they can and can’t use these buildings for. If something was historically used as a house, and somebody wants to turn it into a bed and breakfast business, or some offices, or apartments, the fact that it was once used as a single-family home shouldn’t matter.

Once again, despite all the hyperbolic language from the half dozen NIMBYs who showed up to complain about the zoning ordinance, absolutely no one has been able to show that they would be harmed by more businesses in the neighborhood – corner businesses or otherwise.

Karen Dolan gets it exactly right here when she says that it’s the mix of uses that makes downtown Bethlehem such a great place:

But Dolan also argued older traditional communities such as Bethlehem have a mix of uses all in the same blocks. “That’s the beauty of the city. We’re not a suburb.You’re not only looking at houses in the downtown.”

Fowler later countered that those who live downtown value its health and vitality and don’t want to live in the suburbs. “The residential aspect of the downtown is clearly critical to the success of Bethlehem,” said Fowler. “I urge you to do what you can to protect that. It’s fragile. And it’s a very desirable area.”

The health and vitality of downtown is a direct function of the mixed uses. With separated uses, it’s just a tony residential neighborhood. It’s true that downtown Bethlehem is a very desirable area, and that’s why city council should be striving to make everything south of Elizabeth Avenue a mixed use area, with businesses allowed to use any retail location as-of-right.

(Thanks: Randy Kraft)